How to Buy a New PC
PC World Editors

For more tips from PC World editors, browse the Expert Buying Guides online.

With so many factors to consider, deciding which desktop PC to buy can be a real challenge. From components to software to accessories, new PCs offer a bewildering array of choices. For some folks, sifting through the large number of options can be daunting.

Get What You Need
Today, almost any PC on the market can more than adequately handle such standard office chores as word processing and spreadsheets, as well as basic Internet functions like e-mail and general browsing. So for $1000 or less, you can get a PC that will suit most people's needs.

If you want to edit digital video or manage a large database, however, you may need more than the basics. Typically, you won't have to spend more than $1500 or $2000 for a system that will suit you today and serve you well for the next few years.

The best way to pay only for what you need is to carefully consider what you want to do with your system now, and try to anticipate what might interest you next year. Specific applications call for certain types of hardware, whether at home or in the office.

When you're ready to buy a desktop PC, get what you need. Here are some recommendations for the average user's minimum requirements. You may want to print out this article and keep it with when you shop.

A 2.66-GHz Pentium 4 or Athlon XP 2800+ Processor. For everyday work, word processing, spreadsheets, and e-mail, you don't need the latest, greatest, and most expensive processor. When current processors of the same clock speed were compared in PC World tests, processors from Advanced Micro Devices performed some tasks faster than Intel's offerings.

At Least 256MB of Memory. Anything less will slow your work, especially if you plan to use Windows XP. Buy as much as you can afford, up to 512MB.

The Right Windows. Most home and office PC users should find Windows XP Home a perfectly acceptable operating system. You should drop the extra $100 for Windows XP Professional only if you want to take advantage of management features such as Remote Desktop, which lets users control the computer remotely over the Internet.

Be Careful With Integrated AGP Graphics. Before you buy a computer with integrated graphics, ask if it has an AGP slot. If it doesn't, you won't be able to upgrade your graphics chip.

Subwoofers Improve Sound. Adding a sound system with a subwoofer (a large speaker that produces very low bass tones) can dramatically improve the sound quality of a home system, even if the speaker set is inexpensive. In the office, however, a booming subwoofer may trigger an uprising among your coworkers.

A Big Monitor. Unless you're really pinching pennies, consider a large monitor. A 19-inch CRT monitor lets you see your documents with greater definition (or at a higher resolution) than 17-inch or smaller displays. Better yet, get yourself a new 17-inch LCD monitor. It takes up less space on your desk; it's easier on your eyes; and it only costs about $150 more than a 19-inch CRT. And LCD prices keep falling, so watch for bargains. See "How to Buy a Monitor" for more specifics.

A CD-RW or Recordable DVD Drive. Now that most PC manufacturers have dumped the 1.44MB floppy disk drive, a recordable DVD or CD-RW drive is essential for data storage and transfer. Both allow you to back up important documents (700MB on a CD, 4.7GB on a DVD), share files with colleagues, and create custom audio or video CDs or DVDs. If you need to back up massive amounts of data or entire hard drives, choose the DVD option.

A 60GB or Larger Hard Drive. A 20GB hard drive is fine for simple word processing or Web browsing tasks, but you'll likely fill that hard drive pretty quickly. In the long run it's best to buy more storage space than you think you'll need. Today's largest hard drives reach 300GB. Unless you're planning to use your PC as a mini server for your office database or for electronic entertainment, a drive with less capacity than that may be more cost effective.

Connectivity Up Front. Many PCs now offer a pair of USB ports on the front bezel, so you can connect multiple peripherals without having to reach behind the case. If you have lots of gear to plug into the PC, look for systems with up-front FireWire (IEEE 1394) or USB 2.0 ports, or optical audio connectors, depending on your needs.

Graphics Cards for Novice Gamers. If you want to do some gaming, and you're keeping an eye on the future, get a lower-level GeForce4 MX board with 64MB of RAM--but read the fine print to make sure it will support next-generation DirectX games. See "How to Buy a Graphics Board" for details on specific cards.

Other Shopping Tips
PC shoppers can save money and avoid unnecessary hassle by following these tips:

Don't Buy Extra Software. Purchase an operating system, an office suite, and an antivirus package. If you really you need more, look for vendors' software bundles.

Don't Wait for Price Reductions. If you need a new PC now, don't wait a few months to see whether prices will drop further and upper-end performance will improve. Decide when you need the system, and go for it.

Look for Above-Average Specs. If longevity is a priority (and if you can afford it), get something close to, but below, the current top of the line. This will extend the useful life of your PC.

Check an LCD Monitor's Interface. Depending on the brand or model of LCD monitor, it could have one of several different interface connectors--the part that plugs into the PC. Before you buy a monitor, make sure it works with the system you want, or at least that you have a money-back guarantee.

Upgrade at the Time of Purchase. Often, you can get a better deal on a larger hard drive or a better monitor when you first order your computer. Doubling the size of a hard drive may add very little to the cost, and upgrading to a better monitor may add only $80 to $100.

Avoid Gimmicky Keyboards. Many vendors tout fancy keyboards with extra buttons for launching apps. Save some money by choosing the cheapest option unless you have a specific need for a fancier model.

Don't Overpay on Your Warranty. Because most PC problems tend to crop up in the first year, a one-year warranty should be fine.

Buy From a Trustworthy Source. Above all, reduce your chances of getting a lemon: Buy from a PC maker you trust. Check out PC World's annual Reliability & Service survey, in which readers report on which PC makers provide the best (and worst) technical support and warranty service.

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