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PC Focus

November 29, 2001|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If Santa is smart, he'll load plenty of PCs on his sleigh this year because he can get them cheap.

The elves at the North Pole's information technology department have advised Santa to standardize on PCs with Windows XP Home Edition. They also recommend machines with a minimum of 128 megabytes of memory and no less than 20 gigabytes on the hard drives.

EMachines sells PCs with that configuration for $399 plus the cost of a monitor. The once-maligned company is back in business with a new chief executive and an improved technical support program. Dell offers a complete system, with a 15-inch monitor, for $599. It comes with a CD-ROM drive, but $40 extra buys you a CD-RW drive that you can use to copy CDs and back up your data.

For someone who doesn't already have one, a CD-RW drive is a great gift. Internal models that start at about $80 are generally faster and cheaper than external ones that connect to a Universal Serial Bus port, but they can be a pain to install. Any internal drive should come with the added gift of professional installation, which generally runs about $60. Another option is to buy an external USB model. They start at about $160 and are a snap to install but run much more slowly.

For someone who burns a lot of CDs, consider a CD labeling system. Belkin's $23 CD LaunchPad comes with software, blank labels and a device that attaches the labels to the CDs.

Color flat-panel LCD screens aren't cheap, but they can brighten up anyone's holiday. They take up less space than conventional monitors and are easier on the eyes. No-name 15-inch liquid crystal displays can be had for as little as $300. For peace of mind and best quality, consider spending about $400 for a brand-name monitor from Viewsonic, NEC, Samsung or Sony. Samsung's $400 SyncMaster 570V is a good choice. Viewsonic's VE150m, also about $400, includes speakers. They're not the greatest speakers in the world, but they don't take up any extra space.

A set of speakers with a sub-woofer will certainly make a sound impression. Options range from less than $50 to well more than $400. Make sure the speakers are compatible with the audio card. Some speaker systems work only with sound cards with digital output. Look for speakers with a volume control that sits on the desktop.

If money is no object, Boston Acoustics' $300 Digital BA7500 features a sub-woofer plus four additional speakers to deliver Dolby Digital surround sound, which is very cool for people who watch DVD movies on their PCs. Cambridge SoundWorks' $80 SoundWorks Digital Amplified Speaker System sounds pretty good to me.

Digital cameras are still pricey, but they're a lot of fun--especially around the holidays. I really like Kodak's new EasyShare series of cameras. Some models come with a dock (available separately for $80) that attaches to a PC's USB port. Place the camera in the dock, and it recharges the batteries and lets users transfer pictures to the PC by pressing a single button.

The $300 1.3-megapixel DX3215 includes a 32-MB flash memory card and is good for prints as big as 5 inches by 7 inches. For prints as big as 8 inches by 10 inches, go with a 2.1-megapixel camera such as the $360 DX3600. Kodak cameras come with either rechargeable or Lithium batteries and also accept standard AA batteries.

Nikon's Coolpix 775 (as low as $369) is an excellent 2.1-megapixel camera with a 3-to-1 optical zoom that's small enough to fit in a pocket. When buying a digital camera, pay no attention to claims about "digital zoom." It's a gimmick. Focus on optical zoom.

Some cameras, such as the Logitech Quickcam Express, start under $50 but remain tethered to the PC. These cameras can be used for quick snapshots, but they're mainly used for video phone calls. The free versions of Yahoo Messenger and Windows Messenger both allow users to add video to instant messages.

Buying extra ink cartridges isn't very exciting, but it certainly can be useful. Know the printer's model number. Other stocking stuffers include blank CD-RW discs, glossy photo paper and wrist rests.

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Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour. He can be reached at larry.magid@latimes.com.

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