Put comfort first when buying a PC


If a new PC is on your shopping list this holiday season, there's good news and bad news. Here's the good news: It's hard to find a bad PC. Even low-priced machines will handle your basic computing chores -- word processing, Web browsing, financial recordkeeping and entertaining the kids -- without breathing hard.

Now the bad news: Thanks to high demand and an earthquake in Taiwan, memory prices are higher than they were a year ago, so you'll pay a few dollars more for your computer than you would have otherwise. Because the price of most other components is dropping, the bad news isn't very bad.

Still, it pays to shop carefully. By considering not only your current needs, but also what you might want to do with your computer in the future, you can maximize your investment and forestall the day when you'll feel the inevitable urge to buy something faster and more powerful. In this column and the next, we'll go over some of these issues and come up with a shopping plan that will produce the right machine for you and your family.

First, consider what you expect to do with your PC. Almost everyone writes letters, sends e-mail and browses the Web these days. You don't need a lot of horsepower for that. Nor do you need a supercomputer to keep track of your checking account, a small-business payroll or an investment portfolio. If these are all you want, and you have no interest in the other things a computer can do, solid systems are available for well under $1,000.

On the other hand, if you or the kids are serious about playing games, or you'd like to try digital photography or electronic music, you'll need a computer with more speed, a bigger hard drive, and better than average video or sound capability. If the new PC is the second or third in your home, consider the possibility of networking your computers so they can share drive space, printers and Internet connections. It's not an expensive proposition and it's much easier than it was a few years ago.

That said, the first thing to consider when you buy a PC is comfort. I know that sounds strange, but thanks to the World Wide Web and computers that can do so many things, people are spending more time in front of their screens than they did just a few years ago.

More of us are working at home -- either formally or informally. Our kids are doing more of their homework on the PC. And when we're through working, we use our computers for entertainment. In fact, many of my friends and colleagues -- including second- or third-time buyers who recently replaced machines they bought years ago -- tell me they're amazed at how much fun they're having with their new PCs.

There's a cost here -- the toll computers take on our eyes, our backs and our arms and our wrists. Humans weren't designed to use PCs, and I often think that most PCs weren't designed to be used by humans.

For that reason, pay attention up front to the parts of the computer that interact with your body. I'm not talking about just the monitor, keyboard and mouse, but your entire work environment -- your desk or computer table and the chair in which you park your behind while the rest of you is using the computer. And make sure your work space is as safe for your kids as it is for you -- their bodies are still developing, so they're even more at risk than you are.

Studies have shown that eyestrain is the most common occupational hazard at the office, and it's true at home, too. Whether you're finishing a report that's due on the boss's desk in the morning or playing Quake over the Internet, your eyes are working overtime.

Graphical environments such as Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh Operating System are much tougher on your eyes than the green screens of computers past. So, a good monitor is critical, and bigger is almost always better. Unless you have exceptionally keen eyesight, you'll be more comfortable with a 17-inch monitor than with the 15-inch screens that are commonly bundled with low-end systems.

Upgrading to a 17-inch monitor usually adds less than $100 to the cost of a system, and it's the best investment you can make. With a larger screen, text is much easier to read, and there's enough room to display more than one program at the same time -- which is the whole point of today's window-based, multitasking operating systems. If you really want to give your eyes a treat, spend a few hundred dollars more for one of the new 19-inch screens. They're even better.

While all but the cheapest monitors can produce reasonably sharp images, those with "flat" cathode ray tubes produce less glare and distortion. They're more expensive, though.

Next, pay attention to your work se. Don't just plop your computer on any old desk. The center of your monitor should be at or slightly below eye level. When you type or use the mouse, your forearms should be at right angles to the rest of your body and your wrists shouldn't have to bend at an uncomfortable angle.

If you can't provide this kind of set-up with your current furniture, look for a decent computer desk with an adjustable keyboard and mouse tray. Although they're usually ugly as sin, these desks are often very efficient -- a well-designed unit can fit a PC, monitor and printer into a space that's less than 3 feet wide.

Finally, think of your chair as an extension of your computer system. If you and the family are going to log hours in front of the screen, you'll need one with adjustable height and good back support.

This is particularly critical when you have kids using the computer. The chair should be adjustable enough -- and that means easily adjustable -- so that all of you can find an ergonomically safe position.

There aren't many bargains here -- good furniture costs money, and cheap stuff will often fall apart after a year or two. If you're a serious PC user, a trip to an office furniture outlet can be just as important as a visit to the computer store.

That's the important stuff. Next week we'll get into the bits and bytes.

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