Walt Mossberg

Shopping for Basics and Saving Money on Your Next PC

It’s time for my annual fall PC buyer’s guide. As always, this guide covers what average consumers doing typical tasks should look for in a desktop or laptop PC. That excludes heavy-duty gamers, corporate buyers, techies, or enthusiasts.

But this autumn, we find ourselves in a serious global economic slowdown. So I will focus this edition of the guide on how folks whose PC budgets have shrunk can still get something adequate for light use.

The guide below applies to both desktops and laptops, since the latter, at least in the consumer market, have achieved rough parity in performance and versatility, and are now more popular than desktops.

Windows vs. Mac: I consider the Mac operating system, Leopard, to be faster, easier and more stable than Windows XP or Windows Vista. It isn’t susceptible to the vast majority of malicious software that circulates on the Internet. And Macs also include Apple’s superb built-in iLife multimedia suite. Macs can even run Windows, though that costs extra.

However, Apple (AAPL) has consciously chosen not to offer machines in the bargain category. The cheapest Mac desktop, the minimalist Mac Mini, which doesn’t even include a monitor, speakers, keyboard or mouse, costs $650 for a model with a hard disk I consider adequate. The cheapest Mac laptop, the base model of the prior-generation MacBook (which Apple has retained in its lineup) is $999.

Both are good values, mainly due to the software. And Macs can save you money over time. But if the lowest upfront cost is your objective, you can pay hundreds less for desktops and laptops from Windows PC makers.

Which Windows: Windows Vista is too often slow, and incompatible with older peripherals, such as the printers you might not want to replace in this economic climate. It also can cost more because it demands beefier, and thus costlier, hardware to run well than does the older Windows XP.

Budget shoppers should look around for a computer that still runs XP, either one of the dwindling number of models built with XP in mind, or one that has been “downgraded” by the manufacturer to XP. This downgrade “feature” can cost $50 or more upfront, but permits you to buy a cheaper machine.

Dell Inspiron 530

For instance, I recently advised two of my budget-minded friends to buy a low-end Dell desktop, the Inspiron 530, at Micro Center, a small but very good national chain of computer superstores. This Dell (DELL) runs XP, and has a low-end Intel (INTC) processor. The store is currently selling a version with a 250-gigabyte hard disk — more than enough for an average user — and 2 gigabytes of memory, generous for XP, for just $400 after instant rebate. You can get a similar good deal directly from Dell.

These particular friends, one on each coast, each bought a nice LCD monitor for $100-$150, and were out of the store for very little money. Since they only wanted to run Microsoft (MSFT) Office, browse the Web, do email and manage photos, this machine met their needs.

Another option is a low-cost machine with the Home Basic version of Vista, which also tends to cost less and to require less-expensive hardware than the more-common Vista Home Premium. If my friends had wanted laptops, I could have steered them to a 15-inch Acer Aspire laptop at the same store. This machine runs Vista Basic, with 1 gigabyte of memory and a 120-gigabyte hard disk, and costs $380.

You can often buy an even less-costly computer if you opt for the Linux operating system, but I still don’t advise this for average non-techie users.

Memory: For XP, or a Mac, I suggest 2 gigabytes of memory, but you can get away with 1 gigabyte for light use. For Vista, I recommend 3 gigabytes, but 2 gigabytes will do on a tight budget. You can always add memory later.

Hard disk: On a laptop, 160 gigabytes is the minimum I usually suggest, but you can get by with 120 gigabytes and upgrade when economic times are better. On a desktop, 250 gigabytes is easily obtainable, but 160 gigabytes will do.

DVD drive: If you never record DVDs, you can save money by buying a cheaper combo drive, which plays both DVDs and CDs, but records only the latter.

Processor: Look for a dual-core processor, but to save money, don’t worry about the speed, model number, or brand.

Video: A separate, or “discrete,” video card is best, especially for Vista Home Premium, but budget shoppers should stick with lesser “integrated graphics.”

Other features: If your home lacks the fastest “n” version of Wi-Fi, spend less for a laptop with the older “g” version. If you don’t need to do video chats or recording, don’t pay for a built-in camera and microphone.

Netbooks: If you don’t mind a tiny screen, cramped keyboard and limited file storage, these popular new mini-laptops can save you money. Some sell for under $400, even equipped with Windows.

Remember, pay only for the computing capabilities you need.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos online, free, at the All Things Digital Web site, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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