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Digital Santa: Shop Smart For PCs

All this week, tech guru Larry Magid looks at the latest in high-tech gifts for the holiday season.

Though they're not exactly stocking stuffers, a PC can make an excellent holiday gift provided you get the right system for the right person. At prices starting as low as $300 for a complete system, PCs are more affordable than ever. Yet, even at $300 a PC is still a "big ticket item" and that's only the starting price. You can spend $2,000 or more on a high-end system.

There are really three major decisions you need to make when buying a PC as a gift. You need to decide whether to get a Mac or a Windows PC, a laptop or a desktop and whether to shop the high or low end of the market.

To answer these questions you need to look into your bank account and the needs of the person you're shopping for. If you're thinking about a Mac, forget that $300 special. It's not going to happen.

Larry Magid speaks with computer columnist John Dvorak about which computers to buy this holiday season.

The least expensive Mac on the market is the Mac mini, which starts at $499 for a stripped down system that does not include a mouse, keyboard or monitor. As I said in my review of the machine, by the time you're out the door this "$499" Mac could easily cost more than $1,000 – nearly as much as Apple's more "expensive" and fully-equipped iMac G5 or a Mac laptop.

But the question of whether to buy a Mac or a Windows PC isn't just about money. People who have been using computers for awhile often have a preference. Mac users tend to be a very loyal bunch and many would consider a Windows machine – now matter how fancy – to be coal in their stocking.

Windows users don't tend to be as emotionally attached to their machines but if someone has invested a lot of time learning to use Windows and a lot of money on software, than they probably wouldn't appreciate a gift that causes them to spend extra time and money.

Although it is theoretically possible to get a Windows PC for as little as $300, machines that cheap are hard to find (when I checked they were available at some Circuit City and Best Buy stores) but you can easily find complete systems for $400 to $500 at,, and most other vendors.

If you opt for an inexpensive system, you can expect to get a machine with an old-fashioned CRT (big tube) monitor rather than a flat panel display. You're likely to get between 40 and 80 gigabytes of hard drive storage - which is OK unless you have a lot of video, audio or graphic files - and 256 megabytes of memory, which is pretty much the bare minimum for running Windows.

You'll get a pedestrian graphics and sound system that will be adequate, assuming you're not playing games or listening to high fidelity music. You will almost certainly get an Ethernet card, which lets you plug your system into a high-speed cable modem or DSL line, which means you'll have no trouble surfing the web or getting e-mail.

These low-end systems generally have Intel Celeron or AMD Sempron processors, which are actually adequate for most PC tasks. Still, if the person is planning to play graphic-intensive games, do any video editing or extensive photo editing, they will need more memory and would certainly prefer a faster processor.

Almost all machines come with an optical drive that can read and write a CD. Some of the low-end systems can also read a DVD but if you want the ability to write to a DVD, you'll need to go a little up-market or upgrade your system later.

There are some pretty good deals out there. Dell, at the time I wrote this article, was offering a $549 Dimension E310 desktop PC with a 2.8 gigahertz Pentium 4 processor, an 80 gigabyte hard drive, a DVD-ROM drive and 256 megabytes of memory and a free 15-inch flat panel monitor.

If I were buying this machine, I'd spend an extra $40 to upgrade to 512 MB of memory and another $80 to get a drive that can both read and write CDs and DVDs. I'd also consider spending another $120 for a 17-inch flat panel display and an extra $50 for a 160 GB hard drive so this $549 computer would really cost $839 plus shipping. That's still a good price but it's $290 or 53% higher than the stripped down version.

When it comes to desktop PCs, I'm not a big believer that one brand is necessarily better than another. They're all made from generic parts. The biggest differences are usually the quality and fit and finish of the case and sometimes the bundled monitor. Warranty and tech support are also very important.

Some of the intangibles include the size of the case (check the dimensions to make sure it fits) and the noise level of the fan, which is hard to know if you're buying it online or shopping in a noisy store. That's one of the reasons you want to buy from a place that has a good return policy – just in case you and/or the recipient aren't happy.

For what it's worth, the University of Michigan's American Customer Satisfaction Index in the second quarter of 2005 rated Apple #1 (81 points) followed by Dell (74), Hewlett Packard (73), Gateway (72) and HP's Compaq brand at 67.

Dell had been much higher (80) in the previous quarter but, according to an ACSI analyst "customer service in particular has become a problem, and service quality lags not only Apple but also the rest of the industry."

While these surveys are interesting, I don't pay too much attention to small differences. I've made several calls to Dell's tech support department and sometimes they're prompt and good while at other times they can be pretty slow and unresponsive. That same, however, can be said for other companies as well.

This is a great year for laptop PCs. Dell has one for $499. Gateway's start at $599 after rebate. Hewlett Packard notebooks start at $699 and Comaq (which is owned by HP) has them starting at $549.

For these prices, don't expect built-in wireless networking. One of the joys of a laptop is the ability to take it on the road and connect to the Internet. Yes, you an always add a wireless card but they stick out the side, are awkward and can break. You want a built-in WiFi wireless adapter and for that you'll pay a bit more.

Low-end laptops typically come with 256 MB of memory b
By Larry Magid

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