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Adventures in PC-Land

In which Jeff, our hero, learns everything you’ll need to know about buying a new computer — a classic tale of boy meets PC, boy loses PC, and, well, read and find out.

Not so long ago, you needed to think about only two things when picking a personal computer: processor speed and hard-drive size. But today choosing the right PC is like negotiating a lease on a new car. The spec sheets contain enough fine print and esoteric terminology to keep a legion of lawyers busy for weeks.

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This month’s Powertools presents all you need to know to shop for a Windows-based PC that will suit your work style. We’ve included the key specifications for a business PC, so you’ll know what to ask for the next time you visit a computer store — or place an order with your company’s MIS department. The good news is that prices for PCs are falling, and you can get more machine for less money: A PC that can tackle business networking and computing tasks costs about $2,000. But whatever the price tag, remember that knowledge is still your best Powertool.

The Processor

The brains of any computer is the CPU (central processing unit). While there are many components that combine to determine whether your machine is a wiz or a dullard, the CPU is still the first thing to think about when picking a system. I recommend that you get the fastest CPU that you can afford (or that your MIS department will let you get away with), which as of this writing is a 450-MHz Pentium II.

A MHz (megahertz) rating is to a chip what a horsepower rating is to your car, and while some chip manufacturers quote a lot of confusing numbers, the MHz rating remains the benchmark of computing power.

If you want a mid-range business computer, focus on just two processors: the Intel 300-MHz or 333-MHz Pentium II, and the 300-MHz AMD K6-2. (If a very slight performance lag doesn’t matter to you, small businesses can save about $200 by opting for the AMD K6-2.) And watch for AMD’s more powerful K6-3, scheduled for release by the end of 1998.

Intel’s new-and-improved, low-end Celeron chip is fine for home use. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Intel’s new speed demon: the Xeon processor. It’s fast indeed, but it’s intended for computers with multiple CPUs, such as network servers that run Windows NT or Unix.

The Xeon is not going to be the next desktop PC genius. That honor reportedly goes to Intel’s next-generation chip, code-named Merced. But Merced’s release, delayed several times, is now slated for sometime in 2000. If you’re worried about computer obsolescence, wait until Intel introduces its next-generation Pentium II processor, code-named Katmai. Scheduled for release a few months from now, it will boast two speeds: 450 MHz and 500 MHz.

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The L2 Cache

The L2 cache is the fast memory that sits next to the CPU. This memory serves as the system’s prognosticator, lining up the instructions that it expects you to send to the processor next. After the processor, an L2 cache (or lack of one) has the greatest impact on a PC’s overall performance.

For common mouse moves, such as opening a word-processing file, a 256-KB (kilobyte) L2 cache is fine. The Pentium II comes with a built-in 512-KB L2 cache — an adequate standard for most business users. But as with money, a larger stash of cache is always better.

System Memory

Also known as RAM (random access memory), system memory comprises a machine’s main temporary-storage space. The greater the RAM, the greater the machine’s capacity for juggling applications.

Most business PCs come with 64 MB (megabytes) of RAM. That’s enough memory to handle several applications simultaneously, allowing you to run a spreadsheet, to research the Web, and to write a memo — all at once. But if your company is running the Windows NT operating system, you’ll need 128 MB of RAM. And you should get 128 MB if you need a computer that can take on chores such as videoconferencing and voice dictation. The memory boost will add about $200 to the machine’s price tag, but more RAM will make those cutting-edge applications run more smoothly.

The Hard Drive

The hard drive is your computer’s electronic filing cabinet — a long-term repository for documents, such as business proposals, and for all of the software that doesn’t run off a CD-ROM.

You might have heard that there are speed differences between hard drives. That’s true. But many other factors affect a hard drive’s performance — for example, the type of controller that connects the drive to the rest of your PC. So when shopping for a hard drive, forget about speed and “access time.” What counts is size.

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It’s not unusual to find 14-GB (gigabyte) hard drives in top-of-the-line desktop PCs. But the bar gets raised higher every month — which is a good thing, because software programs grow more bloated every week. More hard-disk space is never enough.

PCI Slots

Now we dig a little deeper into computer jargon. Bear with me.

A standard computer comes with what are called PCI (peripheral component interconnect) slots. These slots can hold expansion cards, such as a video adapter for watching TV on your computer, a card for connecting a scanner, or a network card for hooking the machine to your company’s LAN (local area network). Your system of choice should include at least two “free” (empty) PCI slots, which will allow you to expand the computer’s functionality.

The Graphics Card

An arcane yet crucial component of a PC, the graphics card turns digital data into the stuff that you see on your computer monitor. That feat is not easily accomplished, and a slow graphics card can cripple even the fastest processor.

If you’re considering a Pentium II computer, make sure that the system includes a graphics card with 8 MB of memory and that it adheres to the AGP (accelerated-graphics port) standard.

USB Ports

For years, computer owners struggled to connect peripherals like printers, scanners, and even mice to their system. That’s because the computer’s software often couldn’t recognize the hardware that was being plugged into the machine. USB (universal serial bus) ports promise to eliminate such hassles. Located on the back of a PC, USB ports look like big phone jacks. The system you choose should come with at least two of them.

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The Modem

Never buy a PC that lacks a modem. Sure, your machine might be on a corporate LAN, which will get you onto the Internet. But what will you do when the LAN crashes?

A 56-Kbps (kilobytes-per-second) modem that conforms to the V.90 industry standard will get you online when your company’s network is foundering. Ordering a system with a modem adds just $50 to $100 to the overall price tag. When you absolutely must send an email, you’ll agree that the extra cost is worth every penny.

CD-ROM Drive

A CD-ROM drive has become a standard-issue feature on all new computers. I’ve got one thing to say about that feature: Forget about it. Businesspeople should consider only machines with a DVD-ROM drive. DVDs (digital versatile discs, also known as “digital video discs”) are the up-and-coming format for both movies and computer programs. Several popular programs, such as Microsoft’s Encarta, are already available on DVD. A DVD can store 4.7 GB of information — seven times as much as a CD-ROM can. Double-layered, double-sided DVDs carry the potential for up to 17 GB of data. And DVD drives can play CD-ROMs as well.

Look for a system with a second- or third-generation DVD drive (often referred to as DVD II or DVD III). But make sure that the DVD-drive package includes an MPEG-2 decoder, which is necessary to play DVD movie discs.

The Monitor

The ideal computer-monitor size is 17 inches — big enough to let you view the work you’ve done on an expanded spreadsheet, but not so big that the monitor takes over your entire desk.

When shopping for a monitor, ask the salespeople about its resolution and its vertical-refresh rate. Resolution is gauged in pixels, with higher numbers indicating sharper image detail and greater crispness. The vertical-refresh rate indicates the number of times per second that the monitor can update its onscreen image. The higher the refresh rate, the less likely the monitor is to produce an eye-straining flicker. A resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels and a refresh rate of 85 Hz are good minimum specs to look for.

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These specs apply to CRTs (cathode-ray-tube monitors). But now there’s another option: an LCD (liquid crystal display) desktop monitor. LCDs used to cost thousands of dollars. But in the past year, prices have dropped to as low as $800 for a 14-inch monitor. Too small? Not so: LCD displays are flat, so the viewable screen area matches that of a 17-inch CRT monitor. What’s more, LCDs not only provide a sharper image — they also use less power, throw off less heat, and take up much less desktop space than conventional monitors.

Additional Storage

Your mother always told you: back up your files! Trouble is, a 3.5-inch disk can’t handle all of the project logs, slide presentations, and financial data that resides on your computer. One solution is to get a Zip drive, a device that lets you load 100 MB of data onto a single cartridge. A Zip drive, which will set you back less than $100, has become something of a de facto standard for most PCs.

If you need more storage space, you might consider SyQuest’s SparQ, a 1-GB, removable-cartridge hard drive (about $200). But a good new alternative is a CD-RW drive. CD-RW (CD read-write) drives treat recordable CDs like floppy disks, letting you write files directly to and from optical disks. CD-RW drives cost about $500, but they’re more rugged than other backup media. One catch: Older CD-ROM drives can’t read CD-RW discs.

The Final Word

So there’s your shopping list. Print out this web page, and use it when you visit a computer store or submit an order to your MIS department. And be strong: Don’t let the salespeople talk you into something that you don’t need — and don’t let the MIS honchos talk you out of something that will give you a competitive edge.

Contributing editor John R. Quain (www.j-q.com) appears regularly on CBS News’s “Up to the Minute.”

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