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PC Buyer's Guide: How to Buy When Things are Changing - Part 1

By Shakil Ahmed

It's that time of the year again. The holidays are upon us and gift-buying time is rapidly closing in. If you're thinking about purchasing a new computer for a family member or for your home business, you're not alone. Before you venture out to a computer store (or purchase a machine online) let's look at what you need to consider.

Prior to getting started, I'm going to make some basic assumptions that you're what we call in the business an "average end-user". Thus, my suggestions will be for small businesses, home offices, students and other average users. These are for people who will use their system for word processing, desktop publishing, surfing the web, retrieving e-mail, playing MP3 files and other basic activities. So-called "power users" (and you know who you are) will want a more robust system that can handle hard-core gaming, complex graphics and photo or video editing. My comments also apply to Windows PC rather than the Apple platform. If you're shopping for a desktop Mac, better stop reading now.

Processor Speed: Get a processor with a minimum speed of 700-megahertz. An Intel Celeron will do most people just fine. Unless you're a high-end user, you're not going to need an Intel Pentium III. My feeling is that the added features are not going to offer the average user much improvement. Manufacturers also tout added "bus" speed as a plus. This is all well and good but again, the average user is not going see much improvement in his or her everyday experience in this regard. In any case almost all systems now have a 133Mhz front side bus.

Memory: Memory or RAM as it's called, is one of those components that can't get enough of. Even with a fast microprocessor, if you don't have enough memory, you're added muscle will be wasted. I would say that you'll need at least 128 megs. Unless you're a power user, don't be overly concerned whether or not you're getting SDRAM or RDRAM. For the vast majority of people, it doesn't matter.

Storage: You'll want at least 15 gigabytes of hard drive. If you're purchasing your machine to store digital photos or you plan to raid Napster for MP3 files, better get at least a 20 gig drive. Nowadays it doesn't matter what brand of disk drive you get. They are all pretty much same as far as dependability goes. I'm not saying they are unbreakable, but most brands are rated fairly equally. You may want to look at getting a 7200 rpm drive if you are a power user.

Brand of Processor: Call me a traditionalist, but my preference is to stay away from AMD chips and stick with an Intel-manufactured processor. It's not that AMD chips are less powerful or necessarily a bad choice. In fact for "normal" use it really does not matter. It's just that I find that sometimes there are compatibility differences with AMD microprocessors and other components that you may want to add later. Our company has been building computers for many years and we find that it's just a fact of life that most components and peripherals are built around the Intel processors. For example, one of my colleagues, Rob Kay who also writes a column for PBN, has an AMD machine, which he often tweaks to get more utility for his home office. He recently added a USB port that simply would not work with his system. He wasted time and money getting his machine in working order. He traced the problem back to his AMD architecture. The lesson here is that this wouldn't have happened had he purchased an Intel chip.

Operating System or "OS": The standard issue OS nowadays is Windows Me, the latest iteration of Windows 98. This will be OK for the average user but my preference would be Windows 2000-- especially if you're business user. Frankly it's more reliable. (Microsoft is working on an upgrade for Windows Me but that won't be out for a while.)

Video System: Video cards, which control the graphics display, are pretty much a commodity but we like video cards based on the Diamond ( now Sonic Blue ) and the ATI Chipset. The main thing is you'll want a card that has at least 8 megs of memory. If you're a gamer (or are sharing the machine with your high school kid who is) a card with 32 or more megs is better yet. The new cards based on the Geforce2, Voodoo5 are good choices for gamers. Bothe cards come with 64 megs. In our next column we'll look at other specs you need to consider when buying your gift PC. Happy hunting.
Shakil Ahmed is the founder of PDC Systems, a Honolulu computer and networking company established in 1991. Questions or comments should be addressed to askshak@pdcsystems.com

Published December 8, 2000

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