When last did you have an unsettling experience?

Shopping for a new computer, whether a desktop or notebook, is always an unsettling experience. Since your last computer purchase, a lot has happened in the world of technology.

New acronyms and new options await you. So how do you sort through the jumble of paraphernalia that makes up a PC today and come to a decision that will leave you with a computer worth having for a few years? Here are some suggestions.

The processor

Most manufacturers these days will give you an array of desktop choices built around Intel’s Pentium 4 processor.
You’ll generally find processors running from 2,4 gigahertz (GHz) all the way up to 3,2 GHz.

Any of these processors is fast enough to run today’s business applications, and you’ll be wisest, if money is a consideration, to choose the processor that gives you the most power for the money.

Currently, that’s the 2,8 GHz Pentium 4.

You’ll also see an “FSB” notation beside Pentium 4 processors in today’s computers. FSB stands for “front side bus,” and the numbers that accompany this acronym are 400, 533, or 80.

The “front side bus” is a data pathway from the Pentium 4 chip, and the faster this is, the better. It’s worth your while to make sure you get a Pentium 4 chip with an “800 FSB.” Today, these chips barely cost more than ones with slower FSB speeds.

AMD processors are not the ubiquitous alternative that they once were, but you’ll find some manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, that offer desktop PCs built around AMD’s Intel alternatives. You can feel secure that AMD’s Athlon 64 processors perform similarly to Intel’s Pentium 4 chips.

In notebook computers, steer toward Pentium M processors for maximum battery life. The difference in battery life between Pentium M-enabled machines and those with mobile Pentium or Celoron chips is notable: Pentium M notebooks have been known to last up to 5 hours on a single charge, while those built around other processors give up after two or three.

The memory

Don’t buy a computer with less than 512 MB of memory (RAM), unless you plan to add more later. Windows XP runs best with 512 MB of RAM for typical applications. If you’ll be doing a lot of work with digital photography, consider upgrading the machine to 1 GB of RAM.

Virtually all machines today come with “dual channel DDR SDRAM.”

The only numbers you really need to be concerned with are those that represent the bus speed of the RAM. SDRAM at 40 MHz accompanies Pentium 4 chips with an 800 FSB, while those rated at 333 MHz accompany chips with a 533 FSB.

Hard drives

The biggest performance bottleneck on today’s computers is the hard drive. Most hard drives simply cannot transmit data as fast as the microprocessor can handle it. So pay attention to the revolutions per minute (rpm) at which the hard drive in your next computer spins.

You’ll find drives rated at 5400 rpm, 7200 rpm, and 10 000 rpm.

The faster drives are better, although you’ll pay a premium today for drives that spin at 10 000 rpm, and these drives may emit more heat and noise than other available drives.

In notebook computers, the same applies, although you’ll not find 10 000 rpm drives for notebooks. Get the fastest-spinning drive that you can afford.

The graphics card

If you’re buying a computer you hope will be useful for a few years, stay away from “integrated graphics” cards, since these utilise system memory and underperform all other types of graphics cards. You’ll sometimes find “integrated graphics” offered on low-end notebook computers, and occasionally they are offered on entry-level desktops, as well.

Dedicated graphics cards from ATI or NVidia will be your best choices, and you’re unlikely to need a graphics card with more than 128 MB of RAM. You should determine, however, which type of monitor your graphics card supports. It’s likely that sometime in the next three years, you’ll be using a flat-panel display, even if you don’t buy one today.

So make sure the graphics card that comes with your next PC has a DVI connection. DVI is short for “digital video interface.” Many graphics cards support both, but some do not.

The monitor

Flat is in, and for a good reason. Flat-panel monitors offer superior picture quality, no harmful emissions, space savings, and lower power consumption. What’s not to like? The cost.

You’ll pay more for a flat panel, but the cost of a 15-inch or 17-inch flat screen monitor today is about the same as an equivalent- sized traditional monitor was just a couple of years ago. Go for the thin screen, if you’re buying for the future.

CDs and DVDs

You’ll find that computer makers these days offer you a variety of CD drive options. There are CD-ROM drives, CD-R (recordable), combination CD/DVD players, CD-R/DVD, and CD-R/DVD-R. The latter can read and write both CD disks and DVD disks.

If you’re preparing for the future, get one of the combination drives that can read and write both CDs and DVDs. DVDs hold more than four times the amount of data that CDs do, but in the short-term you’ll probably end up creating more CDs, since the disks are cheaper.

A computer you buy today won’t have the near-term obsolescence that computers purchased five years ago did. It’s likely that any 2,6 to 3,2 GHz machine with a fast hard drive will run software for the next few years.

The next version of Windows, which will probably be released in 2006, is being designed to run on a machine similar to the specifications outlined here. - Sapa-DPA

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