Desktops: Get The Most Bang For Your Buck

Adding memory is a cheap way to boost PC performance

Desktop PCs are the wallflowers of the high-tech world. But while the sexier laptops get all the attention, a desktop may actually be a better choice for many buyers. They offer more power for the money and, perhaps more important, much greater flexibility, especially in the critical choice of a monitor. Here's how to get the most for your money.

Desktop PCs have truly become commodities, all built from the same off-the-shelf components. This means that choice of brand is important only for service and support, and -- given the razor-thin margins in the consumer PC business -- it's best to keep your expectations of support modest. Instead of the brand, your focus should be on features and price, which can be as low as $500 for a more-than-adequate system without a monitor.

The key components of a PC are the processor, memory, the graphics system, disk drives, and the display. For most people, the processor is the least important consideration because anything on the market will suit their needs. That typically means an Intel (INTC ) Pentium 4 or Celeron at 2.8 gigahertz (the Pentium offers higher performance) or an AMD (AMD ) Athlon XP 3000+. Avoid paying more for faster chips, unless you plan on heavy photo or video editing or other processor-intensive work. And only dedicated gamers need consider the top-of-the-line Pentium 4 Extreme Edition and Athlon 64 fx.

THE CHEAPEST WAY to boost performance is with memory. Most systems come with 256 megabytes of random-access memory (RAM), but doubling that, to 512 MB, is more than worth the $50 or so that it will cost. Most inexpensive PCs use what is called integrated graphics, which shares your main memory. That's perfectly fine, as long as your system has adequate RAM. And one advantage of a desktop over a laptop is that if you need higher performance, you can always add a separate graphics adapter (about $100 and up).

Most desktops come with at least a 40-gigabyte hard drive. Unless you are planning to store a lot of photos, video, or music, that is probably more than enough. But adding extra storage is cheap, less than $1 per gigabyte. The choice of a CD/DVD drive is a key decision. Most low-priced systems come with a standard read-only drive for both types of disks. Spending $50 or so to upgrade to a drive that can play DVDs and write CDs is worthwhile, and if you want to play with video, $100 or so for the ability to write DVDs is a good addition.

One point of real differentiation for desktops is the display, and there are many attractive options in a wide price range. But think about whether you need a new monitor at all. Displays usually last longer than PCs, and if you are happy with the monitor you have, you can stick with it. If you are buying a new display, a flat panel is the way to go. I'll address that in detail in my next column.

There are two areas where desktop buyers could use more choices. The first is paid support. Most manufacturers offer extended warranties, but what consumers really need is premium software support for both Windows and applications.

The second is case design -- the box itself. The only case available for most consumer desktops is an ugly, bulky "minitower" designed to stand on the floor. PC makers offer attractive designs, some not much bigger than laptops, to corporate customers, but claim there is little demand for them in retail markets. So consumers at best have to settle for a case like Dell's Dimension 4600c, which is about half the size of the standard system. Unfortunately, acquiring these small cases often requires buying a fairly high-end system.

Laptops get all the attention, but desktops still account for the bulk of sales -- for a good reason: They offer great value and lots of flexibility in the choice of components -- and are the best choice for many consumers.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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