Wow—we do this article every year, and every year the value for the consumer just gets better. The choices for a new Personal Computer (PC) are almost limitless. The bad news is no matter what system you buy, it will be dated within 3 months, so lets focus on getting value for our investment for the average computer user (internet access, email, some accounting, word processing, and etc.).

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When the Personal Computer arrived in the early 1980’s, the cost of a typical system was $5,000Cdn. Over the years the performance in-creased, however the cost of a typical current system remained at $5,000Cdn. While the trend continued for many years, the price performance marker has moved significantly in favour of the consumer in recent years. By the mid 1990’s, the cost had moved to $2,500Cdn. Now that cost is around $1,000. Yes you can buy a system for less, and you can spend much more, but what we are looking for here is value over the longer run.

While many components determine how “fast” a PC is, there are several that are key. One of the most important is the processor or the CPU. The faster the CPU is, the more the manufacturer charges for it. So to get value, we need to find the fastest economical processor. This used to be easier as Intel, the company that supplies most of the processors for PCs used to include the processor speed in the name. Now you have to lookup the processor name and find out what speed it is running at. But since we are looking for value, we are going to exclude Intel based PCs anyways. PCs with AMD processors are cheaper, and provide all the same functionality as Intel processors. AMD’s naming does allow us to compare, however it is a subjective comparsion as the name includes their interpretation of the chips relative Intel performance. For example, a PC with an AMD 3500+, it supposed to be the same as a PC with an Intel P4 at 3.5Ghz.

We know we are not buying the fastest machine, however we also know we still want this machine to be viable for at least a couple of years. Right now our best value is AMD’s X2 processors. These processors are dual core, essentially 2 CPUs in 1 chip. This allows our computer to multitask better, which means the performance for the user is more predictable and consistent. At this time, these chips range from the X2 3600+ to the X2 5600+, with the 5600+ costing over 3 times that of the 3600+. The 3800+, 4200+and 4600+ are the value leaders.

The next decision is how much memory do we need. Typically you will find PCs are sold without enough memory in order to keep the selling price low. Today most PCs are sold with 512MB of memory, while a select number have 1024MB (1GB), and a few have 2048 MB (2GB). It is cheaper for the manufacturer to buy and install the memory than you, so look for a machine with at least 1GB of memory.

The performance of the video card in your PC greatly effects the perception of performance. Cheaper systems have the video card built into the mother board and it uses “shared” memory. This shared memory is actually a piece of the 1GB we just got. While this can provide reasonable performance and value, a separate video card, with its own memory does increase performance and is required for video intensive applications such as 3D games and graphics, and of course Windows Vista.

Our next concern is storage space. How big a disk drive do we need. We are in the digital age, and everything is now being digitized. This digital information needs space, lots of it. You should have at least a 250GB drive in your new system.

Our system will also need a CD/DVD reader. The cost of DVD burners has come down so much, they should be considered the standard at this time. These writers also make excellent backup devices.

While this covers the basics, there are some additional items worth note. In particular, the more USB ports the better. By the time you connect a printer, camera, MP3 player, memory stick and the like you have consumed 4+ ports. Modern PCs typically no longer have floppy drives as well, so a memory card reader is a nice to have.

The package we have described can be purchased for under $1000 at this time. Microsoft has just released Vista, the new Windows and your new PC should have it by default. The system we have just configured is well suited to Vista, and will provide a performance score of 4+, where Microsoft recommends 2.8 or higher for full Vista functionality. In comparison to the $600 bargain PC’s you see in the weekly flyers, this machine will not need a memory upgrade, a possible processor upgrade, a disk upgrade or a DVD writer upgrade during the next 2 years. 

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