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10 Top Tips for Buying a New PC

By Eileen Mullin
Posted Tuesday, December 7, 2004

How fast a PC do I need?

This holiday season, the slowest desktop PC most manufacturers are selling has a 1.8 GHz Celeron processor. However, if you're looking to pick up a closeout or used PC, anything with over a 1 GHz processor should be able to run most consumer software very well with the notable exception of the latest games. Games are among the most demanding PC tasks. To play the latest and greatest acceptably, shoot for at least a 2 GHz processor and an advanced video card such as the ATI Radeon 9000 or one made with an nVidia GeForce 4MX or better. If you're on a budget, generally avoid the fastest processor and invest in more RAM (memory). You pay a premium for the absolute fastest.

Should I get a desktop or laptop?

Desktop machines offer more processing power for the same price and more expandability. Typically, you can only upgrade the hard disk and RAM of a notebook computer. Of course, the great advantage of a laptop computer is its portability and ability to operate on batteries. This can be a deciding factor if you're even a casual traveler. Low-end laptops tend to start at around $1000. If you're looking to spend less than that amount, a desktop is probably your best bet.

Should I get a Mac or PC?

We're big Mac fans and while Mac OS X may be both smoother and more stable than Windows XP, it's a tough time for the Mac platform as programs and device support continue to come on board for its new operating system. The Mac is great at digital media tasks such as creating your own videos and DVDs, but there's no arguing that you can get a very competent Windows PC for about $500, plus an extra $150 or so for a nice monitor. There's Mac software available to do just about anything you'd want to do on a computer, but the cool games tend to come to the PC first.

What features should I look for?

Be wary of PCs that have small cases. They may be difficult to upgrade. There should be at least an extra bay for another hard disk and room for an extra PCI card in the back. Make sure it has support for the latest standards, such as 1394 (otherwise known as FireWire or i.Link) and USB 2.0. These will be essential in letting you add all the latest gear to your PC. Also, if you're getting a laptop, you should look for one that offers built-in 802.11b or WiFi support. This will allow you to surf the Internet at thousands of places such as Starbucks.

What kind of monitor should I get?

Flat panels are the rage right now and a smart shopper can track them down for under $300. They are sleek, bright and use less electricity than traditional bulky monitors. However, they are still at a big price premium, especially as you go to larger sizes. For most consumers, clunky old CRTs are still best value choice.

Where should I shop?

PCs are sold everywhere but if you'd like a large selection, you can check out a CompUSA branch. Large electronics chains like Best Buy typically have great deals on brands like HP and eMachines while Dell always seems to be running some kind of sale on their Web sites. Mac fans can visit an Apple Store such as the one in SoHo or Tekserve on 23rd Street. Don't expect huge price variations, though on Macs. There are also local stores, such as Datavision, RCS, and J&R Computer World in Manhattan, which all carry both Macs and PCs.

What do I need to get to the Internet?

You can connect to the Internet via a dialup connection, which is slower and less reliable. A broadband connection is much faster and always connected, but costs more. For dialup, you'll need a modem and an Internet Service Provider or ISP. The three largest ISPs are America Online, MSN, and EarthLink, which we recommend; expect to pay about $22/month. A low-priced alternative is Juno, which costs about $10/mo. For broadband, you'll need to get a cable modem or DSL modem from your cable or phone company. For New York City, that usually means TimeWarner Cable and Verizon. Broadband costs about $40 to $50/mo. The software to access the Internet such as a Web browser and email program comes with computers.

Can I trust "no name" PCs from local computer stores?

Local computer stores often offer "white box" PCs that are very competitive with those from major brands, and may use the same or even better parts. These systems allow great control over the individual components used in the machine. This makes them attractive for advanced users who'd rather not put the PCs together themselves. If you believe the local retailer can provide great support, it may be worth it, but most beginners will probably find more comfort in a major brand name like HP or Dell.

How do I move data from my old PC to my new PC?

If you're using an older version of Windows, products such as Detto Technologies IntelliMover or Aloha Bob's PC Relocator can transfer many of your old programs and settings to you new computer. Detto even has a new product that can help you switch from Windows to Mac called Move2Mac. If you have a very old PC running Windows 3.1 or DOS, the best strategy may just be to move your older files on a floppy disc and bring them over. Make sure your newer programs can read your old files. You haven't shelled out for a modern powerhouse to run antique software.

What kind of printer should I get?

Inkjet printers are inexpensive and produce great color output, but the cost of ink can get expensive. The "big four" of inkjet printers are HP, Epson, Lexmark, and Canon. A heavy-duty workhorse alternative for pumping out lots of text is a laser printer. The HP LaserJet 1000 is a great basic laser printer for under $300. If you're setting up a home office, you may also want to look into a "multi-function" unit that combines printer, scanner, copier, and sometimes fax into one product. Of course, these jack-of-all-trades are usually lacking in one area or another.

About the Author
Eileen Mullin operates GenuineClass (www.genuineclass.com), a New York-based computer school for families. Previously, she was vice president of global HR Web strategy for Merrill Lynch and program director of content programming for IBM's main Web site (ibm.com). She is the author of five computer books, including the upcoming Programming the Web with XML (McGraw-Hill, 2003).