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Buying a PC

It's the $1,000 question for computer buyers.

Consumers can spend $1,000 plus a few hundred dollars more for some of the most powerful personal computers available. Or they can spend a little less than $1,000 and still get a machine that will handle almost anything they want to do.

A multitude of options await consumers, including some long-anticipated changes. Microsoft released its crash-resistant new operating system, called Windows XP, and Intel has come out with chips that run at unprecedented speeds of up to 2 gigahertz.

Technical choices are many and confusing. Is it worth spending extra money for a computer powered by a new Intel Pentium 4 chip, or should you save money and go with a Pentium III or an AMD Athlon system? What about an even more economical Celeron or Duron chip?

How about an integrated versus non-integrated motherboard? Or a CRT versus flat-screen LCD monitor? How much memory will you need?

The report in these pages will arm you with the information you need to answer those questions for yourself, or permit you to bypass most of the complexities and choose among models recommended by editors at PC World magazine.

While most PC buyers still fall back on the ubiquitous Intel chips, alternatives produced by rival AMD are more prevalent this year in offerings from mainstream PC vendors. The AMD Athlon Thunderbird chip is considered by many experts to be technologically superior to the Intel Pentium III equivalents and in the higher speeds even outperforms the Pentium 4 in certain tests.

The same comparisons are being made between the entry-level Intel Celeron and the AMD Duron chips. No longer is AMD the overlooked underdog of the chip suppliers.

And although top-of-the-line PCs are less expensive than in previous years, entry-level machines seem to be rising in price. Therefore many of your options are right in the middle: $1,000, give or take, depending on your budget and computing needs.

As you shop, keep in mind that even the lower-end, least-expensive PCs being sold today are fast enough to perform more than adequately for most home PC users. This reverses what previously was the trend of ever-increasing hardware capabilities followed closely by new software programs to take advantage of all that new power.

The typical home PC user will be hard pressed to find applications that exploit all the processing power of today's most powerful PCs.

Most home PC users running typical applications such as Microsoft Office, browsing the Internet, using e-mail and processing digital photos will find that even the low-end systems will do the job just fine.

Still, there are reasons why you may want to consider spending more money on your PC purchase, such as some digital video editing applications.

We'll break it down into two categories, using $1,000 as the dividing line, and tell you what you can expect to get at each level.