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Desktop computers
Tech support may be a deciding factor when you choose

The desktop computer has become just another appliance you use every day. Replacement sales—not first-time purchases—now drive the computer market. Fully loaded desktops selling for less than $700 are common, even among established brands. When choosing a model, it’s hard to go too far wrong; the performance of today’s computers are routinely quite high across brands.

With performance so consistently high among all types of computers, differences in manufacturers’ technical support matter more than ever. Repair rates for computers are higher than for most products we track, based on respondents to our Annual Questionnaire. You increase your chances of getting a reliable computer by choosing from brands that have proven reliable in the past.

Technical support might be a deciding factor in which manufacturer gets your business. It remains a hot-button issue judging from our latest subscriber survey of computer users. Apple has kept its lead in tech support (though it offers telephone support free for only 90 days after purchase), while other brands continue to show only so-so performance and face some chronic support woes.

Our subscribers still say that tech support is dismal. The most serious complaint from our Annual Questionnaire was that the support people simply couldn’t solve the problem. Major complaints about phone support included being kept on hold too long, being bounced around among support staff, and communication problems. Support via e-mail or the manufacturer’s Web site was also lacking. Live-chat online support was problematic, too.


WHAT’S AVAILABLE

There are eight major brands of desktops to choose from. Computers from Dell, Compaq, eMachines, Gateway (which owns eMachines), Hewlett-Packard (which owns Compaq), Lenovo (formerly branded as IBM), and Sony all use Microsoft’s Windows operating system. Apple is the sole maker of Macintosh models. (When Apple releases the next version of its OSX operating system, Macs will be able to run Windows as well as Apple’s own OS X.) Many small mail-order and store brands also cater to budget-minded buyers. Price: $400 to $3,000.


IMPORTANT FEATURES

The processor houses the “brains” of a computer. Its clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), and the chip’s design, termed “architecture,” determine how fast it can process information. Within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the computer. But different processor families attain different efficiencies. Pentium D processors have somewhat higher speed ratings. Other desktop single-processor families, such as Celeron D, Athlon 64, and Sempron, have a lower-rated clock speed but actually perform on a par with Pentium D processors. Dual-core processor families from Intel (Core 2 Duo) and AMD (Athlon 64 X2) represent newer technologies developed to increase processing power beyond what a single-chip processor can achieve (and quad processors are now showing up). Macs have transitioned to Intel Core-series processors. In short, the different types of processors make direct speed comparisons difficult, but any recent processor type will probably deliver all the speed you’ll need.

All brand-name computers sold today have at least 512 megabytes (MB) of RAM, or random-access memory, the memory the computer uses while in operation. Memory upgrades are not expensive. Consumer Reports recommends at least 1 gigabyte (a GB equals 1024MB) for anyone using Microsoft’s recently introduced Windows Vista operating system. Vista is available in several versions with different hardware requirements. Vista Basic leaves out many of the operating system’s best features. Vista Ultimate is costlier, with more features than most home users need. Our editors recommend Home Premium as the right Vista version for home use. (We also recommend 1GB of RAM for Mac OS X users.)

Video RAM, also measured in megabytes, is secondary RAM that works with the graphics processor to provide smooth video imaging and game play. Gamers may want at least 128MB or 256MB.

The hard drive is your computer’s long-term data storage system. Given the disk-space requirements of today’s games, digital photos, and video files, bigger is better. Sizes range from 80GB to 750GB.

Commonly supplied is a CD-RW (CD-rewriteable)/DVD combo drive, that lets you create backup files or make music compilations on a compact disc as well as play full-length movies or action-packed multimedia games with full-motion video. Rapidly becoming standard gear is the DVD writer, which also lets you transfer home-video footage to a DVD disc, or store as much data as six CDs. The newest options are high-definition drives, capable of playing either Blu-Ray or HD-DVD discs.

There are three competing, incompatible DVD formats—DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM —as well as drives that can create dual-layer DVDs that store twice as much. Some drives can write in more than one format, but all can create a disc that will play on stand-alone DVD players. Now arriving: DVD burners with new technology designed for high-definition video, which will allow storing 15GB or more on a disc. We recommend waiting until the two competing versions—Blu-ray and HD-DVD—sort out their differences.

Many PCs now come with a memory-card reader that can also serve for file transfer. You can also get external drives or use a USB memory key to copy files from the hard drive.

The computer’s flat-panel liquid-crystal display (LCD) or increasingly rare cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor contains the display screen and renders the images sent from the graphics processor—internal circuitry that creates the images. Monitors come in sizes (measured diagonally) ranging from 15 to 21 inches and larger. Seventeen-inch LCD monitors are common.

Apple’s iMac comes with a built-in monitor, while its Mac Mini doesn’t have one. LCD displays are now the most popular, taking up less space and using less power than CRTs. Better LCD displays can use a Digital Video Interface (DVI) connection, found on newer PCs. You might obtain a deep discount on an LCD monitor by buying it bundled with a new computer at a manufacturer’s Web site.

All computers have a graphics adapter, which is integrated on the motherboard or on a separate, internal plug-in card. In addition to feeding the computer’s display with an analog (VGA) or a digital (DVI) connection, a graphics adapter may have an additional output to feed video to an external TV (common), or accept video from an external analog source (rare). But it can always display video from whatever source: a file, a DVD, an external analog feed, or a TV tuner.

All desktops and laptops come with a minimum of integrated graphics suitable for watching TV or playing simple games like Solitaire. If you want to run Windows Vista’s new 3D user interface or play more challenging 3D intensive games, like first-person shooters or role-playing games, we recommend the ATI Radeon X1600, the Nvidia GeForce 7600, or higher.

The critical components of a desktop computer are usually housed in a case called a tower. A minitower is the typical configuration and can fit either on top of or under a desk. More expensive machines have a midtower, which has extra room for upgrades. A microtower is a space-saving alternative but has less room inside for upgrading. All-in-one computers, such as the Apple iMac, have no tower; everything but the keyboard and mouse is built into the monitor. Apple’s Mac Pro line of computers has a tower. Apple’s desktop model, the Mac Mini, has a space-saving design that puts everything but the monitor, keyboard, and mouse in a case about the size of a hardcover book. Macs are considered more user-friendly than comparable Windows PCs, and some versions include a built-in video camera.

An “entertainment PC”—one with a TV tuner built in—comes in a case that is more like an audio or video component, made to fit in with other home-entertainment hardware.

A mouse, a small device that fits under 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 or a light sensor on its underside. Alternative input devices include a trackball, which is rolled with the fingers 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 game pad, used to play computer games.

Most computers come with a standard keyboard, although you can also buy one separately. Some keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls to pause, playback, change tracks, and so on. Some also have keys to facilitate getting online, starting a search, launching programs, or retrieving e-mail. There are also wireless keyboards and mice that give you flexibility in how you work.

Computers for home use feature a high-fidelity sound system that plays 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 into a home theater. Some computers are bundled with a microphone for recording, or one can be added.

There are a number of different types of ports on computers. PCs come with a modem to allow a dial-up Internet connection, as well as an Ethernet port or wireless network card that lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or a broadband Internet connection. Universal serial bus (USB) ports provide a connection to many add-on devices. FireWire or IEEE 1394 ports are used to capture video from digital camcorders and connect to other peripheral devices. An S-video or HDMI output jack lets you run a video cable from the computer to a television, so you can use the computer’s DVD drive to view a movie on a TV instead of on the computer monitor. Media center PCs (equipped with TV tuners) can also capture video from a VCR and copy tapes to DVDs.


HOW TO CHOOSE

First, decide whether to upgrade your current computer. Upgrading rather than replacing it might make sense if your additional needs are modest—a second hard drive, say, because you’re running out of room for digital photos. Adding memory or a CD burner can be more cost-effective than buying a whole new machine. On the other hand, it’s not always easy to upgrade to a new operating system like Windows Vista; you may need to resolve software incompatibilities, upgrade security software, or install new drivers. If there’s software you must run that your system is not up to, your wish list is more demanding, or your computer has become unreliable, a new PC is the logical answer.

Decide between a desktop and a laptop. A desktop computer typically costs less for equivalent performance and is easier to upgrade, expand, and repair. It usually offers better ergonomics, such as a more comfortable keyboard, bigger eye-level display, and enhanced audio. But as costs plummet (the average price of a laptop fell by $250 in just a few months last year, according to one market research firm), a laptop computer merits consideration if portability and compactness are priorities.

Pick the right type of desktop. Most manufacturers offer several lines at different prices. Budget computers are the least expensive, of course, and they are suitable for routine work, like e-mail, word processing, and Web surfing. You can also do photo editing. Workhorse computers cost a few hundred dollars more but are faster and more versatile. They can run complex 3D games and edit video. Upgradability is another reason to opt for a workhorse computer. If you download music or video regularly and don’t copy it to CDs, DVDs, or a portable device, you’ll eventually fill a budget model’s modest hard drive. All-in-one models have most of the components in a single case. And entertainment or media PCs can include TV tuners, a remote control, and software that give them the functions of a DVR.

Choose by brand. Our surveys have consistently shown notable differences in technical support among computer brands. And some brands are generally more expensive than others. Those factors could help you decide which of two similarly equipped computers is the better buy.

Choose between preconfigured and custom-built. You can buy a PC off the shelf in a store or via the Web configured with features and options the manufacturer pitches to average consumers. Or consider purchasing a desktop that you configure to order, either online or in a store. When you configure a computer to order online, onscreen menus typically show you the options and let you see how a change in one affects the overall price. Be sure to double-check your choices before ordering and look for unwanted items that some manufacturers include by default.

Decide between Windows and Mac. More home and entertainment software is available for Windows computers than for Macs. But Apple’s computers have attractions of their own. The brand repeatedly scores best in tech support and has been consistently reliable for desktops. According to our surveys, viruses and spyware have targeted Macs less than Windows PCs. The newest Macs also let you run Windows as a second operating system.

Plan for software. At first glance, virtually any computer you buy will seem laden with useful software for virus scanning, managing finances, and working with audio or image files. But much of it is “teaserware” that works for a limited period or needs an upgrade for full capacity. Especially with Windows computers, check before buying that the selected model includes antivirus and antispyware software that will work (and can be updated) for at least a year. When comparing computer prices, consider any other necessary software as adding to true cost.

Consider security. Security might not be foremost in your mind when you’re shopping for a computer, but it should play a part in your decision. Your choice of hardware and software can affect your ability to deflect intruders and defend your data. Viruses and spyware are far more likely to target Windows PCs than Macs. It’s too soon to know, however, whether new Intel-based Macs are more vulnerable to attack.

Whether you opt for a Windows PC or a Mac, you should use antivirus, firewall, and antispyware programs. Many computers include software such as Norton Internet Security or McAfee Security Center, but those are often limited to 30 to 90 days of use. Upgrade and update these starter packages as necessary or replace them to maintain protection over the long haul.

Skip the extended warranty. A recent subscriber survey found that the average cost of a service contract was not substantially less than the average repair cost. That means you might be better off paying for repairs out of your own pocket. For Apple computers sold with a short phone tech support limit, an extended service plan may be worth considering. Tech support for Lenovo (IBM) laptops was also an exception.



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