There's a certain circadian rhythm to the seasons of technology. In November and December, I get dozens of calls and messages with the same question: What kind of PC should I buy? This isn't surprising, since so many families buy computers as Christmas presents.
Strangely enough, I get almost as many what-to-buy questions in May and June. Maybe it's the itchy feeling that comes with income tax refund checks, or the hope that a PC will help keep the kids occupied over the summer.
Whatever the reason, I generally survey the market in late spring, and this year I'm finding good pickings. Horsepower is up, and prices are stable or declining slightly. In fact, it's hard to find a really bad system on the shelves. OK, OK, that Barbie PC is a bummer, but most of the stuff out there is pretty good. Also, the price gap between a decent low-end system and a decent high-end PC is less than $1,000. So, if you overbuy a little, you won't wind up in debtors prison.
As usual, how much computer you buy is more important than who makes it. Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, IBM, Dell, Gateway, Sony, eMachines and smaller outfits have learned how to build these things. So the best way to pick one is to consider your system component by component and find one that matches your needs. Here's what to look for:
The microprocessor: This is the heart of your PC, the Big Chip that does the actual computing. A faster, more powerful processor will give you better performance, but there's no need to go overboard if you're using a PC mainly for Web browsing, word processing and e-mail. These require about as much effort from your computer as driving in a parking lot does from your car.
If you're a hard-core gamer or seriously involved in desktop publishing or digital photography, more horsepower may be worth the extra dough. But stay away from the very fastest CPUs -- they aren't worth the hefty premium.
A CPU's performance depends on the processor's design and its speed, which is measured in millions of cycles per second, or MHz. At the low end of the scale, you'll find machines with an Intel Celeron processor running at 500 MHz. This is fine for basic chores but not for sophisticated 3-D shoot-'em-ups.
More expensive machines are built around Intel's Pentium III or AMD's Athlon (also known as the K7), which are roughly equal at the same speed ratings. Both incorporate instruction sets that make them better multimedia performers.
The difference between a hot Celeron and a lower-speed Pentium III or Athlon may be as little as $100. Other things equal, I'd choose one of the latter. The "sweet spot" in that market right now -- where you get the most power for the dollar -- is in the 600 to 750 MHz range.
Memory: Also known as RAM, memory chips store programs and data when your computer is running. The more memory you have, the faster and more reliably your computer will work. Get 64 megabytes of RAM at the very least. If you want to spend extra money wisely, $80 to $100 will bring your total memory up to 128 megabytes.
Hard drive: Your hard disk provides permanent storage for your programs and data files such as letters, reports, financial records, digital photos, music files and so forth. Its capacity is measured in gigabytes, or billions of bytes. A gigabyte is enough to store 1,000 average novels or 16 hours of compressed digital music. Hard drives are also used as "virtual memory," where your computer can store data temporarily when its regular RAM fills up.
Hard drives have become so cheap that it's hard to find a decent system with less than 10 gigabytes of storage. That's more than most people will ever fill up, but if you're into space-gobbling pursuits such as digital photography or music, look for a 15- to 20-gigabyte disk. A fast hard drive can also boost a system's overall performance. Most PCs come with 5,400 rpm drives, but for maximum speed, find one with a newer, 7,200 rpm model.
Video: Most computers come with so-called "3-D" video circuitry, which means that they have the mathematical oomph to draw the millions of polygons that make up three-dimensional objects in games and computer-aided design programs. But lower-end machines, with basic Intel 3-D video cards, won't perform well with high-energy shooters, flight combat simulators and other fast-paced action games. If you're a real gamer, get a computer with a 3-D hardware accelerator from ATI, Matrox, 3dfx or one of the other specialty video manufacturers.
For best gaming performance, buy a machine with at least 16 megabytes of dedicated video memory. And beware of lowball machines with "shared" video memory. This scheme substitutes slower, cheaper RAM for high-speed video memory, which can rob your machine of performance.
Multimedia: The CD-ROM drive bundled with most PCs is more than adequate for installing software, playing music CDs and running multimedia titles. If you like the idea of watching movies on your PC, look for a model with a DVD-ROM, which adds $50 to $100 to the price of a system. The hottest accessory among teen-agers and college students today is a CD-RW (read write) drive, which can create both data and music CDs. This will add about $200 to the cost of a system. Your best bet is to install it as a second CD and not as the only compact disc drive in the system. Your kids can tell you why.
Sound: In college dormitories and teen-agers' bedrooms, the PC is becoming the primary platform for playing music. The sound boards supplied with lower-end PCs are definitely powerful enough to rattle the walls, but for superb reproduction of music and amazing effects with games, find a machine with a Creative Sound Blaster Live. It's a great piece of hardware -- suitable for serious digital musicians, too--that adds less than $100 to the cost of a computer. You'll need a sound board of this quality to get the best results with voice recognition programs, too.
Good speakers can increase your enjoyment, too. Low-end systems are generally bundled with tinny speakers, which are fine if high fidelity isn't on your PC agenda. But if you enjoy music or want to hear jets thundering overhead when you climb into your virtual F-16, look for a three-piece speaker set with subwoofer that amplifies the bass tones. Good systems are available for $100 to $200 from companies such as Cambridge SoundWorks, Altec-Lansing, Yamaha, Labtec and Songistix.
Monitor: This is the most important part of your system, because it's the component you'll spend hours staring at. So it's a good idea to shop carefully and check out as many models as you can. Although some low-end PCs come with 15-inch monitors, you'll be far more comfortable with a 17-inch screen, which has taken over as the industry standard. Most stores will let you upgrade from a 15-inch monitor for $100 or so. If your eyes are middle-aged and don't like small print, consider treating yourself to a 19-inch monitor, which adds $200 to $300. You'll love the view.
So how much is all this going to cost?
First, disregard most of the prices you see advertised in the paper. They're usually "discounted" by $400 based on your willingness to sign up for a three- or four-year contract with a particular Internet Service Provider at $20 to $25 a month. If you don't already have an Internet account, this may not be a bad deal, but it locks you in if the service is bad in your area or you want to upgrade to high-speed cable or DSL service. The actual cost is $400 plus the advertised price. Figure on $1,000 to $1,200 for a decent Celeron-based system with a 17-inch monitor (you may even find a printer thrown in), and $1,500 to $2,000 for a high-end Pentium III or Athlon system with 128 megabytes of memory and topnotch video and sound.