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The truth, and nothing but the truth, about choosing a new PC

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

The truth, and nothing but the truth, about choosing a new PC

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Looking for a new computer? Thinking about upgrading the old one?

This is a great time to buy a new PC. But you should think twice before sinking any money into newer parts for the old one.

The reason this is a perfect time to buy a new PC is pure Economics 101: They're better, faster and cheaper than ever before. And that's the same reason upgrading an old PC makes little sense. That same hard-earned dough could be put into a much better computer if you buy a new one instead of jimmying up the old one with a few new parts.

But a careful shopper can still improve an older PC by putting the cash where it counts. We'll tell you what to look for in a new computer and what you can do to spice up the old one without spending more than that old PC is worth.

Let's start with the basics of PC buying. Clip this out or print out a copy from Syracuse OnLine and keep it handy when you're shopping.

PC types: Every personal computer has a central processing unit, or CPU, inside. In a semi-generic way, the standard CPU is called a Pentium. Only one company, Intel, makes actual Pentium computer chips, so other manufacturers sell their chips as "Pentium-class" chips. Because chips often have numbers instead of names, you should know that Pentium chips and Pentium-class chips sometimes have "5" or "6" in their designations.

While "5" indicates a Pentium, "6" usually stands for an improved Pentium called the Pentium II—or for the equivalent of a Pentium II from a company other than Intel. If this all sounds confusing, take heart. It's confusing to just about everybody.

My advice: Look for a PC that has a genuine Pentium II chip. (The older Pentium, without the "II," is a poor choice compared with the Pentium II.)

Speed ratings: Once upon a time, the speed of a PC was the speed of the CPU chip. Nowadays, the real speed is not the rated speed at all. Three things determine the speed of a modern computer—the speed rating of the CPU, the speed rating of the PC's bus (the "highway" for data inside the computer) and the efficiency of the PC's main software.

CPU speeds of new computers range from about 200 megahertz—a megahertz being a million operating cycles a second—to as much as 450 megahertz (usually printed as "MHz"). But the speed rating of the bus inside these PCs usually is 60 or 66 MHz, and that means the computer is doing some of its work at a very high speed and the rest at a much slower speed. (Internal calculations take place at the higher speed, but all dealings with the "outside world" of other parts in the computer usually take place at the slower speed.)

Simple math tells you that Computer A with a 200 MHz CPU and a 66 MHz bus is not going to be twice as fast as Computer B with a 100 MHz CPU and a 66 MHz bus. Only internal calculations will be twice as fast. (I don't want to skip ahead, but that's the main reason upgrading the processor to one that's, say, twice as fast without upgrading anything else usually isn't worth the trouble. Your PC goes a little faster, but not enough to matter.)

Luckily, some new PCs come with a 100 MHz bus, and that gives them quite a boost. You'll find a 100 MHz bus on most Pentium II PCs rated at 350 MHz or higher.

Although you can choose the CPU and bus speeds, you don't have a choice of the main software—the third item determining the actual speed of a PC. What you can do, however, is make sure you keep this software, Windows 98, as lean and clean as possible. Do this by turning off all the features that aren't needed in normal operation—the so-called Active Desktop, all the Web functions in what are called Explorer windows and all the little animations that appear when you open and close windows and menus.

The easiest way to turn these off is through Tweak UI, a free add-on program for Windows that is on the Windows 98 installation CD. Use the Start Menu's "Find" function to search for "tweak" on the CD, click on whatever it finds, choose "Open containing folder" from the File menu. Click the right mouse button on the Tweak UI installation icon and choose "Install."

Memory: Forget what your brother-in-law or your Aunt Ethel tells you about how much memory a PC needs. A modern PC needs 64 megabytes of memory, called RAM. Don't get less than that. Memory is cheap. (Manufacturers pay as little as $60 for 64 megabytes.) If you want a really hot PC, tell the store or dealer you want 128 megabytes of RAM.

Displays: I have a personal gripe about the PC-monitor industry, which insists on labeling the size of the display screen falsely. A 15-inch screen is not a 15-inch screen, period. It's actually about 13.7 inches, and even that measurement is misleading because it's the diagonal measurement from corner to corner. (Imagine mattress companies using that subterfuge to make beds seem larger!)

The smallest screen size you should consider is about 15.8 inches, the diagonal measurement of a typical 17-inch monitor. If you have extra money to spend, get a larger monitor. The ones sold as 19-inch models have a diagonal measurement of about 18 inches, which is just about right for long-term use.

For two or three times the price of a standard monitor, you can get a flat, LCD screen. They don't take up much space, are much lighter, don't have any flicker at all and don't use much power. Technically, however, they can't match a good standard monitor in sharpness and brightness.

Storage space: All new computers come with enough storage space for normal use, because the disk drives that handle the storage are very cheap. My advice: Ask the store or manufacturer to add a second hard drive, the same size as the first one, so you can copy important data from the first drive to the second one week by week. It's the easiest way to back up your files.

Speakers: Nearly all new PCs come with speakers, and most of them are terrible. Whether this means PC manufacturers have tin ears or think that you do isn't clear. Sometimes you can order better speakers when you buy a PC, but often you have no choice. Fortunately, you can route the PC's audio signals into your home stereo system and get fantastic sound quality without paying anything extra—if you can put the PC in the same room as your stereo.

Keyboard and mouse: Face it. 2 X 4 lumber isn't 2 X 4 any more, computer screens are measured by hocus-pocus and computer keyboards are dreck. The keyboard that comes with your PC costs the manufacturer about $7. Live with the mushiness and floppy keys while you shop for a good keyboard. IBM makes some of the best.

Oddly, the best-selling ergonomic keyboard (one designed to ease the strain on your hands and wrists) is a Microsoft model that I rate near the bottom for its mushy key action. You'll get a lot less strain typing on a good standard keyboard than one with a fancy design that can't provide the proper "feel" of mechanical action.

Chances are your PC will come with either a Microsoft mouse or a Logitech mouse. (Logitech mice often have the PC's brand name on the top, but will say "Logitech" on the underside.) Both make good mice. But if your mouse has only two buttons, get a replacement mouse with a wheel or small button in the middle. My choice: The Microsoft IntelliMouse, which has a wheel. You can scroll through windows by rolling the wheel. (Insider tip: In the mouse Control Panel settings, change the default wheel action to a left double click, then turn off the function that lets you simulate a double click with a single left click. This turns your rodent into a mouse made in heaven.)

Upgrading an older PC to a faster CPU: I have three words for this: Don't do it. But some of you will want to do it anyway in the mistaken belief that upgrading is cheaper than buying a new PC. After all, you can buy a faster CPU chip and put it in yourself for $100 to $200. Doesn't that make sense?

Usually, it doesn't. As I've pointed out already, the bus speed is what matters when the CPU chip is doing its real work, so you'd be paying $100 to $200 for a small gain. (You can't the bus speed without a major expense.)

Upgrades that make sense: Every older PC I've ever seen needs more memory. This can be absurdly simple to do (snap off the computer case, plug in a couple of chips, pop the case back on) or very difficult (because vital parts might be in the way and will need to be removed).

Shut down your PC, unplug it and take off the cover. See if you can spot some memory-chip sockets where they can be reached. You might see two that have chips and two that are empty. (Memory chips usually are a few inches long and about as thick as your finger.) If you see two or more empty sockets and they are easily reached, you're in luck. Check the manual or get hold of the manufacturer to find out what exact chips are recommended, or find out by calling one of the RAM-chip merchants that advertise in PC Magazine.

If the sockets are reachable but all of them are occupied, you'll have to take out smaller-capacity chips and put in larger-capacity ones (they're all the same size). If the sockets aren't reachable or you can't locate them, take the PC to a local shop and have everything done there. A warning: Computer repair shops usually charge much more for memory chips than they cost you directly. Be prepared for a shock if you know that you can order two 32-megabyte chips for $70 and find the store charging you $150.

Most older PCs could also use a larger hard drive. Drives of about 4 gigabytes (4 thousand megabytes) cost less than $150, and you probably can find an 8-gigabyte drive for $200 to $250 if you shop around. Entire books have been written about how to install hard drives, so I'll just skip the technical stuff and tell you two important things: Make sure you can boot up from an emergency floppy boot disk before you try to change drives, and be extra sure that floppy boot disk gives you access to the PC's CD-ROM drive. (Most do not.) Test it by booting from it; you won't cause any problems by testing it this way.

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