Buying a PC is a lot like buying a car. If you go out with no real sense of what you want, you'll waste plenty of time trying to figure out the different options. Personal computers come in packaged deals that contain all the parts you need. This helps lessen the confusion, but you still need to evaluate each part of the package separately.
Here are some basic buying tips for holiday computer shoppers.
* The computer. Either an Apple Macintosh or an industry standard machine using Intel's Pentium chip and Microsoft's Windows 95 is a good choice for home use. In the latter category, don't consider anything less than a Pentium PC running at 133 megahertz. (Megahertz measures the speed of the processor.) If you can afford one, get a Pentium-based PC running at 200 MHz.
On the Mac side, look for a PowerMac with a CPU that can be upgraded to protect your investment. Apple recently reduced prices as much as 30%, so there should be some bargains.
* Memory. The next most important thing after the microprocessor is the amount of random access memory, or RAM, the machine has. The minimum I'd recommend these days is 16 megabytes, although 32 is preferable. The nice thing about RAM is that if you discover you don't have enough, you can always add more later; check the total amount of RAM that can be added to the machine.
* Hard disk. The hard disk is like the PC's filing cabinet, so the bigger the better. I remember a day when 40 megabytes was considered a large drive, but today, Windows 95 likes to see at least 40 MBs of free disk space just to run its installation program. With requirements like this, 1.2 gigabytes is fast becoming the standard.
Honestly, I wouldn't go much larger than that right now. Hard drive prices are still dropping. By the time you fill up 500 MBs, you'll be able to add a second drive for less than you could now.
* Monitor. Throwing in an inferior monitor is a cheap trick I often see with prepackaged systems. One key factor in monitor quality is dot pitch: The smaller the number the better. Whereas 0.39 millimeter is a common dot pitch in lower-cost monitors, dots this large can eventually take a toll on your vision and cause eye strain. Experts pretty much agree that 0.28 millimeter is the minimum recommended dot pitch for any computer monitor.
Most packaged systems include a 14- or 15-inch color monitor. Although a 17-inch monitor can be twice the price of a smaller monitor, the extra screen real estate is well worth it if you can afford it.
* CD-ROM drive. Even if you think you'll never, ever use a single multimedia application, you need a CD-ROM drive. It's the medium of choice for the distribution of every kind of software you can imagine and is well worth the money.
* Modem. It's essentially for connecting to online services and the Internet. Get one that operates at 28.8 kilobits per second.
* Backup storage. If your data has any value to you at all, you need to make regular backups. There are plenty of low-cost, low-capacity tape drives on the market, but if you have a lot of data, consider the Seagate TapeStor 8000, which holds up to 8 gigabytes of uncompressed data.
* Software. The last thing to look for in your new PC is bundled software. This is software that comes as part of the package deal. Because bundled software usually doesn't add much to the cost of a computer, it can be a great deal--or not any big deal at all.