The usual advice you get when buying a personal computer is to make sure its capabilities match your needs.
Take me, for example. If I were planning to buy a computer this year, the first thing I'd calculate is how much storage space I need for my computer columns. I probably need more space than you do, since I write 52 columns a year, at about 1,000 words each. Since you only buy a computer every three years or so, you'd figure I need space for about 150 columns, or around 150,000 words, max.
Now, a recent ad shows computers with disk space ranging from 2 to 10 or so gigabytes. Which is to say, the cheapest computer I can buy will store, hmmm, 20,000 columns, give or take? I know I've been writing long lately, but that's a bit much, which is precisely my point: Computers have grown so fast, big and cheap in the last few years that mass storage on even the lowest-cost systems are adequate for most beginners to use for what we call productivity applications.
Buy a computer with at least a 2-gigabyte drive, and you'll be more than fine. You want to make sure? Take a little step upward in price, where you'll find that most of the midrange computers carry drives that offer 4 to 6 gigabytes of space.
Why might you want a bigger disk drive?
Well, first remember that what tends to take up the most space on your computer is the programs you buy, not the data you create. A bigger disk drive promises greater longevity. Given the industry's track record for bloated software, Microsoft Windows 2001 could use up most of what once seemed like an awfully big disk drive.
You know the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words? That's another reason bigger is better. A photograph that's been digitized and stored on your hard drive at decent resolution, of a size you might want to print out on your fancy new color inkjet, could easily take up more space than a year or two's worth of my columns. If you have a teen-age son who's downloading hundreds of pictures from the Internet, I can almost guarantee you'll need extra space.
Other applications that take up a lot of disk space: Complex, video-intensive games; editing full-motion video, editing sound files.
This isn't my thing, but a lot of folks these days are moving their record collections to their PCs, then making their own CDs with one of the new recoverable units you can attach to the PC.
There's one attribute of big disk drives, as well: By and large, they tend to get at data faster than smaller, older models. This does not make as much difference as your processor, but it can be noticeable.
The other type of memory you have to worry about is the chip kind, as opposed to the disk kind: Dynamic Random Access Memory (best known as DRAM). If you don't have enough of it, your computer is constantly fetching data from your hard drive, which slows things down tremendously.
Minimum here is 32 megabytes, though you will see some cheapie systems with as little as 16. Sixty-four is better, and much more than that is overkill for the average user.
If you do opt for a 32 megabyte system, you might want to inquire whether there are any free memory slots left; otherwise, you'll have to throw out some of your current memory if you ever decide to upgrade. As for the type of DRAM, so-called EDO (Extended Data Out) DRAM is a tad cheaper, and a little slower, than Synchronous DRAM, the latter being what most of the faster systems are equipped with.
Another variable in the basic box that contains the microprocessor and disk drive is the graphics subsystem, usually a card that plugs into a slot on the main board of the computer, although cheaper units embed graphics chips on the main board.
There are two basic ways in which graphics boards are connected to the main board: The faster is AGP (Advanced Graphics Port), available only on systems with Pentium II or Celeron processors. PCI is slower, and is on regular Pentium MMXs plus various non-Intel processors. In general, you'll only notice a speed difference during gaming and video manipulation.
The amount of video memory typically ranges from 2 to 8 megabytes. This controls how lifelike the on-screen colors are, and how much detail the monitor can show. You probably don't want anything less than 4 megabytes of video memory unless you're getting a real bargain on the system.
Finally, there are 2D and 3D graphics cards. Everything has 2D capability. For newbies, the main application for 3D is going to be gaming.
Next week, we'll take a deeper look at graphics and monitors.
Dolinar can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org