Originally created 09/13/98

Shopping for the new family computer a challenge



The start of the school year is tough on kids, but it can be even tougher on adults. It's the season of digital angst, when millions of parents look around the house and notice that (a) they don't have a computer, or (b) the computer they've been using dates to the Reagan administration.

Suddenly they start worrying that unless they buy a new PC, little Johnny and Jenny will wind up as some kind of digital dummies -- even if they just celebrated their third birthday.

Relax. If your kids aren't old enough to know the alphabet, they certainly don't need a computer -- this year's onslaught of software for toddlers notwithstanding. Better to spend your time playing with them or reading Curious George.

If they're old enough for school, a computer can be a wonderful learning aid (although not nearly as good as you). When they get a little older, a PC becomes less of a toy and more of a tool. By the time they're old enough to type (9 or 10), it's time to seriously consider buying a computer, if you don't have one already, or replacing an old clunker if you do.

That said, what's a good PC for the kids and for you?

First, consider that children need more computing horsepower than you do. That sounds strange, but it's true. Most adults use computers for word processing, spreadsheets, financial record-keeping and Web browsing. None of these chores will put much strain on today's PCs -- even the cheap, bargain basement models.

But games, educational software, graphics programs and multimedia titles that kids love can eat up as much processing power as you throw at them. The publishers of these programs are always pushing the envelope. The PCs at the very bottom of the chain won't be able to handle them today, and they certainly won't keep up with the software that will be available in a couple of years.

A couple of things that happened this summer have changed the what-to-buy equation. The first was last month's introduction of the sleek, elegant iMac -- the first new consumer PC from Apple in years. The second is a general leap in the amount of computing power your dollar will buy.

I don't like to get involved in religious wars, so I generally sidestep the Mac vs. PC argument. The market has already voted here -- 95 percent of computer buyers don't choose Macs, and a disproportionate number of those who do are graphics professionals or school purchasing agents.

However, the iMac looks cool, doesn't take up much space, and is easy to set up and use. Nor will it put a huge dent in your bank account. If your children are going to be the primary users of the PC and their school uses Macintosh computers, the iMac is a reasonable buy. Make sure to get an add-on floppy drive -- the iMac doesn't come with one -- so you can back up important files or exchange information with others.

Just remember that the iMac has two major disadvantages. It isn't expandable, and it's a Mac, which means that you'll always be in the minority.

Since Apples have long been popular in the schools, you'll find plenty of educational titles (usually on the same CD-ROM with the Windows version). But many software developers -- game publishers in particular -- don't release Mac versions of their programs. The same goes for most specialized business software. If you're going to use the computer, too, and your office uses Windows machines, the iMac's marginal advantage in simplicity and ease of use may not be worth the hassles of nonconformity.

If you're looking for a Windows machine, you have plenty of choices. The product development cycle for PCs has been reduced from two years back in the 1980s to about three months today. Look for a PC that uses a real Intel Pentium II or an AMD K-6. These are much faster and more capable than Intel's crippled Celeron chip, which shows up in a lot of low-end PCs today. The processor should be running at 266 MHz or better, particularly if you're interested in games or graphics.

Memory is more important than small differences in processor speed. With more memory your computer will run faster and crash less often. Get at least 64 megabytes of RAM. If your computer comes with 32, have the store upgrade it before you leave. It shouldn't add more than $100 to the price.

Permanent storage is also critical. Programs, graphics and multimedia files stake out huge amounts of hard disk space. Get a PC with at least four gigabytes of storage.

Most computers already come with capable CD-ROM drives, but if you're willing to spend a few bucks more to give the kids multimedia thrills and on-screen movies, get one with a new DVD-ROM. These drives will handle standard CDs, but the compact disks made specifically for DVD drives can store six or seven times as much information. They're the wave of the future.

Look for a video display adapter with at least four megabytes of memory ( eight is even better). A good video card will make your PC appear to run faster, and it's a must for games and graphics. If you or the kids are into entertainment titles, a capable sound card will make your experience more enjoyable. Look for one that has a wavetable synthesizer (which uses digital samples from real instruments) instead of a cheaper, FM synthesizer. Unless you're a music lover yourself, think twice about speaker systems with bass subwoofers -- kids like to turn them up really loud and you can hear them in the next county.

Finally, the monitor. It's a critical component because you and your kids are going to spend a lot of time staring at it. Low-end systems are frequently sold with 15-inch monitors (which, quite frankly, are fine for kids and young adults), but 17-inch screens don't cost much more and they're a treat for middle-aged eyes. Make sure the monitor has a dot pitch (the space between the glowing phosphors) of .28 mm or less.

So how much is all this going to set you back? Prices vary widely, but you can pick up a good 300-MHz system at most retailers for $1,300 to $1,600. While I hesitate to mention any brand in particular, Micron Electronics (a large mail order manufacturer) has an incredible deal on a 450-Mhz Pentium II screamer with a 17-inch monitor for $1,800. Surf at www.micronpc.com.