If Santa's going to lay a PC on someone this year, here are some general guidelines for the jolly old elf. These are PC guidelines, because PCs make up most of the market, both in hardware and software, with all due apologies to Mac enthusiasts.
First, expect to pay $1,000 to $1,500 on the low end for a complete system, and as much as $3,000 for a high end. The low-end system will be powered by a Pentium III or equivalent at around one gigahertz. The high end will probably sport a Pentium 4.
The difference? For most of us, not much, or at least not much that we can appreciate. Sure, the P-4s will be faster, but most humans can't perceive anything faster than a 30th of a second, which is an eternity to something cycling billions of times a second. And, yes, there are systems below $1,000, but you'll probably be happier longer with ones above that level.
Memory - Get at least 256 megabytes of system RAM and more is always better. In fact, if things are tight, just adding memory will improve performance of an existing system. And with mail-order prices now dropping into the mid-$30 range for 512 megabytes, it won't take a bank loan.
Monitor - Do not accept a 15-inch monitor. It should be at least 17 inches, and 19 inches is better (diagonal measurements). And a flat screen is better than a traditional one.
Operating system - It's going to be difficult to avoid Windows XP in a new machine, even if some user experiences suggest that XP stands for eXPletive! If this is going to be an upgrade from an existing machine, do not assume that all your software will work on the new widget. Some will, some won't.
CD-ROM drive - Don't get one that's not at least read-write (CD-RW), which we all know you will use only for backup and not to steal copyrighted software and music. DVD-capable? Up to you. I'm not much into movies on the PC screen, or hauling the PC to hook up to the television set.
Speakers - Don't be impressed by super-duper speakers if they add much to the price. You want to listen to music? Use a stereo system. You just need to hear Windows' chimes and the occasional beep? Just about any old speakers will do.
Hard disk drive - Forty gigabytes is the absolute minimum. More is lots better. Besides being hardware hogs, many of today's applications consume megabyte after megabyte of disk space.
Modem - If you live in an area of the country that offers DSL or cable modem access, consider that instead. The Internet speed difference is dramatic. If you don't have access, a V.90 modem is usually part of the package.
Printer - Many are bundled with the system. If they're not, anything from Epson, Canon or Lexmark in the inkjet line that doesn't cost more than $150 is fine. Get one with a USB (universal serial bus) interface, as opposed to a parallel port interface. The parallel port is going the way of the 5.25-inch floppy, and printers often outlive systems.
Shop online or over the telephone. Although there can be exceptions, mail-order usually produces the best deals. Who? Dell, Compaq, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard are all names I've used and liked.
Questions and comments are welcome. Send them to Larry Blasko, AP, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020-1666. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.