Desktop Power for a Pittance

PCs that can handle XP can be had for a song

Not so many years ago, buying a PC was like buying a car. Consumers obsessed for months over geeky technical specifications as if they were choosing between a basic Chevy and a souped-up Ferrari.

Now, buying a PC is no more complicated than buying a TV. And it's often cheaper. Just ask Rick Wilbins. The Dallas communications consultant bought a PC in just 15 minutes, paying $700 for a Compaq Presario with a monitor and a printer--half what he spent on his last computer. "I don't need all the knobs and buttons to make me feel good," says Wilbins. "And I certainly don't want to pay for them."

MORE FOR LESS. There's little chance of that these days. Sales-starved PC makers are slashing prices and throwing in free shipping, memory, and more. And if price isn't enough of an incentive, there's Microsoft's Windows XP, the first consumer version since Windows 95 that's worth going to the stores for. It's far less crash-prone, and it's designed to help even novice PC users master tasks such as digital photography.

What should you buy? Let's start in the bargain bin. Microsoft (MSFT ) says you'll need a 300-megahertz processor and 128 megabytes of random-access memory to handle Windows XP. The processor isn't a problem since it's tough to find a machine that runs slower than 900 MHz. But you'll want at least 256 MB of RAM and a 20-gigabyte hard drive to smoothly surf the Net, run programs such as Quicken, and play most games. Compaq's Presario 5300 meets these basic specs and goes for just $569 without a monitor.

To really tap XP's improved handling of digital photos and online music, you'll have to spend a bit more. XP makes recording CDs or downloading songs off the Net a snap. But you'll want plenty of hard-disk space to store this digital fare, as well as a rewriteable CD drive to burn disks for the car or your stereo. Plenty of models fit the bill, priced from $800 to $1,300. A good bet: Dell's Dimension 4300, which comes with a 1.6-gigahertz Pentium 4 chip and a 40-GB hard drive for $959.

Would-be moviemakers might end up spending a bit more still. To fulfill your Spielbergesque ambitions, look for plenty of storage and a Firewire connection. A standard feature on most digital video cameras and MP3 players, Firewire speeds downloading clips or tunes. Apple's iMac (AAPL ), ranging from $799 to $1,499, is still tops for ease of use. And Sony's (SNE ) $2,799 Vaio MX comes with a 1.7-GHz Pentium 4 chip, an 80-GB hard drive, and a rewriteable DVD drive to store your flicks.

It's a buyer's market so don't be afraid to bargain. When a Gateway (GTW ) rep told Brian Pfeufer that shipping for a $650 PC would be $90, Pfeufer joked: "What, are you wearing a mask and holding a gun?" The shipping fell to $45--and Gateway threw in free home-design software as well. "I got a good deal," the New York personal trainer says. And he didn't have to obsess for months to find it.

By Andrew Park in Dallas

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