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Bargain bytes galore

This month, why not invest in computers? By Steve Homer
If Santa didn't bring you a computer for Christmas, now could be the ideal time to buy. Something like 30 per cent of all home computers are sold in the Christmas period. But after Boxing Day, prices start to tumble.

So what should you buy? The big choice is between a Macintosh, a Windows type computer or a games machine. Apple Macintoshes still have it over the Windows PC in terms of ease of use, so for the absolute novice they represent a good start. Though there is significantly less software available for the Apple Macintosh, packages operate more comfortably together, so, in theory, you should be more productive with the software you have.

The Windows PC can often feel a bit kludgy. Even with a powerful Pentium machine, a piece of modern software may take a while to "load", and 10 seconds can seem an eternity.

However, the range of software for the PC is stunning. Educational packages such as Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia; Maris's Red Shift II which helps you explore the galaxy; Notting Hill's wonderful Art of Singing: there are thousands of titles to choose from. As for games, there is everything from a package to help three-year-olds count, to a game that allows 17- year-olds to eviscerate monsters. Don't assume games are only for kids. There are plenty of engrossing titles that adults will enjoy.

One thing that should make buying a PC even more attractive now is that a new technology is just coming in. MMX is a new type of add-on to existing computer chips that allows multimedia applications, such as video, to play better. But there are few games and other applications that will really take advantage of this new technology. If you mainly want to use a PC for word processing, spreadsheets and the like, the MMX will be of no use. Even for games, MMX is not likely to be worth bothering with until games specifically written for it appear.

If you really enjoy getting your aggression out on imaginary characters on the screen, than perhaps you should consider a games machine. This Christmas the Sony Playstation and the Sega Saturn continued their war to the death. According to Computer Trade Weekly, Sony outsold Sega by at least six to one this Christmas. However, they are both excellent games machines, now on sale for around pounds 200, compared with pounds 800-pounds 1,200 for a good multimedia PC.

Not all the Playstation and Saturn games involve you killing things. Race games look good, too. Of course, what is missing are worthy titles. There really are no encyclopedias, language courses or design packages for the Saturn or the PlayStation. These are machines built for one thing: fun!

If you know someone who already has a computer there is one cost-effective late Christmas present they will love you for. For about pounds 50 you can buy them some extra memory.

When you select a program on a computer screen, the program and associated data are loaded into memory. This so-called random access memory, or RAM, was very expensive. Most PCs sold today have 8-16Mb of memory. Last year very few machines were sold with 16 Mb, as it was just too expensive.Particularly with Windows 95, more memory equals faster performance. The good news is that memory is quite easy to install and prices have never been lower. To buy an additional 8Mb of memory last year would have set you back more than pounds 200. This year you can probably pay less than pounds 60. All you have to do is note down the make and model of the machine and check with the manufacturer to see what type of memory you need. Armed with the model number and type of memory, ring round a few suppliers. Installing memory shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. If you are buying a new computer, don't be a skinflint. Make sure you have at least 16Mb in your machine. Most stores will install it for you if you buy it while you are buying your computer.

There are still companies selling computers with only 8Mb of memory. Avoid them like the plague. Ideally, go for 24Mb or more. Finally, if you are buying, make sure of after-sales support. Most computers will function well for several years, but if they break down it can be a major headache. Check to see whether the engineer will be coming out to you, or you will have to take the machine to some repair centre. Check how long the warranty lasts. And if you have a problem, is there a number you can ring? If so, how long after buying the computer can you use it, and will it be a premium rate call? You do not want to pay up to 65p a minute dealing with a problem that might be the manufacturer's fault. And if you plan to use your computer at home, check that technical support is available in the evenings and double-check on cover at weekends.

Also, telephone support for most software that is pre-installed on your machine may last 90 days or less. You may need to purchase extra support.

But don't let all this careful thinking put you off. For less than pounds 1,000, if you shop around, you can buy the most amazing tool that the human race has ever had to play with. Accessing information around the world on the Internet, receiving and sending faxes and electronic mail, opening up windows of excitement on CD-Rom on everything from Beethoven to basketball, listening to music, perhaps even watching movies and television, controlling your home finances and writing that great novel: all this and more can be done on the average multimedia PC.