Special Report on Electronic Gifts: Buying a computer: Christopher Gilbert offers readers a guide through the jungle of jargon and sales come-ons to find the right PC

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The Independent Online
COMPUTERS have never been cheaper (subject to the dollar exchange rate) - and the potential for throwing good money after bad has never been greater. When entering this arcane world for the first time, the buyer should beware. Follow a few simple rules, however, and you will make someone very happy this Christmas.

Consider the most likely scenario. You want a computer for home use. It must serve as a serious working tool, as well as give pleasure to the children - and it must last. Where do you go?

Resist the temptation to visit your nearest high-street shop. Although the advice may be sound, computers - and software - are usually better value if purchased direct. And stick to what are described as IBM-compatible computers as they offer the greatest flexibility for the future in all areas. Portables (laptops, notebooks, palm-tops) are useful as mobile offices, but tend to be dearer than the equivalent desk-top and are not ideal for the avid game player who demands high-quality graphics.

Visit your newsagent and buy a specialist journal (PC Magazine, PC Direct, PC Answers, PC Plus, to name but a few) or speak to a friend who has safely negotiated the rapids. Do not be put off by the intimidating jargon; you will soon get a feel for the range of prices and models.

Start by playing the numbers game - and keep it simple (the higher the number, the better the machine). If it is your heart's desire to own the Trabant of the desk-top computing world, then you might still be able to find a venerable XT system running on the 86 chip at 8 MegaHerz. I would advise strongly against such a choice. Go for the top numbers. Consider only the 386 or the 486 (the 586 is due in the next few months). Since the 486 (25 or 33MHz) is almost as cheap as the 386, choose the extra horsepower. There are also two different kinds of chip, the Rolls Royce (DX) or the Bentley (SX); the latter is cheaper and more than adequate.

When considering the fuel tank, the hard disk where all your information is stored, it pays to spend a little more for the flexibility a larger disk offers (80 Megabytes as a minimum). Increasingly, software (games and applications) is being written for the more powerful machines and uses more space.

The third ingredient for optimum performance is memory, the turbocharger in the machine. Most systems are supplied with about 4Mb of Random Access Memory (RAM) which can usually be expanded to as much as 32Mb on the motherboard. If the children enjoy games and you like to dabble in desk-top publishing (both of which are voracious when it comes to RAM and thus slow down the system), I would recommend 8Mb of RAM.

And so to the screen. Forget about black and white; demand colour and demand the best (VGA or Super VGA). Finally, ensure that your floppy disk drive takes 3.5in (720Kb and 1.44Mb) disks.

You now have just about the perfect hardware configuration - and most manufacturers will include a mouse and pre-loaded software in the deal (the operating system, Dos, and its big brother, Microsoft Windows, which comes with its own word processor and numerous other goodies). Pick up the phone, dial a number and start haggling. Your new computer should be delivered to your door within two weeks.

When making your software decisions, consult the magazines. Windows, with its Graphical User Interface (GUI) - user-friendly and mouse-friendly would be a simple definition - is the operating system of the future, so most of your serious software purchases will run in that environment. The range - and the price differential - is astonishing (desktop publishing, accounts packages, spreadsheets, databases, graphics programmes etc). Lotus Ami Pro and Microsoft Word for Windows come highly recommended, but if there is one application that gets top marks for price and flexibility, it has to be Microsoft Publisher - in my view, the best low-cost desktop publishing package around.

As for entertainment, there are several categories, including adventure, role-playing, strategy, sports, flight simulations and war games. For a taste of adventure, try Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis or King's Quest VI (Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow); Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and Might and Magic III are both fine examples of the role-playing genre; Civilisation and SimCity are much trumpeted strategy games; playing golf is painfully realistic, with Links 386Pro at the top of my list, although, if you prefer tournament competition, PGA Tour Golf is a better bet; Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe and Falcon 3 are excellent flight simulations; and Pacific Islands is an engrossing new war game. Most games software is still Dos-based, although the Windows market is expanding fast.

If you want to enjoy stunning sound effects as well, some manufacturers will include a sound card in the total package. Failing that, the cards are relatively simple to install and not too expensive (about pounds 150 for a good one). A high-quality game will cost you between pounds 25 and pounds 45. Shareware (low-cost software which allows you to try before you buy) is also well worth investigating.

After the initial outlay, you can expand the uses of your computer further by investing in a printer, a CD-Rom drive, a scanner, or you may even choose to buy a modem and tap into exciting new worlds which provide access to information of every conceivable kind.

The speed of development in personal computers is frightening. If you choose a similar set-up to the one I have described - 486SX, 33Mhz, 100Mb hard disk, 8Mb RAM, Super VGA monitor - you will probably need to find between pounds 1,000 and pounds 1,500. Your machine will also almost certainly be upgradable. There are, of course, cheaper versions, but if value for money is the yardstick, it pays to aim a little higher.

(Photograph omitted)