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PC Buyer's Guide

February 1998


  • 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 Make sure that most of the software is what you would buy anyway, not useless add-ons, outdated software, or time-wasting games.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.

Desktop Computer

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.

Notebook/Portable Computer

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 more comfortable.
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 so.


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 are useful.
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 ($200).