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Cheapskate's guide to bargain PCs
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

Cheapskate's guide to bargain PCs

Technofile for Nov. 29, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1998, The Syracuse Newspapers

Why pay a lot of money for a personal computer?

If you've shopped for a PC lately, you've probably seen models selling for less than $1,000 alongside ones that cost quite a bit more. What's missing in the cheapest models? What do you get in the fancy versions that you can't find in the cheap ones?

Here's how to save money without getting shortchanged when you shop for a bargain-price PC. We'll look at each component separately.

Processor: More expensive PCs usually have Intel Pentium II processor chips (the so-called "CPU" chips). Cheaper ones have either Intel Celeron CPUs or a non-Intel CPU. The current Celeron chip is actually a Pentium II with a smaller memory cache, called an "L2" cache. (The L2 cache speeds up the processor.) It's a good chip. A good non-Intel chip is the AMD K6 (in various versions). A Celeron or AMD CPU can save you hundreds of dollars.

Memory: This is also called "RAM." Make sure the PC you buy has at least 48 megabytes. Memory greater than 64 megabytes is overkill for most purposes.

Drive capacity: All new PCs of any price come with big hard drives (the devices inside the computer that store everything). Drives that store 4 gigabytes or more are common. Drive speed (discussed next) is more important than size.

Drive speed: Most hard drives are 3 1/2-inch units. They're usually fine. But some cheap PCs come with 5 1/2-inch hard drives. They're slower than 3 1/2-inch drives. They work OK, but you save only a few dollars and they're sluggish in all operations.

Graphics card (also called "video" card): All PCs need special circuits that create the images shown on the screen. More expensive PCs use a device that slides into the PC, called a "card," for this, but cheap PCs nearly always have this circuitry on a chip. This saves money but can limit your ability to add fancier display capabilities later. A company named ATI makes some of the best of these chip-based circuits.

Monitor: The cost of the display screen, called a "monitor," is usually not included in the price of a PC. You can usually save $100 or more by skipping the monitor sold by the PC manufacturer and getting a separate brand instead. Your eyes deserve to be treated well, so small monitors are a bad choice. Get one rated at 17 inches or larger. Discount prices for 17-inch monitors start at about $225—but be sure to look carefully at fine print on various monitors in the store before you buy.

Modem: You need a modem—a device that lets your computer send and receive stuff over the telephone—to connect to the Internet unless you choose a cable Internet connection. Computers often come with modems as part of the package price, and most modems are adequate. "56k" modems are the fastest, but they require good telephone lines to achieve that speed. All of them will revert to a slower speed if lines are bad.

Keyboard: Most are terrible. You're stuck with the one that comes with your PC, but go to one of the traveling computer shows and paw through the $12 keyboards you'll find there. You might find one you like more. A good keyboard should have a definite "feel" that lets your fingers know when the keys are pressed. I've never seen an ergonomic (scientifically shaped) keyboard that actually made typing easier, but you might feel differently.

Mouse: Three important tips: Get a mouse that has a wheel or small button in the middle, set it up so that pressing the wheel or tiny button produces a left double click, and set up Windows 98 to behave properly. That's done by turning off the dumb-as-sheep-doodoo single-click feature in Windows. Open the Start Menu, choose Settings, then Folder Options, then Custom, then Settings, then check "Double click to open an item."

Joystick: You don't need one to play games and run racing or aircraft simulators, but your kids will look at you funny for months if you don't get a joystick. Cheap ones are fine for beginners. When they break (which they will—kids don't respect cheap plastic), get a Microsoft Sidewinder.

Printer: You can get a color printer for $100 to $200. The expense comes later, when you have to buy new ink cartridges, so spread the word in your family that those who print excessive copies shall pay the ink bill. If you don't have kids and don't need color, get a black-and-white HP DeskJet. It will last for years and its ink costs are one-third the cost of color ink.

Networking: If you already have a PC or modern Mac at home and are adding a second one, don't be a loner. Connect them. They'll talk to each other using Ethernet. You can buy Ethernet networking cards for $12 to $24 if you shop around. (You need one in each computer.) Cable to hook the computers together is cheap.

Software: If the PC you're considering doesn't come with extra software, don't buy it. The manufacturer is a dodo. Extras usually include a few games, an encyclopedia, a word processor, a financial program and maybe a "suite" of programs you'll never use. Warning: Many PCs come with Microsoft Works, a dud "suite" that isn't worth using. (It's old and creaky.) If your PC doesn't come with Microsoft Word 97 (the best word processor for PCs), buy Microsoft Home Essentials 98, a collection that includes Word 97 and many other good programs. It costs about $100.

You'll get all the basic Internet software you need—Internet Explorer, a great Web browser, and Outlook Express, my choice for the best light-duty e-mail software around. Don't buy any extra Internet software; you can find it free on the Internet itself.

Extras: You need a mouse pad. The best is from 3M and is very thin (called a "Precision Mousing Surface," but any mouse pad will do. A pad for the front of the keyboard is a good idea, but don't pay much for one. You'll need extra paper for the printer if you get one, along with extra ink cartridges. Get a good non-violent game—Riven is fantastic—and a jet fighter simulator if you're into bad-boy stuff.

Things to avoid:

  • Computers that have the monitor built into the case (some Toshiba models are like that, as is the otherwise splendid iMac from Apple). Ever try to squeeze a new 17-inch monitor into a 15-inch bezel?
  • Extra warranties. Come now, doesn't the manufacturer offer a warranty?
  • Leasing. Borrow the money yourself. Leasing is the dumbest way to pay for a PC ever invented. PCs lose nearly all their value over a three-year period. But the lease value stays constant. Bad, bad.
  • An AOL signup. AOL is the pits. Get a standard Internet connection instead.
  • Anything with the name "Smile" on it. You might see computer monitors with that brand name. They're cheap and look it.
  • Packard Bell computers. They're not up to the quality of the rest of the industry.
  • "Mouse houses" and other silly gadgets. Nobody uses them.

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