Annual PC Buyer's Guide
As we near the end of another year, it is time again for our annual PC buyers’ guide. Over the years, the goal of this article has been to provide direction for those looking for a personal computer with which to perform common investment tasks, such as portfolio tracking and management, stock and mutual fund screening and analysis, and technical analysis and charting, along with general-purpose computing such as Web-browsing, E-mail, word processing, and spreadsheet building. The recommendations we provide herein are made with such users in mind. Depending on your individual computing needs, your ideal system may be more or less advanced than the systems we recommend.
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Defining Your Needs
As the cost of a new computer continues to fall, the worst thing you can do is skimp and end up with a system that is not powerful enough to meet your current needs, let alone any future ones. Some people try to save money by purchasing a marginal system, only to end up with a system that becomes obsolete within only a couple of years and needs replacing or upgrading at additional cost.
Another mistake some people make when purchasing a new PC is to buy one that is “well-equipped,” even if they don’t need all the options. Many PC shoppers are seduced by features and options that, instead of benefitting them, only needlessly add to the final price tag.
Any of today’s mid-level systems will be able to handle almost any investment analysis task you may undertake.
Given the speed with which computer technologies change these days, a mid-to-high-end desktop system bought new today will, on average, provide you with plenty of computing power over the next three to four years. Beyond that period, you may be better off going with a new system to take advantage of the latest technology developments.
Laptops vs. Desktops
Once you have decided it is time to purchase a new system, there is then the question of whether to go with a notebook/laptop system or a desktop PC. Notebooks are not the luxury they once were and in the third quarter of this year, notebook shipments in the U.S. surpassed those of desktop systems. While both have their merits, the choice to go with a notebook/laptop system will depend on the answer to the following questions:
- Do you need a computer while traveling?
- Will you need to use the computer in multiple locations?
- Do you have space (desktop) restraints where you plan to use the computer?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should consider a notebook/laptop system.
However, these situations are more conducive to choosing a desktop system:
- Budget constraints;
- Prefer a larger display;
- Require the most powerful features available.
When considering desktop systems versus notebooks, also be aware of the difficulties you could face when attempting upgrades. Desktop systems tend to be easier to upgrade and repair, mainly because there are a number of “generic” components you can install with relative ease that won’t present compatibility issues.
Notebook PCs, on the other hand, tend to have hardware designed specifically for that model, making them more expensive to repair and more difficult to upgrade. You may be able to pick up a new hard drive or additional memory modules from the local electronics store, but you will more than likely encounter difficulties installing component upgrades on a laptop system. Lastly, there are definite cost considerations to buying a laptop—expect to pay a premium for mobility. Table 1 shows the price difference between comparable (in terms of computing power) mid-range desktop and notebook systems.
|Table 1. Cost Comparison: Desktop vs. Laptop|
|Desktop||Ultra Compact Laptop||Mid-Sized Laptop||Netbook|
|Dell Inspiron 530||Dell XPS M1330||Dell Inspiron 1525||Dell Inspiron Mini 9|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows XP Home|
|Processor||2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo||2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo||2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo||1.6GHz Intel Atom|
|Memory||2G RAM||3G RAM||2G RAM||1G RAM|
|Hard Drive||320G||250G||250G||16G solid state disk|
|CD-ROM/DVD-ROM||DVD±RW/CD-RW||DVD±RW/CD-RW||DVD±RW/CD-RW||No internal optical drive|
|Video Card||256M 2D/3D graphics accelerator||128M 2D/3D graphics accelerator||integrated 2D/3D graphics accelerator||integrated graphics accelerator|
|Sound||integrated audio||integrated audio||integrated audio||integrated audio|
|Modem||56K||integrated wireless card||integrated wireless card||integrated wireless card|
|Network Adapter||integrated 10/100 Ethernet||integrated 10/100 Network Card||integrated 10/100 Network Card||integrated 10/100 Network Card|
|Monitor||19" widescreen LCD||13.3" LED display||15.4" widescreen LCD||8.9" LED|
|Desktop||Consumer Laptop||Professional Laptop|
|Operating System||Mac OS X Leopard||Mac OS X Leopard||Mac OS X Leopard|
|Processor||2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo||2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo||2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo|
|Memory||1G RAM||2G RAM||2G RAM|
|Video Card||128M 2D/3D graphics accelerator||integrated 2D/3D graphics accelerator||integrated 2D/3D graphics accelerator|
|Sound||built-in audio||built-in audio||built-in audio|
|Modem||built-in wireless networking||built-in wireless networking||built-in wireless networking|
|Network Adapter||10/100/1000 Base-T Gigabit Ethernet||10/100/1000 Base-T Gigabit Ethernet||10/100/1000 Base-T Gigabit Ethernet|
|Monitor||20" widescreen LCD||13.3" widescreen backlit LED||15.4" widescreen backlit LED|
|*Current as of November 6, 2008.|
Another term that is becoming part of the computing lexicon is “netbook.” Generally speaking, netbooks are small-to-medium-sized laptops optimized for Web surfing and E-mail. Most models range in price from $250 to $500, making them also relatively inexpensive. However, the typical netbook also has a smaller display and keyboard, as well as no optical drive. As a result, these systems are usually purchased as a second computer, not as a primary platform. That being said, sales of netbooks are expected to grow from around five million this year to around 50 million in 2012 (according to Gartner Inc.).
The Great OS Debate
Depending on what you want to do with your new PC, you must consider the software available for performing these functions. This may ultimately dictate which underlying operating system (OS) you choose. The two most popular consumer operating systems on the market today are Windows from Microsoft and Apple Inc.’s Mac OS.
By many estimates, Microsoft Windows still controls roughly 90% of the worldwide OS market. In contrast, Apple’s Mac OS worldwide market share is significantly lower—roughly 5%, depending on the source and method of measurement.
|Table 2. Computer Usage Among AAII Members|
|Percentage of AAII Members||2008||2007||2006||2004||2002||2000||1998||1996||1994||1992|
|Type of system used*:|
|Type of Internet connection used:||99.4%||98.8%||99.5%||99.8%||89.1%||84.0%||-||-||-||-|
|No survey conducted in 2005.
*Some members own multiple systems, so percentage may add up to more than 100%.
Among AAII members, Mac usership has jumped over the last year from 7.5% to 14.4%, as shown in Table 2. Interestingly, this increase has not impacted the percentage using Windows, which has held all but unchanged at 91.5% [Note that the percentages for the different systems used by AAII members add up to more than 100% to reflect members owning more than one PC].
If you were to believe the popular press, the latest incarnation of Windows—Vista—has been a universal failure. However, in my opinion, you would be wrong. While Vista has been the victim of over-hyping by Microsoft, some well-publicized stumbles out of the blocks, and clever marketing on the part of Apple, Vista is an improvement over XP, its predecessor. Having used Vista since shortly after its release, I have yet to encounter the problems that supposedly have a number of Vista users downgrading back to XP.
There are four versions of Vista—Home Basic, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate. Vista Home Premium is the version installed on most new systems geared toward the home PC market. At the time of this writing, the suggested retail price (MSRP) for Vista Home Premium is $259.95.
If you are in the market for a new Windows-based system, our recommendation would also be Vista Home Premium.
As of June 30, 2008, it is no longer possible to purchase Windows XP though retail outlets. XP has been given new life with the growing popularity of netbooks. These systems are typically not powerful enough to run Vista, so they are usually shipped with Windows XP or even Unix.
While certain PC makers, such as Dell, do offer mainstream systems with XP installed, we feel that it is only delaying the inevitable if you are to buy a new system with Windows XP. For those diehards not willing to upgrade to Vista, Microsoft has stated it will support the XP platform until 2014.
Mac OS X
Over the years, Apple has come to dominate the market for personal music players, with its iPods enjoying more than 80% of the market share, according to PCMag.com. The company’s foray into the smart phone arena has also generated a great deal of buzz with the iPhone.
Apple has enjoyed a resurgence in the PC arena, due in large part to the “halo effect,” as consumers impressed by their experience with Apple’s consumer electronics (and perhaps dissatisfied with Windows) are migrating to the Mac platform in record numbers.
Apple’s largest revenue segment is still the personal computer. For the third quarter of 2008, Apple maintained its number-three slot in the U.S. with 9.5% of U.S. PC shipments, according to Gartner Inc., compared to 7.7% a year ago.
All new systems sold by Apple have the latest version of the Mac operating systems—Mac OS X Leopard—pre-installed on them. The Mac OS has long been hailed as more stable and user-friendly than Windows.
For Mac users looking to upgrade to Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, be sure that your system meets Leopard’s system requirements. Apple designed Leopard to operate on all Macs based on the Intel processor, as well as Power PC G5 systems. However, according to Apple, if you are running a G4 system with a processor slower than 867MHz, you will need to upgrade your system before upgrading to Leopard. The suggested retail price for single-user copies of Leopard is $129; a five-user license is $199.
Windows on a Mac
While the Mac OS is touted as being more secure and user-friendly than Windows, individual investors in particular face a dearth of Mac-based software titles for investment analysis and tracking. The majority of Mac software titles for individual investors are personal finance programs such as Quicken. Even then, however, the advanced features found with their Windows-based cousins are often lacking in the Mac version. In addition, some of the most popular finance Web sites, such as MSN Money (moneycentral.msn.com), use technology that renders their most useful features unavailable to Mac users.
As a result, some Mac users choose to own a separate Windows system in order to use these programs and Web sites. However, there are software titles available that allow you to run Windows applications on Mac-based systems.
Apple’s Boot Camp, which is included with Mac OS X Leopard, allows users to install and run 32-bit versions of Windows XP or Vista on their Macs with the full capabilities and speed of a standard Windows machine. However, it does not allow you to run Mac OS X and Windows simultaneously—you must reboot your system to switch between the two operating systems.
The other means of turning a Mac into a Windows PC is to use third-party software to create a virtual Windows system inside your Mac. The Windows machine runs at “normal” speeds and can operate simultaneously with the Mac OS, so that programs native to Windows or Mac can run side by side. However, these virtual systems usually aren’t quite as fast as using Boot Camp, since Windows does not get complete control of the system’s hardware. As a result, some functions such as 3-D graphics don’t run as well on a virtual system.
Two programs that allow you to run a virtual Windows system on a Mac are Parallels Desktop 3.0 (www.parallels.com) and VMware Fusion 2.0 (www.vmware.com/mac). Both programs require a “Mactel” system—a newer Mac with an Intel processor. Both systems offer trials, after which either will cost you $80 for continued use.
Be aware that if you decide to use Boot Camp, Parallels, or VMware Fusion to run Windows on a Mac, there is the added expense of acquiring a Windows XP or Vista license.
Key PC Components
A computer is a collection of components, many of which can have a direct impact on the overall performance of your PC as well as your overall computing experience. The pieces of a computer, typically referred to as hardware, include processor(s), hard drives, optical drives such as CD-ROM and DVD-ROM, and video and sound cards.
The most expensive component of any PC is also, ironically, the smallest—the CPU (central processing unit) or processor. The price of the processor is indicative of its importance; it is the engine, or brain, of the computer—executing operations, performing calculations, and coordinating the other hardware components. Theoretically, the faster the processor, the more quickly the computer will function, although frequently other issues can come into play. Factors such as the amount of memory (RAM) a PC has can have a more tangible impact on the computer’s performance than the processor.
For much of the processor’s four-decade history, manufacturers were able to increase the speed and power of a processor by increasing the number of transistors on the chip die. However, as the physical limitations of adding more transistors on the chip increased, companies shifted to multi-core processors. Today, quad core processors consist of four independent microprocessors (cores) on the same chip, or die.
However, many consumers assume there is a linear relationship between the number of cores and overall processing speed, which is not the case. A dual-core chip is not twice as powerful as a single-core chip. But having more than one processor does allow for more efficient processing, depending on the tasks you are performing. In particular, multi-core processors offer advantages to “power” users—high-end gamers, IT administrators, and software developers.
Unless you are planning to perform tasks that are extremely processor-intensive—such as heavy-duty gaming, video editing, or iPod video converting—or if you plan on running virtual systems such as Windows in the Mac OS, keep in mind that you don’t need the latest and greatest processor inside your new PC. To save some money without sacrificing a lot of performance, you may wish to consider a system with a processor that is a couple of generations behind the newest processors.
For mainstream desktop systems, some of the more common choices available today are Intel’s Pentium dual-core and Core 2 Duo and AMD’s Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core processors. On the laptop side, you will find AMD’s Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core Mobile and Turion 64 X2 Dual Core along with Intel’s Pentium Dual Core Mobile and Core 2 Duo in most mainstream laptop systems on the market today.
As PCs become more powerful, there is an incentive for software makers to write software that can exploit the latest technology. Furthermore, more users are getting involved with digital photos, video, and music.
All of this requires a growing amount of hard disk space—both internal and external—to store all the data and leave room for more over time. This section discusses key hardware devoted to data storage.
Computers have two types of memory—temporary and permanent. With temporary memory, any data saved in it is lost when you shut the computer down. The most common type of temporary memory in a computer is RAM, or random access memory. RAM is the primary storage for a computer—it is the working area used for loading, displaying and manipulating applications and data. Therefore, the amount of RAM your system has impacts several aspects of the computing experience—most importantly, the types and number of software programs you can run simultaneously.
Even with a top-of-the-line processor, a lack of physical memory can have a significantly negative impact on the performance of the PC. Furthermore, applications such as anti-virus software that are always running in the background can quickly use up a system’s memory (as well as processor) resources.
Compared to the CPU, is it relatively easy to add more physical memory if needed. However, it is probably worth paying for as much memory as you can afford up front.
Most of today’s budget PCs running Windows ship with at least 1G of memory. However, given the low cost of memory, we recommend going with no less than 2G and suggest 3G if your budget allows. Adding an additional gigabyte of memory when customizing a new system will cost you less than $50, while adding two extra gigabytes of memory should cost less than $100. Note that the most memory that 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Vista can handle is 4G.
Internal Hard Drives
Temporary memory, as we have discussed, plays a vital role in the operation of a PC. However, it is equally important to have the capacity to store data for future use. This is where permanent storage comes into play, which allows you to retain data even after you shut down the PC. The primary type of permanent storage in personal computers is the internal hard drive.
Hard Disk Drive (HDD) vs. Solid State Disk (SSD)
A trend to be aware of, especially if you are looking at notebook systems, is the movement toward solid state disk (SSD) drives. Just like traditional hard disk drives (HDDs), SSDs allow you to save data, images, and music. However, they differ in their execution. Solid state drives store data on memory chips, whereas HDDs write data to and read from spinning platters. Simply put, a solid state drive is a much larger version of the flash drive you may have in your digital camera.
Three advantages SSDs have over HDDs are speed, power, and longevity. Traditional hard drives, no matter how fast they are, still have to move their read heads over the platters—envision a needle on a record. Solid state drives, in contrast, have no moving parts, which allows them to read and write data at much higher speeds.
Also, since there are no moving parts, SSDs use less power and produce less heat than a traditional hard drive. This means they don’t draw down a laptop battery as quickly as HDDs, which is why solid state drives first started popping up in portable systems.
Lastly, the lack of moving parts significantly lowers the likelihood of mechanical failure with a solid state drive.
However, like most things in life, these benefits come at a cost. Whereas a 28G solid state disk drive can cost between $200 and $350, one terabyte (1T)—or 1,024 gigabytes—hard drives are plentiful for less than $250.
Hard Drive Considerations
The most important factor to consider when selecting an internal hard drive is the size, or storage capacity. The explosion of digital media has also placed greater emphasis on the need for adequate storage capacity. Digital photos, music, and video can take up a large amount of your hard drive very quickly.
Most entry-level desktop PCs today offer at least 250G of hard disk capacity, and this is the lowest amount you should consider. Many mainstream desktop systems today ship with hard drives between 250G and 750G in size and, unless you have no interest in digital photos or music, we recommend a minimum of 300G in hard disk capacity.
Notebook systems tend to have smaller internal hard drives. This is especially true for “value” notebook computers, which can ship with hard drives as small as 80G. Most mid-range notebooks offer hard drives that are at least 160G in size, while higher-end notebooks offer up to 400G of hard disk space.
Beyond size, a secondary consideration for internal hard drives is the speed at which they spin. The faster the drive rotates, the faster it is able to read and write data. While not a major concern for casual computer users, those who are into gaming and other multi-media applications will want to pay attention to drive speeds.
The majority of hard drives in desktop systems spin at 7,200rpm (rotations per minute), although you may find 10,000rpm or even 15,000rpm drives in high-performance systems.
Many laptop hard drives spin at a slower 5,400rpm to conserve power and to generate less heat, although higher speeds are often available on these systems.
Most observers agree that solid-state disk (SSD) will eventually overtake hard disk drives as the storage medium of choice, especially in notebook computers. SSDs have definite advantages over traditional hard disk drives, but SSDs are overshadowed because of their significant price premium. For the time being, a hard drive is the more prudent option.
Optical Drives: CD, DVD, & Blu-ray
Another type of data storage device is the optical drive, which uses lasers to read data from and write data to optical disks such as CDs and DVDs. Since CDs or DVDs are the preferred means of delivering software, it is virtually impossible to find a PC without an optical drive, such as a CD writeable/rewriteable drive, a multi-format CD/DVD writeable/rewriteable drive, or a DVD writeable/rewriteable drive.
DVD, which stands for digital versatile disc, is the preferred optical drive on the market today. DVD drives can now also read all types of CDs—standard music CDs, CD-Rs, and CD-RWs. The applications for DVDs on desktop systems are limited mainly to storage, unless the computer is a media center offering a cinematic viewing experience for DVD movies. With laptops, however, many users like the ability to view DVD movies while traveling.
Recordable and re-writeable DVDs offer impressive storage capacities of up to 4.7G for single-layer (SL) single-sided discs and up to 8.5G for dual-layer (DL) single-sided discs, or 9.4G for single-layer double-sided discs and 17G for dual-layer double-sided discs.
With recordable DVDs, there are two competing standards: DVD-RW and DVD+RW. DVD+RW drives cannot write to a DVD-RW disc and vice versa. With the advent of multi-format drives, which can read and write to both DVD+RW and DVD-RW discs, it is unlikely the industry will arrive at a single standard. Therefore, we strongly recommend purchasing a multi-format DVD±R/RW drive if you are planning to write or burn DVD discs. The majority of internal drives such as these cost less than $50. Furthermore, standard DVD-R and DVD+R discs, purchased in bulk, can cost between $0.20 and $0.45 apiece.
Blu-ray, the next generation of DVD devices, is a high-definition format based on blue lasers. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than red (the laser used in standard CD and DVD formats), so it can burn, or write, roughly three and a half times more data onto a disc—50G on a two-layer Blu-ray disc. Combination Blu-ray readers/ DVD±R/RW burners are now available for between $100 and $300. Blu-ray DVD burners, on average, cost between $200 and $350.
However, unless you are looking to take advantage of the higher-storage capacity of Blu-ray, we don’t see any reason to spend the extra money for these drives.
External Storage Devices
All of the hardware components we have discussed thus far have been internal in nature—meaning they reside within the case of the PC. However, in this age of portability, many PC users do not want their data “tied down,” so they are making use of portable storage media, such as external hard drives and flash memory devices that you can connect to your system via either USB or FireWire.
USB vs. FireWire
Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0 is a high-speed method for connecting all sorts of peripherals to a PC—mice, keyboards, printers, external hard drives and CD/DVD drives, compact flash drives, etc. USB’s high-speed competitor, which Apple developed, is IEEE-1394 or FireWire.
While FireWire offers significantly higher data transfer speeds—up to 3.2Gbps (gigabits per second) for FireWire 800 versus up to 480Mbps (megabits per second) for USB 2.0—it has failed to achieve the same mass-market appeal as USB 2.0. Therefore, most peripherals, including external hard drives, use USB 2.0 connectors.
However, FireWire is the preferred method of connecting digital-video-related electronics—digital camcorders as well as external DVD players and writers. Therefore, if you intend to do video editing on your PC, we suggest getting a system with a FireWire card, which will cost less than $30 for the upgrade.
No matter what type of system you purchase, make sure it has several USB 2.0 connectors, including some on the front of the case for easy access.
Flash Memory Devices
For secure and highly portable data transfer and storage, there are a number of flash memory devices available today. Unlike an internal or external hard disk drive, flash-based devices store data on a chip instead of writing data to and reading it from a “platter.” Therefore, there are no moving parts, which makes flash memory much more durable. In addition, flash memory devices require very little power to operate, so they do not require their own power source.
Flash media cards have long been the removable media choice for digital cameras, handheld devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs), and the like. Flash technology also has been integrated with a USB interface to arrive at USB flash drives, which are small enough to fit on a keychain yet offer storage capacity far greater than CDs or even DVDs. A four-gigabyte USB flash drive, on average, costs under $25.
Ultraportable Hard Drives
Just like with their internal cousins, the capacities of external hard drives continue to climb, with capacities in excess of one terabyte (1T; one trillion bytes, or 1,024G). Such large amounts of storage are also available in relatively small packages in the form of external 2.5" drives. An 80G external 2.5" drive, on average, costs around $70, while 250G drives typically cost between $80 and $120.
The price per megabyte for these drives is only a fraction of the cost of flash memory. A Western Digital 250G My Passport Studio external hard drive, which supports both USB 2.0 and FireWire 400, retails for $150 (www.westerndigital.com), or $0.00059 per megabyte. By means of comparison, an 8G Sandisk USB flash drive costing $30 at Radio Shack has a per-megabyte cost that is 500% greater than that of the Western Digital My Passport Studio drive.
More and more, computers are becoming personal entertainment centers, with some even allowing you to watch and record TV programs. However, even if you aren’t looking to buy one of these “media center” systems, chances are at some point you will listen to audio clips or music or watch video clips or movies with your computer. Depending on how much multi-media usage your PC will get, you will want to be sure to buy audio and video capabilities to match.
Earlier we discussed the CPU, which controls much of what goes on with the PC. However, computers also have a GPU, or graphics processing unit; these chips create the images you see on the display. Three-dimensional graphics (3D) are becoming the norm, especially with high-end gaming applications. The latest Windows Vista and Mac OS X Leopard operating systems are implementing advanced graphics that push the envelope of traditional computer capabilities. Most desktop systems today have dedicated video memory that offers better graphics capability compared to “integrated” video memory. Some value desktop systems and many notebook systems still have this type of video memory, where the system uses the primary memory for video and other operations. If you are not sure, inquire as to whether memory is dedicated specifically to the video system or whether the video memory is integrated with the main memory.
If you plan to use your new PC for gaming, graphics, or other serious multi-media applications, a dedicated graphics card is a necessity. Upgrading a desktop PC from integrated graphics to a dedicated video card usually costs under $60. Depending on the line of laptop you are looking to buy, you may not have the option to upgrade from integrated graphics to a dedicated video card. When such upgrades are available for the laptop, the cost is usually under $100.
The vast majority of new systems today come equipped for stereo sound, although you have options that will affect the overall sound quality. Some desktop systems and many notebooks have integrated audio, which should suffice for listening to MP3s and CDs or performing general computing tasks.
However, if you are looking for enhanced audio, you may have the option to upgrade to software-enhanced audio or to a dedicated sound card. Software-enhanced sound, which typically costs around $25, is a step up from basic integrated audio. Furthermore, it is usually the only internal audio upgrade available for notebook systems.
If you want the highest quality sound, especially for watching video or recording audio, hardware-driven sound is the best option. This entails a dedicated sound card, which is typically an option only for desktop systems. An upgrade to a dedicated sound card direct from the manufacturer will cost around $100.
While the computer itself does the heavy lifting as far as running software and performing calculations, the monitor is equally vital since it allows you to view the fruits of your PC’s labors.
When shopping for a new desktop system, be sure that the quote you receive includes the cost of a display; some companies quoting “low” prices for new computers may be selling them without a monitor. As you compare prices of new systems, do not look to the monitor as an area where you can save a lot of money. The increased viewing area and clarity of a larger display is well worth reduced eyestrain through the years.
LCD (liquid crystal display) is now the norm for both desktop and laptop/notebook systems. However, manufacturers such as Dell and Apple have begun flirting with displays backlit by LEDs (light-emitting diodes). While LED does not change the overall viewing experience, it does allow for much thinner systems overall compared to traditional LCDs, and LED displays consume less power—two definite benefits for portable systems. However, there is a slight premium for this option—Dell’s 13.3" XPS M1330 currently starts at $1,074; Apple’s 13" MacBook begins at $1,299; and the 15" MacBook Pro begins at $1,999.
Almost all new consumer desktop systems today offer widescreen displays that are at least 17" in size, with upgrade options up to 24" common. At the manufacturer level, upgrading from a 17" to a 19" LCD is only around $20. However, if you plan to use your PC for extended periods, we recommend at least a 22" widescreen LCD monitor, given the negligible cost of such an upgrade—around an extra $100.
For laptop users, there is a trade-off between screen size and portability. Today’s ultra-portable notebook systems, which usually weigh less than five pounds, have screen sizes that average around 12" or 13". Desktop replacement notebook systems with screen sizes ranging from 17" to 20" can weigh over seven pounds, an important consideration if you plan to travel with such a system.
A display’s resolution is the number of pixels that make up the actual viewing area. LCD displays have what is called a “native resolution”—generally the highest resolution that it can best display. Again, a 22" display with a 1680 × 1050 resolution is a worthwhile investment, especially if you plan to use your system for gaming or for watching movies. The cost of such a display, on average, is currently between $170 and $340.
Very few people these days use a home computer without accessing the Internet. There are several on-ramps to the information super highway—dial-up modems or high-speed connections such as DSL, cable, or satellite. For the first time ever, more than 90% of AAII members access the Internet using some type of broadband connection—92.4%, to be exact (Table 2).
These days, those of us with high-speed Internet connections take them for granted. However, a number of people live in areas where connecting to the Internet with a traditional dial-up modem (using a land telephone line) is their only option.
Depending on where you live, there may not be providers of high-speed Internet such as DSL/ADSL and cable. Even if satellite Internet is available, for many the costs are much too high. If you fall into one of these categories, you will need to have a system with a built-in modem. However, you cannot assume that a standard modem is included with a new PC.
High-speed or “broadband” connections offer data transfer speeds that are vastly superior to dial-up but, again, their availability is tied to where you live. Ranked in descending order based on data transfer speeds are cable, DSL/ADSL, and satellite.
In order to access the Internet using either a cable or DSL/ADSL modem, or if you are considering networking multiple computers at home, you will need a PC with a built-in Gigabit network adapter. On average, a standard 10/100/1000 (1000BASE-X) Gigabit network adapter costs between $10 and $50.
Wi-Fi technology offers wireless high-speed access to the Internet using Wi-Fi–enabled devices such as PCs, cell phones, or PDAs. Wireless access points, or hotspots, have sprung up in almost every place imaginable over the last several years, from coffee shops to hotels and airports. If you are planning to buy a new laptop, make sure it has a built-in wireless network card so you can make use of these hotspots.
For those with broadband Internet connections at home, you can also set up a wireless network and use Wi-Fi to connect to it. In order to have wireless at home, you would need broadband Internet access, such as DSL/ADSL or cable, a wireless router to connect to your cable or DSL/ADSL modem, as well as a wireless card for your PC.
Cellular phone companies—including Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint—are also entering the high-speed Internet market by offering Internet access over their cellular networks (where they are available). Some laptop makers offer built-in mobile broadband adapters. Please note, however, that these services require a wireless subscription, similar to a cellular phone plan.
While not technically part of the computer itself, printers, like monitors, play an important role and should be considered a part of a complete PC system. It is highly unlikely that you can use a computer for any length of time without having to print something, whether it is an E-mail message, a Web page, a digital picture, or a price chart. Printers, just like computers, come with numerous options and issues to consider and have varying price points. Keep in mind that the quoted price for a computer system rarely includes a printer. This is usually something you need to purchase separately.
Inkjet printers are the most common printers on the market today for the average PC user. They are inexpensive, reasonably fast, quiet, and achieve good print quality.
If you are spending the money for a printer, color is the way to go. This is especially important if you want to distinguish between data on printed graphs with multiple lines or bars—often a concern when printing reports from investment software and information from the Internet.
You can find color ink-jet printers that cost as little as $30, but remember that “you get what you pay for.” For standard color printing, expect to pay between $50 and $125 for a good-quality color inkjet printer.
Over the life of a typical inkjet printer, the greatest cost will be for ink. Sometimes, printers that are more expensive are actually less costly to run long-term because they often have higher-capacity ink tanks and separate tanks for each color (instead of multi-color ink cartridges).
Compared to inkjet printers, laser printers offer superior printing speed and quality. While the prices of laser printers continue to fall, they are probably overkill for the average computer user.
Personal monochrome (black and white) laser printers start at around $100, while personal color laser printers tend to run between $200 and $1,500.
Once you have decided upon the type of system you wish buy, the next step is actually doing it. When shopping for a new PC, you can buy it either directly from a mail-order vendor or from a “brick and mortar” retail store. A few companies, such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Apple, allow you to build a custom system and place your order on-line and have the system shipped directly to you (mail order). Likewise, these same companies and others make computers available at retail outlets such as BestBuy, Costco, Office Depot, Staples, and Wal-Mart.
Arguably, the biggest advantage with ordering a new PC through a mail-order company is that you are able to customize the system to get exactly what you want. In addition, due to inventory practices, mail-order companies are usually able to offer new technologies more quickly than retail companies, who usually have to move their existing inventory of older technology before restocking.
However, a major trade-off when purchasing mail-order is the lack of face-to-face assistance in case something goes wrong. Dell offers home installation service for $150 where a third-party technician will come to your house and set up your new PC. Furthermore, most mail-order companies include in a system’s purchase price one year of on-site service as part of any warranty. These two options should cover the majority of problems you may face—at least for the first year.
For repair service coverage over a longer period of time, many larger mail-order companies offer maintenance through third parties. Realistically, there is no reason to pay for service beyond three years. HP and Dell both offer three-year protection plans that cost $240 and $170, respectively. Apple’s AppleCare Protection Plan provides three years of telephone technical support and repair coverage for $250.
Buying retail doesn’t necessarily mean paying more for a system that isn’t everything you wanted. Popular stores such as BestBuy, Circuit City, and Wal-Mart are very competitive with on-line vendors on price and usually offer a large enough selection for you to be able to find the system that closely matches your needs. However, be prepared to compromise your wants, and perhaps your budget, to fit the retailer’s offerings.
On the other hand, once you have purchased the system, it may be difficult to get a retailer to offer free consultation and technical support. BestBuy’s Geek Squad services include in-home computer setup for $129 and diagnostic services ranging from $170 to $400.
Table 3 summarizes the recommended specifications for buying a desktop computer today that will allow you to perform the most common types of tasks for the next few years. Given the rapid changes in technology that are taking place, one certainty is that what is top-of-the-line today may very well be relegated to mid-line in a matter of months. We realize that computing needs can vary greatly from person to person, and what we have offered here are merely our thoughts and opinions. The ultimate decision, however, is yours to make.
|Table 3. Recommended System (Desktop)|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Home Premium||Mac OS X Leopard|
|Processor||2.0+GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core, Intel Core 2 Duo||2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo|
|Memory||3G RAM||2G RAM|
|Video Card||ATI or nVidia 128M, DirectX 10-capable graphics card||ATI Radeon 128M 2D/3D graphics card|
|Sound Card||integrated audio||built-in audio|
|Network Adapter||integrated 10/100 Ethernet||10/100/1000 Base-T Gigabit Ethernet|
|Monitor||22" widescreen LCD||20" widescreen LCD|
|Price*||$700 - $1,150||$1,324|
|*As of October 31, 2008.|