PC Alamode
Reviews Columns Features Archives

 PC Alamode

Thinking of buying a new PC?
Here are some tips

David Allen is the General Manager at AllGen Computer Warehouse and has been in the computer industry for 23 years.


If you’re planning on buying a new PC for yourself or as a gift this Holiday Season, there are a few things you should consider.  Who will be using this system?   Will it do what I need it to?  Will it be upgradeable?  How much it will cost me?  In this segment, we will evaluate and discuss some potential options for buying a PC that is custom fit for the type of user for whom it’s being purchased. 

Let’s begin by asking, “who will be using this PC?”  Well, that can be a difficult question, because, in most cases, several people (with different preferences) share a single computer. Since PC stands for Personal Computer, however, we’ll just concentrate on its primary user, it’s owner.  Is he/she a beginner or advanced user?  A student?  A musician?  An artist, perhaps?  Whatever the case, you’re new PC should have the hardware and the capacity to support the needs of the person using it; as long as it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg!
 
A Good Beginner's System
  • Pentium/AMD 133-266MHz 
  • 32 – 64Mb RAM
  • 2 - 4Gb Hard Drive
  • 2 -4Mb Video Card
  • 56K Modem
  • 14”-15” SVGA Monitor
  • Windows 95 or 98

A novice PC user would appreciate just about any starter computer he gets, as long as he can surf the net; after all, it’s just point-and-click—right?  Well…yes, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Technically, any system that can run Win9x and has a 28.8K or better modem will work fine as an internet/basic word processing machine and can be easily setup. You can purchase one used for roughly $150-$350, maybe less.  Since beginners are generally ignorant about hardware, this level of system would probable suit his needs fine.  Don’t be too frugal, though.  Get a PC that your beginner can grow into; one that can handle a few basic interactive games, has sufficient hard drive space to support his increased downloading habits, and can process fast enough to get things done at an early age.  A typical example of a good beginners system would include the following:

It doesn’t have to have a CD Burner, a sophisticated video or sound card, or anything real fancy.  He can put that stuff in later, at his own expense.  If you’re buying it as a gift, you’ll see that these high-end extras can rack up some expense; so keep it basic, but with some upgradeability.  In many cases, it really isn’t cost efficient to upgrade these older, lower-end models—hence the term “starter computer”.

If you’re getting it for yourself, however (and consider yourself computer illiterate), bear in mind that your needs may change rapidly as you learn more about this new toy you’ve acquired.   Thus, you might consider spending a little more now, and get something more up-to-date that can support your increasing needs.  Another thing to consider — upgrades and add-ons don’t just fall into place; if you decide to have them installed later, you’ll have to pay a Service Tech to put them in—and that’s not cheap!  Sometimes the labor costs can outweigh the cost of the part(s).  The moral—get it all done at once, if you can afford to do so.

If you’ve been around computers for a while, but want a new system that can more easily handle the daily barrage of tasks you give it, your configuration needs may vary.  Depending on the nature of those tasks, you may need more ‘oomph’ in one area than another. 

For instance, if you’re a photographer and have(or are planning to purchase)a digital camera, you’ll want to have an efficient means for processing your photos.  Most of these cameras have either USB or Firewire interfaces to your computer, so you would want to include these in the checklist of features for your new system.  A semi-fast processor such as a 500-750MHz (Pentium II, K6-3, or Duron) should be fine for still image processing.  You’ll want at least 128MB RAM minimum (since RAM is CHEAP!).  Pictures can eat up a lot of disk space, so include a 10-30GB hard drive in this configuration (you really can’t find any hard drives with less than 10GB capacity anymore).  Additionally, an 8-16Mb video card will help handle the color and pixel counts of some of the higher resolution pictures you download from your camera. It will also help get the image on your screen sooner. 

A 17”(inch) monitor should be sufficient for viewing most pictures, because it can typically handle video resolutions of up to 1024 X 768—sometimes better. Since monitor prices have fallen considerably, you can pick up a 17” for about $125-$175. 19” and 21” monitors are still a bit pricey, but you might consider going the extra expense since the higher your video resolution, the smaller (yet sharper) your pictures will be—and on a smaller screen…well, you get the picture. Although we aren’t discussing printers here, you would want to purchase a 1200dpi printer (or better) to compliment this computer and give you the best results for photographic printing. This configuration would work well for those who work with photography, graphic arts, CAD, genealogy, web design, and other still image graphics jobs. Likewise, it would be sufficient for most audio and video applications, as well, provided you have the respective hardware (i.e. sound, video adapters, etc.) capable of performing those tasks efficiently.  You might expect to pay around $600-$800 for a system like this.

If you are a musician, write music, or just download it from the net, you’ll want to explore the different sound cards that are available to fit your needs. There are several cards on the market that offer certain features or software that may be more geared toward your specific needs. 

For instance, the Sound Blaster Live MP3+5.1 includes hardware and software support for sharp audio playback, audio ripping, and digital surround sound output (5.1) for watching those DVD movies. Another blend of the Live card is designed for interactive gaming with 3D sound effects. Still others give you the capability of creating, editing, and dubbing your own music tracks. These cards can be purchased for $75-$125.  There is a wealth of other software and games available that will work with just about any sound card you get, so you don’t always have to spend a fortune to do these things; but it you’ll definitely get better quality from the higher end cards.

The above mid-range configuration will work fine for most of us, and, in this age of changing technology, will be fairly upgradeable. Again though, keep in mind that getting what you need when you buy it will save you from the repetitive service charges every time you decide you want to add-on or change your PC’s configuration. Granted, none of us can predict what new hardware or software technologies will emerge, or when (or whether they will be compatible with our current PC’s). Buy a system that works for you and that you will be happy with for the next few years; then, when the need for change comes around—roll with it! 

If money isn’t much of an issue, and you want to get yourself the ultimate Christmas Gift, here is a “Dream Machine” for you to consider. For about $2000, you can have the following:
 
A Dream Machine
  • AMD XP-1900 Processor (1900 MHz)
  • MSI K7T PRO2 Motherboard
  • 512MB DDR Memory
  • Western Digital 80GB 7200rpm Hard Drive
  • Nvidia Gforce3 TI-500 Video Adapter
  • Sound Blaster Audigy
  • Yamaha Lightspeed 16X10X40 CDRW Drive
  • Pioneer 106S/116 16X DVD Drive

All this installed into a 400W ATX tower case, along with floppy drive, 10/100 network card, and extra cooling fans. Then add a 21” Viewsonic .26mm monitor, Logitec wireless IF mouse/keyboard combo, MS Windows XP, and a cable modem and presto—you have a top notch system. 

Why not a P4 system, you ask? P4s are okay, but they’re more expensive; and they can only offer comparable performance using certain softwares that can effectively make use of their multi-stage pipelining architecture. That doesn’t mean that they’re not fast processors—they will work quite well in certain business environments. Athlons have earned their wings by bestowing us with performance, versatility, reliability, and cost savings.  Durons, Celerons, and the likes are not good candidates for a Dream Machine. Enough said!

The MSI K7T PRO2 Motherboard is a reliable, yet inexpensive element of this system, offering all of the amenities of a righteous ATX mainboard. A special option this board offers is EIDE RAID 0 or 1, which most of us won’t use, but is there if you need it.

The K7T can support up to 3GB of high speed DDR SDRAM, and can also support huge hard drives with ATA 33/66/100 interfaces. It may also be processor upgradeable through BIOS flashes (since we’re topping it out now with 1900MHz)

The 80 GB Western Digital is an ATA100, 7200 rpm super fast, super capacity storage cosmos! If you collect MP3 files, photos, or any other space hungry files, this is the drive for you. I know, Western Digital has had their shortcomings in the past; but I think they’ve had time to get their quality act back together. Anyway, there are other makes and sizes out there, but many of them are only 5400rpm. 

For the Gamer in you, the nVidia Gforce3 TI-500 is a step above the rest. With its 3D texturing, shadowing, and Lightspeed memory architecture, this video card delivers the most awesome motion graphics you could imagine (coming from a PC). Folks, this is as close to photo-realistic as it gets; however, the quality of the video is directly correlated to the quality of the code in your program.

The Sound Blaster Audigy, touted by many as the best sound card yet. The Audigy Family offers a handful of features including Advanced High Definition (HD) audio effects, digital audio cleanup, front panel access, as well as IEEE1394 support. The Audigy is available in Platinum, Platinum eX, and Gamer versions.

I chose the Yamaha 16X10X40 Drive because of Yamaha’s reputation for reliability. At higher speeds, writing media becomes more susceptible to failure. Most of the time it is because of other programs residing in memory, but the quality and absence of vibration in the RW drive plays a big part in how many coasters you have when you’re through. Much the same applies to your DVD drive. The faster the drive, the better; because it can process (and buffer) more data to ensure a clean, flawless output. Pioneer’s DVD drive fit the bill in this case.

Windows XP is the latest development from our friends in Redmond. It offers many built-in features such as CD burning, firewall, remote maintenance, better stability, and more effective anti-piracy features (naturally). However, being a direct descendant of NT, it lacks a few things such as hardware recognition and compatibility. Thus, you should consider this when buying your new system; because 95, 98, and Me will not be available much longer. Device driver support for XP will increase and the availability of legacy Win9x drivers will dwindle. XP is only upgradeable from Win98 or above.

Finally, your need for speed should include a cable modem. Provided by your cable company, at a cost of about $45/month for the service, a cable internet connection is a much better choice than DSL. Some DSL fanatics may disagree and, depending on where they live, they may get comparable performance; but my choice is Roadrunner (cable).

In conclusion, for whatever system you decide to purchase, be sure and ask yourself:

  1. Will it meet your needs or can be upgraded to do so in the future?
  2. Will it be compatible with whatever software/operating system you load into it?
  3. Will the cost be within your budget?
These are broad and difficult questions to answer, but with a little research, you can buy a new computer you can be happy with for years to come.


Copyright© 1996-2010
Alamo PC Organization, Inc.
San Antonio, TX USA