Desktop PCs are in the majority of American homes, yet they are still a mystery to many buyers. Families can feel at the mercy of pushy salespeople when it comes to buying a new system or upgrading an older one.
How much power, speed, bells and whistles will your family need? When equipping or re-equipping your home office, consider the ways in which your family will be using your PC. Thankfully, there are choices for every need and every wallet.
Below you'll find a straightforward explanation of technical computer terms, followed by three popular family situations and the best computer systems to suit them.
The Basic Terms
- Processor: The brain of your PC. Its speed is measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz), but many factors contribute to the speed of running your applications. The latest, fastest processors are in the Apple G4, AMD Athlon, and Intel Pentium 4 families. Families on a budget can choose the lower-end versions, the AMD Duron and the Intel Celeron, which don't perform high-end graphics as well, but are much less expensive.
- Operating system (OS): The software that is necessary for running all the other programs on your system. Most PC users will use the latest Microsoft operating system for consumers, Windows XP Home Edition. Windows Me is an older version still available; all versions not only run your software, but make it easier to access the Web, share files, and network the all the PCs in your home.
- System memory: Measured in megabytes (MB) of RAM, system memory holds data that the processor needs to run your programs. Most PCs come with 128MB of system memory. There are several different types of memory, DRAM, SRAM, RDRAM, and the most common, SDRAM.
- Hard disk: Where all of your system information, applications, and data are stored. Most PCs come with at least 20GB of hard disk space, enough to play games, run productivity software, and store your data files, pictures, and film clips.
- Video card: The device that translates video data for display on your monitor. Some less expensive PCs have video components that use system memory, but they have problems with 3D imaging. The more memory on the video card or more system memory devoted to video will equal a better multimedia experience.
- Sound: Just like a video card, sound cards translate data, in this case, audio data. Unlike a video card, however, integrated sound controllers will satisfy most PC users.
- Internet connectivity: Users can access the Web and e-mail through a 56K dial-up modem, but more and more systems are equipped with a network interface card (NIC) for broadband access (DSL and cable).
- USB and Firewire (or IEEE 1394): Two common methods for transporting data between peripherals (digital cameras, scanners, printers, etc.) and PCs. Systems should come with older ports as well, especially if you have an older printer in your home office.
- Optical Drives: The most popular optical drive is the CD-ROM drive, which plays CDs, CD-RW, and CD-R discs. More functional are CD-RW drives, which play discs, as well as record music and back up data files to CD-RW and CD-R discs. DVD-ROM drives can play all CDs and DVD movies, and the more expensive DVD-R drives can play and record DVD data. PCs usually come with a floppy disk drive as well, but because of the low capacity of floppy disks, these are becoming obsolete.
- Warranty: Be sure your standard warranty provides access to technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and a reasonable return or exchange policy. If you are worried about swapping out parts or setting up your computer on your own, you may want to consider an optional on-site service agreement. These usually cost anywhere from $39 to $99 per year.
Parents of Young Children
If you want to purchase a PC for your young family, keep in mind that small children have modest computing needs. Most children will want to use a PC for interactive games and learning software, neither of which require much computing power or cash.
Young families can get away with the basics: A 750MHz Intel Celeron or AMD Duron processor (even slower if you can find it), 64MB or 96MB of system memory, a 20GB hard disk drive, integrated video and sound, a CD-ROM drive, and a 56K Internet connection. Many home PCs also come with colorful panels to dress them up and make them more fun for kids. A PC in this category will set you back less than $999, though there are even better deals available if you are willing to sign a three-year, dial-up Internet access contract on the spot.
The Apple iMac is a popular choice for young children. The systems are colorful, easy to setup and use, and come with extras like CD burners and software for editing digital movies. If you choose one, you still run PC software by purchasing Windows-emulator software like Virtual PC. The only downside to iMacs is their slightly higher sticker prices and small 15-inch screens.
Parents of Pre-Teens
Parents of middle-school age children will find themselves fulfilling two needs -- educational and entertainment. Your kids will need a more powerful computer to handle their increasing gaming habits, and will be using the family computer more often as school projects require.
A system in this category would need a 1GHz Intel or AMD processor, 128MB of system memory, at least 30GB hard disk space, dedicated video and sound cards, better speakers, and a fast CD-RW drive for playing games, sharing files, and backing up data. A faster Internet connection may be important to some pre-teens who spend a lot of time on the Web. Expect to spend around $1500 for a PC with this configuration. You can get away with a slower processor if you need to reduce the sticker price.
The greatest concern for parents of pre-teens should be security. Whatever PC you buy, be sure to purchase filtering and monitoring software like Net Nanny. Products like these can help you set limits on what your children can access on the Web, and keep track of sites that might be questionable to you.
Parents of High School and College Students
High school students are going to demand more functionality out of their PCs, and more independence in using them. School projects and games will require more computing and multimedia power as well.
Families with teenagers who only plan to use their computer for schoolwork can get away with a modest configuration. Teens into gaming, however, will want the fastest Intel Pentium IV or AMD Athlon available, and at least 256MB of system memory, 60GB hard disk space, a 64MB video card, a sound card with a subwoofer, a large monitor, a DVD-ROM drive, and a CD-RW drive. Top of the line systems cost $2000 and up, but you can cut corners by picking a slower processor, less hard disk space, and a 32MB video card now and upgrading later.
If your teenager is headed off to college, you might consider a notebook PC. These portable systems have nearly as much power as their desktop counterparts, and you have just as many choices. The minimum configuration for a college bound student should be a 700MHz mobile AMD or Intel processor, 128MB system memory, integrated sound and video, a 12- or 13-inch screen, and a CD-RW or combination DVD/CD-RW drive. Just as with desktops, any of these elements can be upgraded for better performance. Notebook PCs can cost as little as $999.