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  Solution:  How Do I Choose A PC?

Buying a new PC isn't an easy task.  Here are my personal recommendations.  I'll tell you where I shop, which components I pick for my PC, what software I pick, and why.

Note: This information is now extremely outdated. However, most of the basic recommendations and concepts still hold true in terms of choosing a PC, so I've left it up for reference.

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Where's a good place to buy a PC?
 
  • If you want to save money, buy from mail order.  Local shops always claim to sell at the same price, but I've never seen it once you really compare based upon the quality of components or after you customize the system (even slightly).  It is a good idea to buy from a local shop if you want the service and support offered.  It's also possible to shop around online, and then buy a specific package from a local store at a price within your budget.
  • Buy a copy of Computer Shopper from your local newsstand.  Even if you buy from a local store, it's worth the $5 bucks (or so) just so you can compare prices, features, and systems.  Arm yourself with information and comparison prices!
  • Set your own personal budget.  Seriously, you can easily get your price bumped up hundreds, or even thousands of dollars before you know it  -- just picking options, cards and monitor sizes.  My general recommendation price range for people buying a PC is $2500 to $3000.  Keep in mind, you probably have to add in your state tax and shipping (shipping is usually around $100).
  • Try to buy a package deal bundled with extra options like modem, printer, soundcard, speakers, joystick, and mainstream  software  like Microsoft Office (not these useless bundles of software titles you've never heard of).
  • It's easy to become overwhelmed when reading Computer Shopper.  Pick 3 to 5 mainstream vendors and compare from those.  (For example: Gateway, Micron, DELL, Midwest Micro, etc.)  Almost all of these vendors have online configuration tools that you can use to pick through options and components.

    If you're unsure, you can usually stick with one of these "major players" and come out OK.  If you're somewhat "technically savvy" and you're comfortable enough to hammer out the specifics (as in the examples I detail below), you can usually "build" your system with lesser known companies and save several hundred dollars.  Be advised, be smart, and buyer beware.
 
So what about components, peripherals, and speed?
 
Here are my suggestions.  These  recommendations are based on many years of experience, and a basic philosophy of "compatibility and stability" is preferable to degrees of "better performance", and that "driver and vendor support" is paramount.
 
Processor and Speed:  I recommend not getting the latest, fastest CPU speed.  I usually recommend getting one or two "versions" back.  If the "2 Gigahertz" is the fastest, then get the "1.7" or "1.4".  Why?  The latest and fastest always comes at a bloated premium price.  As for the motherboard, CPU and chipset vendor (all part of, or directly mounted on the motherboard), I recommend going with all Intel components.  There is usually some more cost, and you may have to pick another vendor in order to get it.  Why?  I and other very experienced friends have tried using various motherboards, chipsets and CPUs -- and we've on more than one occasion had performance or stability problems.  I've never had a compatibility problem when using a pure Intel motherboard, Intel CPU, and Intel chipset.
 
Hard Drive Size, Memory, and Speed:   For memory, I would recommend at least 1 to 2 Gigabytes for today's Windows environments, applications and games.  In general getting more memory is better than choosing faster memory.  For hard drives, this depends on how much you're going to load on the system.  I have systems with terabytes of storage.  A "normal" user may only use a few dozen gigabytes.  Typically, you can get get one of the 60 to 100 GB drives and have plenty of space for all of your programs and games.  Hard drives also come in a variety of speeds.  Two main distinctions are the RPMs (how fast it spins) and the "width" of the bus between the hard drive and computer (ATA-66, ATA-100, etc.)   SATA is popular drive type, and I've had good success with it. Unless you're looking to get a high performance machine, you can usually go with the default drive speed and size on a bundle system.  If performance is your primary concern, ask the salesperson about the options and cost difference.  Then you can decide if it's worth getting the extra fast RAM (memory) or the ultra-fast IDE or SCSI hard drive.  I don't have any particular favorite manufacturer of hard drives or memory.
 
Monitor:  Your monitor should be a minimum of 17", and go larger (19", 21", or up) if you can.  As far as flat screen, or extras such as BUILT-IN USB hubs or speakers ON the monitor, I don't particular recommend it.  Why?  If you rely on the extras, and later your monitor breaks, you may be paying a lot to get an identical replacement.  If you don't know much about resolution, refresh, or "dot pitch", a good rule of thumb is to pick the "middle of the road" monitor -- not the most expensive, but don't pick the cheapest, either.  The Trinitron system used to be a distinguishing factor when looking for a "high-end quality" display.  Fortunately, the quality of other systems has improved such that it is much easier (and less expensive) to find a good quality monitor. Today, the LCD and flat screens offer a good variety of price and quality.
 
Video Card:  Video cards come and go for popularity, but a brand with a good solid run and performance are those based on the Nvidia chipset.  In particular, the Geoforce series (i.e. Geoforce2, Geoforce3, Geoforce4) of display adapters has met with considerable success and support from software vendors.  They've (Nvidia) also been exceptionally good about driver support and updates.
 
Speakers and Sound:  Unless you're planning to use your PC for audio editing, production, or music is one of your primary PC uses, don't go with the max'd out sound package.  I recommend going with the Creative Labs Sound Blaster package.  Why?  Compatibility.  I've used several "high-end" or "highly recommended" alternatives from vendors.  I've always regretted it, and have gone back to Creative Labs so that everything would work.  The Creative Live! series of cards is a good sound card for home systems.  For speakers, get a solid pair of desktop speakers with a standard sub-woofer to go on the floor.  Altec is good brand of speaker with a broad range of models and prices.
 
Printers and Scanners:  Hands down, use Hewlett-Packard (HP).  Just like many other components, the sales people will tell you "this other brand is better, faster, cheaper...".   It's not worth it.  Why?  Drivers.  Hewlett-Packard's driver and application support has been better than anyone else I've seen.  Which printer or scanner?  Current model numbers are changing constantly; however, I've had a good experience with every middle and top end printer and scanner HP makes.  It's hard to go wrong when you buy an HP.  Specific models I can recommend (although these specific models may no longer be available when you order) are the 845c DeskJet Printer, the 952C Deskjet Printer, and the 1215 Deskjet Printer.  For scanners, any of the 4000, 5000 or 6000 series USB models are good.
 
CD-Writer and ZIP drives:  I really like the Hewlett-Packard CD-Writers.  Unfortunately, they (HP) have decided to get out of the CD market.  However, if I found an HP model for sale, I would personally still buy it.  Unfortunately, I have no other CD-Writer vendor that I can currently give a fully unqualified personal recommendation.  As indicated, I also highly recommend the use of the Iomega ZIP drive.  They are as easy to use as diskettes, and they can store several hundred megabytes of data.  They're great for making backups of graphics, documents, and other files that would never fit easily on diskettes. 
 
Modem:  My recommendation for modems is (and has been for as long as they've been around) the 3COM Sportster (formally US Robotics)  It's the best workhorse, and ultra-compatible modem on the market.
 
Network Card:  If you're going to run a small home network, or you intend connect to an ADSL or cable modem provider, I recommend the 3COM Network Interface card.  Why?  You guessed it:  Compatibility and drivers.  If you're going to connect to the Internet via your high-speed network, I also recommend getting the Linksys DSL router.  Why?  Sharing and Barrier.  By sharing, I mean that you're able to hook up multiple PCs and all use the one high-speed connection.  By barrier, I mean that the DSL router works very well to screen your computers from outside probing and activity from hackers.  (You still need to run anti-virus software).  A router or firewall prevents almost every attempt by outsiders to probe your computer.

If you decide to use a router, here's another tip to make it very flexible:  Sign up for a free dynamic DNS service like those offered at www.dnsalias.netWhy?  A dynamic DNS alias will let you create a world-wide hostname for your computer.  This is useful, because you don't have to "look up" your IP address every time you need to use it for network programs like NetMeeting, PCAnywhere, or games.  (Almost all IP addresses change frequently).  The result?  You'll have always have the same name for your computer like johndoecomputer1.dnsalias.net instead of a complicated, ever-changing IP address like 192.158.217.138

 
Digital Still Cameras:  My personal preference for digital cameras is the Olympus.  However, I've seen people with Kodak, HP, and other cameras that have been satisfied as well.  The best suggestion I can make is to purchase a USB card or "stick" reader that is compatible with your camera memory.  (It's like a tiny disk drive).  This makes getting pictures off your camera very easy!
 
Digital Video Cameras:  My personal preference here is for Sony.  As with the still cameras, I know of people happy with other brands.  The best suggestion I can make for your camera is to get one that can be connected via a IEEE 1394 cable to your PC in order to pull video from the camera to an editing program on the PC.  The DV standard is positively the way to go (currently) for home PC video production.  Note:  Most PC packages don't come with the IEEE 1394 port (also known as "Firewire" or "I-Link").  You'll probably want to go out and buy an IEEE 1394 card to put in your PC if you intend to pursue camcorder fed digital video editing on your PC.
 
So what about software?
 
As I mentioned, when you buy a package PC, you can usually get a bundle package of software that includes the Operating System and productivity software like Microsoft Office Business Edition.  Outside of (or in addition to) that, here are my personal recommendations:
 
Operating System:  As a rule, the Windows version that is the standard package with the system you purchase is usually best.  Why?  Because the vendor has usually gone to great lengths to make sure the combination of hardware, applications, and drivers are all working perfectly.  The exception would be if you need to run older applications or games and need backwards compatibility.  In that case, I would suggest specifying Windows 98 or ME (especially for typical home use) -- but only if the vendor seems very confident, and doesn't hesitate about the compatibility and stability issue.  If you know that you're going to lean heavily into using the PC for a certain area (games, for example) go to the software store nearest you (or call a mail-order vendor) and talk to them about which Operating System is best for your needs.
 
Productivity:  Microsoft Office is great because it is so widely used.  However, most people barely use it beyond the most basic capability.  For this reason, I often recommend Microsoft Works.  It has a word processor, spreadsheet, database, and communication suite that exceeds most people's requirements (and it's much easier to use).  However, if you know you have to exchange "Excel" or "Word" files with some one else (or the office), stick with program that others are using.
 
Basic Finances:  I like Quicken.  It's a great program, easy to run a checkbook and balance, and has options for online checking and banking. 
 
Graphic Photo Editing:  For pictures (especially if you get a digital still camera), you'll probably get a "special edition" version of some graphics program.  For many people, this isn't enough.  I recommend Microsoft Picture It! as an easy-to-use graphics program that does a LOT of neat things with pictures.  If you need to do serious graphics work, standards like Adobe Photoshop are very good.  However, "serious" graphics programs cost big dollars.  Be prepared.
 
Video Editing:  I recommend Pinnacle Studio.  I went through several packages before settling on this one.  I've also had limited success with  Roxio VideoWave (formerly MGI), but still prefer Pinnacle for most tasks.
 
Greeting Cards:  The best I've used is the American Greetings series.  It's easy, fun and works well.  I use it all the time to print great looking personalized cards and envelopes for all occasions.  However, the packaging of American Greetings software tends to make you think you're getting a lot more cards than are really in the program.  (They have usually have other "samples" of which you can see, but can not use unless you buy some extra service or add-on pack of cards).  Still, the basic cards with every version I've purchased has kept me happy, and I never have had to "buy in" to their "buy more" gimmicks.  Even the American Greetings website has turned into one of those annoying pop-up window "pay us to be a member of our website club" sites.  Yuck.  There are several alternatives out there, so shop around.  Greeting Card programs tend to be the kind that you need several of to have a good variety.
 
Desktop Publisher:   For home and small business flyers, brochures, menus, business cards, place cards and the like, I think Microsoft Publisher is excellent.  It has a lot of power, and isn't terribly difficult to use!
 
Web Publishing:  There are lots of options here.  Microsoft Publisher makes good looking basic web pages.  For serious web designers, look at Microsoft FrontPage (good overall workhorse widely used), Dreamweaver, or Adobe (Adobe has several different web creation products).
 
Bible Software:  Quickverse is overall the best I've seen.
 
Anti-Virus:  Get Norton or Mcafee.  I used to use Norton's anti-virus because I used several of their other utilities and prefer less complication when it comes to updates and compatibility.  Two important reminders here:  1)  Be prepared to pay around $10 a year for an anti-virus definition subscription.  2)  To be properly protected, you pretty much have to have an Internet connection of some type (Earthlink, AOL, or cable modem) to be able to download frequent virus updates.  Fortunately, it's all pretty much automatic. UPDATE: Today, I personally use the free AVG anti-virus for home use.
 
System Performance and Health:  As I just mentioned, I use Norton's.  In particular, Norton SystemWorks.  If you use it, it does a great job at keeping your PC running smoothly.  It's not too difficult to use the basic checkup tools (my Mom does her own weekly system check and fix-up, so they must be doing something right, eh?)
 
Games:  There are so many games and genres, it's hard to start rattling off titles.  Tastes range from flying simulations, driving simulations, strategy, card games, violent "shooting games", battle simulations, ad infinitum.  Rather than start listing all my favorite games, let me give you a list of software vendors that generally make good quality (for stability, compatibility and play).  In my opinion, you can usually get reasonably good software from:  Activision, Sierra, Blizzard, and Electronic Arts.  Yes, there are other good vendors and games out there -- no doubt.  However, if you're new into "the field", these are good vendors to start with.
 
Finally, as a rule of thumb, avoid installing every little piece of software that comes with every bundle, device and mailing you receive.  Be discriminating about what you put on your system, because a lot problems people have are caused by so much of the useless, or poorly designed software that is foisted upon us.  In particular, stay away from the cheapo ultra bargain "value" software bins at the store. 
 
Good luck on your PC purchase.  Take your time.  Don't jump at the first deal you get worked out.  Use the experience in talking to various vendors to learn and find the best deal and options.  YOU can always walk away and come back.  THEY will always be willing to have you come back and "rework the quote" if you change your mind.  Trust me.
 


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Copyright 1995-2005, Keith Turbyfill.  All rights reserved.