Peace of mind plus a new PC

If the prospect of choosing a new computer chips you to bits, read on. Stephen Pritchard on what to buy and where to buy it
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Like cars, computers start to lose value as soon as you buy them. Manufacturers now consider a PC obsolete after between 18 months and two years. As new microprocessors - the heart of a PC - are released, older systems slide down the price bracket. Three years ago, a PC-compatible with an Intel 80486DX2 chip was top of the range. As recently as last Christmas, it was entry-level. Now, scarcely any dealers or mail order companies list a 486 option at all. Intel's newer 75Mhz Pentium, (the 75MHz refers to the chip's internal "clock speed", a guide to relative performance) is now the budget choice. Around 18 months ago, the Pentium 75 was a seriously fast chip.

Increasing performance is the raison d'etre of the PC business, so there is never a "best" time to buy. Once you decide you need a PC, there are two paths to take. The first is to buy the best you can afford. A top- of-the-range computer will cost more but it will run today's software very well, and has a fighting chance of handling the next couple of upgrades.

The other route is to refuse to play the game, and buy a modest system, perhaps at a discount. There is still plenty of life in older PC designs. If it runs your software, a basic PC is a good choice, as long as you accept it might need replacing sooner than a faster machine. Our examples illustrate the ways to buy. But there are many steps in between: it is perfectly possible to mix and match elements. Someone with a large database and a restricted budget might opt for a slower processor and a larger hard disk.

Low end: around pounds 1,000

Budget does not mean that a computer is not capable. Far from it. A machine in this price range now is capable of handling multimedia entertainment software (Microsoft's Encarta, for example), games, business packages including word-processors and spreadsheets and the Net. It will only be stretched by graphics packages or the new generation of 3D virtual reality software.

Processor: The entry-level choice is now the Intel 75Mhz Pentium chip; an astute buyer should find a faster 100MHz Pentium or an equivalent chip from Cyrix and AMD. Apple's Macintosh range also starts in this price range.

Memory: A budget system should have 8Mb of Ram (main memory). Computers with just 4Mb are a false economy. Faster EDO Ram is worth considering as the cost difference is minimal.

Storage: hard disk prices have tumbled over the last year. There is no reason to buy a computer with less than a 1Gb (1,000Mb) hard drive, although manufacturers may be selling off machines with 500 or 800Mb drives. These are worth considering: second drives are cheap and not difficult to install.

Video and monitor: aim for a multi-sync 14 or 15in monitor. The video- card should be capable of producing at least High Color (thousands of colours) on your chosen screen.

Multimedia: Buy a quad-speed CD-Rom drive; PCs need a Soundblaster-compatible sound card too. Even in the budget market, external speakers will greatly improve sound quality.

Uses: home, business, games.

Worthwhile extras: 15 inch monitor; upgrade to 16mb memory; modem for Internet access.

Typical system: Hewlett-Packard Vectra VE; Apple Macintosh Performa 6200; Viglen Contender ES.

High end: pounds 2,500 to pounds 3,000

A high-end computer will handle daily tasks with gusto, and is the best choice for desktop publishing, digital imaging or video. PCs can now cope with computer-aided design and 3D imaging, which used to be restricted to more expensive workstations. But premium systems are being marketed to home users too.

Processor: Fast Pentium chips come in 150, 166 and 200Mhz versions. All offer good performance, but anyone wanting a future-proof machine should aim as high as they can afford. The Pentium range is best suited for Windows 95 and Windows 3.11. Intel's Pentium Pro chip is faster on paper, but works best with Windows NT and "32 bit" applications. It is less happy with Windows 3.1 or 95. Intel's main rival is the Motorola PowerPC chip, which uses fast RISC technology. Apple is the best-known manufacturer of PowerPC-based computers, but PowerPCs can run the Mac OS, or Windows NT. Apple (and cloners) offer computers with the second- generation PowerPC 604 chips, in this price range

Storage: a 1Gb drive should be seen as the minimum at this level. A 2Gb or larger drive, or two smaller drives, will give ample storage space.

Memory: 16Mb Ram is the minimum for a high-end system running Windows 3.1, Windows 95, or the Mac OS; 32Mb is a real advantage under Windows NT, and is well worth considering for Windows 95, perhaps at the expense of a slightly slower processor.

Video and monitor: at this level, a 17in screen should be part of the package. Choose a video card with at least 2Mb of Video Ram (VRam), that will support 24-bit (True Color) at a resolution of at least 860 x 640 pixels. Cards that support accelerated 3D graphics are increasingly popular, such as those from Matrox or VideoLogic.

Multimedia: a top-level system should have a 6x CD-Rom; 8x drives are coming onto the market. Alternatively, look at a CD multi-changer (these hold several disks at once) or even a CD-Rom writer as an extra cost option.

Uses: publishing, digital imaging, video (with appropriate hardware); multimedia design; cutting-edge games.

Typical system: Compaq Presario 9640; AST 829; Apple Power Macintosh 8500.

Useful extras: 32Mb Ram; Trinitron or Diamondtron monitor; 3D video card, high-performance SCSI disk system.

Where to buy

This is as hard as choosing what to buy. Mail order usually offers the most hardware per pound and is flexible: mail-order buyers can specify hard disk, Ram and video card options. In a store, what you see is what you get (and buy). Mail order covers firms selling branded PCs, through companies making their own bespoke systems, to manufacturers so large that they are now brands themselves. Compare prices, and support, line by line. A "cheap" PC may be a false economy if it contains cheap parts.

The larger mail-order houses offer peace of mind, as do the branded PCs from companies including Olivetti, Compaq, IBM and Hewlett-Packard. Modern computers are physically reliable, so knowledgable users can save money by buying a lesser-known make - but watch for bottlenecks caused by cheap parts. Comparative tests in the PC press are essential reading.

Computer stores are convenient but more expensive. The chain stores charge a premium but offer flexible finance and, being national, a degree of protection if something goes wrong. For a technical or high-end system, think seriously about a specialist dealer. Installing a CD-Rom writer or a SCSI disk system still holds pitfalls for the unwary. True Plug and Play is still some way off in the PC world.