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Sub-$1,000: Don't skimp on random access memory when buying a budget system

The low end of the PC spectrum seems to be shrinking.

Last year, a lot of systems were available in the $500 to $1,000 range. With the exception of eMachines and $599 machines from Dell and Hewlett-Packard, there are few PCs today that cost less than $600. But that doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune to get a respectable PC.

Let's start with the heart of a PC, the central processing unit, or CPU, chips. Undoubtedly, most non-technical consumers are confused by the various chips available. AMD offers the Duron and Athlon, and Intel has the Celeron, Pentium III and Pentium 4.

In the low end of the sub-$1,000 category, machines start out with Celeron and Duron chips. Basically what separates the Celeron and Duron chips from their respective big brothers, Pentium III and 4 and the AMD Athlon, is the amount of Level 2, or L2, cache.

L2 cache is special high-speed memory built directly on the chip that ensures that the CPU has a steady stream of data and instructions for it to act upon. In other words, it makes it run faster. L2 cache is the most expensive part of the chip and less L2 cache equates to less cost (and less performance).

But how much performance are you giving up if you go with a Celeron or Duron system?

It will depend on how you use your computer. A PC in this range will be more than adequate for almost any type of application: running Microsoft Office products, browsing the Internet, sending e-mail, processing digital photos and playing games.

Both the Celeron and Duron systems in this category will contain chips in the range of 800 to 1,000 megahertz. Systems at the bottom of this price range may come with a 15-inch monitor, a lower quality 17-inch monitor or maybe none at all.

Most will come with 128 megabytes (MB) of random access memory (RAM). Don't accept anything less, and if you will be using Windows XP, go for 256MB. A PC with 64MB of RAM will be slow regardless of how fast its processor is.

The video and sound will most likely be integrated right on the motherboard. Although this makes for a PC with fewer parts, it's not what you want if you play games or plan to do a lot of digital video or graphics editing. You won't have the power you need, and the processor will be working overtime trying to keep up.

In this lower range, expect a hard drive of 15 to 20 gigabytes (GB), a single play-only CD-ROM drive and basic speakers. Instead of a CD-ROM, all systems should have a DVD-ROM, which will work with DVD and CD disks. It won't cost that much to upgrade a CD-ROM to a DVD-ROM, and it will be money well spent. Others may want to upgrade instead to a CD-Rewriteable (CD-RW), which allows you to "burn" your own CD-ROMs, whether to record music or back up important data.

A V.90/56K modem is usually standard equipment on any PC, allowing you to use standard phone lines to connect to the Internet. If you plan to get a high-speed cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) Internet connection, you may not need the 56K modem other than for faxes. But your PC will need an Ethernet card to make a network connection.

At the higher end of this sub-$1,000 price category, expect to find either a Celeron or Duron above the 900MHz range or maybe even a Pentium III 800MHz. A minimum of 128MB of RAM should be part of the system, and the hard drive should be 20- to 30GB or more. A DVD-ROM or CD-RW drive should be standard. Systems at the very top of this price range may come with both.

But now, as you're approaching or exceeding the $1,000 limit, you start overlapping with the higher-end Pentium III as well as the lower-end Pentium 4 and Athlon systems. Read on to find what you get for the extra money.