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There's No Mystery to Finding the Perfect Computer for You

October 02, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

Shopping for a PC can be a daunting experience, but it doesn't have to be. The key is to find a system that appeals to your senses of sight and touch and has the right features and specifications to get the job done. All the major PC vendors offer plenty of acceptable choices, and unless you go for a bargain-basement deal or get hoodwinked into buying more than you need, chances are you'll do just fine.

My advice applies primarily to Windows machines. Macs are a whole other ballgame, but personally, I'm pretty fond of the $999 iMac DV unless you've got money to burn, in which case they don't come any slicker than the Power Mac G4 that ranges from $1,599 to $3,499, plus the cost of the monitor.

Often the first specification you'll see on a machine is the speed of the central processing unit, or CPU, but for most users, it's virtually irrelevant. Any PC you buy today will have a CPU that's good enough to handle all the tasks that the average user should care about. If you're a professional video editor, then you might be able to make a case for a machine with the fastest processor available. Otherwise, save your money.

I've tested everything from a 500-megahertz Intel Celeron, an AMD Athlon and the super-fast 1-gigahertz Pentium III, and frankly, I can hardly tell the difference. And the marketing slogan, "Intel Inside," is just that. Any brand of CPU installed by a major PC maker will work just fine.

How much memory you should get is another matter. Low-end PCs typically come with 64 megabytes of memory, which is adequate, but I recommend 128mb. It might not matter much if you just run one program at a time, but one of the nice things about Windows is that you can keep several programs in memory and quickly switch back and forth. If you plan to run Word, for example, and also have a Web browser and e-mail program running, then you'll want 128mb. Any more is overkill for most people and, if it later turns out you need more memory, you can upgrade.

You can never have too much hard-disk space, and I recommend at least 10 gigabytes. But for about $80 more, you can double that.

One issue is whether to get a laptop or desktop PC. Laptops tend to cost 1 1/2 to two times the price of an equivalent desktop and give you fewer options, but they take up less space and can be moved around.

Desktop PCs come with video cards, and just about all of them are adequate for general use. Video cards have their own memory (called "VRAM"), which is separate from the machine's regular memory. Business users will do fine with 4mb, which is pretty much standard on most systems. But if you plan to play a lot of games on your PC, 16mb of memory is optimal, especially if you want to display 3-D graphics.

As for the computer monitor, never buy one without first seeing it in operation. And don't be dazzled by animated videos that computer stores like to display to impress you because even cheap monitors do a good job with those types of images. The true test of a monitor is to see how easy it is to read small type. Bring up a word-processing program (Wordpad, which is built into Windows, will do) and see if the letters are crisp and easy to read. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) monitors take up less desk space and are very cool looking, but they start at around $800. A good 17-inch monitor, such as the Sony HMD-A200 ($340), NEC MultiSync FE700M (about $310) or the ViewSonic EF 70 ($280), are also very easy on the eyes. Some monitors come with built-in speakers for your audio system. They're not usually high-end, but they do save desk space and reduce clutter.

Most PCs, by the way, come with 17-inch monitors, which gives you plenty of screen space for word processing, Web browsing and e-mail all at the same time, but they take up a lot of desk space. You can save space and a bit of money, and still do OK by going with a 15-inch monitor.

All PCs come with sound cards, but a salesperson might try to get you to spring for a high-end model. Don't bother. Even if you listen to music on your PC, a run-of-mill sound card will be fine. Save your money for a subwoofer and a pair of good amplified speakers (about $100).

Some PCs now come with Ethernet cards, which are handy if you plan to connect the machine to a local area network or to a broadband Internet connection, such as a cable modem or DSL line. If in doubt, leave it out. You can always add one later.

There is no accounting for aesthetic taste, but PC makers finally seem to understand that and you can now get a wide variety of machines in different sizes, shapes and colors. By all means, go for style, but given a choice, I'd rather have the features.

As for where to buy, I recommend that you shop at local stores and on the Web sites of major PC vendors. Go to,, and (or if you're interested in a Mac) and "build" your own system online, making note of how each selection affects the price. After you have a system configured the way you want it, go through the same exercise at other Web sites. Print out the results and take them to the store to see if you can do better.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at His Web site is at Recent PC Focus columns are available at

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