Buying a PC for the Home

Last updated:

Here are some specifications for PC configurations on the low and high side of the $500 to $1500 range:

Table of Contents

  1. Processor
  2. Bus
  3. Memory connector
  4. Amount of RAM
  5. Hard Disk capacity
  6. Diskette drive
  7. Back-up
  8. CD-ROM
  9. Sound card
  10. Monitor
  11. Display card
  12. modem
  13. Keyboard
  14. Mouse
  15. Software
  16. Platitudes

1. Processor:
Low end: AMD K6-2 667 MHz
Intermediate: AMD K6-3 900 MHz, or Intel Celeron 733 MHz
Higher end: Intel Pentium III 1000 MHz or Pentium IV 1.4 GHz

In general, the last number (e.g., 900MHz) tells you the frequency of the processor. Higher numbers are generally better.

I strongly recommend buying a PC with an Intel Celeron. Right now, this has the most bang for the buck. The AMD processors are fine, so far as I know. There is always a niggling doubt about compatibility, though. (Of course, this gives Intel the advantage -- which is a good reason to own Intel stock!)

The Celeron processors are best for you if you mostly run one program at a time. For simple word processing, small spreadsheets, typical game programs, and Web browsing, a Celeron is an excellent choice. The "knee" of the price curve (i.e., where the best deal lies) is currently a 733 MHz Celeron.

The Pentium III and Pentium IV processors are better if you are a heavy-duty user. If you run large databases or spreadsheets, or if you run multiple programs simultaneously, get a P-III or P-IV. What's the difference between them? Not very much, in terms of performance. The -IV is a little faster (though you are paying an awful lot more money for a very little more performance). It also requires an expensive type of memory called RDRAM or RAMBUS RAM. A Pentium-III takes PC-133 SDRAM, which currently costs around $50 for 256M. You will pay twice as money much for half as much RDRAM. As a "value" buyer, I'm staying away from the Pentium IV until memory prices come *way* down. And I'm not hopeful about the prospects, since there is a stiff royalty associated with the manufacture of RDRAM.

The knee of the curve for Pentium III is at 933 MHz. I'd pay a little more and get a 1000 MHz (1 GHz) CPU, just to say I have a GHz machine. (This information is the most ephemeral of all -- Intel changes the pricing schedule on a monthly basis.)

2. Bus:

All systems have a PCI bus, these days. If your motherboard has an ISA slot, it can also accept cards from an older system. These days, there is little need for ISA.

Your motherboard should also have an AGP slot. This better accommodates high-performance display cards.

Very Important: Your motherboard should also provide at least one USB (Universal Serial Bus) port. USB is a relatively new kind of connector that lets you hook up all kinds of peripherals to your computer without having to open it up and mess with cards and configurations. Do NOT buy a computer whose motherboard does not provide USB. Almost all of them do -- but you should make certain.

3. Memory connector:

Be sure that your motherboard accepts PC-133 memory. This is the most popular, best valued, and highest performance memory format on the market at this time. Excellent deals on memory are available from places like Access Micro or Crucial Technologies.

If you feel at all comfortable opening your computer and inserting memory (it's really pretty easy), you might consider purchasing your computer with the bare minimum of memory (say, 32 or 64 megabytes), and then purchasing memory from Crucial or Access Micro. This is worth doing only if you feel comfortable with the process, and if your computer vendor is charging too much for memory.

4. Amount of RAM memory:
Low end: 64 megabytes ($20 or so)
High end: 256 megabytes ($50 to $60)

More is better, of course. Right now (7/01), memory costs around $0.20 - $0.25 per megabyte. 32M is pretty much the rock-bottom minimum you should work with. Windows 98 and ME are marginal with 16M, but work nicely with 32M. Memory is like refrigerator capacity -- you will eventually use all that you have. Software is getting fatter and fatter, so you may as well buy enough to accommodate it for the next few years.

Go for 128M. If you are a serious user (e.g., you chose a Pentium III or IV), get at least 256M. If you are a heavy-duty database user, or if you run a lot of applications at the same time (I often find myself simultaneously running Visual C++, Netscape Communicator, Microsoft Word, and a few editor windows!) consider getting 512M or more. If you're forced to use Windows XP, you're going to need lots of memory.

5. Hard Disk capacity:
Low end: 10 gigabytes (GB) (around $80)
High end: 30 gigabytes (GB) (around $150)

Again, more is better. There's very little difference among disk drives, at this point. I tend to like Fujitsu, Western Digital and IBM drives, and I tend to avoid Maxtor. It wouldn't take much of a price difference to make me flip one way or the other, though.

Nearly all the IDE drives on the market are "Ultra-DMA" (or "UDMA") drives. This gives you very high performance at very low cost. You might also see these referred to as Ultra-ATA. Look for ATA100 drives, if your motherboard supports them. These can transfer data to and from your disk drive somewhat faster. There are various transfer speed grades. The original UDMA transferred data at 33 megabytes per second. Most current drives are now moving data at 66 or 100 M/sec. You may see these referred to as ATA/66 or ATA/100. Bigger numbers are better -- but only if your motherboard can support the higher speed. Most motherboards being sold today are rated for ATA/100 on their IDE busses.

Most of the manufacturers are making "7200 RPM" drives. These have slightly improved performance, since the disk spins a bit faster, and therefore, the data come off the disk a bit more quickly. There are even a few 10,000 RPM drives around.

If you take my advice about getting a removable backup disk drive, you might consider choosing a slower, higher capacity one, if backup speed isn't a critical issue for you.

For super-high performance, you might consider an "ultrawide" SCSI-2 drive instead of IDE. It will probably mean installing an additional interface card into your motherboard's PCI bus, unless your motherboard happens to have a SCSI-2 interface built-in. Also, make sure that the motherboard knows how to boot from a SCSI-2 drive without needing a floppy drive, or any other shenanigans. This is pretty much standard, these days.

Don't buy a SCSI-1 (or just plain "SCSI") drive. It's no better than an EIDE (unless, perhaps, if you are planning to run Linux or another real operating system).

Note that SCSI-2 drives can cost around 100% to 200% more than the same- size IDE drive, and you will probably also need to buy a SCSI-2 driver card. (For IDE, no driver card is necessary, as it is built into all modern motherboards.)

6. Diskette drive:
1.44 megabyte 3.5 inch ($20)

You'll almost certainly have a 3.5 inch drive in any system anyway.

7. Back-up

BACK UP YOUR MAIN HARD DISK: Get a removable hard disk drive! You can take any IDE hard disk drive, and turn it into a removable hard disk for as little as $20. A 20G hard disk goes for under $100, if you shop carefully. Add $20 - $40 for a removable frame and carrier, you have a backup solution without the unreliability of a tape drive! This is the backup solution I am currently using.

8. CD-ROM drive
Low end: "32x" IDE CD-ROM drive ($40)
High end: 3rd or 4th Generation DVD-ROM drive ($120, or $200 with MPEG decoder)
Alternative: CD-RW drive ($140 and up)

Get the 32x CD-ROM drive. The higher "x" number drives simply transfer data a bit faster. You won't notice much difference between performance of a "24x" and a "44x" drive.

Or, you might consider purchasing a CD-RW drive. These drives not only read CD-ROMs, they can write them. Depending on the media you purchase, you can write the medium once, or you can use it sort of like a low capacity tape drive, overwriting the previous contents. A CD-RW drive is handy if you need to archive or distribute hundreds of megabytes at a time.

These drives allow you to read and write CD-ROMs. The speeds, e.g., 12x10x32x, refer to how much faster than normal audio CD rates each of the three functions are. In this case, it can write on a write-once disk (a "CD-R") 12 times the speed of an audio CD, i.e., it could write a full disk in 65 minutes divided by 12, or under 6 minutes. The second number refers to the speed of writing on re-writable ("CD-RW") disks, and the third number is the speed of reading any of these or other CD-ROM or CD-audio disks.

The capacity of these disks is around 650M. You can also purchase blank media that can accommodate 700M. They tend to cost the same, or slightly more than the 650M blanks.

What about DVD-ROM? I'm undecided. DVD-ROM drives can read CD-ROMs. They can also read DVD disks, which can store up to 14 GB (20 times the capacity of a CD-ROM). At the moment, there are few products available on DVD-ROM. One or two encyclopedias are around. Some game programs too, probably. Mostly, though, having a DVD-ROM will let you watch DVD movies on your computer. You want to watch movies on your desktop PC?

On the other hand, I have a friend who made sure to buy a DVD-ROM-equipped laptop. Why does that make sense? Well, you carry your laptop over to the TV (in your home, in your hotel room), and plug 'er in. Now you can watch top quality movies. Or watch a movie while waiting for your plane! Very cute.

9. Sound card

Get one. Actually, your motherboard may well come equipped with one. Unless someone in the family is musically inclined, it doesn't matter too much which one you get.

If you are into music, make sure that the sound card is "wave-table" capable. And it should have a MIDI interface if you think you might want to plug in a (piano-style) keyboard.

You will also want a pair of speakers. You can spend lots of money on these, if you want. I got a $15 pair that have battery-powered amplifiers in them. I tried putting in the batteries and turning on the amplifiers. Feh! I turned the amplifiers off, and just turned up the volume on the sound card. It works fine for me, but then, I never listened to the Grateful Dead at 120 decibels. If you want lots of volume or fabulous frequency response, you may want to spend more on speakers, but I can't advise you about it.

10. Monitor
Low end: 15 inch, 0.28 mm dot pitch, Interlaced (apx $140)
High end: 19 inch, 0.28 mm dot pitch, Interlaced or not ($300 - 600)
Ultra Super Platinum Class: 17 inch LCD display ($700 - 900)

Bigger "inches" is better, while smaller "dot pitch" is better. A dot pitch of 0.28 millimeters OR LESS will do. Do NOT, under ANY circumstances, buy a 0.31 mm dot pitch monitor. It will save you $50 or more upon purchase, but will cost you more at the optometrist!

What is this interlace stuff? Well, less expensive monitors cannot display an entire high resolution image at full speed. Instead, they alternate between the even lines and the odd lines. This is called "interlacing" the image. If your eyes are particularly sensitive, you may be bothered by this. I literally cannot see it. If you have a problem with this, be sure to buy a monitor that can display full resolution images without interlace (often abbreviated "NI", for non-interlaced). Another thing to watch for, if you have sensitive eyes, is the vertical retrace frequency. The higher the frequency at which the monitor can display a non-interlaced, full resolution image, the better.

Confused? Just be sure to see the monitor you are buying in operation. In particular, be sure to start up a word processor, and type or read in some text. Sit down in front of it, and try reading and working with it. Does it flicker? Does it waver? Are the characters fuzzy or crisp? Are straight lines straight or warped? Don't let a salesman pressure you. And absolutely do not buy a monitor sight unseen. Just looking at a monitor with some demo running is "sight unseen."

You can safely ignore any marketing manure about "radiation." Picture tubes have not emitted detectable radiation in decades. Anything you see about "low radiation monitors" is pure hype. It's okay to buy one, so long as it doesn't cost you a penny extra.

You may want to consider a monitor with some built-in peripherals, to minimize desk clutter. Some common built-ins include speakers and a USB hub. (A USB hub is a good thing. It lets you connect up more USB devices than your motherboard provided ports for. Eventually, most of your peripherals will be based on USB, such as printers, scanners, digital cameras, modems, pencil sharpeners...)

If you buy a 15 inch monitor, be sure to configure your Windows display with no more than 1024 by 768 pixels, even if the booklet that comes with the monitor says you can go up to 1280 by 1024. You will strain your eyes using that high a resolution on that small a monitor. If you get a 17 inch monitor, then *maybe* you can use 1280 by 1024. Ask a salesman to demonstrate. If you are doing serious work, with large images or spreadsheets, or you are programming, and opening lots of windows simultaneously, you should strongly consider springing for the biggest, best monitor you can afford. The 19 inch monitors are an excellent bargain, if your eyes let you get away with using the less expensive ones.

What about the Ultra Super Platinum class, i.e., LCD displays? They're wonderful. They use very little power (probably less than 25% of the power that a CRT monitor takes), they don't seem to be considered hazardous waste (yes, you *are* eventually going to replace this new baby with a newer one!), and they are much easier on the eyes. A 17 inch LCD display is so sharp that it generally runs at the same resolution as a 19 inch monitor, i.e., 1280 x 1024. But you pay more for it. I've seen them as cheap as $800 at Costco.

A thought has occurred to me, though: 15 inch LCD displays are available in the $350 range, and their resolution is in the neighborhood of 1024 x 768 pixels. One could purchase a twin-head display card and a pair of 15 inch LCD displays, and end up with 20% more display area to work with. Just a thought...

11. Display card

Low end: 4 megabyte AGP ($30)

High end: 32 megabyte AGP ($50 to $200)

These cards connect the computer to the monitor. The difference between the low and high end is the number of simultaneous colors they can display, the speed with which the computer can draw on the screen, and the 3-D capabilities.

A 4 megabyte card can display 24 million colors simultaneously at 1280 by 1024 pixels (this is called "true color," because the human eye probably can't distinguish more than 24 million colors anyway). A 16 meg card can display 1600 x 1200 pixels in true color, with lots of extra memory left over for game features.

Unless you are doing some pretty fancy photo-retouching, you probably shouldn't run your display in "true color" mode. 256-color or 65,536-color mode ought to be just fine, and will run a little faster.

Most cards have some "3D" acceleration capability, letting some games and simulations run faster. Other cards have an "MPEG" feature, letting some videos play more smoothly.

If you want to play heavy-duty 3-D games such as Quake, at super speed, you may want to buy a special 3-D card. This is in addition to the regular display card. I can't advise you on this.

The display card will plug into the AGP slot. Do NOT buy a machine with a video card that plugs into the ISA bus. They are trying to unload ANCIENT merchandise on you.

Some really inexpensive machines have the display card built into the motherboard, and they "share" some system memory with the display. Not a great idea. It will eat some of the performance of your system. If all you are doing is running simple spreadsheets or doing word processing, then this will be no problem at all for you. If you need all the power you can get -- avoid this sort of system.

12. Modem
Low end: 56kbps internal fax/data "Win" modem ($40)
High end: 56kbps internal or external fax/voice/data modem ($100)

The numbers just indicate how fast the modem transfers data. They all run at 56kbps these days. The phone line will never be quiet enough to enable the highest data rate, anyway.

The 56k modems come in two flavors:

An internal modem is on a card that plugs into the motherboard, inside the case. They are usually $30 cheaper than an external modem, which plugs into one of the computer's external "serial ports" (or even a USB port). Their advantage is that it is easier to upgrade an external modem. You don't have to perform surgery on your computer to get at the modem. Also, you can use the same modem with any other computer, simply by unplugging it from one machine and plugging into another. On the other hand, there will probably not be much more in the way of upgrades to telephone modems, and internal modems are so cheap that there really isn't much point in sharing.

For many purposes, an internal modem is probably adequate. I happen to prefer external modems, since I have other computers, and I like to be able to get at the modem and see its lights blink.

The voice feature is of questionable value. It lets you turn your computer into a voice-menuing system and answering machine. There are other potential applications, but nothing big yet. If it doesn't cost you much, go for the modem with voice. If I had to choose between a faster modem and a modem with voice, I'd go for speed.

One other consideration: Your cable company may offer internet service. In San Diego, Time Warner Cable offers Road Runner cable modem service for $45-$50 per month. If you can afford it, this is a fabulous deal. you get better than 100kbps (up to 4,000 kbps, sometimes) and all-you-can-eat internet access. Cox offers a similar product (At Home) for a similar price.

ISDN? Don't bother, unless you have absolutely no better choices. Actually, I'm not sure that anyone even offers ISDN anymore.

DSL? If you can't get Road Runner or Cox At Home or similar cable modem service, you may want to consider DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service. This is a high speed digital connection over a telephone line. I think I saw a postcard advertisement from Pac Bell, offering pretty good DSL service for a similar price to Road Runner and At Home. The overall performance should be similar, although the peak performance of DSL will generally be less than that of a cable modem.

13. Keyboard

Get one!

The "natural" keyboards are mostly a gimmick, but try working with both normal and natural keyboards to see what you like. If you find you want one later on, you can easily add it on. The standard keyboard costs only around $20 anyway. Be sure to try out the keyboard and see if you are satisfied with the feel. If anyone in the family can touch type, have them try it out. If the keyboard feels flimsy, ask for a different model.

You might want to get a wrist wrest for the keyboard, if you plan to do a lot of typing. Then again, you can get one later. They cost $10-$50, depending on how fancy they are. Perhaps you can convince your dealer to throw one in.

14. Mouse

Get any old mouse. Don't buy an expensive mouse -- it is not worth it. If the mouse costs more than $20, ask WHY, in a forceful tone. I've seen $10 mice that lasted years with careful use. At that price, they are disposable anyway.

Actually, if you don't like cleaning lint and hair out of your mouse every 6 months, consider an "optical" mouse. It shouldn't cost more than $40. It has sensors that can detect motion on any surface without a mechanical lint accumulator.

You may want to consider a mouse with a scroll wheel. I have become addicted to mine. It lets you scroll a window without dragging the mouse over to a scroll bar. Instead, you just spin the wheel...

Get the store to throw in a mouse pad. It's a swatch of neoprene with fabric glued to it. They have them in fancy colors and with artwork on them. If the store throws one in, it will probably have the their logo/name on it. It helps the mouse work more smoothly, and it sets aside some space for the mouse on your desktop.

If you must buy a mouse pad, it will cost $3-$15, depending on the artwork and how much money the store wants to make. Heck, you can even get one printed up with your own choice of message and graphics (including your own scanned photographs!) from

15. Software

Get Windows 98 -- it is often bundled with the computer, or available for a reduced cost with the computer. (If you're super-serious, you might want to spring for Windows 2000 Professional It will cost around $200 with manuals.) I haven't heard much to recommend Windows ME. It's probably not much different than Windows 98.

You may want to consider waiting for Windows XP. It is the first "real" operating system that Microsoft will be selling to consumers. Trust me, Windows ME/98/95/etc. have been despicable toy trash, which is why they crash all the time. Windows XP is based on the "NT" (now known as 2000) operating system, but simplified for a typical user.

(On the other hand, Microsoft seems to be furthering their agenda with Windows XP: forcing universal registration; bundling their own instant messenger; forcing you to obtain a "Microsoft Passport"... They've toned things down a little bit, since the press reacted so (justifiably!) negatively to some of their other plans. I'm going to defer my Windows upgrades for awhile. I am hoping to do lots more with Linux, an operating system I can trust and feel comfortable with.)

BE SURE THEY GIVE YOU THE MANUALS AND DISKS. Otherwise, you could be getting an illegal copy of the software -- this isn't likely at a well-known store, but small shops have been known to do this.

If they throw in other software, more the better. Often, they will throw in a handful of CD-ROMs. Probably one of the more useful kinds of software, particularly for the kids, is a touch-typing tutor, like "Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing". Get your kids to learn to touch-type, if they haven't learned this skill already. It will help them a lot with the computer and in schoolwork.

MS Office 2000 is an excellent suite of applications. It consists of my favorite word processor (MS-Word); a very good spreadsheet, Excel; a business presentation processor, Powerpoint; and some versions of Office 97 include a somewhat anemic database, Access.

Any price under $200 is very good for this suite, if it's what you're looking for.

Wondering about Linux? If you are reading this article, you are probably not really ready for Linux. Actually, it's more a matter of Linux not being ready for you. Linux is a flavor of Unix, and you need to understand system administration in order to get it up and keep it running. It's a wonderful operating system -- much more robust and powerful than anything I've seen from MicroSoft. Still, it just isn't sufficiently bulletproof, yet. Hang in there...


Use the above as a general guide, so you don't seem like a totally unknowledgeable buyer. Do not attempt to configure a system yourself or via a friend. You want someone you can blame and cuss at (under your breath, of course) guiltlessly, when something goes wrong with the computer. Go to CompUSA, Costco, or some other large, well-known shop. In San Diego, PC Club is a very good bet. I've recommended them to friends, and never heard of a problem. Keep in mind that this changes on a daily basis, so see if you can find recent references.

Ask friends who have a computer, where they got it, and how they like the store they bought it from. Go to a couple of computer stores, and check them out. See if there are any free local computer publications -- computer stores are good places to find them, generally. Look in these publications for large, clearly written advertisements. See if you can get a consensus on a good place. One advantage to a smaller shop: some of them will dicker. Don't expect to get a lot, though. Margins aren't usually very high. Keep your eyes open, though: On a recent visit to a computer shop, after we had settled on what we thought was a very good price for a system, one of our retinue noticed a different system with a better deal. The store ended up dropping the price on our system, even more, and then threw in some speakers.

Shop around! It's like buying a car. I've seen a price variation of up to 30% on PCs. The extra money could be paying for hand-holding and support, or it could be paying for the store manager's Lexus.

Make certain that the shop stands behind their work, and that they do repair work on their own premises (unless you don't mind the delays and risks involved in shipping your computer around to a maintenance depot).

I strongly recommend buying a preconfigured system. You will probably find pre-packaged systems fitting most of the above criteria at most of the shops you visit. You may not meet every criterion I mention, but what the heck?

I hope you have found this missive helpful. Good luck. Feel free to email me if you want advice, or if you have any comments.

© 2001 by Russell L. Schnapp