How to Choose a Desktop Computer

Shopping for a computer doesn't need to be hard. First think about what you need. Are you looking for a computer to perform basic tasks or to meet special requirements? Then do a little homework, and finally go shopping armed with that knowledge. You'll get a computer you can be happy with, and you'll get the best value for your money.

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Decide if you're better served by the PC/Windows platform or the Macintosh. You can generally get a faster computer for your money by choosing a Windows machine, but Macs come with more easy-to-use built-in software. Top brands are Dell, Hewlett- Packard, IBM, Gateway and Toshiba. Apple, of course, makes the Macintosh.

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Think about whether this machine will need to work with your office or school server. Exchanging files between platforms is less of an issue than it used to be, but it's still worth noting.

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Ask your friends and co-workers in similar lines of work what machines they have, where they bought them, if there were any problems, and whether they're happy with their choices.

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Expect to spend $1,000 to $2,000 for a general-purpose machine, although you can find desktop computers for anywhere from $400 to $10,000.

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Realize that if you buy a super cheap computer at a warehouse store or discounter, you're going to be on your own. Technical support from the major manufacturers tends to be a lot better.

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Buy as much random-access memory (RAM), or system memory, as you can afford. At a bare minimum, get 128 megabytes (MB); 256 MB or 512 MB is preferable. (For a Macintosh, get at least 256 MB.) Memory is more critical than a faster processor.

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Get at least two universal serial bus (USB) connections and a FireWire (also called IEEE 1394) connection. These will connect peripheral devices, such as a printer, PDA, digital cameras and camcorders, scanners and game controllers.

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Get a CD burner so you can back up valuable data and make your own music CDs. Look into a DVD burner too if you're involved in film making or editing, but remember that there are multiple competing standards; computer-burned DVDs might not play in your home DVD player. Make sure your machine has a DVD drive if you want to watch movies on your computer. (See How to Buy Blank CDs.) Also look for an internal modem.

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Ask about upgradability if you intend to use this computer for a long time, which is considered three or more years.

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Choose any current computer model from the major manufacturers with a high degree of confidence if you simply want to send e-mail, surf the Web and do word-processing.

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Get high-quality graphics and sound if you plan to play games. Look for a system that has a graphics card with a coprocessor, and 5.1 Surround sound. You'll want a broadband Internet connection to play online games, and to improve your Internet experience overall. (See How to Choose an Internet Service Provider.)

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Buy the biggest hard drive you can afford--120 to 180 gigabytes (GB) is now commonplace. Get more than 200 GB if you're storing music and/or editing video. For video editing, you'll also need a video input/output card and a FireWire connection.

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Add a TV capture card, and you can even have your computer function as a DVR. (See How to Get a Digital Video Recorder.)