CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Originally published Monday, December 13, 1999

The Holiday PC Buying Guide

It's that time of year again for your holiday PC buying guidelines. Realize that the standard specifications for a computer system have at least doubled since last year as prices have fallen and you can expect that trend to continue in the future. Don't be distraught because your new PC will quickly be outdated. It happens everyday with cars, and you're just going to have to adopt the same attitude when purchasing computers.

Like automobiles, you can purchase a medium-priced computer that will last many years, depending on usage and demands. Or you may require a state-of-the-art computer every two years to keep pace with industry standards and stay competitive in business. Your PC longevity depends totally on how you plan to use the system, so first carefully evaluate your needs and then set a budget before you begin shopping hardware and software. A family computer shared by children and adults will differ from an office PC that primarily crunches numbers and data. PCs that spend a significant amount of time on the Internet demand different specifications than a system with minimal multimedia needs.

When shopping for a computer system, you have four basic hardware categories to consider: input, output, processing and storage. Input devices include a mouse and a keyboard, which are standard and accompany every new system. No special considerations here, unless you need an ergonomic keyboard or a "hamster", which is an infrared mouse. A scanner might be an additional input device for consideration.

Output devices include printers and monitors. Printers come in a myriad of styles and price ranges. The "go with" printers included with a complete system tend to be low-end, but they're quite adequate. The higher the PPM (pages per minute) and resolution in terms of DPI (dots per inch) will determine the printer price. 17" and 19" color monitors are wonderful on the eyes and increasingly more standard. Your bargain systems, however, usually include a 15" (13.7" viewable area) monitor as a way of keeping the price down.

Processing hardware is trickier to shop because there are many variables. This hardware category further breaks out into two distinct areas: CPU (the chip) and RAM (the memory). The CPU is your computer brain and is classified by model number and clock speed---the higher the model number and clock speed, the higher the price.

Intel, the industry benchmark, currently boasts the Pentium III as the top of the line chip with clock speeds ranging from 450-733Mhz. This processing muscle is important if you enjoy multimedia components such as full-screen, full-motion video and realistic graphics, but Intel's scaled down version, the Celeron chip, is ample for most common applications and Internet use. Look for the term "level 2 cache", or "on board cache" as an additional price determinate in chip shopping. The more "cache", the more cash.

RAM, or memory, is your active workspace, also called the electronic desktop. RAM assists the CPU in its processing efforts by temporarily storing data and instructions. The amount of RAM you have will determine how fast your computer runs and how many tasks can be performed simultaneously. 64MB should be your minimum memory configuration and 128MB is ideal for today's computing needs. Most low-end systems advertised this holiday season have only 32 MB RAM, though you can always upgrade. If possible, however, don't skimp on memory.

Storage devices that hold your data and programs include hard disks, floppy disks, zip drives, CD-ROM and DVD-ROM. The average consumer is concerned with primarily with hard disk size, since the amount of data your computer can hold is not infinite. Hard disks today are absurdly huge for the average user. The $999 Gateway 400 Essential, the bottom of their line, comes with a 10GB hard drive. Two years ago that would be considered a server for a medium-sized business. As with memory, purchase a much hard disk space as you can afford, but 10GB is spacious for average needs. At the very least, a floppy disk drive and CD-ROM drive will accompany all systems. DVD-ROM and Zip drives are still considered upgrades.

Finally, be mindful of the software that is bundled with your new system. Realize that Windows 98 is a given and any additional software is what counts. Microsoft Works or Microsoft Home Essentials is not Microsoft Office. If you require Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access, you'll need to insure that MS Office accompanies your new system, or else it will need to be purchased separately.

So take a drive, kick the tires, be jolly and be resolved that better less expensive model is just around the corner.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.

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