While there are still some issues to consider, the chances of going wrong are a lot less than they used to be.
Although there are exceptions, just about any computer on the market today is adequate for what most people do with PCs. If your goal is to surf the web, do some email, create documents, edit photos and listen to downloadable music, than just about any PC or Mac on the market will do the trick.
However, if you plan to play graphic intensive games, edit video or do extensive photo editing, then you should probably look for a machine with a faster processor, a better video (graphics) card and some additional memory and hard drive space.
Let's start at the bottom of the market. Dell, Gateway (and its subsidiary eMachines) as well as Hewlett Packard and Compaq all offer low-cost machines, typically costing between $399 and $499.
The eMachines T2842, for example, sells for $399 (after $50 rebate) and comes with enough processing power, memory and hard drive space for most typical consumer applications.
Its 2.53 GHz Intel Celeron processor is fine for all but the most demanding applications. The 256 megabytes of memory is certainly adequate for most users, though a machine with 512 megabytes of memory will be a bit faster and more reliable when running more than one program at a time. The 40-gigabyte hard drive is small by today's standards but is OK if you're mainly dealing with text files or a few hundred digital photos.
If you plan to store a lot of music, thousands of pictures or even a little bit of video, than you'll definitely want a machine with a larger hard drive. The machine also comes with a CD-RW/DVD Combo Drive that can be used to read and write CDs and play DVDs, including commercial movies.
The eMachines $599 T3092, which I had a chance to test out, pretty much qualifies as a "high-end" machine despite its relatively modest price tag. It's AMD Athlon XP 3000 CPU was more than fast enough for anything I could throw at it. 512 MB of memory is sufficient for all but the most intense applications and I didn't come anywhere close to filling up its 160 gigabyte hard drive despite my rather large collection of digital photographs and (legally) downloaded music.
The machine also came with an nVIDIA GeForce4 MX graphics adapter which, though not the fastest in the world, is quite respectable even for online gamers. One nice touch on all eMachines systems is the "8-in-1 Digital Media Manager," which reads memory modules from digital cameras and some camcorders. It can handle, Secure Digital (SD Cards), Smart Media, Compact Flash and Sony Memory Stick among others.
Dell also offers budget PCs, starting at $494, which includes a 17-inch CRT monitor. Dell also goes up market with some pretty high-end systems. I'm writing this column on a Dell Dimension 8400. My loaner machine is equipped with 512 MB of memory, a 160 gigabyte hard drive and two optical drives: one for reading and writing CDs and the other for reading DVDs.
If I were buying this machine for keeps, I'd invest another $17 for a drive that can also write DVDs. It can be used to creating your own home movie DVDs (you can't use it to copy commercial movies) but you can also use it to back up your data to DVDs that store three or more gigabytes each.
Dell doesn't market the 8400 as a gamer machine, but it does have enough processing and graphics power for all but the most demanding of game players. It also has more than enough power for editing digital photos or even videos.
Even though it's overkill when it comes to typical home office applications, it's a nice choice for anyone who is willing to spend a bit more for a machine that won't become obsolete anytime soon.
Dell sells its machines through its web site and generally prices them with monitors. The 8400, with a 17-inch old-fashioned CRT monitor starts at $939 but if you're going to get a high-end machine, you really ought to consider getting a flat screen LCD monitor. If you get one from Dell, you'll pay an additional $254 for a 17-inch model.
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."
By Larry Magid