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What to look for when purchasing a PC

It's getting easier to buy a PC.

Even bargain systems can handle almost anything you throw at them. In fact, most of today's bargain systems are faster than the top-end machines from about a year ago.

And many of today's top-end systems will cost you far more than their performance seems to justify. That's particularly true for the most popular activities of e-mail, Internet surfing and word processing. Often the priciest systems are only a bit faster than the next lower alternative.

Although it's getting harder to make a PC-buying mistake, there are still some decisions you'll need to make during your purchase. We'll break it down into two categories (less than $1,000 and more than $1,000) and tell you what you can expect to get (or not get) at each level along the way. Except as noted, prices include monitors.

$1,000 or less

The starting point in any PC-buying decision usually starts with the speed of the central processing unit, or CPU. Keep in mind that this is only one of several factors in your computer's overall speed. Only a portion of the work a PC does gets processed in the CPU, the computer's brain.

At the lowest end of this spectrum, starting as low as $399 for some models (not including monitors), you'll find PCs with Intel Celeron chips with speeds from 850 megahertz to 2.0 gigahertz.

The main difference between the low-cost Celeron and the more expensive Pentium chip is the size of the Level 2 data 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 on which it can act. 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 money (and less performance). Therefore, the Celeron is the processor of choice for the lower end of the PC price spectrum.

PCs in this price range will be more than adequate for almost any type of software application _ running Microsoft Office products, such as Word or the Excel spreadsheet; browsing the Internet; e-mail; basic digital photography processing; most games; and just about any traditional applications you throw at it.

One of the most important factors affecting how well a PC runs is the amount of random access memory included with the system. Many bargain packages come with 128 megabytes, which is the absolute minimum for Windows XP. I highly recommend upgrading to 256MB of RAM (at some places, you can get the extra 128MB starting at about $20). Then you'll be sure to get the most out of your system. Even the fastest PC will slow to a crawl without enough RAM.

Systems in this price range will usually include a 20- to 40-gigabyte hard drive spinning at 5400 RPMs. They usually have integrated sound cards and graphics cards that share system RAM rather than having their own.

Integrated components are built onto the computer's motherboard. Consequently, they compete for processing bandwidth and memory with the rest of the system. While that's not a problem for most PC uses, it can prove limiting in applications such as sophisticated games and digital video editing. If you plan to do those activities, you should avoid such integrated components.

As we climb a little higher on the price scale, above $799 or so, we reach what I refer to as the sweet spot of the PC market: the 2.0GHz Intel Pentium 4 system.

This is a fast processor _ 2.0 gigahertz is the processor speed _ and it will do absolutely anything you want, including sophisticated digital photo and video editing, streaming sound, all games and anything else that runs on PCs.

I've run 100-user database systems on PCs half this fast, and these systems are not much more expensive than what you'll pay for a Celeron-based system.

Systems in this price range typically come with 30- to 40GB hard drives spinning at 7200 RPMs, 256MB of RAM and graphics cards with 32MB of RAM. They may even include a CD-RW or a DVD-ROM drive.

A quick primer on CD and DVD drives: If it says ROM, for read-only memory, that means it can only read discs, not write them. If it says RW, that means rewriteable, and you can make your own music, photo or data discs.

Again, doubling your RAM (this time to 512 MB) is recommended and will be well worth it if you do anything other than e-mail and Internet browsing and especially if you do digital photo or video editing.

Speaking of memory, one of the acronyms you'll see this year is DDR. It stands for Double Data Rate and is the accepted standard for most systems. The type of memory that comes with your system is determined by its motherboard and is not an option you can change in an off-the-shelf system.

As you start creeping up from a 2.0GHz Pentium 4 system, the price increases and it doesn't take much to push us over the $1,000 range.

$1,000 and over

Systems built around a 2.2GHz and higher Pentium 4 start appearing in this range. The speed differences from here up are incremental. The differentiating factors usually are better peripheral components, such as bigger monitors, improved sound and video cards, and more memory.

As you start out in this price range, expect systems with processors in the 2.2- to 2.4GHz range, with 40- to 60GB 7200 RPM hard drives, digital sound cards and graphics adapters with 64MB of RAM, a CD burner and maybe also a DVD-ROM. It's possible you'll also see some of these systems come with DVD-RW drives, which will let you burn your own video DVDs.

If you plan on doing any digital video editing or transferring, make sure your system has a FireWire card (IEEE 1394 connector). This is the standard connection for almost all digital video camcorders. Some higher-end systems will include this as part of a multimedia video package. Otherwise, adding one will cost between $50 and $100.

As you work your way up in this price range, you will see systems offered with RDRAM, yet another acronym that stands for a type of memory developed by Rambus Inc. It is faster and more expensive.

As we approach $1,500, expect to see systems with 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processors 256- to 512MB of RDRAM, CD burners and a DVD-ROM with hard drives in the 80 to 100GB range, top-of-the-line sound cards and 64MB video cards that have Digital Video Interface, or DVI, and TV Out connectors.

Some systems selling for more than $1,500 may include DVD-RW drives, which will let you burn video DVDs. There are two different standards, listed as DVD+RW/R and DVD-RW/R. You should get one that supports both. Some are also capable of burning regular CD-R/RW discs. If a DVD burner is not included with your package, adding one will cost between $300 and $500. DVD discs hold 10 times the amount of data as a regular CD.

If price is not a factor, the 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor is the fastest chip out. (AMD says its Athlon XP 2700 and 2800 processors, which it is claiming are the world's fastest, will be available this year.)

You will pay significantly more for these systems. Are they faster than their lower-end cousins? Absolutely. Is it worth the extra $400 to $500 you'll most likely have to pay for incremental performance gains? You'll have to answer that one.

Remember, last year's fastest PC is now closer to the starting point for this year's PCs. That trend will not change for quite a while, if ever.

If your Internet connection is by cable modem or DSL, you'll also need a network card, which should add about $50 to the purchase.