Home Computers for Bunnies.
May 25, 2002 (Updated May 28, 2002)
Popular Products in PC DesktopsThe Bottom Line There has never been a better time to buy a home computer. A system that would have cost $3000-4000 a few years ago costs less than $1000 today.
There has never been a better time to buy a home computer. A system that would have cost $3000-4000 a few years ago costs less than $1000 today. However, with low price computers being so common, and the wealth of add-ons and peripherals, it is hardly surprising that new buyers are getting confused. In Home Computers for Bunnies, we help you find a system that is right for you.
Mac Vs PC.
A home computer is either going to be a Macintosh or an IBM PC Clone. The computer I am writing this on is my twelfth computer and my ninth PC. (The first three were 6502s bought before the IBM PC even existed.) When then time came to update my beloved Atari 800, it was a no-brainer. I had a PC on my desk at work, and so did my wife. We both worked programming and designing for IBM machines. What else would we buy?
I believe the Macintosh to be a good, high quality machine with a lot to recommend it. For pure word processing and desktop publishing, I consider it superior to the PC. Everyone I know that has a Mac, loves it. Most professional editors and journalists prefer one. However, they are less common than PCs, there is less software and, in general, less support available. Nevertheless, I consider them a very valid choice. Unfortunately, I do not know much more about them, and so the rest of this article will be about PCs.
Desktop Vs Laptop.
A desktop machine is anything but portable. A laptop, with its mini-devices, batteries, and LCD display travels with you anywhere you go. If portability is a must, then there is really no choice.
However, laptops cost more than their desktop equivalents and so do their peripherals. They are generally less reliable, and prone to break. They can also be lost and stolen very easily. Your main computer will tend to have personal information like passwords, credit card numbers, and other sensitive data on it. Do you really want that information in the hands of a thief? It is for this reason, that I recommend that you start with a quality desktop system, and add on a low cost laptop later, if the need arises.
In any case, laptops require a whole buying guide of their own, and are beyond the scope of this review.
Why do I want a Home Computer?
The primary uses for home computers are browsing the Internet, on-line chat, on-line gaming, email, word processing, desktop publishing, spreadsheets, graphics editing, audio editing (MP3), home business, strategy games and action gaming.
Now, here is a surprise for you beginners. The computer use that requires the highest quality machine is action gaming. Home business can usually run on some old clunker. When your student offspring needs a faster computer, it probably isn't for schoolwork.
Computers change faster, and go out of date quicker than anything except a Gore-Lieberman sticker. I will occasionally mention actual items in this review, but they will probably be out of date or unavailable by the time you read it. The actual items don't matter as much as the principle behind the choice.
Buying a computer is a bit like buying a car. If it lasts you five years before you outgrow it, you will have made an excellent choice. Of course, some people keep cars a lifetime. That's a bit harder to do with a computer.
The way to buy a PC is as a package from a reputable computer company like Gateway or Dell. Both of these companies sell top quality equipment at rock bottom prices and they have friendly sales and support staff. You can buy via mail order from their Internet sites (Gateway.com or Dell.com) or call in your order. Both companies command amazing customer loyalty.
The Gateway site also sells fully guaranteed remanufactured machines, which offer less choice but are a real bargain. You can also buy from a Gateway Country store, if you have one near you. I am on my fifth Gateway. I use my PC sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. All five still run perfectly, I just needed faster machines and bigger hard drives to support the software. Mooo!
You can shop a store near you to check out things like monitor sizes but don't buy a computer there. The small stores cannot compete on price. The large chains sell the equipment they can make the best mark up on, which is not necessarily the best for you. Second-hand computers aren't much cheaper than new ones are, and you will not get the software, support, and service that a beginner needs.
The Gateway and Dell advertisements in Computer Shopper give you a good idea what they are currently offering, but don't be tempted by other companies. Those cheap computers are a waste of money. IBM and HP are overpriced while Compaq has compatibility issues, and NEVER buy a Packard Bell. IBM and Compaq support favors large corporate clients.
It makes a lot of sense to buy peripherals that go inside the computer casing at the time you make your purchase. That way, you can't make a mistake installing them. External devices, like printers, scanners, removable hard drives and so on are much easier to add later. A new package will offer you a number of choices. You take one from column A, one from column B and so on, rather like ordering food in a Chinese Restaurant. In this review, we will cover most of the available choices
Hint: When you visit the sites, sometimes low-end business machines work out cheaper than high-end home machines, for very similar packages. Watch out for promos and specials like memory upgrades and free printers.
The processor is the part of the computer that does the actual calculations. Both Intel (Pentium 3 & 4) and AMD (K6 & K7) make high-quality processors. Generally speaking, the faster the processor the better. Some come with math co-processors, which makes them faster still.
Now, listen up. Unless you are going to play action games, like Doom and Resident Evil, or do heavy-duty vector graphics, you do not need a state of the art machine. Consider Intel Celeron processors, which are slightly slower and less expensive. A PC that is a step or two behind the cutting edge will handle your processing, and will cost much less. Also, any new processor has "teething" problems, so staying a few steps behind the technology allows them to iron the bugs out.
For most packages, the rest of your choices will depend on your choice of processor. If you pick a slower processor, all the peripherals will be slower too. This is not bad. Your slower machine would not be able to use the fast ones effectively, and the lower technology items are more reliable and cost less.
More memory makes everything go faster. You want at least 128MB. Consider an upgrade to 256MB if it's available. More than that is overkill except for hardcore gamers.
Although few companies will admit it, there are problems when memory chips with different performance characteristics are on the same machine. For that reason, you want to buy all the memory at the same time. Don't plan to add more on later.
The Hard Disk.
All your programs and software will be stored on a hard disk. Once again, the bigger the better, up to a point.
A gigabyte (GB) is 1000 megabytes (MB), which is in turn 1000 Kilobytes (K), which is 1000 bytes. A byte is, of course, the smallest unit of memory on a computer. What does this mean? It means that a gigabyte is big, so big you wouldn't believe it. Unless you are Robert Jordan (Wheel of Time), everything you write in your lifetime, every letter, every email, and so on, will not fill a single GB. However, multimedia files (pictures and sound) eat up disk space like there is no tomorrow.
Do you need to know this? No, you don't. You want the one that has the lowest cost per gigabyte. Just divide the cost by the size in GB, to get the cost per GB, and the one that costs least, wins. Unfortunately, in a package you will often not know the actual cost of the drive. You will usually want the lowest drive in the package, or the next bigger one for about $50 more.
Many packages will offer the choice of two hard drive speeds. Action gamers and folks doing a lot of audio CD work need the faster speed. Folks doing a lot of high-resolution graphics and movies need space more than speed.
The video card helps the processor put a picture on the screen. Many packages will allow you to upgrade to a faster video card. Only action games need the fast card.
Audio Card and Speakers.
The audio card helps the processor make sounds, and outputs them to stereo speakers, which are usually bundled with the card. The card that comes with the package is usually pretty good. Action games MIGHT benefit from an upgrade. Musicians may want a card that comes with a MIDI interface.
Speakers are a pain. Long ago I invested in a bookshelf stereo, and wired my computer card into that (it's easy). This is much better than the speakers that come with a system. However, every time I get a new computer, I get a new set of speakers. I guess I should head over to Ebay.
The monitor is the little TV on which you view the pictures and text. (You knew that, didn't you?) You probably want to upgrade your monitor to a LCD (Liquid Crystal Display).
Monitors are the place where, if you are dealing with a cut-rate company, you will usually get screwed. Now, I could turn this review into Electronics 101 to tell you what to avoid, but beginners are going to find a discussion of interlacing, scan frequencies, and refresh rates very confusing. Just remember, if you deal with a reputable company then you don't need to worry.
There are two types of monitor available, one with a CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) like a TV, and one made of thousands of tiny LCD cells.
A CRT monitor is cheaper than a LCD monitor is. You want a FLAT SCREEN monitor of at least 17 inches. (They are measured diagonally.) This may be bigger than the one bundled with a beginner package. A flat screen monitor is usually easier to look at for long periods. A 19-inch monitor is more expensive and more desirable but very bulky. Larger monitors start getting very big and very expensive.
A LCD monitor is equivalent to a CRT monitor two inches bigger, so for a LCD monitor you want a 15-inch or 17-inch screen. All LCD monitors are flat.
CRT monitors are big, heavy, bulky, heat up your room and eat up your power, but cost less initially. LCD monitors are light, slim, cool (in both the heat and social sense), energy efficient, and much easier on your eyes. Two years ago, LCD monitors were so expensive that only the wealthy could afford one. In two years time, they will be so cheap, that it will be silly not to buy one. Today, we are in between.
My advice is to go with a 15-inch LCD monitor if you can afford it. You will recoup most of the extra cost in energy savings.
This connects to your telephone line to allow your computer to talk to the Internet. Even if you plan to use a cable, or DSL modem, you should still get a standard 56K/Fax/Voice modem. It is cheap, and will stand you in good stead in an emergency. For a beginner, the one that comes with the package should be fine.
A CD ROM player reads CDs. Most software will come on a CD, so this is essential. A DVD player allows you to watch DVD movies on your PC, which are spectacular with a good sound card and hi-resolution monitor.
Most packages come with a combined DVD/CD player these days. If yours does not, upgrade to one. CD speed is measured in how many times faster it is than a standard audio CD, e.g. 40x is forty times faster. A 32x-48x CD read speed is fine.
A Floppy Disk.
A 3.5-inch, 1.44 MB floppy disk drive is old technology. However, a cheap, portable floppy is still the best way to move small files around between computers. They only cost $50 tops, so if your package does not have one, add one in. Some drives can handle high-density 2.88-MB floppy disks too, but they never really caught on.
A mouse is a device you use to point and click. (You knew that too. Come on. Own up.)
Upgrade to a wireless, optical, wheel mouse if you can. A standard mouse has a cable that somehow always manages to wrap around your soda. A standard mouse has a ball, which in time becomes greasy and clogs up. A wireless mouse has no cable, and an optical mouse has no ball. A wheel mouse makes it easier to scroll up and down a screen. It's only a few bucks more and is well worth it.
Okay. I know you know how to use a keyboard. I just wanted to mention that special keyboards are available for people with disabilities. If you think you need one, then ask. Programmable keyboards and such are fine if your package comes with one, but are not worth an upgrade.
A Tape Drive.
A Tape Drive backs up data for recovery purposes. Tapes are old technology, expensive, and very slow. While they still have a place backing up huge LAN (Local Area Network) servers, a beginner is unlikely to need one.
If you are going to use the computer for business, and will have TONS of graphics and/or audio files that you MUST rely on, then you need to research high-speed tape devices and/or writeable DVDs.
Removable Magnetic Media.
Removable hard drives are useful for backing up data or temporary work space. A beginner is unlikely to need one. Don't put one of these on your system. Buy it as an external drive later, then it can service multiple machines.
If you have too much data for a CD, but not quite so much as to force you to use a tape, then this is a viable option. The size is similar to a writeable DVD and the access speed is much faster. However, DVDs are cheaper then magnetic cartridges and last much longer. This makes DVD a better choice for periodic back ups, but a removable hard drive better for heavy interim use.
IOMega Drives SUCK. Don't buy one. (SUCK is a technical term formed from the letters of Saves Unreliably *ClicK* -- do a search on "Click of Death" to learn more.) The less heavily hyped Orb drives by Castlewood Systems are a much better choice. www.castlewood.com
Writeable CD (CD Burner)
A CD-RW drive can read, write, and rewrite 640MB CDs. They are primarily for backing up your system, archiving data, and creating audio disks. I regard these as being an essential part of a computer system until writeable DVDs become cheaper.
If your system does not come with one, get one as an add on. If cash is short, buying an external drive later is an option, but if you want an internal drive, get it now. You may use it to replace your CD ROM reader, but it won't read DVDs, and you will find it much more convenient to copy CDs you have both. An 8/8/24 drive should be adequate for a beginner. See CD Burners for Bunnies to learn more.
These drives are similar to writeable CDs, except that they write the MUCH bigger DVDs. These drives are the way of the future for backing up modern systems, but they are still a bit pricey. I expect them to replace CD burners for backups within the next two years.
If you have lots of extra cash, instead of a CD Burner you could add a DVD Combo Drive that can read and write both DVDs and CDs like Panasonic's DVD-RAM/R drive. This $699 drive has 4.7GB storage capacity with a $15 DVD-R or 9.4GB with a two-sided $50 DVD-RAM disc. With one, you can not only copy audio CDs but DVD movies too. I promise, you will be the envy of every kid in town, and at least one epinions reviewer.
Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a way to connect your computer to other devices like external disk drives, CDs, scanners, and some printers. Most new computers have several USB ports. If your package does not come with one, have one added. If you know that you are going to connect multiple USB devices, ask your supplier about a USB hub.
Parallel port, Serial Port and Joystick/Game Controller.
A parallel port supports a printer, and a serial port connects to PDAs. A joystick/game controller can connect to a serial port, or a PS2 port. Any reputable package bought today will have them standard. Don't worry about the joystick. The gamer in your life will want several, spend hours testing them in the store, and will probably talk endlessly about the pros and cons of each.
An ethernet card joins several computers in the household together into a Local Area Network (LAN) to share resources like printers, and DSL connections. This is more of a business use than a home use. Still, the card will usually be part of the package and there is no point deleting it.
You can add cards later that expand the capability of the machine. If you are buying the machine fully loaded, 2-3 extra slots should be enough.
Seventh Inning Stretch.
Relax. Take a deep breath.
Okay. That's just about everything that you could have as an Internal Device, inside the box with your processor. Personally, I prefer removable media, CD Burners, and DVD Burners as external devices, but it depends what your package offers.
However, we are not quite done. There are four external devices to discuss: one of which you need right away, the others you could easily buy later.
A Surge Protector.
This probably won't come with the package, but you must have one. The power supply is full of spikes and surges and your new computer does NOT like them. Buy a surge suppressor now, or pay repair bills later, your choice.
The one you want will meet or exceed Underwriter Laboratory's standard UL 1449 for transient voltage surge suppressors. It MUST say UL 1449. Simply saying UL Listed will not do. It's probably listed as an extension cord and has no verified surge protection capability.
It must have a light that indicates the surge suppression is working, in addition to a light to show the power is on. It should also have phone jacks to protect your modem from lightning strikes.
Every couple of years it will stop a major surge that would damage your computer, and its circuits will fail. The protection light will go out, although it will still function as an extension cord. As soon as you see this, replace it. Trust me, this is a tiny price to pay to protect your valuable computer and its even more valuable data.
An Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS).
A UPS unit is a big expensive surge protector. In addition to handling surges, it will handle brown outs, and other undesirable power conditions. It contains a battery, and it will supply power to your computer in a blackout. Depending on the size, it can give you 5-10 minutes to save your work and shutdown your machine.
For a game machine, this is overkill. For a serious use computer, it can be a very shrewd investment.
A unit should have about 350-500VA (Voltage Amps) to protect a P3, while 500-650VA is more suitable for a P4. Make sure it has phone jacks to protect your phone line from lightning.
My P3 450 plugs into an APC Back Ups Pro 650. When I bought it years ago, it was the cheapest unit that included phone line protection. It has saved me from losing valuable work on many occasions. Although we have had a blackout or two, it is most useful in those fraction of a second power interruptions, which would otherwise reboot your computer and loose all unsaved work. After about 3 years of constant use, I had to replace the battery.
Hint: NEVER plug a surge suppressor into a UPS unit. They fight about who is going to control the power supply.
A printer makes paper copies of documents or pictures. Although you can buy a printer with the package, it is just as easy to buy one later. You might buy a laser printer, an ink jet printer, and/or a printer for making photo quality prints.
A laser printer is for making large amounts of black and white copies. This is really a business use. Color lasers are available, but cost a fortune.
Photo printers are something serious photographers use to make prints from their digital images. They are not too useful for anything else.
A color ink jet printer is what most beginners want. Epson have always made excellent printers. (I have an ancient, unbreakable Epson FX80 Dot Matrix that still runs after 30 years. It will probably outlive me. My wife raves about her new Epson Ink Jet.) Canons are very nice too. Some companies like Lexmark make good, low-cost printers, but then eat up tons of expensive ink cartridges. (During a manufacturer's rebate last year, it was actually cheaper to buy a new bottom-end Lexmark, than it was to replace its cartridge.) Stay away from Hewlett Packard printers. They once were good value, but lately they have been awful. (My old HP 500C is an indestructible workhorse, but since then, they have had a lot of clunkers.)
A scanner turns a photograph or document into a computer file you can view, email, fax, and so on. Software that comes with a scanner can attempt to turn a picture of a typewritten document, newspaper, or magazine into the actual text, so you can edit it in your word processor. This can work quite well, if the original is clear and unwrinkled.
The Canon CanoScan N1240U, Flatbed scanner with USB connections is a nice 1200x2400-resolution scanner, with a very thin profile. It is actually small enough to carry around with a laptop.
It's hard to go wrong with any of the scanners from Microtek. I have an old Microtek Scanmaker E3 that keeps right on chugging along.
Beware of very cheap scanners. You tend to get what you pay for.
Combination fax/copier/scanner/printers are available which may be perfect for small businesses or those with limited desk space.
There are all kinds of other things that you can add on. These really depend on special needs you may have. You may need something special to connect with your PDA like a flash memory reader. You may want a webcam, or digital camera. A portable MP3 player can download music files from your PC and play them later. A TV card allows you to watch TV and capture pictures. The list of possibilities is endless. Most are easy to add later, and you usually get a better deal on these devices by shopping around.
You will normally get more software than you will ever use with your package. You should expect a recent edition of Windows operating system, a word processor (Word), with either Microsoft Works or Microsoft Office, and an encyclopedia, usually Encarta. You will also get Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook for email. The package should include a good anti-virus program from McAfee, Central Point, or Norton.
Near the date of a new release of Windows, you may get a choice between the old and new one. Unless the new one is radically different, take the older one. New releases of Windows are notoriously buggy.
Microsoft Office costs a LOT more than Microsoft Works. Works is usually good enough for beginners. I needed Office because I used Excel (spreadsheet) and Access (database) at work. Lotus SmartSuite is just as good as Microsoft Office and it is a little cheaper, but Office is more common. (If you get Office on your first machine, you can install it on your next one. The features do not change that much between versions.)
Outlook is a prime target for email worms. Disable all its automatic and preview features ASAP. Better still, download Eudora and don't use Outlook at all.
You usually get some kind of Internet offer with the package. Make sure you have a local access number before you sign up. They often have AOL on your machine. Most beginners like AOL. (Many experts hate it, including me.)
There is a ton of free software on the Internet, and you can find obsolete but very useable software in stores for $5-10. (I got a Visual C++ package that would have cost me $250 when it first came out for $3.99 in a Cost Cutters.) The add-on software bundles offered with your package are usually not worth it.
Support and Service.
You want at least 1-year parts, labor, and support. Normally, any problems will show in that first year. Extended supports plans are usually not worth it. In two years, new machines will be much faster than yours and any problem becomes an excuse to upgrade. Unless you have young children, accident insurance plans are not worth it, just make sure you never put a soda where it can spill into your machine. Home installation isn't worth it. Sooner or later, you are going to take your computer apart to move, clean, upgrade or something. You may as well get off on the right foot by learning to do it yourself, or finding a friend who knows how. (Try the 9-year old kid next door.) You can usually find free, or low cost classes locally.
You should now know what all the pieces are, and which are important to you. If you follow the guidelines, you will buy a sturdy PC that will last you for several years. Monitors, printers, scanners, cameras, and other external devices will transfer easily to your new computer when you upgrade, so don't be afraid to spend a little more on them.
Just remember, even the best companies occasionally ship a lemon, and even the worst company sometimes ships a gem. It is the support and after-sales-service that makes Gateway and Dell winners.
CD Burners for Bunnies: http://www.epinions.com/content_2645663876
Digital Cameras for Bunnies: http://www.epinions.com/content_2654445700
APC Back-UPS Pro 650 http://www.epinions.com/content_2661851268
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