Walt Mossberg

Spring Buyer’s Guide: PC Prices Get Cheaper, But Complexity Grows

If you’re in the market for a desktop PC this spring, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that you can buy a lot of computer for a surprisingly small sum. The bad news is that you have to take more factors into account than ever.

Your new desktop computer, in many cases, will be asked not only to run productivity programs and get you online, but to hook up to a constellation of other devices, such as digital cameras, camcorders and portable music players. And it will have to withstand mounting security threats.

So here’s my annual spring buyer’s guide to desktop PCs. As always, my advice is aimed at mainstream users doing the most common tasks. Hard-core gamers or folks doing massive video production need bigger, faster computers than those specified here.

You should be able to get a bare-bones Windows computer, with a monitor, for well under $500 after rebates. Three different chain stores this week were advertising an entry-level eMachines model for $339, after rebates, with a monitor and printer. It was decently equipped, with an 80-gigabyte hard disk. And for $60 more, you could double the memory and add a DVD recorder. Midrange Windows models with better features are $500 to $1,000. Even some Media Center models are under $1,000.

Windows or Mac: Because they are beautifully designed and so far haven’t attracted viruses or spyware, Apple Computer’s Macintosh models are getting more consideration than they have in years from Windows users. You can now buy a full-fledged, decently equipped Mac, called the Mac Mini, for just $499. It doesn’t include a keyboard, mouse or monitor, but it can use the ones you already have on your old Windows machine. Doubling the memory adds $75.

Apple’s iMac G5 models, starting at $1,299, are an even better choice. They use a powerful processor called the G5, and they have a brilliant built-in flat-panel screen. The Mac does everything a typical user needs at least as well as a Windows computer, and it’s about to get a major new upgrade of its operating system, which already bests Windows in some respects.

But switching to the Mac isn’t right for every user, and it requires buyers to master new software, some of which must be bought separately. Plus, the cheapest Windows PCs still cost less. So most Windows owners will likely stick with Windows.

Security: If you do go with Windows, you will need to immediately install an array of security programs. These include a firewall, an antivirus program, an antispyware program and an antispam program. For a full list of my recommendations for Windows security add-ons, take a look at http://ptech.wsj.com/archive/ptech-20040916.html.

Most of this isn’t needed on a Mac, but Mac buyers may want to get an antivirus program because the Mac isn’t invulnerable.

Memory: Memory, or RAM, is the most important factor in computer performance. Insist on 512 megabytes, especially if the PC’s main memory is shared with the video system, as it often is on low-priced models.

Hard disk: Even very cheap PCs now offer 60 or 80 gigabytes of hard-disk space, and 250-gigabyte disks are offered in costlier models. Get as much hard disk as you can, especially if you plan to store a lot of music or video content.

Processor: Processor speed is overrated. On Windows machines, any Intel Celeron or Pentium microprocessor chip, or any AMD microprocessor, regardless of speed, will do fine at the most common computing tasks.

Device connectors: For connecting music players, cameras and other peripherals, get a PC with plenty of USB 2.0 connectors, including at least one on the computer’s front. If you have a camcorder that can’t use USB, you’ll need an extra high-speed port called 1394, or FireWire.

Memory-card slots: Look for a model with slots that accept the various types of memory cards used by digital cameras, PDAs and music players.

Video system: Cheaper PCs use something called “integrated video.” But the best route is to invest in a PC with a separate video card and dedicated video memory.

Audio system: If you’re a music fan, spend extra for a subwoofer and good speakers.

Monitor: Flat-panel screens are best for most uses. The 17-inch flat panels now cost less than $300. Many 19-inch models can be had for $400 or less.

Mass storage: Look for a CD-RW drive that lets you record your own CDs for playing music, storing photos or backing up or exchanging files. If you do a lot of home video or photos, you may want to invest in a DVD recording drive.

Media Centers: A Windows Media Center PC is designed to be operated with a remote control from across the room to play music and videos, view photos and watch TV. But be careful with the cheapest of these machines. They may omit the TV, and even the remote.

Brands: All Windows desktops are similar, but unless you’re a techie, stick with names like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Sony, Gateway and eMachines. For greater control over your configuration, buy on the Web.

One more thing — my most important tip: Don’t let a salesperson talk you into more, or less, machine than you need. If you’re confused at the store or Web site, walk away until you can get the answers you need to make an informed purchase.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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