Twice a year, people seem to get the PC-buying itch. In November and December, holiday shoppers look for family gifts. In the spring, the folks who held out for lower prices start prowling the aisles in search of bargains, along with parents who plan to send their offspring off to college in the fall.
Unfortunately for the computer industry, the itch hasn't been very strong lately. Holiday sales were dismal, and things have gotten worse since then. But this sad song is sweet music if you are in the market for a PC, because manufacturers have slashed their prices to maintain market share.
Still, it pays to shop carefully. Personal computers are assembled from components that appeal to different types of users, and it's important to find the mix that matches your needs and pocketbook. With that in mind, here's my semiannual guide to getting the most for your money.
Microprocessor: Also known as the CPU (central processing unit), this chip does the real computing. The faster and more sophisticated the processor, the faster your computer will run. But there are limits to the benefits of pure speed: a Lamborghini Diablo V-12 might make you feel like a god on the road, but if you're only commuting 5 miles to the office, a $150,000 car that can do 200 mph is overkill.
Most desktop computers are powered by Intel processors - the low-end Celeron, the Pentium III and the new Pentium 4. You'll also find models with AMD Athlon processors, which straddle the two Pentiums in performance. Within each model, chips are rated by speed in megahertz (MHz), which stands for millions of cycles per second, or gigahertz (GHz), for billions of cycles.
For basic Web browsing, word processing and e-mail, a Celeron-based computer in the 800 MHz range is fine. If you want to play sophisticated 3-D games, process high-resolution digital photos or get into serious movie editing, a Pentium or Athlon is better. The "sweet spot" (where you get the most processor for your money) is the 1.3 GHz Pentium 4 or similar Athlon. You'll pay a stiff premium for more speed, and it's unlikely you'll ever need it.
Memory: This term refers to the chips that store programs and data internally while your computer is running. Also known as RAM, DRAM, SDRAM and RDRAM, depending on the computer's design, memory is measured in megabytes (MB). More RAM makes it easier for your system to process data and run multiple programs without accessing the PC's pokey hard drive. Get at least 128 megabytes of memory - and twice that much if you can afford it.
Hard drive: Your hard disk provides permanent storage for your programs, letters, reports, digital music, photos and other data. Your system also reads from and writes to the drive almost constantly while it's running, so you'll need a platter that's large enough to hold all your stuff and fast enough to move it back and forth when it's needed. For speed, buy a drive that turns at 7,200 revolutions per minute, as opposed to older, 5,400 rpm designs.
Hard drives are so large today that it's unlikely you'll fill one with correspondence, spreadsheets or financial records. But digital photographs, music and video files are a different story: a three-minute song takes up as much space as the text of War and Peace.
Hard drive storage is measured in gigabytes (GB). Decent machines come with 20-GB drives, plenty of space for average use. But for another $50 to $100 you can up the ante to 40 or 60 gigs. If you think you might get interested in multimedia, buy the storage capacity up front - it's easier than adding it later.
Video: Your computer's video adapter produces the image that appears on your monitor. The standard adapters on consumer PCs, often manufactured by Intel, are fine for everyday tasks and basic entertainment. But if you're a serious gamer, look for a machine with a video card that's beefed up for 3-D image processing, with 16 to 32 MB of on-board memory. These usually come from companies such as nVidia, ATI, Matrox or Creative Technologies.
Monitor: This is the most important part of your system because you spend so much time staring at the screen. Monitors are also intensely personal; what looks good to me might not look good to you. Unless you're very young or starving, stay away from cheap 15-inch monitors and buy a 17-inch screen. If you want a real treat for the eyes, a 19-inch monitor may be worth the additional $200 - as long as you have room on your desktop for one of those monsters. If space is tight, a flat-panel LCD screen doesn't use much - but you'll pay a $400 to $800 premium.
Sound: With their sophisticated audio capabilities, computers have become true entertainment centers. In college dorm rooms, they often replace stereo sets because they can play standard music CDs and compressed digital song files. The quality of the audio depends on the PC's internal sound card and external speakers.
If you don't care about music, the on-board sound circuitry in low-end PCs is adequate for everyday use. If you want better quality, more control, support for Dolby sound enhancements or surround-sound stereo for gaming, look for a computer with a Sound Blaster Live! card.
Entry-level computers come with cheap speakers that won't satisfy a musical ear. If you want a PC to be your main sound system, invest in a good three-piece speaker set with a subwoofer for bass tones. Gamers should investigate five-speaker surround-sound systems. These can add $100 to $300 to the cost of a PC, but they're worth it if your computer is a main source of entertainment.
CD/DVD/CD-RW: Your computer uses a compact disc drive to load software and play audio CDs. Depending on the equipment you choose, it can also write CDs and play movies stored on DVDs. About half of today's machines are packaged with CD-RW drives, which can create audio discs and use blank CDs for data backup - a critical function given the size of today's hard drives. Make sure your computer has CD-RW, either as the only drive or as part of a two-CD setup.
A DVD drive is mainly useful for playing movies. This makes it a good choice for a laptop computer if you're a frequent flier but hardly a necessity on the desktop. The hottest drives combine all these functions: they'll play DVD movies and record and play CDs, but they'll add about $200 to the cost of your system. Although DVD recorders are available, they're expensive, buggy and not always compatible with other DVD players. Don't buy one of these unless you enjoy being a pioneer.
Network adapter: A growing number of computers have network adapters as standard equipment as more users sign up for cable and DSL Internet service. They're mandatory for college students who want to tap into their campus network. Look for a network card from 3Com or another major manufacturer - it will make the college network administrator's life easier.
Now, you ask, what's all this going to cost? The answer is "not much," compared to a year ago. Prices vary with the sale of the week, but for ballpark figures I shopped at Dell's Web site and found a basic Dimension L series machine with an 800-MHz Celeron processor, standard video and sound, 128 megabytes of RAM, a 20-GB hard drive, 17-inch monitor and CD-RW for $1,058.
At the upper end, a 1.3-GHz Pentium 4 with the same hard drive and monitor, 256 MB of RAM, a heavy-duty GeForce gamer's video card, Sound Blaster Live! audio, a three-piece Altec Lansing speaker system and a network adapter was selling for $1,528. Shop around - you may find better prices elsewhere. No matter where you buy, you'll get a lot of computer for the money.