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Cheapskate's Guide, Part 2: What to look for in your first PC
technofile  by al fasoldt
Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology 
Simple gray rule

Cheapskate's Guide, Part 2: What to look for in your first PC 

Technofile for Nov. 30, 1997

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers

Buying a PC for the first time should be an exciting experience. Make it last by choosing wisely.

I have five simple rules:

  1. Choose a PC from a store you can trust.
  2. Don't scrimp on memory for the PC.
  3. Keep audio quality in mind when shopping.
  4. Factor in the cost of the display screen (called the monitor) when you compare prices.
  5. Be sure to buy a modem as part of the deal, and try to get the store to install it before delivery.

Buying from a store you can trust is even more important than choosing the "right" brand. Many computer stores do an excellent job of building their own PCs—ones you probably have never heard of. If you shop only by brand, you'll never be able to do the kind of comparison shopping that can save you a lot of money.

Stores that make their own PCs don't create them from scratch, of course. They assemble them from parts they buy from manufacturers. This is just what most of the name-brand PC makers do, too.

If you do decide to purchase a computer from a store that makes its own PCs, choose a store that's close enough to get to when you have problems (no more than a one-hour drive away, perhaps). Ask about the warranty, and don't be afraid to ask about the quality of the parts.

If you want to stick with name brands, choose from the manufacturers that get top ratings in annual surveys of quality and service. Dell, Gateway and IBM consistently rank high on such lists. All three will sell you a PC directly from their own distribution centers, via an 800 number or a World Wide Web site. (For Dell and Gateway, direct marketing is their primary means of sales.)

PCs cannot operate without memory chips. These are called RAM chips (for "random access memory") or "SIMMs." (Trivia buffs may want to know the term means "single inline memory modules.") Memory chips are much cheaper now than they were two or three years ago, so manufacturers usually install 16 or 32 megabytes of memory. (The technical term simply refers to millions of units of computer storage.)

Because modern software requires much more memory than software of just a few years ago, 16 megabytes of RAM is not enough. I consider 32 megabytes the minimum for the current version of Windows (the computer operating software that will come with your PC).

(Although memory is used for storage, it is cleared out when the computer is turned off. PCs use internal disks called hard drives for permanent storage of programs and other things. Nearly all new PCs have plenty of disk storage space.)

Most PCs come with two tiny speakers, one for each stereo audio channel. They all sound terrible by hi-fi standards. Take the time to shop around for better speakers—try a real hi-fi dealer if you can't find suitable speakers at a computer store—but never use normal hi-fi speakers if you plan to place them near the computer monitor. Models specially made for home theater and computer use are magnetically shielded. Normal hi-fi speakers are not, and their strong magnetic fields can damage a computer display unless they're placed a foot or more away.

Monitors themselves require careful shopping, too. You'll find that advertised prices usually don't include the cost of the monitor. Sometimes you'll see a higher price—the one that includes the display screen—in small print. Basic monitors cost less than $200, but you should expect to pay about $300 for an entry-level 15-inch monitor and about $450 to $500 for one of the more desirable 17-inch models.

Buy the largest monitor you can afford; you'll have it a long time, and, over the three or four-year lifetime of your PC, you'll probably spend more time reading things on the computer screen than you'll spend reading from printed pages. Your eyes deserve good, sharp images.

Beware of large-screen monitors that sell at suspiciously low prices. They're probably related to TVs in their basic design. No TV picture tube can match a good computer monitor in sharpness (pinpoint accuracy in the display) or in resolution (ability to show very fine detail).

Most monitors use a standard way of separating the picture elements, but some use the Trinitron design patented by Sony. Both can do a fine job. Trinitron monitors have completely flat screens in the vertical dimension, a real plus for many users, but they also exhibit a peculiar roughness when showing small type on the screen. Check out both kinds before you make a choice.

PCs sometimes come equipped with modems (devices that connect the computer to the Internet over your phone line), but usually you have to pay extra. Modems cost about $100 for basic models.

Do not buy a PC without a modem. You'd be cheating yourself and your family out of the most fascinating electronic adventure of the decade. Entry onto the World Wide Web costs about $20 a month through an Internet Service Provider or a commercial online service. You'll also be able to take advantage of electronic mail, and you'll find incredible bargains from the hundreds of thousands of stores that have Web-order sites.

Next week: Software bargains for first-time buyers.

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