What should I look for in a new computer?
That's my most frequently asked question as holiday season approaches each year.
Here are the answers in an updated, clip-and-save shoppers' guide for buying a new computer for typical home and business use. That includes word processing, e-mail, accessing the Internet, preparing spreadsheets, basic digital photography, and casual use of digital music files.
People who want cutting-edge performance, or who perform specialized computing tasks, should consider a system with more muscle. Those tasks include serious 3-D gaming, editing of complex digital graphics, and work with digital video.
When shopping for a computer, consider these features:
Operating system: Windows XP is the newest master control program. Get a PC with XP already installed, rather than one with an upgrade certificate. XP Home Edition is fine for most users. The advanced computing option is XP Professional. Mac users should get a system with OS X, Apple Computer's latest operating system.
CPU: New PCs usually have a central processor unit (CPU), or main chip, that runs at about 1,000 megahertz (MHz), or 1 gigahertz (GHz). Don't waste money on a super-fast CPU. Most people will never notice any difference between 800 MHz and 1 GHz. A Pentium 4 processor costs more but won't perform any better at common tasks. Non-Pentium CPUs, like the Athlon or Celeron, work just fine.
RAM: Put any extra cash into more random access memory (RAM). It has a big impact on speed and overall performance. New PCs should have at least 128 megabytes (MB) of RAM to run Windows XP. Upgrading to 256 MB will supercharge performance much more than a faster CPU.
Hard disk: About 20 gigabytes (GBs) should be plenty for most tasks. People who save lots of digital music or photo files should consider 40 GB.
Monitor: Flat panel displays, also called LCD displays, are a fantastic alternative to standard television-like cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors. Flat panels are only a few inches deep, and free up precious desk-top space. And they deliver rich, vibrant color. Despite price cuts, they still cost about twice as much as a CRT monitor. For a CRT, think “dots per inch (dpi),” a measure of image sharpness. The smaller the number, the better. A .26 dpi monitor will produce sharper images than .28 dpi. Get a 17-inch monitor rather than a 15-inch one.
NIC card: Buy a PC with a network interface card (NIC) installed, even if you don't need it now for high speed Internet service or connecting to a network. You may need one in the future. Buying now avoids the hassle of having to open the computer and install the card. Cost: Less than $100.
Modem: You need one to connect to the Internet and online services like America Online over a standard dial-up telephone connection. Any standard modem should be fine.
CD-ROM drive: A combination DVD/CD-ROM drive will enable you to play full-length DVD movies, which are now competing with regular VCR films in video rental shops. A CD-R drive or CD-RW drive will allow you to record your own CDs for playing music, and store files on CDs (which have a much longer lifespan than 3.5-inch diskettes).
Speakers/audio card: Go with standard, inexpensive hardware. Upgrade speakers (including a subwoofer) and video card for extensive use of the PC for music, movies, gaming.
Video card: Get a minimum of 16 MB of “video memory.” Upgrade to 32 MB or 64 MB for serious DVD use, gaming, or graphics work.
USB ports: Get at least two universal serial bus (USB) ports for fast connections to printers and other gear.
Michael Woods is the Blade's science editor. His column on computers and technology appears each Saturday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.