With that in mind, here's my "Cheapskate's Guide to Personal Technology."
Let's start with PCs. You can easily spend $1,000 or more on a PC, but you can also get a fully equipped machine for under $400 (plus the cost of a monitor). I've been testing the $399 Gateway 300S Value and I'm impressed.
The machine comes with a 2 gigahertz Intel Celeron processor, a 40 gigabyte hard drive and 128 megabytes of memory. Instead of just a CD-ROM drive, it has a CD-RW, which allows you to write CDs to back up your files, copy your audio CDs or create your own music CDs. The only thing "extra" in the device I'm using is that I ordered it with 256 MB of memory that adds another $60 but noticeably improves performance if you're running more than one program at a time.
EMachines also sells cheap computers but the $399 eMachines T1742 comes with a standard CD-ROM instead of a CD-RW drive.
It's also possible to buy a PC for around $200, but most of these systems -- including ones sold at Walmart.com -- don't come with the Windows operating system. That's because PC manufacturers have to pay for the right to load Windows and -- when they're selling machines that cheap -- the Microsoft royalties mean the difference between a slight profit and a big loss. Some of the machines sold at Wal-Mart come with a version of the free Linux operating system while others come with no operating system at all. Linux has plenty of enthusiastic supporters, but it is not a mainstream consumer operating system. While it has its place, I don't recommend it for anyone who isn't well versed in technology.
As I said, these computers don't come with a monitor. If money weren't a big issue, I'd recommend spending about $300 for a flat-panel display but this column is about "cheap." For as little as $79 you can get a 15- or 17-inch standard (cathode ray tube) color monitor that will do the job just fine. TigerDirect.com -- which sells lots of inexpensive products -- has a $199 flat-panel monitor, but I haven't tried it out and don't know how good it is.
Of course you'll also need a printer and, since we're talking cheap, you're probably thinking that I'll recommend one of those inkjet printers that go for under $50. You can get a Hewlett-Packard color printer for $49, but there's a hitch. If you plan to use it a lot, you're going to be paying a lot of money for ink. The ink alone for black text typically costs between 5 cents and 6 cents a page. If you're just printing a few pages a month, then it doesn't matter, but if you plan to be a heavy user, you might be better off spending $200 to $250 for a personal laser printer, which typically costs about 3 cents a page plus the price of paper.
Speaking of ongoing costs, you can save a lot of money by shopping carefully for your Internet service provider. The big guys -- AOL, MSN and EarthLink -- have a lot going for them, but they all cost $20 or more a month. If you want to shop for bargains, visit www.thelist.com and enter your area code to find an ISP in your area. You'll find dial-up services for as little as $6.50 a month. Also check out www.cheapandfreeisp.com.
If money were no object, I'd recommend that everyone rush out and buy an Apple iPod -- an elegant little handheld device that stores and plays up to 4,000 MP3 files. But these little wonders start at $299 (for a 5 gigabyte model that stores 1,000 songs) and go up to $499 for the 20 GB model.
But money is an object so, if you're looking for portable music on the cheap, then spend between $50 and $129 for a portable CD player that can also play MP3 discs. It only costs about 30 cents to burn an MP3 CD that can store up to 10 hours of music. Also, some of the inexpensive home DVD players can also play back MP3 CDs, making it possible to create your own digital jukebox with a handful of MP3 CDs.
Whatever product you're looking for, be sure to check out prices for refurbished and "used" equipment. I put used in quotes, because some vendors -- particularly the ones that sell through Amazon.com -- will give you good deals on virtually new equipment such as customer-returned items. A good place to start is Froogle.com, a new shopping service from Google. Other places to look include Amazon, Ebay.com and Bizrate.com.
A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
Got a PC question? Visit www.PCAnswer.com.