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Tips for finding the perfect PC

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Hardware

Computer buyers shopping for themselves or their graduates this year have plenty to be happy about: Prices are still shrinking, and performance is still increasing.

Here's a rundown of options to consider when looking at a computer for Father's Day or for the graduate. These specifications determine whether the PC you buy is the digital equivalent of a Toyota Corolla or a Dodge Viper.

Hard-drive storage

Often confused with internal memory, the hard drive is where your computer stores programs and data permanently. When it's running, your computer is constantly reading from and writing to the hard drive. You need a drive big enough to store all your stuff and fast enough to move it around.

Hard-drive capacity is measures in gigabytes (GB). A gigabyte is enough space to store the text of 1,000 average novels, about 800 typical digital photos, 300 album tracks in MP3 music format or about an hour of recorded TV.

Even bargain-basement machines come with 80 GB drives these days, far more space than anyone needs for basic computing — even with digital photos and a music collection.

Serious video work — either creating it or recording TV programs — will eat up as much storage as you can buy. Look for a PC with 160 GB drive or better.

Multimedia drives

All computers come with some form of CD or DVD drive. They're used to install new programs, back up data and ultimately to turn your PC into an entertainment center. Here's what the alphabet soup on the sticker means:

CD-RW: The absolute minimum you'll need. These drives can create data and audio CDs that are permanent or rewritable. They're critical for backing up important data.

DVD/CD-RW: The best value unless you're a budding movie producer. In addition to creating CDs, these drives can play, but not record, DVD movies or video created by users with DVD burners. Only a few dollars more than pure CD-RW drives, their entertainment value is well worth the premium, particularly in a laptop.

DVD-RW/DVD+RW: These drives can create DVDs as well as CDs, and you'll need one to be a true movie impresario. DVDs also store six times as much data as regular CDs, important for backing up large hard drives.

Note the plus and minus sign at the beginning of the previous paragraph. They represent different and incompatible methods of making rewritable CDs — and an example of industry stupidity.

Today, both kinds of drives will make play-only DVDs that work in most standalone players. Newer drives support minus and plus standards for rewritable DVDs. If you can't find a dual-format drive on a PC you like, go for a DVD-R (that's the minus sign). Avoid any drive that uses only the plus format.

New to the mass market this year is the dual- or double-layer DVD writer. This drive can store far more data or video on a DVD than first-generation drives — if you can find dual-layer disks and you're willing to pay a premium for them. Nice but not a deal-breaker.

Audio

PCs have replaced traditional stereo systems in many college dorm rooms, largely because they can play audio CDs and store thousands of digital MP3 files on their hard drives. Most PCs come with built-in audio circuitry that does a creditable job of driving decent PC speakers. The quality won't satisfy audiophiles, but then, nothing does.

More advanced computer sound cards support theater-style surround sound (such as Dolby 5.1), which is important for movie and game buffs looking for a 360-degree experience. For the best sound output — with far better audio input for recording — look for a machine that has a Sound Blaster Audigy or Turtle Beach audio circuitry.

In terms of audio quality, you'll get the best bang for the buck with a good set of speakers. For music, a system with two satellite speakers and a subwoofer for bass notes will do fine. But for surround sound movies and games, you'll need a system with at least two additional speakers.

Video

Your computer's video adapter produces the image on your monitor. Most lower-end PCs have video adapters from Intel built into the motherboard — the computer's main circuit board.

If you're a basic computer user, that's fine; the only downside is that these adapters often use part of the PC's main memory to store images. It's called "shared" memory, and you'll see it noted on the sticker.

Shared memory slows video response and eats up RAM you might need for other programs. If you find yourself otherwise attracted to a machine that uses it, make sure the computer has at least 512 megabytes (MB) of main memory so there's enough to share.
For gaming or video production, find a PC with a graphics adapter from nVidia, ATI or another manufacturer with at least 128 MB of dedicated memory. You might also look for one with a "TV out" port, which allows you to play video on your TV set.

Monitor

The world has gone nuts over flat-panel monitors with liquid crystal displays (LCDs). They're chic and take up less front-to-back space than monitors based on clunky old cathode-ray tubes (CRTs).

Although LCDs aren't cheap, their price has declined to the point where they're no longer guilty pleasures. Just remember that old-fashioned CRTs still produce better images, with more accurate colors, for less money. They're also better suited for movies and games.

Whatever you choose, beware of the "flat-screen" vs. "flat-panel" come-on. A "flat screen" is actually a CRT with a tube that's virtually flat in front, instead of being slightly curved. A "flat panel" is a true liquid crystal display. Make sure you're getting what you want.

Ports

Your computer uses a variety of connectors, or ports, to communicate with the outside world. The most important is the USB 2.0 port, which connects the PC to printers, scanners, mice, keyboards, digital cameras, external drives and other gadgets.

The more USB ports the better — look for one or two on the front for cameras and other devices you'll connect frequently. Likewise, look for a PC with headphone and microphone jacks on the front panel and the back.

A multimedia reader for flash memory cards used in cameras, music players, PDAs and other devices is nice, too, but not critical. Under Windows XP, you can connect most USB gadgets directly to a PC and transfer data as though the device were another disk drive.

If you want to edit digital video from a camcorder, make sure the PC has an IEEE 1394 port, or FireWire. Most camcorders use Firewire cables to connect to computers, although some now come with USB 2.0 connectors, too.

If you're willing to open the case, you can add a third-party FireWire adapter to a computer that doesn't have one for $50 or less.

So there are the basics. Now you want to know how much all these goodies will cost. The answer is not that much.

During my spring scouting trip (in-store and online), I found perfectly useful, low-end Celeron systems complete with a 17-inch CRT monitor for as little as $400. As long as the memory is upgraded to 512 megabytes, a basic computer user doesn't need anything more.

If you think a computer should be fun, too, you'll find capable midrange systems with Pentium 4 processors, 512 megs of RAM, 120 gig hard drives and decent video for $600 to $700, including a good 15-inch LCD monitor. Just remember that moving up to a 17-inch or 19-inch monitor can add several hundred dollars to the cost.

For $1,000 or more, you can come up with a multimedia powerhouse. Just remember that the "or more" can run the bill up to $3,000 for a custom-built fireball.

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