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$1,000 and above: Features, not just speed, make more expensive PCs stand out

As the price rises on a PC, so do the choices and the chances for consumer confusion.

The target price for a well-equipped, powerful PC used to be about $2,000, but consumers will find that has dropped to $1,500 or so as computer companies engage in a price war.

The first thing we leave behind as we enter the upper price ranges are systems using Celeron and Duron chips. Those chips are very capable, but they are no longer the better buy in this category.

Let's try to place in some order the various central processing unit (CPU) chips that will comprise the base of most systems in this price category.

At the very low end, at perhaps $1,000 to $1,200, you'll find PCs with Intel Pentium III chips up to 1.1 gigahertz (GHz) and AMD Athlon-based PCs with speeds of 1- to 1.2GHz. The general consensus is that the Athlons in this range are at least equivalent, and in many cases superior, to the Pentium III. Don't let the fact that the AMD Athlon is not an Intel product scare you off. The Athlon is becoming mainstream and has a strong technical architecture.

PCs in this range should come with at least 128 megabytes (MB) of random access memory (RAM), a 30- to 40-gigabyte (GB) hard drive and a DVD-ROM or a CD-Rewriteable (CD-RW). I would look for systems that had both, not uncommon in this price range.

Some systems have one unit that serves as both a DVD-ROM and CD-RW drive. This type of configuration is efficient and saves space, but keep in mind that it also will add to the complexity of doing direct CD to CD copying.

A good quality 17-inch monitor (.26 dot pitch or less; the smaller that number the better) or even a lesser quality 19-inch monitor will usually be packaged with systems in this range. A general rule of thumb with monitors: The flatter the screen, the better the picture, and the more expensive as well. Flat-screen LCD monitors are always an option. Although they are still several hundred dollars more than their traditional counterparts, they are starting to come down in price. They have the advantage of a brighter screen and take up less space on your desk.

If your system comes with 128MB of RAM, I recommend spending an extra $50 or so and upgrading to 256MB. It will ensure that you get the most performance for your dollar and Windows XP demands it.

A three-piece sound system (two speakers and a subwoofer), a good sound card and a 32MB video card should be expected in this price range. And the limitations of integrated sound and video cards are not what you want.

The next step up is Pentium 4 and Athlon systems in the 1.4- to 1.7GHz range. I would expect these systems, costing about $1,200 to $1,500, to come with 256MB of RAM, a 40- to 60GB ATA 100 hard drive spinning at 7,200 RPM (revolutions per minute; higher is better), DVD-ROM, CD-RW, a good quality sound card and a video card with 32- to 64MB of RAM.

A good quality 19-inch monitor should be standard in this range, and you may want to consider spending extra to upgrade to a 17-inch LCD. If you do a lot of digital photo and video processing or editing, make sure you get a system with that faster ATA-100 7200 RPM hard drive. This type of processing typically deals with very large file sizes and disk speed can easily become a bottleneck even on the fastest of systems.

Look for a system with a Network Interface card (NIC), also known as an Ethernet card, if you'll be connecting to the Internet through a cable modem or digital subscriber line (DSL) hookup.

The king-of-the-hill PC chip at this time is the 2GHz Pentium 4. As usual, it won't take long for this to be replaced as Intel and AMD play technology leapfrog. Even though this is currently the fastest home PC you can buy, I'm not sure that you'll see the full effect of the performance difference, especially when you consider the $200 to $300 extra you'll spend to get it. A well-equipped system with this chip is likely to cost $1,700 to $1,800 or more.

But if it's the fastest PC you want, this is it.