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Tech 101 | Do It

Plans Best Laid for Mice, Megabytes and Monitors

February 15, 2001|JEFF LEVY |

Buying a new personal computer can be confusing. Here's what you need to know.

The most important question is one you ask yourself: "What am I going to do with this computer?" Be honest because the answer affects the kind of machine you buy and how much you spend.

Key things to look at when buying a PC: processor, hard drive, memory and monitor. These are the guts of any system, and how you mix and match them with other components such as video and sound cards depends on how the machine will be used.

Last month, Intel Corp. dropped wholesale prices on most of its computer chip lines--meaning retail prices should start falling as well. Intel makes two types of microprocessors, which act as the computer's brains.

The Celeron chip is a good choice for computers used primarily for word processing, spreadsheets and Internet research. Celerons are priced to keep total computer purchase costs low, and there are several versions of the Celeron chip based on the speed at which the chip operates.

Celeron-equipped computers generally come with 64 megabytes of random access memory, or RAM, which the computer uses as its work space. Upgrading to 128 MB of RAM makes the computer work faster on many tasks.

A standard CD-ROM drive and a hard disk with a capacity of 10 gigabytes or more will do the job. A standard, low-end video card, which runs the monitor, works just fine. So don't spend more money to get a 3-D graphics card with lots of video RAM unless you plan to play a lot of games.

If you intend to spend more time on the Internet or you enjoy playing computer games, a Pentium microprocessor is a good choice. The Pentium III boosts processing power and speed. The Pentium III also handles graphics and voice recognition and is more adept at editing digital photographs and movies. A Pentium III-based computer with 128 MB of RAM and a 40-GB hard drive is a good place to start. Add a DVD-ROM drive for games and movies and a CD-RW drive to copy and create CDs.

AMD makes chips that compete with Intel. Although older AMD products have had problems with some software, its chips at this point are fine. AMD offers fast performance and stability at prices lower than Intel equivalents. Most large computer makers offer machines based on both Intel and AMD chips.

You also need to decide on a monitor. They generally range in size from 15 to 21 inches. In the real world, a 17-inch monitor is the standard. Keep in mind that the measurement is diagonal from corner to corner. Part of the screen is covered by the monitor case, so a 17-inch monitor might have a smaller viewable screen. Flat liquid crystal display monitors look cool and offer the full size but cost considerably more.

For graphic artists doing design work, Sony and NEC are top-of-the-line units. Mag and ViewSonic are mid-price monitors that offer good quality. KDS offers cheaper monitors, although its display is not as good.


Jeff Levy hosts the "On Computers" radio talk show from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on KFI-AM (640).

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