Beyond The jargon, a bargain

 

Christmas is coming and the home computer goose is getting slenderness-challenged. Families up and down the country are thinking about buying a first PC for home use. There are lots of good offers about, but also lots of confusing jargon for the first-time buyer.

Choice and price

The key thing is to think carefully about what you want the PC for, and to bear that purpose in mind under the headings below. Teenagers playing games will have different requirements to someone who wants to run a home office. Prices are coming down. The starting point for home PCs a few years ago was £1,400. There are now perfectly good machines to be had for under £1,000. Assess how much you can afford to spend and then look through the models to match your requirements to a price. Don't take too long over this, however, as the Christmas rush puts huge strains on suppliers.

Work and play

Modern games are among the most demanding applications which can be run on a PC. Get as much RAM as you can afford and look carefully at the video card (or get the family gamer to do so).

Extra video memory and video acceleration hardware will show to best advantage with games. Games can also be very sore on hard disk space, so allow as much as you can. If all you want to do is work, you probably want no games (or gamers) on the PC. Instead, concentrate on the software you need to do your job. If the home PC is going to be used to work on documents for the office, ask support staff at work for advice on the software you need at home to make swapping files between home and office as easy as possible.

Hardware

Most leading manufacturers use parts from a handful of major suppliers and you will find the same disk drives, printers and, of course, processors in a wide range of PCs. The processors (CPUs) made by Cyrix and AMD should not cause compatibility problems, particularly with mainstream programs.

Specifying a PC is a balancing act between power and price. As a rough guide, there is no real saving in a processor slower than 300 MHz, less than 32MB of RAM, or a hard drive smaller than 4GB. Going beyond the basics, look for a 350 MHz Pentium II or equivalent, 64MB of RAM, a 6GB-plus drive and 8MB of video RAM. This may be overkill if all you want to do is type a few letters, but buying the best hardware specification you can afford builds in some limited future-proofing and gives the option of doing more on the PC. Even if you pay a substantial premium for a 450-MHz screamer this year it will look a bit tired in 18 months and be retirement-age in another 18. That is just the pace of hardware improvement, followed by the insatiable desire of software to soak up hardware advances.

Other bits

A 56K fax modem will probably come as standard. If not, anybody with an interest in connecting to the Internet, dialling in to work, or playing online games will need to invest in one.

The days of peering at a 14-inch monitor are over and 17-inchers are quite affordable. Go for a 19inch monitor if you plan to do a lot of work, or any sort of graphics or desktop publishing work. Larger screens are still generally priced for professionals only.

The cache works as a short-term storage area to smooth the running of the CPU and maximise its speed. A 512-KB cache is pretty good.

CD-Rom drives are now standard fittings. Their speeds are measured as multiples of the original specification for CD drives and 16X should be fine. Higher-priced PCs will have DVD drives, capable of reading higher capacity disks.

A basic 16-bit sound card will let you hear what's going on. More advanced 32-bit or 64-bit cards give better sound quality at a price.

Printers

Despite all the advantages of "soft" documents, you will want your information smeared across a dead tree sooner or later, so a printer is probably obligatory. For low-volume printing a colour inkjet will give good results for £250 or less. For larger volumes, such as mail shots from your home office, consider a basic laser-printer.

Software and service

The case for buying more is very clear-cut in software. Software bought as a "bundle" with your PC will cost a fraction of what you might pay later in a shop. Buy everything you think you might need, and then some - or at least make sure you can buy later at the "bundle" price. If bundle pricing is available only at purchase time, consider buying the extra items and putting them away until the birthday, or even Christmas 1999, rolls around. The savings are worth it.

Hardware and software are not the whole story. Find out how long a manufacturer will cover hardware problems under warranty. One year on-site (i.e. the service comes to you) is standard. Some manufacturers offer two more years' cover but the PC must be returned to them. Be cautious of paying separately for extended warranties as the prices are often steep. Apart from a warranty for when hardware goes wrong, ask about technical support - the right to phone up for help with hardware or software problems. This should be free and long-term. Ask if it is available at evenings and weekend, when a home PC is most likely to be used. And possibly the biggest question of them all - will they be answering the phones over Christmas?

Next week: special deals for home users