Techno Files...with Riley Gay
Cheap PC may be fine today, but look to future needs before buying

Ten years ago, the hottest personal computer on the market boasted a 150-MHz Pentium processor, 16MB RAM and a whopping 1GB hard drive. And you could pick it up for about $2,500.

Today, look in almost any newspaper and you’ll find ads for PCs with 3+GHz processors, 256MB of memory and hefty 200GB hard drives for less than $500.

For computer buyers on the hunt for a cheap PC, that certainly seems like a good thing. But is a $500 system really the best value when Kyrene Corridor shoppers start spending their hard-earned cash?

Or, rather than buying the cheapest system out there, is the best computer for you really one that gets you the most bang for your buck? What all will you really get for your $500 investment?

Computer manufacturers are able to offer those budget models only by cutting costs, and that usually means cheaper parts and design shortcuts. For example, most budget models generally feature low-end processors, slower memory speeds, sluggish hard drives, wimpy power supplies and integrated, rather than standalone, graphics processors. The bundled software may consist of less-than-capable applications, or trial versions that require purchase, or an upgrade, down the road.

Granted, even today’s budget systems still outpace yesterday’s high-end machines in nearly every way, but wouldn’t a small increase in your investment be worth it if you could get a sizable increase in performance and functionality?

The trick to getting the most value for your computer dollar is figuring out how much computer you really need, then finding the system that delivers the performance you need at the best possible price.

To that end, there are two questions you should ask yourself when shopping for a new PC. The first is “What am I going to use my computer for?” Realistically, for most common computing tasks – such as email, word processing and surfing the Internet – almost any new system will probably work just fine.

But if you own a digital camera or video recorder, are a gaming enthusiast or want to use your computer to help you to redesign your home’s interior or landscaping, for example, you’re going to want a system that’s up to the task.

Which brings us to your second question – one that’s likely to be a bit harder to answer. That is, “What am I going to use my computer for in the near future?” If you can answer that one, then the system you settle on will be more apt to serve you well over the coming years.

The fact is, as you learn what your computer can do, and as your needs change, how you use your computer will change, too. So it’s best to get a computer that you can grow into.

Given that, you can either pay now to get the all of the features you might need later, or get a system that will allow you to upgrade your PC’s components as your computing needs change.

If your strategy is to pay less now and upgrade later, then you’ll want to avoid any systems that use proprietary parts, such as a cramped case or non-standard motherboard, that might prevent you from making future improvements.

To make sure that whatever system you start with will give you a good foundation for any needed upgrades, take some time to compare systems from several manufacturers in a similar price range.

For a good example of a value-priced, upgradeable system, check out the eMachines T5026 at Circuit City ($599), a full-featured Pentium 4 PC with plenty of room to grow. Fry’s Electronics has an HP a800n AMD Athlon XP system ($549) that’s worth a look, as well.

But maybe a rock bottom, entry-level machine is all you really need. If a budget system is really what you’re looking for, then try to compare several entry-level systems.

The fact is, all $500 computers are not created equal. While they may commonly use less powerful processors, slower memory and hard drives, and offer fewer features than their bigger, more expensive siblings, some budget PCs are better than others.

Look for a system that offers a more capable processor, such as a Pentium 4 or Athlon XP CPU, a separate graphics card (instead of one that uses “shared” system memory), and a bigger hard drive or more, and faster, memory. You might not find everything you’re looking for at that entry-level price, but the best budget PCs are likely to have one or more of these features, and the more high-end features that you’re able to get in your budget system, the happier you’ll be in the long run.

Even though saving money on a personal computer may mean having to make compromises, knowing what you’re compromising on and what you’re actually getting for your money can help get you the most value out of your PC buying dollar.

Riley Gay is director of technology services for Wrangler News.