PC Buyer's Guide
- Buy a quality brand-name PC, not a cheap no-name PC. It gives you some guarantee
of quality, especially if you don't have time to do research on less-known companies.
Good companies use quality components; the others make cheap computers by cutting
corners. The savings of buying a no-name PC will be quickly lost in time, money
and frustration when the no-name PC performs poorly and has problems. The cheapskate
pays the most.
- What you buy depends on how you expect to use it and what will fulfill your needs.
Don't get a lot of add-ons if you're not certain you'll use them often. Focus
on your definite needs; you can add on other things later if necessary.
- Test and compare many different computers yourself before buying so you can
get a feeling for what you like.
- Ask the salesperson questions, and see if the staff is helpful and knowledgeable.
- When comparing different deals, consider what is included and what is not. Monitors
may not be included, for example.
- Often, the computer is sold as a package deal with lots of software. Make
sure that most of the software is what you would buy anyway, not useless add-ons,
outdated software, or time-wasting games.
- The computers with the temptingly low price (e.g. $999) usually are poorly functioning
off-brands with no monitor, only 16 MB RAM, no software, just a one year limited
warranty, and no customer support. Don't be tempted. If they don't tell you what
kind it is, it's probably an off-brand.
- The computer industry changes rapidly. Read computer magazines like PC Magazine,
PC World and PC Computing to get the latest information.
- IBM, Compaq, HP, Micron, Dell, and Gateway are best.
- Intel Pentium is the safest, though some others are about as good. Medium-cost
PCs today have 233 or 266 MHz processors; 300's are currently expensive.
The number indicates how fast the computer can work (MHz = megahertz = million cycles
per second). They also should have MMX (multimedia extensions) which make programs,
especially those with graphics and sound, work faster. Pentium II is somewhat more
powerful than Pentium but more expensive and works better with Windows NT.
- The more memory you have, the faster your PC will run. If you don't have enough,
your computer often has to use your hard disk as memory, slowing things down. Some
new computers still come with only 16 MB (megabyte = million byte) memory, but new
computers need 32 MB to run most programs fast. 64 MB will not make them
run twice as fast, but even 32 MB will not be enough in a year or so, especially
if you run many programs at once.
- Hard Drive
- An average new PC has a 3 to 4 GB (gigabyte = 1000 megabyte) hard drive.
You'll need all that space because new programs take 100 or 200 MB disk space each,
and a scanned photo can take 5 or 10 MB. Also, you can copy a frequently used CD
onto your hard drive so you never need to put in the CD. (CD's hold 650 MB each.)
- A 14" monitor is too small for today's programs. Get a 17" monitor or larger if
you run many programs at once or work with graphics. A good compromise is a 15"
monitor, which costs about $200 less than a 17". A 14" monitor only has a resolution
of 640 pixels (dots) across by 480 pixels down; a 15" shows 1024 by 768,
and a 17" shows 1280 by 1024. A low refresh rate means a flickery screen that gives
you headaches, so get 75 Hz at the monitor's normal resolution. Sony, NEC
and Samsung are some of the best brands. They come with a graphics card
that is installed inside the PC; the better ones are 64 bit, have 2 MB or more memory,
and have video and/or 3D acceleration.
- CD-ROM drive
- Most are 16x to 24x, which means they can at times run 16 to 24 times as
fast as the original CD-ROM drive. For the same cost ($300) you can get Panasonic
12x Big 5, which can hold 5 CD-ROMs at once like a juke box. A DVD-ROM drive plays
digital video discs as well as CDs, but not many movies are in DVD format yet.
- Sound Card
- Often one comes with the CD-ROM drive. SoundBlaster is the best known brand,
and the AWE 64 Gold ($200) is for people who must have the best sound. 64-bit sound
is clearer than 32-bit sound, and wavetable synthesis produces very realistic imitations
of musical instruments.
- These usually come with the CD-ROM drive. Otherwise get brand-name speakers powered
by at least 15 Watts. If you need good bass (low) sound, add a third speaker
called a sub-woofer.
- Ethernet Card
- You need one if your PC will be in an office connected to a local network.
- You need one if you will not always be connected to an Ethernet local network. Get
one that's reliable and easy to set up and use, like one from 3 Com (US Robotics).
Get one with fax capability so you can send and receive faxes with software
like WinFax Pro ($100). (You may also want voice capability, so you can receive
voice mail or make free international phone calls over the Internet with microphone
and additional software.) A 56kbps modem can receive 56000 bits of information per
second, but in practice a 28kbps modem is almost as fast.
- If you need color, buy a color inkjet printer like the Epson Stylus Color
800. Otherwise, buy a laser printer like the NEC SuperScript 860 or HP LaserJet
6L. Laser printers give clearer output and are quieter and faster. Ink cartridges
are expensive per page for inkjets, especially color. All three each cost $400.
- Toshiba, IBM, Compaq, Dell, HP and Nec are the top sellers. HP, Dell and
Micron have high reliability ratings.
- The processor is usually slower than for a desktop PC, and 133, 166 or 200 MHz
are common speeds for notebooks.
- Hard Disk
- Notebooks usually have smaller hard disks than desktop PCs, but they are usually
between 1.5 and 4 GB.
- Active Matrix (TFT) monitors are much brighter and clearer than passive matrix
ones. Get a 12" SVGA (800 x 600) or XVGA (1024 x 768) monitor.
- CD-ROM drive
- This is necessary because almost all new software comes on CD-ROM. Usually the drive
is swappable (can be taken out) so that a floppy drive can be put in, because
there isn't room for both at once. The speeds might be less than for a desktop PC.
- It should have a lithium ion battery with at least 2 hours of life. The best
notebooks have a battery life of 5 hours.
- The lightest full-featured notebooks weigh 6 pounds. They should weigh not more
than 9 pounds.
- Notebooks are much more expensive than comparably equipped desktop computers. They
also don't last as long, since moving them around tends to make things fall apart,
and their small size makes them more fragile. A quality notebook with just 16 MB
RAM, a 133 MMX processor, no CD-ROM, no modem and no software costs between $1500
and $2000. Only get a notebook if portability is essential.
- An excellent deal is the Gateway Solo 2300. For $3150 you get a P200 MMX,
12" screen, 4.1 GB hard disk, 32 MB SDRAM, 10X CD-ROM, 56 K modem, 4 hour battery
life, and 7 pound weight, with Office 97 SBE, LapLink (file transfer software),
and McAfee VirusScan. It was rated best value notebook in PC Magazine, January 20
1998, costing $1500 less than anything equal.
- Get a flatbed scanner like HP ScanJet 5Pse ($300) if you have to scan a large
number of pictures regularly. If you often type in information from un-bound pages,
get a sheet-fed scanner like Visioneer PaperPort ($200). Caere OmniPage Pro
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software ($500) will greatly improve
scanning accuracy when converting from scanned images to editable text.
- Storage Media
- If you expect to back up or transfer a lot of large files like graphics, get a
Zip drive ($200). Zip cartridges ($15 each) are the size of floppy disks but
hold 70 times as much. LSE drives can read 120 MB disks and also ordinary floppies.
- A split-key ergonomic keyboard like the one from Microsoft will make typing
- Microsoft Intellimouse has a wheel which makes scrolling easier.
- Video Camera
- You can get a small black and white ($100) or color ($150) camera like QuickCam
that sits on your monitor and lets you video conference on the Internet with anyone
else that has the same. The software, like CU-see me, costs another $80 or
- Every user, regardless of their computing level, needs at least three kinds of software:
an operating system, a word processor, and a web browser.
- Operating System
- Windows 95 is the easiest to set up and use and normally comes installed
on new PCs. Get Windows NT ($100 upgrade) only if you are a power user or if you
work with many others who use it.
- Office Suite
- Microsoft's big money maker, Office 97, is the best. It contains Word
(for word processing), Excel (for spreadsheets), PowerPoint (for presentations)
and Outlook (for group scheduling). Office 97 Small Business Edition (SBE) replaces
PowerPoint with Publisher. Try to get the office suite as a package deal with the
computer, since Office 97 purchased separately costs $500. Lotus SmartSuite and
Corel PerfectOffice are a bit cheaper but less popular.
- Web Browser
- Most new computers come with Microsoft Internet Explorer 4. You might also
get Netscape ($50?) which is not Microsoft-oriented.
- Web Page Design
- Word, Internet Explorer and Netscape can produce web pages, but get Microsoft
FrontPage 98 ($150) if you design many web pages.
- Reference CDs
- Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia ($80), Encarta World Atlas, and Bookshelf
- Picture-It ($50) and PaintShop Pro ($50, shareware) are photo editors. Word
comes with a built-in drawing program, and Windows 95 comes with Paint.
- Microsoft Publisher 97 ($80) is easy to use, though word processors can also
perform simple publishing.
- You need Norton Antivirus ($50) or something similar for protection against
viruses. Norton Utilities ($80) helps you to keep your hard disk healthy and clean.
Norton Navigator ($100) improves the Windows 95 interface but is not needed for
beginners. You can get all three for a discount.
- Voice Recognition
- If you are not a fast typist and would prefer to orally dictate your words to your
computer at over 100 words per minute, IBM ViaVoice Gold ($100) or Dragon Naturally
Speaking ($150) are two new programs that do this reasonably well.
- If you travel a lot in the US, Rand McNally's Business Traveler Suite ($60) will
help you plan your trips.
- If you have too many contacts to manage on paper, get Gold Mine Contact Scheduler