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Put A PC Under The Tree

America Online Consumer Advisor Regina Lewis gives The Saturday Early Show the lowdown on computer hardware, what to buy and where to get it in time for Christmas Day.
More than 3.2 million personal computers will be sold this holiday season. That's 40 percent of all the PCs sold throughout the year.

Home computers have come a long way and have never been more affordable or more powerful. The average home PC price is $1,300, but there are lots of great offers out there that can bring the cost below $1,000 - and some that are practically free. Of course, you get what you pay for.

So what do you get? It depends on your needs. It used to be: "Buy whatever you can afford" because computers were becoming obsolete so quickly and you wanted to stay ahead of the game.

Now, it's changed a bit. Computers are still becoming faster and faster every day, but it's reached a point where most consumers won't notice much difference.

For a lot of people, their new computer is not the first one they've ever bought. As with TV sets, the trend is moving toward people having multiple computers in their households. So if you're upgrading, keep the first one.

Most people use a PC for one or more of the following purposes: going online, playing games, doing word processing or managing family finances. The good news is that for just about all of those purposes, most under-$1,000 computers on the market will do very well. Even inexpensive PCs now come with substantial processing power.

But games and multimedia pose special challenges. If you're a high-end game player, manipulate a lot of graphic files or want to watch movies on your computer (great for plane trips with your laptop), you'll want more processing power and memory (128 megabytes plus), a higher-level graphics card (16 megabytes plus) and a DVD-ROM.

The best thing to do is to buy an application you're going to be using and look at the side of the box. The specs there will help you with buying a computer that fits your needs.

Most importantly, know your budget. Setting a realistic figure ahead of time will help you avoid "overbuying," purchasing extra features and power you really don't need.

Here's a rundown of some popular PCs:

  • Etower by eMachines
    It packs a lot of power for the price, but the cost is low because of a rebate offer. You have to sign a three-year Internet contract, through a provider such as CompuServe, Gateway or MSN. That means you're obligated to continue on these services. But getting online is the No. 1 reason people are buying computers, so this is an enormously popular way to get started at a low cost.
  • IMac by Apple
    The iMac has been one of the hottest selling computers ever, because it is colorful, coming in six different shades and easy to use. All yu have to do is plug it in, connect it to the printer and phone line, and you're all set.
  • Ibook by Apple
    This is the portable version of the iMac. Generally laptop computers cost 50 percent more than their desktop counterparts. If you need portability, it is great. If not, don't spend the extra money.
  • Profile II by Gateway
    It is a higher-end, fully loaded PC equipped with extra memory, a big hard drive and graphic accelerator boards for high-performance games.
Now you're armed with information. So where can you go to buy a computer for Christmas Day?

Superstores like CompUSA and Circuit City say that most stores are still well stocked but you might want to call ahead. Be prepared to be deluged with options and offers. If you know what you want when you go in, you'll be much better off. One way to do that is to pick up some computer magazines and do some comparison shopping before you hit the road.

And you can order directly by phone or on the Web at the sites of Gateway, Dell, Compaq or others. Gateway, for example, says delivery for most of the their computers is guaranteed by Christmas Day if you order by 11 a.m. on Dec. 23.

If you're an America Online user, find out more information from Regina Lewis on AOL at keyword: online advisor.

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