This page in on the internet at

NOTE: This list was last updated on 12/5/99. Things change very quickly in the computer industry, so new specifications may apply today. (If this hasnít been updated for a long time, notify the webmaster.)

Also, keep in mind that these are simply Terryís opinions regarding what factors you should consider when buying a PC, and do not reflect any specific recommendations for you and your needs. Every user is different, and should take into accounts his/her needs, budget, and experience level before spending any money. Itís also a real good idea to talk to several different non-biased (i.e., people who donít sell hardware) before making a decision.

ANOTHER NOTE: Many of the names listed on this page are registered trademarks belonging to the companies that manufacture these products. Keep that in mind.

Basic Hardware:


Considerations: Do you need 24 hr. support or quick turn-around on service? Are you planning to upgrade yourself (if so, donít get anything with proprietary components)? Do you prefer a local vendor where you can actually talk to someone face to face? Or are you OK going with mail order, which is usually cheaper? Remember that whatís inside is mostly the same from vendor to vendor Ė the difference is in price, support, documentation, and accessibility.

Format (Desktop vs. Laptop)





Easy to service. More expandable, and you can replace components. Larger keyboard & screen. Less expensive.

Heavy. Not portable.



Smaller screen and keyboard. Possibly difficult-to-use pointing device. More expensive.

PDA (Palm Pilot, Wizard, etc.)

Very small and portable. Not as expensive.

Limited software and data capacity. Quick obsolescence. Possibly difficult to use.

NOTE on laptops: Test the screen under the lighting conditions youíll experience in the real world. Make sure you like the keyboard and pointing device. Consider battery life, since it varies greatly from machine to machine.

NOTE on desktops: If you think you might expand, make sure the case has enough open bays, power supply connectors, data cables, etc. that are actually accessible. (All-in-one boxes where the monitor and case are combined make expansion or modification almost impossible.) Easy-to-open cases are a plus. Otherwise the format of tower vs. flat unit is simply one of preference and whether the box will fit in the area you have available.


Intel Pentium II or AMD K6-2 or better. 400 MHz or better. If you are anticipating heavy duty (graphics, large database work), avoid the Celeron, but itís OK for basic word processing, spreadsheet and email needs.


No specific comments.


64MB or more.

Hard Drive

5GB or more

Backup System/removable storage





Cheaper. Takes up less space on the desktop.

Not portable.


Portable (you can use the drive on other machines)

More expensive. Takes up space outside the box.




Zip Drive

Low initial cost. Industry standard media. Easy to find disks. Easy to set up and use.

100 (or even 200) MB capacity may be too small for hard drive backup. Slow.

Jazz Drive

Large 1.0 or 2.0GB capacity. Good speed.

Higher initial cost. Expensive media.

Orb Drive

Large 2.2GB capacity. Very low media cost.

New to the marketplace, so availability of media might be a problem. No stats on reliability or functionality.


Reads ordinary floppy disks. Low cost.

Low capacity inadequate for complete backups.


Extremely low media cost. Can also copy audio CDs (but be aware of copyright laws). Disks are shiny and fun to look at.

High cost for drive. Requires difficult-to-use software and takes longer to use vs. easy drag and drop copy of magnetic drives. May become obsolete by popularization of DVD.

Tape backup

Cheap media. Huge capacities.

Royal pain-in-the-butt to use, especially to restore because of sequential write concept. Requires extra software. Recommended only for big requirements, such as network servers Ė not recommended for personal backup.




24X or better. (See backup section regarding CD-R/RW.)

Pointing Device

Whatever you like. If you plan to draw on the PC, consider an input table with stylus.


If you type a lot, get an ergonomic keyboard with a natural hand position. Other buttons are nice (start menu, sleep, email, internet access, etc.), but not necessary.

Graphics Adapter (video card)

4MB RAM. (AGP and more RAM if youíre going to be doing multimedia such as games or video). Should support 1024x768 at True Color (24bit).


17", dot pitch of .28mm or smaller.


USB. (Consider SCSI if you intend to have lots of peripherals.)

Network card

100MB Ethernet (only if you intend to hook into a network. Consult your network administrator before you buy.)

Sound card/speakers/microphone

Sound Blaster compatible. If you intend to use MIDI, make sure your card has good wavetable sounds and a MIDI input. For speakers, buy whatever you think sounds best. Microphones donít have to be of great quality unless youíre planning to do music or professional multimedia.

Peripherals and other considerations


Consider PPM (pages per minute), consumables (ink or toner) cost, resolution (at least 600 dpi), quality of output (test them and compare) and, of course, initial cost.





Low initial cost. Small desktop footprint.

Ink cartridges are high-cost with low capacity. Slower PPM. Ink sometimes smears.


Higher speed. More pages between toner replacement. Higher capacity. Consistent quality without smearing. Usually higher capacity paper tray.

Higher initial cost. Larger desktop footprint.


1200 dpi optical, USB interface. Enhanced resolution can be done with software, so itís not a big consideration. If possible, test your favorites and see which produces better results. Remember that glass size does not always equal scan size. Consider PPM, and a sheet feeder if you intend to scan a lot.





Global content providers (AOL, MSN, MCI, etc.)

Accessible anywhere. Easy to use. Good support.

You have to wade through content & ads you donít want. Usually slower than non-content ISPs, and possibly more expensive.

Local dialup providers

Sometimes cheaper. Local support. No unwanted ads or content.

May go out of business. Slightly harder to set up. Support may not be 24 hrs.

Cable (AT&T @home)

24hr support.

Expensive. Requires a coax cable to the PC. Not available in all areas.

DSL (USWest MegaBit Service)

Very fast. Constantly on. Uses the same phone line as voice (at the same time).

Expensive. Requires installation of new phone wiring. Not available in all areas.

NOTE: Always ask a prospective ISP to waive the setup or installation fee. They want your monthly business, so theyíll usually agree to drop setup charges if you ask.

Surge Protector/Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)

Every PC should have a good surge protector (not one of those $4.00 jobs). UPS is recommended for mission critical computers and in areas where power outages are frequent. If you get a UPS, get approximately double the capacity that you think you need.

Desk and chair

You should be able to have your feet flat on the floor, your elbows bent to a comfortable 90į, your eyes straight forward and head erect. So, chair and desk must be the correct height to allow this. Chair should have adjustable armrests. Monitor should be raised up to eye level.

In any case, take frequent (once an hour, at least) breaks to stretch, rest your eyes, and shake out your arms and hands.

Offsite data storage

Keep a recent copy of you backup somewhere safe (from fire, theft, etc.), away from where the computer is.

PCMCIA cards (for laptops)

Whatever you need that was not included in the basic package (e.g., CD-ROM, modem, scanner, etc.)

Digital camera

Consider image resolution, storage media ease-of-use and capacity, and viewfinder quality. Beyond that, considerations are the same as for film cameras (flash, zoom, exposure, lens quality, ergonomics, etc.)


Operating System

Windows 98 for a standalone machine. Perhaps Windows NT for a networked machine.


Consider whether you need the following types of software.

Word Processing







Virus checker



Desktop Pulishing (DTP)

Zip Manager


Special interest (home design, mapping, atomic clock, reference, music, etc.)

Back to Tips Index