From the Kenosha News on 10-23-05

     Look for "sweet spot" when buying a computer

     It can be confusing looking at computer specs and advertisements. What makes this computer more expensive than another? How much RAM do you need? How fast is this unit really? What brands are best?

     The right answer for one person might not be for someone else. First, ask yourself what you plan to do with your computer. Some uses that seem pretty "simple" – like gaming or digital photography – are actually the most intense and gobble up resources quickly. The applications that seem "higher level" – like spreadsheets or databases – use less resources since the computer works most efficiently with letters and numbers. Next week's column will deal specifically with tips on buying or building a gaming computer.

     The average novice user should buy a standard computer that is only minimally customized or not customized at all. That's because you won't want to remember the size or brand of the hard drive; you want the model number to indicate that when you call tech support.

     I recommend a "tier one" brand, which includes HP/Compaq, Dell, IBM/Lenovo, and Apple. These companies spend more on research and development, testing whether their components are compatible with each other. They also use more consistent hardware rather than whatever components happen to be cheapest at the time of manufacture. Finally, they have a lower "out of the box" failure rate – usually below 5%.

     When deciding how fast a processor or how much RAM or hard drive space you need, look for the "sweet spot" in the pricing. That is, find the configuration that gives you the best price per unit. For example, a Dell model with 256Mb runs $699. For $40 more, you can upgrade to 512Mb; for $100, 1Gb; for $260, 2Gb. 256Mb is fairly minimal these days, and you can double it for $40 or quadruple it for $100. However, the jump to 2Gb is significantly higher – more than twice the price to get to 1Gb. Depending on your budget, opt for 512Mb or 1Gb: the sweet spot. The same theory applies to hard drives and processors. The only time you might need a bigger hard drive than the "sweet spot" is if you plan to store lots of photo, audio, or video files or install many pieces of software.

     There are two things I'm usually willing to pay more for: more RAM (memory) and a longer warranty. When selecting a processor speed, keep in mind that $100 spent on RAM will increase overall speed more than $100 spent on a faster processor. Get a 3 year warranty when available at a reasonable cost.

     Make sure you get Ethernet capability if you plan to use a broadband connection. If you use dial-up or connect to a phone line, then a modem is necessary. Most modern computers have both as standard features.

     You may have the option of various drives: a CD-RW drive to create your own CDs; a DVD drive to play DVDs; a "combo drive" which combines the capabilities of the DVD and CD-RW drives; or a "super drive" (DVD-RW) to play and create CDs and DVDs. The combo drive is usually the most appropriate for average users. Many new computers, especially laptops, no longer include floppy drives.

By Carol Sabbar from the Kenosha News on 10-23-05