Smart Shopping: Computers

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Getting Started l Types l Features l Brands

Meaningful differences in speed between desktops and laptops have largely disappeared. But each design has its own advantages and trade-offs. We give you the essential information to find the computer that's right for you.

GETTING STARTED New technology is providing a dizzying array of choices for consumers shopping for a computer now. More powerful processors with "multicore" features offer improved performance for demanding tasks such as online gaming and multimedia processes such as editing digital video. In laptops, new processors also promise improved performance -- without sacrificing battery life. Portable PCs are also getting bigger and sharper displays, making them viable alternatives to desk-bound PCs. An up-and-coming storage technology, the solid-state flash drive, is also adding to battery life, and making laptops lighter. But it's still too expensive for most people. This guide will help you to understand these various factors and help you to navigate the arduous process of buying a computer. Begin your decision-making process by considering these questions: Do you need a new PC?

If your old computer is sluggish, it might be time for a new PC. First try to these steps to beef up its performance: Run the defragmenting software it came with. That will help your hard drive access files faster. If you're running out of space on the hard drive, open up some free space by deleting programs you no longer use. To add a lot more storage space, consider adding a hard drive. (An external hard drive is one of the easiest computer upgrades that even a computer novice can perform.) If that isn't enough, and the computer is no more than four years old, add 1 GB of memory. Memory is a lot less expensive than it was a few years ago. If none of that works, and the computer is more than four years old, it's probably time to replace it. (Be sure to recycle it.) Windows or Macintosh?

Many people choose laptops using the Windows operating system because it's what they've always used, but Apple's Mac OS X is a fine alternative (Apple computers can also run Windows, but you need to purchase and install it yourself). In recent subscriber surveys, Consumer Reports found Apple's technical support to be top-notch. (Unfortunately, it's only available free for 90 days.) According to another survey, we also found that Apple computers were less susceptible to most viruses and spyware than Windows-based computers.

TYPES

The choices among desktop and laptop computers can be confusing. New desktops can be smaller and less-conspicuous than some laptops. Meanwhile, some portable computers offer features and capabilities that rival traditional desktops. Here are the types of computers -- and the pros and cons -- you need to consider.

Desktops

The desktop computer has become just another appliance you use every day. However, considers these pros and cons of desktop computers in general:
Pros: Desktops start at a lower price. Dollar for dollar, they offer more than laptops in terms of hard-drive capacity. They are less costly to repair. They allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment.
Cons: They take up a lot of desk space, even with a thin LCD monitor.

Budget
These computers meet the needs of most users and you can snag one for less than $300. All of their components will be scaled down. The hard drive will be relatively small, the processor won't be the latest or fastest, and the case won't offer much room for expansion. Graphics will probably be integrated, meaning no fast-action gaming. You probably won't find extras such as Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, and will probably have to pay extra for things like a monitor and a wireless mouse and keyboard. But you can expect one or two nice frills, such as a memory card reader. If all you do is word processing, Web surfing, and e-mail, a budget model will serve you and your wallet well.

Mid-priced
The key words for this level of computer are "more," "bigger," and "faster." You'll get a bigger hard drive, more memory, and more than likely a faster dual-core processor. You'll also get lots of room to upgrade, with empty bays for adding drives, extra slots for adding RAM, and open slots for expansion cards. You can also expect a discrete graphics card, lots of USB ports, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and if it's an entertainment system, a Blu-ray burner and TV tuner card. You can find a mid-priced computer for less than $1,000.

High end
The sky's the limit for these, which are geared primarily toward gamers and digital video editors. You get the fastest quad-core processors, the most sophisticated graphics cards, multiple large hard drives, and faster, plentiful RAM. Cases are usually large -- and, in some cases, offer a fair amount of bling -- with lots of room for expansion. You could easily spend more than $5,000 for one of these machines.

All-in-ones
These incorporate all components, including the monitor, into one case. The components are tightly packed behind and underneath the display, virtually eliminating any possibility of expansion. Meant to be space savers, they're also designed to look less stodgy than a traditional computer.

Mini, small-form-factor models
These models are more customizable and upgradeable than all-in-ones. They also save energy and material resources compared with regular desktops.

Laptops

Notebooks and laptops traditionally focus on portability and mobility, usually at the expense of capabilities and ergonomics. In general, consider:
Pros: Laptops can travel. They take up less desk space. They're easily stowed after use. They can do anything desktops can do.
Cons: Laptops cost more than comparably equipped desktops. Our reliability surveys show laptops are more repair-prone than desktops. Components are more expensive to repair.

Here are the different kinds of laptops now available:

Budget
These laptop types have slower processors, with smaller hard drives and integrated graphics, but are suitable for routine office work and home software.

Workhorse
These have faster processors, discrete graphics, and more built-in devices, such as webcams, so there's less need for external attachments. They also have larger screens and enhanced sound and video components for home-entertainment uses. They're not lightweight or battery-efficient enough for frequent travelers.

Slim and light
These laptop types are for travelers. They are about an inch thick and weigh about 3 to 4 pounds. Some require an external drive to read DVDs or burn CDs.

Tablet style
These sit in your hand like a clipboard and have handwriting-recognition software. Most convert to a "normal" laptop with a keyboard.

Ultra portable
These are not much larger than a hardcover book. Many cut costs by eliminating hard drives, shrinking keyboards and screens, and running the free Linux operating system instead of Windows.

FEATURES

The key components of a computer are the processor, memory, operating system, hard drive, graphics adapter (with video RAM), optical drive, and display (monitor). Laptop computers have additional features and considerations that are important. Where applicable, we've noted feature information that is important and distinctive to the type of computers.

Processor

This is the computer's "brains." Clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), and the chip's design, termed "architecture," determine how quickly it can process information. Within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the computer. But different processor families reach different efficiencies.

For laptops: Laptops generally come with a dual-core processor. If you're on a budget, an Intel Pentium Dual-Core or AMD Turion 64 X2 is fine. For greater power or battery life, get an Intel Core 2 Duo.

For desktops: The lowest-priced Windows systems probably use Pentium Dual-Core, Celeron D, Athlon 64, or Sempron processors. But most common now are dual-processor desktops. 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. Macs have transitioned to Intel Core 2 Duo series processors. Quad-core processors are also becoming more common in higher-end desktops, and AMD also offers a triple-core processor.

The different processor families make direct speed comparisons difficult, but any recent processor family will probably deliver all the speed you need.

Random access memory (RAM)

Most brand-name computers sold today have at least 1GB of RAM, the memory the computer uses while in operation.

For laptops: We recommend at least 2GB of RAM (random-access memory).

For desktops: For Windows Vista or Mac OS X, we recommend at least 2GB. Memory upgrades are not expensive, but don't get more than 3 GB in a Windows PC unless you opt for a 64-bit version of Windows, which requires 4 GB or more of memory.

RAM
We recommend at least 2GB of RAM (random-access memory).

Operating system

If you go with a PC, you have a choice of several versions of Windows Vista, each with its own hardware requirements. Vista Home Basic leaves out several features we liked in this software, while Vista Ultimate costs more and has more features than most home users need. We recommend Home Premium as the Vista version for most home users. You'll need a 64-bit version of Vista to use more than 3 GB of memory, but be aware that 64-bit operating systems have problems working with some older software and add-on hardware.

Apple computers come with Mac OS X, an operating system based on Unix. Mac OS is considered by many to be easier to learn and use than Windows. It's less prone to fall victim to online threats because malware writers don't see it as an appealing target. New features in Mac OS X Leopard (10.5) include an automatic backup tool, and a reorganized desktop. A souped-up e-mail application lets you create automatic greeting cards and invitations and turn e-mails into to-do list tasks or calendar items. The new Dashboard lets you create your own on-screen widgets, or mini-applications. And the latest Safari browser lets you make a widget out of a live Web site (though Safari lacks anti-phishing protection). The Spotlight tool can now search servers and networks. You can preview files without launching their applications and search for files by attributes. You can even run Windows Vista. With a feature called Boot Camp, you can set up a dual boot on your Mac that lets you run any version of Windows on one partition and Leopard on the other. You can also run Windows without dual boot by using a virtualizer like Parallels Desktop.

Graphics adapter and video RAM
A computer's graphics adapter is either integrated onto 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) signal, a graphics adapter might have an output such as an S-video or HDMI port to feed video to an external TV (common), or accept video from an external analog source (rare). But an adapter can always display video from sources such as a file, a DVD, an external analog feed, or a TV tuner. All desktops and laptops come with a minimum of integrated graphics capability for watching DVDs or playing casual games such as solitaire. Video RAM, or VRAM, is secondary RAM that works with the graphics processor to provide smooth video imaging and game play. To run Windows Vista's 3D interface or play 3D-intensive games, we recommend at least 256 MB or more.

Hard drive

This is your computer's long-term data storage. Given the requirements of today's games, digital photos, and video files, bigger is better. Sizes commonly range from 160GB to 750GB. You'll even see drives of 1 terabyte (1,000GB). For added security, you could opt for a RAID array (redundant array of identical disks), which includes two identical drives set up so that data is written to both drives simultaneously. That way if one crashes, all your data is safe on the other one.

You might also see the term serial ATA, or SATA, applied to hard drives. SATA provides a faster form of data transfer than the older parallel ATA disk drive interface.

For laptops: Most laptops come with a traditional 60- to 320-gigabyte hard drive, which is where all your files and programs are stored. Pay attention to a hard drive's speed. 4,200 RPM, while rare, is considered fairly slow. 5,400 RPM is common. 7,200 RPM is fastest, but costs more. Some laptops can be equipped with two hard drives for improved performance or backup.

Solid-state drives are on the cutting edge of storage technology, allowing your computer to access data without the moving parts required by a traditional hard drive. So-called flash drives don't have the spinning disk of a conventional hard drive, so they use less power, work quieter, and should be more resistant to damage from rugged use. And because there are no moving parts, they promise quicker access to data. Apple's MacBook Air is available with a solid-state hard drive as an option. Sony, Lenovo, and other companies also sell laptops with solid-state drives.

Optical drive
DVD writers are standard gear on today's computers. A DVD burner provides removable storage for home-video footage or digital photos. With the HD disc format wars over, Blu-ray disc (BD) drives are the standard to look for. BD is capable of playing the growing list of Blu-ray movies and can store 50GB, almost six times the capacity of a double-layer DVD. On some systems, you might find Blu-Ray/HD DVD combo drives, which can also play whatever HD DVD movies are still out there. There are also three older competing, incompatible DVD formats-DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. Some drives can write in more than one format, but all can create a disc that will play on stand-alone DVD players.

Monitor
For desktops: Unless you're a graphic artist, there's little reason to choose an almost-extinct CRT. LCDs offer numerous advantages over the CRT, chief among them their smaller footprint. Sizes range from 15 to 24 inches and larger (measured diagonally). The most common sizes are 19 and 20 inches.

Better LCD displays can use a DVI connection, found on some PCs with graphics processors. You can often obtain a deep discount on an LCD monitor by buying it bundled with a new computer at a manufacturer's Web site.

Display

For laptops: A 14- to 15-inch display, measured diagonally, should suit most people. Displays that are 17 inches are common. Models with a 13-inch display are becoming more common, as the industry moves toward even smaller models; several 9-inch models have already appeared. A resolution of 1,440x900 (WXGA+) pixels (picture elements) or more is better than 1,280x800 (WXGA) for viewing the fine detail in photographs or video, but it might shrink objects on the screen. You can use settings in Windows to make them larger. Most models are offered with a display that has a glossy surface instead of a matte one. Those look better in bright ambient light as long as you avoid direct reflections. Try to view the screen in bright light before buying. A "wide aspect" display (WXGA or WSXGA) fits wide-screen DVD movies better.

A new display technology called LED-backlighted LCD is making its way into laptops. An advantage of the technology is its more efficient use of power and, as a result, longer battery life. Color on LED-backlighted screens is sometimes better, sometimes worse than displays using older technologies.

Case
For desktops: Form factors for computers are more varied now. In addition to the most common tower format, you can find all-in-one and small-form-factor (SFF) computers. Mainstream computers usually come in towers, which fit on top of or under a desk. The all-in-one form factor, such as the Apple iMac, packs all the components into the same enclosure as the LCD display. Only the keyboard and mouse are separate. Sony, HP, Dell, and Gateway also have all-in-one models. SFF cases include the Dell Studio Hybrid and the Apple Mac mini.

Battery
For laptops: When not plugged into a wall outlet, portable computers use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for power. In Consumer Reports' tests, a normal battery provided 2 to nearly 5 hours of continuous use when running office applications. (Laptops go into sleep mode when used intermittently, extending the time between charges.) You can lengthen battery life if you dim the display, turn off wireless devices when not needed, and use only basic applications. Playing a DVD movie uses more battery power than other functions, but most laptops should be able to play one through to the end. Many laptops can accept an "extended" battery, adding size and weight but giving as much as twice the battery life.

Mouse
For desktops: This controls the cursor on the computer's screen. It comes either wired or wireless. Wireless mice give you more mobility, but you must keep them charged or replace the batteries every few months. More expensive mice have optical light sensors on their undersides rather than rolling balls. We recommend spending a little more for an optical mouse.

Touchpad
For laptops: Most laptops use a small touchpad in place of a mouse; you slide your finger across it to move the cursor. You can also program the pad to respond to a "tap" as a "click," or scroll as you sweep your index finger along the pad's right edge. An alternative system uses a pointing stick the size of a pencil eraser in the middle of the keyboard. You can attach a USB or wireless mouse or trackball if you prefer.

Speakers
The small speakers built into laptops often sound tinny. And a brand name like Altec Lansing or Harmon Kardon doesn't mean they'll sound good. Headphones or external speakers deliver much better sound. But some larger laptops include much better speakers and even a subwoofer for deeper bass. For the best built-in speakers, see our laptop Ratings.

Keyboard

Most computers come with a standard wired keyboard, although you can also buy one separately. Some keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls that let you pause, play back, change tracks, and so on. Some also have additional keys to expedite getting online, starting a search, launching programs, or retrieving e-mail. Like mice, keyboards can also be wireless.

For laptops: A laptop's keyboard can be quite different from that of a desktop computer. The keys themselves might be full-sized (generally only lightweight models pare them down), but they might not feel as solid. Some laptops have extra buttons to control DVD playback. You can attach a USB keyboard, which you might find easier to use.

Sound system

Computers for home use feature a high-fidelity sound system that plays CDs or downloaded music files, synthesized music, game sounds, and DVD-movie soundtracks. Three-piece speaker systems with a subwoofer have deeper, more powerful bass. Surround-sound systems can turn a PC into a home theater. There are connections for an external audio source (such as a microphone) and for headphones.

For laptops: The small speakers built into laptops often sound tinny. And a brand name like Altec Lansing or Harmon Kardon doesn't mean that they'll sound good. Headphones or external speakers deliver much better sound. But some larger laptops include much better speakers and even a subwoofer for deeper bass.

Ports

The ports to look for on a computer include USB, FireWire, Ethernet, and S-video or HDMI. USB ports let you connect many add-on devices, such as digital cameras or external hard drives, as well as a memory drive for copying files to and from the hard drive. Having these ports at the front of the case makes connecting devices more convenient. An Ethernet port or wireless network card lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or a broadband Internet connection. 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, letting you copy tapes to DVDs. The once-ubiquitous modem port is disappearing from new PCs as dial-up Internet access marches toward oblivion. Other slots to look for on a new computer are memory-card readers for flash cards.

For laptops: Most laptops let you attach those devices without the docking station. At least two USB ports for easy hookup of, say, a printer, digital camera, or scanner are standard. A wired network (Ethernet) port is also standard. A FireWire port for digital-video transfer is common. An internal wireless-network (Wi-Fi) adapter is standard. Another option is an internal Bluetooth wireless adapter to link to a Bluetooth-capable cell phone, camera, or another laptop.

Card slots
For laptops: Portable computers usually include at least one PC-card or Expresscard slot for expansion. You might add a wireless-network card or a cellular modem if those are not built in.

Docking station
For laptops; Some notebooks offer a connection for a docking station, a $100 to $200 base that makes it easy to connect an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, network, and power in one step.

Log-on security
For laptops; A growing number of notebooks include fingerprint scanners for security and as a convenient alternative to typing a password when logging in. Some of Lenovo's laptops use face-recognition technology; Toshiba and other manufacturers are expected to add it to some of their models. Lenovo's new IdeaPad uses VeriFace technology when you log in. With VeriFace, your face is scanned, via the laptop's webcam, and then scanned again to make sure it matches the initial scan every time you log in.

BRANDS

This list includes a number of major brands of computers. Among these brands, only Apple computers run the Macintosh OS, while newer Macs can run Windows. Manufacturers often change their retail distribution. For the most current list of outlets where a laptop brand is available, use a shopping search engine.

Acer/Gateway/eMachines
Sells desktops and laptops.

Acer recently acquired Gateway, which also owned the eMachine brand. After their merger, Gateway and Acer are changing some of their branding models. Acer computers will represent the core, mainstream brand, while eMachines will remain the place to turn for value models. Gateway desktops will integrate the latest system designs and finishes, emphasizing style and performance.

Acer is positioned as a value laptop brand, offering a full range of notebooks in its Aspire line.

Gateway laptop lines include its mainstream M-series, its retail-only (14-inch) T-series 14-inch notebook, and (17-inch) P-series, which includes the FX gamer line.

Gateway's and eMachines' Web sites still show their model selection, but they now sell only through big box stores such as Circuit City, Wal-Mart, Costco, and Best Buy, office stores such as OfficeMax and Office Depot, and online retailers such as Newegg.com, Frys.com, and TigerDirect.com. Acer's Aspire line of notebook computers is available at Circuit City.com, Walmart.com, CompUSA, MicroCenter, Newegg, and a variety of online stores. Gateway's notebooks are available at Best Buy, Circuit City, Office Depot, Costco and HSN. Its M-series is also available on Gateway.com.

Apple
Sells desktops and laptops.

Apple offers innovative and thoughtful hardware designs bundled with multimedia software on the cutting edge. Macs can now run Windows as well as Mac OS. Apple's reliability is top-notch. The company has also consistently offered the best tech support of all brands. Software support is always free at Apple's stores. Few, if any, virus or spyware infections have been reported in Macs.

But you must pay for tech support after 90 days. You can bring your computer into an Apple store for software support, but after 90 days, parts and labor for hardware repairs will cost you without an extended warranty. Macs often cost more than other brands. They're not as configurable.

Apple's desktop lines include its signature all-in-one iMac systems (in 20- and 24-inch screen sizes) and its high-performance Mac Pro. In laptops, Apple offers its workhorse MacBook Pro series, the slim-and-light MacBook Air, and the more affordable MacBook line.

If you shop online, Apple's site offers top-notch service and selection. But if price is a priority, you might be able to save a bit at MacConnection.com, Amazon.com, or MacMall.com. Its retail stores are also top-notch for service and selection. If you're a student or teacher, you might qualify for a discount. Some Apple laptops are also available at Best Buy.

Dell
Sells desktops and laptops.

A trendsetter among Windows PC makers, Dell offers well-equipped systems in a range of prices. Dell's systems are more expandable than other brands. You can configure your system without the trial and promotional software many other vendors include. In our survey, Dell's tech support was better than average at problem solving.

Dell's three desktop lines are Studio, Inspiron, and XPS. Inspiron includes a slim model and a series of basic but highly configurable systems. XPS models are geared toward power users and gamers. The Studio Hybrid is a small-form-factor model. Among laptops, it offers a full lineup in a range of price points, including the budget Inspiron line, the new Studio line designed to be the primary PC for the household, and the Studio XPS high-end workhorse line. Dell also owns Alienware, which offers desktops and laptops focused mainly on the high-powered needs of gamers.

Dell's Web site offers better-than-average model selection. But Dell's laptops are also available at Best Buy, Staples, and Wal-Mart.

HP/Compaq
Sells desktops and laptops.

Along with Dell, HP is a trendsetter and style maven among Windows PC manufacturers. HP systems include a lot of trial and promotional software.

HP's Pavillion line of desktop PCs spans from the midrange a6000 series to the high-end d4000 series, which starts at $1,000 and can include up to a terabyte of storage. There's also a slim Pavilion. HP recently added a group of Elite models, higher-end multimedia systems, to its Pavilion offerings. HP offers an all-in-one desktop called the TouchSmart and a high-powered line of desktop gaming machines under the Voodoo brand.

HP sticks with its Pavillion moniker for laptops. But it also offers budget laptops under the Compaq Presario name and high-end portable gaming systems under the Voodoo line.

HP's and Compaq's Web sites offer better-than-average model selection, but PCConnection.com, Newegg.com, Amazon.com, PCMall.com, and TigerDirect might offer better prices. HP and Compaq laptops are also available at Circuit City, Best Buy, Wal-Mart and a variety of online sites.

Lenovo
Sells desktops and laptops.

Lenovo is aggressive when it comes to safety, with built-in security features and a backup program standard on its desktops. Models include fewer multimedia features than other brands and are less configurable.

Lenovo emphasizes a more business-oriented look. Among desktops, its 3000 J Series and the IdeaPad line are designed for homes and home offices. In laptops, its ThinkPad lines are more business-oriented but its 3000-series is aimed at home-office and small-business users. Lenovo's newest consumer-oriented line of laptops is the IdeaPad line.

Lenovo's Web site offers better-than-average model selection, but PCConnection.com, Newegg.com, Amazon.com, and PCMall.com might offer better prices. Lenovo laptops are available at Circuit City, CompUSA, TigerDirect, J&R, and a variety of online sites.

Sony
Sells desktops and laptops.

Sony's VAIO line of notebooks is extensive, ranging from the smaller TZ and SZ series to the larger CR, FZ, and AR series. VAIO notebooks are typically more expensive than most. The company also has a line of all-in-one desktops that includes TV tuners and Blu-ray players.

For the widest selection of Sony computers at the best prices, try Newegg.com. PCConnection and PCMall also have a wide selection, while Amazon, Costco, and TigerDirect have better-than-average prices.

Toshiba
Sells laptops.

The Satellite is Toshiba's mainstream laptop brand. Ultraportable systems use the Portégé name.

Available at Best Buy, Circuit City, Wal-Mart, J&R, CompUSA, and a variety of online sites.Copyright © 2006-2010 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction in whole or in part without written permission.

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