Computer shopping

Buying a computer for a new grad can be a simple job because there are so many good, inexpensive machines out there. But it can be frustrating, too - because there are so many good, inexpensive machines out there.

Like shopping for a car, the best way is to look at the "sticker," or list of components, on each machine, to see how it stacks up with the kind of work you or your student will be doing. For the average student, you should be able to bring home a solid laptop for $750 or less and a desktop machine for $100 to $200 less. Here's my component checklist:

Advertisement But for starters, remember that entry-level machines will have a sticker that lists a "Dual Core" or "Core Duo" processor, which is actually the end of the old (but still capable) Pentium chip line. As best I can tell, these models have designations beginning with "E2" or "T2."

Newer, more powerful dual-core processors, which I recommend, are called "Core 2 Duo," along with model numbers starting with "E" or "T" and numerals of 4 or higher. Generally the higher the number within a particular line, the more powerful the processor.


Processors whose designators start with "X" are part of Intel's "Extreme" line (mainly for gamers), while "Q" or "QX" (for Quad Core) have four cores for really hard-core users.

AMD uses a scheme that's a bit simpler. Look for an Athlon 64 X2 (dual core) designator, followed by a number signifying the processor's relative speed, as in "3600+". In laptops, the most modern AMD designs have Turion processors.

* Memory: Also known as RAM, these chips store programs and data while the computer is running; when you turn off the power, everything in RAM disappears. A computer with more memory is generally faster and more reliable than a machine with less - particularly when you try to play music while you browse the Web, check your e-mail and edit photos, all at the same time.

Memory is measured in gigabytes, or billions of bytes. To run Windows Vista Home Premium or Apple's Leopard operating system, get at least 2 gigs. Manufacturers often shave the price of a system by including only one gig. Upgrade before you leave the store - many retailers will install memory on the spot. Another gig should add less than $100 to the cost (maybe a bit more for laptops).

* Hard drive storage: Often confused with memory, the hard disk is where your computer stores programs and data permanently when it's turned off. Your PC also reads from and writes to the drive constantly when it's running. It serves as an overflow area for internal memory.

Hard drive capacity is measured in hundreds of gigabytes. For average applications, 160 to 200 GB is plenty. But if you want to use your PC as a video recorder, get 250 GB or more. On a laptop, a drive that turns at 7,200 RPM will provide faster performance than a cheaper 5,200 RPM model. For backup purposes, an external hard drive will help keep your data safe for $100 or so.

* Video adapter: The computer's video circuitry determines what you see on your screen. If you're not gaming or watching movies, the standard, built-in video adapters from Intel that populate most lower lower-end machines will be fine.

But if you need performance, look for a machine with a video adapter from nVidia, ATI or another third-party manufacturer with at least 256 megabytes of dedicated video memory. Microsoft recommends at least 128 MB of dedicated video RAM to run the fancy graphical interface in Windows Home Premium. But not every computer with Vista comes so endowed. So be careful when you buy.


* Monitor: Flat-panel screens have become incredibly cheap - about $200 for a 19-inch model, so give your eyes a treat with a big one. Traditional monitors with a 4:3 aspect ratio are better for work applications, but a widescreen monitor will double as an entertainment center for playing DVD movies.

If you buying a laptop, beware of the shiny, mirror-like screens that look great when you're watching a movie from exactly the right angle - but drive you crazy with glare when it's time to get to work.

Remember, you can hook up a large monitor to a small laptop and add a full-size keyboard and mouse for the advantages of a desktop machine.

* CD/DVD: Most machines come with a compact disk that can read and write both CDs for music and DVDs for movies. If you buy a laptop, make sure you get a drive that will at least play DVDs - the best way to use a computer on a plane. Some laptops have external controls that allow you to play CDs without turning on the computer.

* USB ports: Printers, scanners, cameras, digital music players, wireless mice, Bluetooth adapters, external hard drives and lots of other gadgets hook up to your computer through these small, rectangular ports. The more yours has, the better, particularly on a laptop. Front-mounted USB ports make it easier to hook up an iPod or camera to a desktop machine.

* Audio: The audio circuits built into most entry-level PCs are fine for casual music listening. But if you're using a PC as a dorm room or home entertainment center, look for one with 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound output for movies. Front-mounted ports for headphones and a microphone are convenient. On a laptop, an external volume control is helpful, too.


* TV tuner: These are particularly good bets for PCs in dorm rooms, apartments or offices with cable TV. They can save space and money by turning your computer into a real entertainment center. Tuners are built into some higher-end PCs, but you can pick up an external tuner such as Pinnacle's PCTV HD Stick for $100 or less.