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Seasonal Shopping Guide

Because of the holiday season, and because people are looking for one more tax write-off, a disproportionate number of personal PCs are usually sold in the last two months of the year. Here's some advice I've been giving to friends, neighbors, and family members about PCs and hot technology gadgets.

If you're shopping for a PC, give serious thought to buying a notebook. The small size and portability are often worth the higher cost. And most notebooks are fast enough for typical users.

If you're shopping for a desktop PC, you should probably consider a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC, even though the hardware component that most distinguishes a Media Center PCˇXthe TV tunerˇXdoesn't work very well. That's why Dell Media Experience makes so much sense: It's an interface that's a dead ringer for Media Center Edition, except it has no TV tuner (or PVR). Microsoft sells Media Center PCs without tuners only in China.

As always, buy a CPU that's about two notches down from the top; that means 2.6 or 2.8 GHz this year. You'd pay a stiff premium for going with the fastestˇX3 or 3.2 GHz. I would get 512MB of RAM, even if 256MB is probably adequate for now. You should decide how big a hard drive you need. For storing documents and e-mails, any size is okay; for photos, most hard drives are large enough; for video, no hard drive is big enough, but buy at least 120GB.

Consider a graphics adapter with dual-monitor support, so you can have one monitor for your work and a second for e-mail, pop-ups, and so on.

LCD monitor prices have dropped so low that you should probably get one instead of a CRT. And get a DVDˇVrecordable drive, not a DVD/CD-RW or CD-RW drive. Whether DVD+R or DVD-R will win out is still not clear, so the easiest solution is to buy a multiformat drive that handles both. Regardless, most write-once DVDs should work in most DVD players.

Think about a wireless keyboard and wireless mouse to reduce cable clutter on your desktop. Microsoft has a nice offering, but the layout of the directional keys is messed up, so I'd look elsewhere. Logitech has a good selection of wireless offerings.

Should you hang on to your current computer and upgrade? Only if you can get by with just one upgrade, meaning bumping up only your RAM or your hard drive, for example. If you have to upgrade RAM this month and your hard drive next month, you may as well buy a new machine. If you must upgrade, watch the computer-store circulars for loss-leader hard drives and memory upgrades. Your ideal PC is going to cost $1,000 to $2,000, not $500 to $1,000, so buy the right stuff now. Your goal should be to avoid opening your PC's case, because only bad things happen when you open computer cases. Something falls out or something doesn't fit back in right, and easy-open cases aren't easy-close cases. The tool-free thumbscrews holding drives in place are so tight that you'll need a screwdriver anyway. The one exception is the Mac case, which is gorgeous. I am disinclined to buy a Mac because of the price premium, but I hope you'll consider one, to keep Apple afloat and keep Microsoft and Intel honest.

A digital camera is another key year-end purchase. Cameras differ in quality, but the make-or-break feature is really the inclusion of a docking module. Docks from vendors such as Fujifilm, HP, and Kodak also act as chargers, and as you may know from first-hand experience, unattended rechargeable batteries go flat after a couple of weeks. Buy a camera with at least 3-megapixel resolution, think about 5MP, and consider only the optical-zoom specˇXnot the nearly worthless digital zoom. If you want to take sports photos of kids or friends, go beyond a 3X optical zoom to 6X to 10X.

A welcome stocking stuffer is a set of rechargeable nickel hydride double-A batteries for camerasˇXabout $5 per battery. Over the past few years, the storage capacity per battery has just about doubled. Another small present that's sure to please is branded blank DVD and CD media; bargain brands have too many problems.

Finally, digital media hubs are just about ready for prime time. These devices pull MP3s off your PC (via wired or wireless Ethernet) and play them on your stereo. Look to Linksys, Prismiq, and SMC for devices costing from $200 to $300 each. The hard drive jukeboxes from audio makers are terrific, but at $1,500 to $3,000 each they cost twice what they should.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in PC Magazine.

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