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Article:    Which Computer Should I Buy? Family Computing 

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Which Home Computer Should You Buy? In the search for a computer that will meet a family's needs, consumers are faced with quite a few options. The task can be daunting. Here, we offer some pointers and suggest some important things to look for in a family computer.  

Which Processor Should I Buy?

When deciding on a processor, a general suggestion is to aim for a relatively high speed, but avoid going for the highest speed currently available, since it is usually, at any point in time, overpriced. Spend your money on the less expensive RAM (memory) which will improve performance inexpensively. 

Recommended ComputersEntry-level chips include Intel's Celeron and AMD's Duron. Both are less expensive than the higher-end chips, as they are budget chips. For now, they will generally serve many families' needs (such as word processing, basic Internet usage, running two programs at once). The down side is that they will get old faster as more demanding programs are released in the future. 

If you use your computer for heavier tasks, or expect to do so in the future, a Pentium III (750 MHz+), P4, or Athlon will better suit your needs. These chips have more cache and higher clock speeds, allowing families to run demanding applications more smoothly (for example, video editing, the creation of MP3 music files, running a number of programs at once, video conferencing, etc.). These computers will run the latest computer games more smoothly as well, and will generally last longer before you'll feel the need to upgrade.

Our suggestion is the AMD Athlon, 2.0 GHz or higher. This is generally less expensive than the Pentium 4, and the differences for most users will be imperceptible. If you opt to go with Pentium 4, which is also an excellent choice, 1.8 GHz or higher should work well for most families' needs.

What About RAM?

Pay very close attention to the amount of RAM in your new computer. RAM is now quite inexpensive, and it is wise not to skimp on it. Because the trend in computer usage is the running of multiple applications at once, RAM is a very cost-effective way of getting improved performance. 

Aim for at least 256 MB of RAM when you expect to run multiple programs at once. Since it is an inexpensive option, try to go for 512 MB of RAM.


The Hard Drive

In general, many of the most popular computer tasks nowadays require a fair amount of hard drive space (such as storing music files, images, and video). Hard drive space is relatively inexpensive, and we recommend aiming for 80 Gb, and even more if the budget allows. Keep in mind that software games are demanding more and more hard drive space as well. For users who don't expect to store files that demand a lot of space, 40 Gb will be sufficient. If your needs change later, you can always purchase a second hard drive.

If speed is an issue, aim for a rotational speed of at least 7200 rpm. 

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The Modem should be at least 56 KB or it is generally obsolete.

Network Interface Card/Ethernet

If you subscribe to (or expect to do so in the future) high-speed Internet, make sure you have a 10/100 NIC.

USB Ports

These have become essential, and are used to add external devices to your computer. As a minimum, 2 USB ports, and more if you want to leave your options open. The latest USB technology is 2.0, which is faster than 1.1.

CD-RW Drives

You may want to add a CD-RW (burner) to your computer. These are useful for creating your own CDs from music files, making back-up copies of your software and audio CDs, burning music files onto a CD in order to save space on your hard drive, and for general backing up of files. CD-R (these can be burned once) and CD-RW (recording more than once is possible) media is now quite inexpensive. These drives come in handy for backing up your files, and CD-RW is ideal for this purpose.

Although a CD-RW drive is perfectly capable of reading CDs, we prefer a system with both a CD-RW drive and CD-ROM drive -- otherwise, there may be too much wear and tear on the more expensive CD-RW drive if you do a lot of disc spinning.

CD-RW drives come in different speeds for reading, writing, and rewriting. The write speed becomes an issue when you are in a hurry or do a lot of writing. However, some feel that the lower write speeds are a little more stable. The average family won't need to be overly concerned about the write speed. Read speed should be 32x or higher if you plan to use the drive for playing back your CDs as well. 

Also note that there are some CD-RW drives that double as DVD drives. This option is handy if you are unsure whether a separate DVD drive will be needed in your home.

DVD and DVD-RW Drives

This is an extra option that depends on your family's interests. Remember that DVD drives also read CDs, so a CD-ROM drive in addition to a DVD drive would be superfluous. For the time being, not many software programs are available on DVD. Families who want to play DVD movies on their computers may opt for a DVD drive, and those interested in copying DVDs will certainly want to choose a DVD-RW drive.

Video Cards

If it is important that you run the latest 3D games smoothly, pay attention to your new computer's video card. Many entry-level computer packages will leave you wanting in this department. An AGP graphics card with 32 MB dedicated RAM will probably suffice. Serious gamers may prefer 62 MB RAM, but they should be prepared to pay for it.

Consider Refurbished or Recertified Computers

Recertified or refurbished computers are generally significantly less expensive. Consider purchasing computers that are recertified or refurbished—they have been taken out of the box by customers (or in the case of recertification, the box has simply been opened) and returned to stores. The computers have been tested and repaired if need be, recertified, and ready to go.


When shopping for a computer, it is always wise to keep the future in mind, unless you are comfortable with the idea of upgrading or purchasing a new computer a year to 18 months down the road.


We suggest, for the future-minded family who expects rather heavy computer usage, or wants to leave their options open, (if the budget allows):

An AMD Athlon 2.0 GHz or higher or a P4 2.0 GHz plus 
256 MB RAM+
(minimum - this is the most cost-effective solution to improving performance - don't skimp in this department)
60-80 GB + hard drive
7200 rpm or higher if speed is important
56 KB Modem
10/100 Network Card
17" Monitor
USB ports (at least 2)
AGP Graphics Card, 32 MB memory +

Note that families who expect to use their computers for light tasks should be happy with lower clock speeds. We would still recommend an AGP graphics card that supports 3D acceleration for families with kids who enjoy the latest computer games.

  Need a second opinion?:

Second Opinion: The Ideal Home Computer


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