A Guide to PC Buying, with Tips for Fans of Gadgets

MossbergWhen spring arrives, high-tech media gadgets, like digital cameras, camcorders and portable digital music players, start to get a workout. But to use these devices effectively, you need a properly equipped computer able to transfer pictures, videos and songs to and from the gadgets quickly and easily, and to edit the files.

So, in this annual spring buyer’s guide to desktop PCs, I’ll pay particular attention to these multimedia functions, without shortchanging mainstream uses for the PC. As always, my advice is aimed at mainstream users doing word processing, Web surfing and e-mail, personal finance, simple home photo and video editing, digital music, and basic games. Hard-core gamers or folks doing massive video production need bigger, faster PCs than those specified here.

Apple’s eMac and iMac Macintosh models, which run the Mac OS X operating system, are probably the best consumer computers for use with digital media devices. They are packed with all the necessary connectors, and come with the best built-in software for managing and editing photos, videos and music. But you don’t need a buyer’s guide to choose a Mac. There are only a handful of models, ranging from $999 to $1,799.

This guide applies mainly to desktop PCs running Windows XP, which are more confusing to buy. You should be able to get a bare-bones, brand-name Windows computer for $500 to $600, without monitor. Brand-name Windows models with more ample features tend to fall into the $600 to $1,000 range.

Memory: Memory, or RAM — not processor speed — is the most important factor in computer performance. I recommend 256 megabytes, and up to 512 MB if you plan to do a lot of video editing. The cheapest machines often have only 128 MB of memory. If you choose one of these, I suggest you add extra memory right away.

Ask whether the PC’s main memory is shared with the video system. This is becoming common in moderately priced PCs, where the video circuitry isn’t on a separate card with its own memory. If the memory is shared, it leaves less main memory for general use.

Hard disk: A 40 gigabyte hard disk should do fine, but you can get 60 or 80 gigabytes at little extra cost. This makes sense if you plan to store a lot of video or music.

Processor speed: Don’t pay more for a processor faster than 2.0 gigahertz. Ignore the advertised types and speeds of the computer’s “bus,” an internal data pathway. Higher speeds on these components won’t have much impact on typical computing tasks, even basic home-video editing.

Digital connectors: Insist on the new USB 2.0 connectors, also know as Hi-Speed USB. They look identical to older USB ports, but they can also accept new, high-speed USB devices. To connect a video camera and the newest high-capacity music players, you’ll need another fast port called 1394, FireWire or I-link.

Card slots: Most PCs don’t come with built-in slots that accept the various types of memory cards used by digital cameras and music players. But a few have them, notably the Media Center PCs from Hewlett-Packard.

High-speed Internet: If you hope one day to use a cable modem or a DSL modem, or a home network, get a PC with a built-in Ethernet networking connection.

Video system: Get at least 32 megabytes of video memory. Video that’s built into the PC, and not on a separate card, is OK, but if you spend much of your time tinkering with photos and home movies, or playing games, invest in a PC with a separate video card.

Audio system: If you’re an MP3 addict, spring for a subwoofer and good speakers.

Monitor: Flat-panel screens keep getting cheaper. The 15-inch flat panels now cost well below $400. And larger, 17-inch models can be had for $600 or less.

Mass storage: Look for a PC with a built-in CD-RW drive, which allows you to record your own CDs either for playing music or for backing up or exchanging files. Less-expensive models come with just a single drive. Better models come with separate DVD and CD-RW drives. If you’re doing a lot of home video, you may want to invest in a DVD recording drive.

Brands and models: All Windows PCs are similar, but unless you’re a techie, I advise sticking with name brands such as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, eMachines, Gateway and Sony.

A new type of desktop PC, called a Media Center PC, is being offered by Hewlett-Packard, Gateway and others. It uses a special version of Windows that can be operated with a remote control from across the room for playing music and videos, viewing photos, and even watching television.

These models also have a full complement of connectors for media devices, and strong video and audio capabilities. They start at around $1,400, without monitor.

It’s fine to buy at a retail store, but you’ll find it easier to customize a model, and sometimes get better prices, on the Web. If you value the opportunity to customize a PC, Dell is the best choice.

E-mail me at mossberg@wsj.com.