You can custom shop for PCs by sticker, too


Last of three parts

If you're buying a PC for a recent graduate, or even for yourself, you may already know how confusing today's hardware market can be.

But there's good news - almost any PC will make quick work of basic computing chores - word processing, Web browsing, e-mail, financial recordkeeping and music. Most also will handle digital photography and play video without complaint.

It's only when you have extraordinary computing needs - such as video editing or gaming - that you need heavy horsepower.

That said, think of a PC as a collection of components. On the retailer's shelf you'll find a sticker, much like a new car's, that explains what's inside. If you order a custom PC online, you'll create your own sticker. So here's what to look for:

Processor: Also known as the CPU (central processing unit), the microprocessor is the heart of the computer - the chip that does the actual computing.

Most CPUs are made by Intel, most of the rest by Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), whose chips offer comparable performance at a lower price. They show up in many consumer-oriented PCs.

Processors are generally labeled by model and by speed, in billions of cycles per second, or gigahertz (GHz). Within a model, a faster processor will run better, particularly if you're using multiple programs or you enjoy multimedia or gaming.

Another distinguishing feature is the core design. In recent years, manufacturers have developed CPUs that use two slower and less complex processing cores instead of one ultra-complex integrated circuit. These require less power and offer advantages when you're multitasking or using programs specifically designed to take advantage of them.

In the bargain basement, you'll find computers using Intel's Celeron or AMD's Sempron chips, or the newer Intel Core Solo. These single-core CPUs are fine for basic chores as long as you stock up on memory - 512 megabytes minimum.

A step up on the food chain, you'll find variants of Intel's Pentium 4 (Pentium M on laptops) and AMD's Athlon 64 - all of which are still very capable, single-core designs.

On higher-end computers, you'll find a variety of machines using Intel's Pentium D, Core Duo or AMD's Athlon 64 X2 processors. These dual-core processors represent the future of chip design, but they don't necessarily translate into better performance today.

Given this cornucopia, it's hard to make a particular recommendation. Your best bet, unless you want to do a lot of research: Look at the "sticker" on the shelf. If a computer is designed for gaming or multimedia, the sticker will usually say so.

Memory: The computer's internal memory chips, known collectively as RAM (or Random Access Memory), store programs and data when the computer is running.

With more memory, a computer will run faster and more reliably, particularly when you're using multiple programs. In fact, adding RAM will often improve performance more than bumping up to a slightly hotter processor. RAM is measured in megabytes (millions of bytes) or gigabytes (billions of bytes). Memory for laptop computers generally costs more than desktop RAM.

To run Windows XP, get at least 512 megabytes of memory. If you're thinking of upgrading to Windows Vista next year, get at least a gigabyte.

Hard disk storage: Frequently confused with memory, the hard drive stores programs and data permanently when your computer is turned off. When it's running, the PC constantly reads from and writes to the hard drive. It also uses the drive as an overflow area for RAM when the computer's physical memory fills up.

Hard-drive space is measured in gigabytes. Most desktop computers come with drives in the 100- to 200-gigabyte range. Laptops typically have 40- to 80-gig drives, although larger drives are available.

The average adult user - even a digital photographer - will have trouble filling an 80-gigabyte disk. But college students love to collect music and video, which stake out vast homesteads on the hard drive. They'll fill up whatever space is available.

High-capacity laptop drives are still relatively expensive, so I recommend a 40- to 80- gigabyte model. When it fills up, you can supplement it with a 120- or 160-GB external hard drive for $100 or so.

Compact disk drive. With the exception of the lightest laptops, all computers come with some type of compact disk drive. They're used to load software, back up data and play music or video.

At the minimum, get a DVD/CD-RW combination drive that will write CDs (for backup and musical purposes) and play DVD movies. If you or your student is interested in creating video, buy a DVD/RW drive that can create DVDs as well as music and data CDs. Look for so-called dual-layer DVD drives, which can store twice as much as earlier models.

Video: Your computer's video adapter determines what you see on the monitor. The basic video adapter in most low-end PCs - often using an Intel chipset built into the motherboard - is fine for ordinary computing chores. It's also likely to share the computer's main memory, which is another reason to get plenty of RAM.

What a basic video adapter won't do is move pixels around quickly - and the heaviest demand is caused by games. If you're a serious player, you can spend $400 or more on a high-end graphics card from nVida or ATI. But for casual gamers and videographers, there are plenty of less expensive options.

If you're thinking of upgrading to Windows Vista after its release next year, look for computer with a video card that has at least 128 megabytes of dedicated video RAM. That's a requirement for the souped-up graphics in the Vista's upscale versions.

TV tuner and output: This is a new category for me, but one that can turn a computer into a great dorm room entertainment center. A TV tuner makes a PC and monitor into a television set; just hook it to an antenna or cable feed. A TV-out port sends the display signal to a standard television set - great for videos or stored TV programs.

If a tuner-equipped PC is also running Windows Media Center Edition, you can use it as a digital video recorder that can automatically store programs for playback later (allowing you to time-shift and skip commercials).

Just be aware that not all Windows MCE computers have TV tuners. If yours doesn't, you can buy one later for $100 or so. Internal TV tuners fit into expansion slots of desktop computers, while external models connect with desktops or laptops through USB ports.

Monitor: Flat-panel, liquid crystal displays (LCDs), once found only on laptop computers, have virtually taken over the desktop, too. Although you can get by with a 15-inch monitor (all measurements are diagonal, corner to corner), you'll be happier with a 17-inch display. A 19-inch screen, which only adds about $200 to the price of a complete system, is close to heaven and worth the money.

Among laptops, you'll find models with screens ranging from 12 inches to 17 inches. Unless weight and portability are critical, don't buy less than 14 inches. This year you'll find both standard aspect screens (a 4-to-3 horizontal-to-vertical ratio) and wide-screen models (a more rectangular, 16-to-9 ratio).

Standard screens are better for general purpose computing, while wide screens are better for watching DVD videos. Just remember that a 15-inch, wide screen computer provides considerably less display area than a 15-inch standard aspect screen.

You'll also find a lot of "shiny screen" laptops, which add a sense of sharpness and depth to movies. They also add glare to everything else. Try one out with a word processor, Web browser or e-mail program before you decide to buy.

Audio: PCs have become the real entertainment center in most dormitory rooms - and more than a few family rooms at home. One reason is that they're equipped with remarkably good sound circuitry. Paired with a good set of powered speakers, they can rattle the building with rock 'n' roll or provide surprisingly good renderings from CDs or digital music files.

For most of us, the computer's built-in audio will do fine. But if you want Dolby 7.1 surround sound or other fancy features for games or movies, look for a PC with a sound card that can provide it. If you're not satisfied with your PCs sound after you bring it home, you can upgrade the internal sound card on desktops, or add an external, super-audio module to laptops.

A good set of speakers is also a must for entertainment - two mid-range shelf speakers and a bass subwoofer are fine for music, but gamers will probably want a five-speaker (or more) surround-sound setup.

That's it for the basics. You're probably asking now, what is it going to cost? For a decent desktop system with a 17-inch monitor, $600 to $800; for a laptop system with similar capability, figure $800 to $1,000.

If you're willing to go the extra mile for entertainment, a capable Windows MCE system with a decent, 19-inch monitor and good speakers will run $1,000 to $1,500 on the desktop, and $1,700 to $2,000 in a laptop.

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