Tips for Buying Computers

Many shoppers planning to buy computers as holiday gifts need guidance.

CompuBug was lucky enough to secure an exclusive interview with Longnose A. Frimplesnitz, chief technical officer of Jolly Elf Electronics, the computer subsidiary of North Pole-based Santa Industries.

BUG: Mr. Frimplesnitz, how much should consumers expect to spend for a personal computer, and what does that amount cover?

LAF: About $1,500 should buy a very acceptable PC or iMac. And at Jolly, we say that if the computer is going to be used for the Internet, word processing and other home applications, there’s no overwhelming argument for either system. Generally, look for at least 128 MB of RAM, a 56-kilobit internal modem, and a 20 to 30 GB of hard drive space.

The Need for Speed?

BUG: What about processor speed?

LAF: That’s one of the most abused system yardsticks, since overall performance is a product of how well all system components do their jobs. Word around the Pole is that salespeople and ad copywriters who use it to mislead consumers should start thinking about heating with coal.

BUG: Well, yes, but how about a number anyway?

LAF: In the PC playpen, you’re talking an 800 MHz or so Pentium III with 256 L-2 cache. In the iMac playpen, that’s a 500 MHz PowerPC G3, with a 512 L2 cache.

BUG: Did you say “cash”?

LAF: It’s pronounced “cash” but it’s really the part of the memory the chip uses as a staging area to increase speed. An L2 cache talks to the L1 cache, which talks to the CPU. And, by the way, more cache may speed up some applications but have no effect on others, so don’t obsess about it.

BUG: I notice you didn’t mention Apple’s Power Mac G4 Cube.

LAF: You want design, go see Bill Blass or Halston. Sure, the Cube is sleek, but it’s $1,799 and that’s before you spend $499 for a 17-inch monitor. And while I’m thinking of it, if you want to upgrade the memory on an original iMac, you should consider that while Apple wants $400 for 128 MB of RAM, you can find it online for around $80. Get a sense of what’s out there by checking, a site that pulls together ads from various retailers.

BUG: Which PC brands are the best?

Comparison Shopping

LAF: Hey, if the kid building ‘em in his garage from mail-order components does a good job, his product will be just as dependable as the stuff from the big guys.

BUG: If it comes down to a choice between two similarly priced systems, what should be the tiebreakers?

LAF: Give the nod to the system with the most main memory, the most video memory, the bigger monitor and the one that comes with a CD-RW drive.

BUG: Isn’t that CD-ROM drive?

LAF: A CD-RW drive does everything a CD-ROM drive does, plus it can create CD read-only disks and CD read-write disks. Very handy widget for system backup, file sharing and such.

BUG: Should folks worry about operating systems?

LAF: Almost every new consumer-market PC ships with Windows ME. In Macville, it’s OS 9.

BUG: Much difference in bundled software?

LAF: Not much. Internet Explorer has become as unavoidable as death, but more fun than taxes. And in the PC world, you’ll probably find Microsoft Office thrown in, which includes Word and Excel for word processing and spreadsheets, plus a money manager and some other goodies. And you’ll probably find software included to sign you up with an Internet service, which may be a good deal- or may not be. Shop before you sign up.

Bundles of Deals

BUG: What other incentives are out there?

LAF: Most of the big guys will bundle a color inkjet printer with their holiday packages. Keep in mind that many of them retail at $100, and you can bet the big guys aren’t paying retail, so it’s not as much of a bonus as it seems. You’ll also see some low-end digital cameras and maybe a scanner or two as throw-ins. Don’t get snared in the tinsel — concentrate on the tree.

BUG: One last question, Mr. Frimplesnitz — buy retail or online?

LAF: Unless you happen to live near a major PC retailer, go online. Yes, it’s nice to be able to hop into the car and get supplies or a question answered or a problem fixed — unless it’s a 350-mile hop.

BUG: Thanks for your help Mr. Frimplesnitz. Looking forward to spending Dec. 26 around a cozy fire?

LAF: No way, man! I’ll be in Aruba!