Desktop computers

Even the least-expensive desktop machines deliver impressive performance. The quality of technical support may be the deciding factor for you.

The desktop computer has become just another appliance you use every day. Replacement sales--not first-time purchases--now drive the computer market. Prices continue to drop. Fully loaded desktop systems selling for less than $1,000, a novelty a few years ago, are now common, even among established brands.


WHAT'S AVAILABLE

There are dozens of companies vying to put a new desktop in your home. Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard (which merged with Compaq in 2002), IBM, and Sony all make Windows machines. Another contender, eMachines, has emerged as a player with a series of budget-priced Windows systems. Apple is the sole maker of Macintosh models. Small mail-order and store brands cater to budget-minded buyers.

Price range: $400 to $2,500. (The monitor is often extra.)


IMPORTANT FEATURES

The processor houses the "brains" of a computer. Its clock speed, measured in megahertz (MHz), determines how fast the chip can process information. In general, the higher the clock speed, the faster the computer. But not always. In our tests, one computer with a 1.4-

gigahertz (GHz) Pentium M chip outperformed a machine driven by a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 chip. Manufacturers of Windows machines generally use 2.2- to 3.2-GHz processors with one of the following names: Intelís Pentium 4 or Celeron or AMDís Athlon XP or Duron. Celeron and Duron are lower-priced processors that are equal to higher-priced chips in many respects. Appleís Macintosh machines use 800-MHz to 2.0-GHz PowerPC G5 processors, which are manufactured by IBM. Apple and AMD have maintained that the system architecture of their chips allows them to be as fast as or faster than Pentium 4s with higher clock speeds.

All name-brand computers sold today have at least 128 megabytes (MB) of RAM, or random access memory, the memory that the computer uses while in operation. Video RAM, also measured in megabytes, is secondary RAM essential for smooth video imaging and game play.

The hard drive is your computerís long-term data storage system. Given the disk-space requirements of todayís multimedia games and video files, bigger is better. Youíll find hard drives ranging in size from 20 to 200 gigabytes (GB).

A CD-ROM drive has been standard on most desktops for a number of years. Fast

replacing it is CD-RW (CD-rewriteable), which lets you create backup files or make music compilations. DVD-ROM brings full-length movies or action-packed multimedia games with full-motion video to the desktop. It complements the CD-RW drive on midline and higher-end systems, allowing you to copy CDs directly between the two. A DVD drive will also play CD-ROMs. Combo drives combine CD-writing and DVD-playing in a single drive, saving space. The newest in this family is the DVD-writer, which lets you transfer home-video footage to a DVD disk. There are three competing, incompatible formats: DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM.

The diskette drive is where 3.5-inch diskettes are inserted, allowing you to read or store relatively small amounts of data. Apple Macintoshes and a growing number of PCs donít have a diskette drive built in. The traditional capacity of a 3.5-inch diskette is 1.4 MB. Thatís too small for many purposes today, so many people use a CD-RW as a large "diskette" drive to transport files. You can also get external drives or use a USB memory module that holds much more than a diskette.

The computerís cathode ray tube (CRT) or flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor contains the screen and displays the images sent from the graphics board--internal circuitry that processes the images. Monitors come in sizes (measured diagonally) ranging from 15 inches to 21 inches and larger. Seventeen-inch monitors are the most common. Appleís iMac comes with a built-in monitor.

The critical components of a desktop computer are usually housed in a case called a tower. A minitower is the typical configuration. More expensive machines have a midtower, which has extra room for upgrades. A microtower is a space-saving alternative that is usually less expensive. The Apple iMac has no tower; everything but the keyboard and mouse is built into a small case that supports the monitor. Appleís Power Mac line of computers has a tower.

A mouse, a small device that fits in your hand and has a "tail" of wire that connects to the computer, moves the cursor (the pointer on the screen) via a rolling ball on its underside. Alternatives include a mouse that replaces the ball with a light sensor; a trackball, which is rolled with the fingers or palm in the direction you want the cursor to go; a pad, which lets you move the cursor by sliding a finger; a tablet, which uses a penlike stylus for input; and a joystick, used to play computer games.

All computers come with a standard keyboard, although you can also buy one separately. Many keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls to pause playback, change tracks, and so on. Many also have keys to facilitate getting online, starting a search, controlling a DVD movie, or retrieving e-mail.

Multimedia computers for home use feature a high-fidelity sound system that can play music from CDs or downloaded music files, synthesized music, game sounds, and DVD-movie soundtracks. Speaker systems with a subwoofer have deeper, more powerful bass. Surround-sound systems can turn a PC in to a home theater. Some computers come with a microphone for recording, or one can be added.

PCs usually come with a modem to allow a dial-up Internet connection. A V.90 modem provides the fastest downloading supported by dial-up providers. A V.92 modem can speed up connection and uploading if the Internet provider supports it.

Parallel and serial ports are the traditional connection sites for printers and scanners. Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports, seen on all new computers, are designed to replace parallel and serial ports. FireWire or IEEE 1394 ports are used to capture video from digital camcorders and other electronic equipment. An Ethernet, or wireless, network lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or an Internet connection. An S-video output jack lets you run video cables from the computer to a TV, which allows you to use the computerís DVD drive and view a movie on a TV instead of on the computer monitor.


HOW TO CHOOSE

Performance differences. Judged on performance alone in Consumer Reports tests, most desktop computers are closely matched and extremely good overall. But there are differences in connectivity, expandability, the design of the keyboard and controls, and the sound of the loudspeakers. Surveys of users have found differences in reliability (frequency of repair), and survey respondents report that some manufacturers are better than others at providing support to consumers with problems.

Recommendations. You'll have to decide between Windows and Macintosh. Windows has the advantage for its sheer number of compatible software applications and peripheral devices. Macintosh has the edge for its ease of setup and use. Then decide on power, speed, and features that suit your work--or play.