By Fred Henning

Unfortunately, buying a new PC is like buying a car. You go to the showroom and look at the car, then perhaps go for a test drive, with the salesperson, and then it's the decision as to which car on the lot, because they have different options. Or do you special order a car with the options you want?

Which PC should I buy? The answer is simple, purchase the one that will do the tasks you need done. You don't buy a sports car if you do gardening every weekend and bring bushes and flats of flowers home or plan on fixing up 'This Old House'. At this point in time, I believe that the easiest and least expensive way to buy a desktop is to try and find one with all of the options you want already installed (bundled). The PC is getting to be like the car. I use to take the carburetor off and clean it, etc. Today, you just don't do much except put air in the tires and gas in the tank.

The PC: Laptop or desktop?

Think about a laptop. Do you need to be mobile? Do you have or want to dedicate the space to setting up a desktop PC system? The biggest issue with a laptop is that you probably won't be able to add much to it other than what you buy. Accessories are limited and very expensive, even a memory upgrade can be a major hassle. At the low price end, you can get a laptop with CD-ROM, MODEM, etc. for $999.00 from WinBook, over the Internet. At the high end you can buy a similar Compaq from Radio Shack or CompUSA for $3800.00.

PC vs. Mac: Yes, The Mac is back. This is a religious question and I don't want to get into it!

Central Processing Unit (CPU): Intel, AMD or Cyrix. Intel is not the only CPU that could be the heart of your PC. You can find any of these brands in your IBM or Compaq, etc. If the fact that IBM and Compaq will sell units with the other chips is any indication, then 99.9% of applications should run OK on the PC regardless of the CPU. (A PC with an Intel chip will usually be more expensive, everything else being equal. For the same Compaq PC configuration the difference in price was Intel Celeron $x, AMD K-6 $x + $100, Intel PII $x + $450)

L2 Cache: The least expensive way to improve performance is the L2 cache memory. This is missing on the Intel Celeron chip and therefore the reason it is the lowest cost CPU. For home use a CPU with 128k of L2 cache would be a minimum but most Pentium class CPUs, except the Celeron, have 512k.

CPU speed: Faster should be better but how fast is fast enough. A sports car may be able to do 150 mph but if the maximum legal speed limit is 70 mph or you are on a winding country road, what good will that potential speed be? If all you do is 'surf the net' or type letters, then speed won't make any difference. If you are trying to do photographic retouching or solve complex mathematical problems, then speed is essential. It's hard to find anything less than a 300 MHz unit, 450 MHz is now the top end.

Random Access Memory (RAM) is the memory that the programs reside in when running. You need more if you have more programs running at the same time. Today 32 meg is a minimum and 64 meg would be nice. If you do graphic intensive applications or want many programs live at the same time then even more RAM would be better.

Video Memory: Not long ago 2 - 4 meg was all you could use, but now, with higher video resolution and 3D graphics, 16 meg is common. If the PC uses part of the main RAM memory for video then you will want to compensate by adding more RAM. ( Using main RAM for video is not a good idea.)

Hard Drive: The Hard Drive is where all of your programs and data are stored when the power is off. 4 Giga byte is a minimum and 8 - 10 gig may be needed if you are going to load many games and programs.**

CD-ROM/DVD: A CD-ROM is a must since programs have gotten so bloated you would need tens of 3 1/2" floppy disks to load a program. In many cases the only Manual is on the CD-ROM. A 24X speed unit would be a minimum. Many units today include a combination CD-ROM and DVD player. The output of these units can be fed into a TV sets video input or displayed on the computer's screen.

Display Monitor/CRT: The minimum would be 15" at .25 dot pitch. (17" - 19" at .25 - .26 dot pitch, 19" - 21" at .25 - .28 dot pitch.) Be careful and compare the actual viewable size at 1024 x 768 SVGA resolution. i.e. Some 17" monitors actual viewable area may only be 1/2" more than a good 15" monitors. There are new short tube monitors and large LCD display panels. These may be more expensive but could solve your space or esthetics concerns. Look at a page of text in black on white to see how clear it appears. Don't go for the 'beautiful color picture looks so great' pitch from the salesman. Color pictures always look good because our brain fills in a lot of detail.

Printer: Most people choose some type of Ink Jet printer for home. My only caution is; look at the cost of supplies. How much will it actually cost to produce one of the beautiful color pictures. i.e. How many copies per ink cartridge. Read the label. Most ratings are based upon 5-10% coverage per page. This is great for letters but is meaningless for Photo Quality images. (To do my 100 Christmas letters, which includes about 10 small pictures and black ink words, takes at least one new Color Cartridge at $37 and a Black Cartridge at $25.)

I believe that when you buy a computer you need to think about support. Therefore, where you buy it does make a difference. If you go to Best Buy, etc. you may get a lower initial price. You can purchase an additional service contract in case the machine breaks, but you don't get anyone who can help you use it or get new software loaded and working, etc. You could go to CompUSA or similar super store and perhaps get a little more help but I'm not convinced the sales people know much more than the sales people at Best Buy. There are still a few small storefront computer stores where you get to talk to someone who does know something but it will cost a little more and the selection will be limited. You can also mail order a computer. Dell, Gateway, etc. provide good telephone support for hardware problems and you can get next business day repair 'in your home or office' for 3 years for just $99.00. Software support should be available from the software vendor but the availability and quality vary. There are actually companies that offer telephone software support for multiple applications via 900 numbers and service contracts. You can even buy blocks of hours.

** The problem with large Hard Drives is backing things up. You know - what you don't do until after a crash! Remember, you don't need to backup up programs you loaded from CD-ROMs or floppies because you still have the ones you purchased! You really need to back up your letters, recipes, tax data, etc. I would suggest that you begin by creating a directory - C:\MyData. For each new program you install you create new sub-directories. i.e. C:\MyData\letters, C:\MyData\98tax, C:\MyData\pictures, etc. In this way you know which files you need to backup.