- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2000

OK, friends, it's decision time. Not many hours remain until you have to step up and make a decision, one way or the other.
The choice you make will affect the way you live, how you work, even, perhaps, how you raise your family. It is a decision with which you'll have to live for some time to come; it will definitely have an impact on your wallet or pocketbook.
No, I'm not speaking about the pending U.S. election, mind you, but that other big choice: which computer to buy for the holidays?
This year, Hanukkah (first night is Dec. 21) and Christmas (Dec. 25) fall close enough to each other that shopping will be a focus for many families. And, a personal computer your first or an upgrade makes an excellent gift. Some shopping pointers to ponder, then, which can be condensed in three words: platform, processor and parts.
Platform: The choice this year, as always, is between the Microsoft Windows operating system in this case, Windows Millennium Edition for home users and the Apple Macintosh.
Both operating systems have their advocates, to be sure. And both are featured on computers designed for home users.
The choice, then, will likely be based on what you plan to do with the computer. For basic tasks Internet browsing, e-mail, synching up with a Palm Pilot or Handspring Visor PDA, word processing, spreadsheets and even personal finance both systems are just fine. Each has versions of Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, Intuit's Quicken, Netscape Communicator and the Palm Desktop software to handle these tasks. Most multimedia titles also work on both platforms, and there's no shortage of educational software, either.
But, God is in the details, as Mies van der Rohe famously said. If you are planning to work on computer-aided design, or something else that is a bit esoteric, you may or may not find the software for your desires on a given platform. And even if you do, there are or may be differences. QuarkXpress, a high-end desktop publishing program, is seen as the "gold standard" for such work; but while it works on both platforms, there are those who swear it's better on a Macintosh than on Windows.
Gamers, of course, will likely know their favorite games and which platform works best for those games.
The bottom line: Be sure that whatever you want to accomplish with a given computer can be done on that system. Waking up after unwrapping your computer and finding you've made a mistake can be costly.
n Processor: Intel Corp.'s Pentium III is the processor being most touted for home computers; AMD Corp.'s Athlon ranks a close second.
Both processors offer "Pentium class" performance. The Intel one, obviously, IS a Pentium, and that means it'll run the latest operating systems and handle advanced graphics processing in tandem with either the right chips on a system board or a compatible graphics card. The Athlon is virtually a clone of the Pentium both it and the Pentium are based on the "x86" processor architecture established by Intel and, thanks to cross-licensing, shared by both firms.
Which one works better? Both are roughly equal in performance (the higher-speed Athlon chips, running at 1 GHz and up, have been reported to have had some problems with Windows 2000, it should be noted) in basic functions. The AMD chips are less expensive, generally, and the newest ones do not require the more expensive Synchronous Dynamic RAM chips needed for the latest Pentiums. That means lower overall costs.
I use an AMD Athlon, running a 700 MHz, every day for my core system. On the road, I usually rely on a Pentium II or Pentium III processor. Both work well. Which is best for you? Consider your budget.
Note: The Intel Celeron processor is another good alternative for basic computer functions, a PC for kids and systems running Linux or Windows 2000. These processors are less expensive than Pentiums, generally. For Mac users, don't take anything below a G3, even if you can find it; the G3 or better is needed for the new Mac OS X due next year.
n Parts: Whatever you select for your operating system and processor, don't forget the other components that you'll need.
You'll never get RAM or hard disk space at a lower price than when you buy your computer. Get the most RAM you can at least 64 megabytes and preferably 128 megabytes. For a hard disk, I'd want 4 to 8 GB for a kid's system, and at least 10 megabytes for a general family system. For home business/ gamers/MP3 lovers, go with a 20 GB hard drive, minimum, and maybe 30 GB or 40 GB.
Three other essentials, in my view, for a new PC: Having a backup/data storage drive is useful; my preference these days is a CD-RW drive. You can "burn" music and data CDs with ease, and with good software. A DVD drive is neat for playing movies and data CDs, but they are also useful for some multimedia titles. Universal System Bus, or USB, ports are essential now; don't even think about buying a system without 'em.
Write to Mark Kellner in care of The Washington Times, Business Desk, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; send e-mail to MarkKel@aol.com, or visit the writer's Web page, www.kellner2000.com.


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