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PC buying tips

What to look for if you are considering buying a personal computer.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 1998

For those ready to buy a Windows-compatible PC for the holidays, it is good to remember Rule No. 1 of computers: It doesn't take long until the "'latest and greatest" becomes the "bare bones" configuration of tomorrow -- selling for half the price.

Just look no further than the top-of-the line PC this time last year: a 300 megahertz Pentium II, 4 gigabyte hard drive and 64 megabytes of random access memory. This setup now qualifies near the low end.

If you're preparing to make that $1,500 or more investment, there is a lot to keep up with to make an informed decision. We'll look at the major components that compose a PC, what you'll need to look for and what you'll need to avoid.

In addition to hardware, you'll want to keep in mind Rule No. 2 of buying a computer: New software will be written to push the increasingly capable hardware to its limit. And it is for this reason you will need to consider your choices very carefully.

Here is a look at your choices, and my recommendations, for a new PC:

** Central Processing Unit The central processing unit, or CPU, is the main processing chip that governs how fast your PC will run. The speed is measured in megahertz (MHz).

The dominant chip is the Intel Pentium II with megahertz ratings from 300 to 450. Intel also markets a less powerful Pentium chip under the name of Celeron. The fastest Celeronchip is 333-MHz, but actually runs slower than the Pentium II 300 MHz chip -- so be careful not to look just at the MHz rating when comparing chips. Is the Celeron chip fast enough to run today's programs? Absolutely. But let us remember Rule No. 2.

You may have heard about Intel's latest chip, the Xeon. The Pentium II Xeon L2 cache operates at a full 450-MHz clock speed, which is twice the speed of the Pentium II 450-MHz. Remember that they are talking about the cache transfer speed here, not the overall CPU speed. The cache transfer is the process of moving the most frequently used data and instructions between the CPU and the cache memory (see Cache below).

The Xeon chip is geared toward midrange servers and workstations. However, it is starting to be offered in the home computing market, but you will pay a premium for it. Unless money is no object, you will not get the cost justification in a normal home PC environment -- but it is absolutely the fastest chip available.

Intel is not alone in the PC-compatible chipmaking business. AMD makes a chip it markets under the name of K6, and Cyrix makes a chip it calls the MII. Both are roughly equivalent to the Intel Pentium II; so, in this instance, you can compare megahertz to megahertz. PC makers such as Compaq are using the AMD K6 in some of their offerings, allowing them to sell their computers at a lower price. Keep in mind that the Intel chip is the standard to which almost all of the software you run is programed to.

My recommendation is to go with at least a 400-MHz Pentium II.

** Cache Cache memory (pronounced cash) is special high speed memory designed to supply the processor with the most frequently requested instructions and data. It can make quite a difference in performance. The system should have at least 512K of Level 2 pipeline burst cache. Level 2 or secondary cache stores information where you can get to it faster.

** Random Access Memory Random Access Memory or RAM is as much or more important than any other factor in your computer's performance. If you don't have enough, even the fastest CPU will slow to a crawl. Just a few years ago, 16 megs were considered adequate. Now 16 megs are not enough to load Windows 98 without immediately using the hard drive as a memory overflow area. Again, see Rule No. 2 above. Sixty-four megs? Bare minimum! Go with 128 megs -- you won't be sorry.

** Synchronous RAM Synchronous RAM or SDRAM is the latest of the types of RAM available. SDRAM has the advantage of a faster transfer speed between the microprocessor and the memory. Make sure you buy it in a configuration that leaves slots open for future expansion. Under no circumstances should you buy a computer with all slots filled.

** Hard Drive Even some of today's more conservative configurations come with a hard drive of 6 gigabytes. Most systems are coming with disks ranging from 8 to 16 gigabytes. Look for Ultra ATA drives with an access speed no higher than 10 to 12 milliseconds.

** Monitor The monitor is not a place to cut corners. Some of the initials and terminology here may be confusing, but bear with me.

Your monitor should be capable of a resolution of at least 1024 pixels x 768 pixels. Resolution is the number of pixels displayed on screen in vertical and horizontal direction. For example: A resolution of 1024 x 768 displays 768 rows of pixels with 1024 pixels in each row. The higher the resolution, the more pixels are displayed. (That means you will see greater detail in the pictures your monitor displays. I recommend looking for a monitor with these specifications:

* 17-inch (actual viewable area is about 1-inch smaller) cathode ray tube (CRT).

* SVGA NI (non-interlaced).

* A dot pitch of .26 to .28. Dot pitch measures how far apart the individual dots of the same color are on the monitor's screen. The smaller the number, the better.

* A refresh rate of at least 75-87 Hz. The refresh rate describes how many times the entire screen is redrawn each second. The higher number indicates higher picture quality with less flicker.

This is what you'll be looking at for years to come, so get a good one. If money is no object, consider a 19-inch monitor -- just make sure it will fit your computer desk.

Be careful, this is where a lot of dealers cut corners to lower the price of their packages by including a smaller, lower quality monitor.

The new sleek LCD monitors are becoming popular -- but they are still three to four times more expensive than a CRT monitor.

** Video Graphics Card Look for a video graphics card that is 64/128-bit, 3-D with at least 4 megs VRAM or Video RAM. To really make the most of your new PC, consider a 3-D card with 8MB of VRAM that supports AGP, the accelerated graphics port on the Pentium II processor. AGP streamlines the flow of data between the processor, graphics accelerator and system memory, delivering graphics performance four times greater than the PCI bus. I consider AGP a must-have feature.

** CD-ROM Make sure your CD-ROM drive is capable of at least 24X -- the faster the better. The number in front of the X indicates the number of times faster data is transferred compared to a regular audio CD player. A standard CD-ROM drive can read data from a compact disk, but it can't save information to the disk. Another kind of CD-ROM drive, the CD-R, can write, as well as read, data to a special type of compact disk.

DVD or digital versatile disk is the latest development in the area of CD storage. DVD holds nearly 10 times the data of a standard CD-ROM. This kind of capacity will greatly improve multimedia software developed for DVD (again, see Rule No. 2). DVD drives also can read conventional CD-ROMs. As yet, the DVD is not writeable. Some systems come with both a CD-R and a DVD.

If I had to choose between CD-R or a DVD, I'd choose DVD.

** Sound Card Look for a card with 32-note polyphony, 16-bit full-duplex with 3-D sound (mimics surround sound) and Wave Table Synthesis (as opposed to an FM synthesizer). This is an area where a little more money goes a long way, especially if you'll be playing games and other multimedia applications.

Spend an extra $80 and get a sub-woofer. This will give you the deep low-end bass frequencies that will rival your stereo.

** Modem We're all at the mercy of the tiny portion of our phone system that remains analog (as opposed to digital). What this means is that without special wiring to your house, modem technology will never be faster than 56K (under perfect conditions). V.90 is the latest standard. Look for a 56K modem (with 14.4Kbps fax send and receive) that conforms to this standard.

** Printers If school-age children will be using the PC, don't even consider skipping a printer. There are two types to consider: inkjet and laser. Inkjets are typically less expensive and some of the better ones can rival the sharpness of laser printers.

Look for at least 600 dots per inch (again, higher is better) black and white, and 300 DPI color. Laser printers are capable of a higher print resolution, from 300 to 1,200 DPI. However, color laser printers are much more expensive.

Make sure the printer you buy comes with at least a one-year warranty -- the better manufacturers (Hewlett-Packard, for one) usually offer a three-year warranty.

** Power management Some of the newer PCs are equipped with the Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACPI), which takes advantage of the Windows 98 OnNow power management technology. This will allow you to leave your PC on almost all the time, while it puts itself in standby mode when left idle for several minutes. Windows 98 can even give it a task to do in its sleep, such as checking your hard disk or downloading your e-mail. Not a must-have feature but certainly worth checking.

** USB ports

USB peripherals have been slow to come, but are starting to become more popular with the acceptance of Windows 98. USB allows over 100 peripheral devices to be connected to a computer through a single port. USB also allows a 12 megabits per second (Mbps) data transfer rate that is much faster than standard serial and keyboard/mouse ports

Although you may not have any USB peripherals at this time, I consider this a must-have feature.

** Summary Keep in mind that bargains that seem too good to be true usually are. Super-cheap systems usually will come with substandard or inferior components. Some disreputable dealers have been known to re-mark processors at higher than their rated speeds and sell them as faster chips. This is often done by scraping off the top layer of the chip and re-stamping a new speed on top of the chip. Intel supplies a program that will validate your chip settings at its Web site (developer.intel.com/design/perftool/cpuid/).

Try to stay with well-known names and retailers with good track records for support and repair, and stay away from the dealers who advertise with fliers on telephone poles. Typical warranty periods are one year for motherboards and CPU chips and three years for all other components. Make sure you buy from someone who will back this up -- and will be around three years from now.

Computers without software are useless. By making sure the system you buy comes bundled with the appropriate applications for you (office productivity, games, school reference) you can save yourself hundreds of dollars.

Unless you specifically request otherwise, any new system you buy should be coming with Windows 98 installed, and preferably the disk formatted as FAT 32.

Protect yourself by making sure that all software (including Windows itself) has been legally installed -- make sure you have the paper licenses. If you feel comfortable going with mail order purchases, Dell and Gateway can offer some of the best packages available.


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