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What PC should I buy next?

This is a very sticky, tricky wicket

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Buyer's Guide On Yuleday, we had a call from a relative who also happens to be a Register reader. It's time for him to upgrade his Packard Bell PC, a machine which came with a stonking 16Mb of memory when he bought it a couple of years back for around one thousand nicker.

And yesterday we noticed that august organ The Wall Street Journal was reporting that the run-up to Yuletide was not brilliant for retailers, while august newsfeed Reuters was proclaiming that chip manufacturers had unexpectedly found themselves with loads of stock.

Some of the staffers at La Reg, rather than being whizzle-kids of the Internet revolution, look more like grizzle-kids. Such patriarchs, some still possessing a full head of hair, exhibit signs of greyness, no doubt because they were being cajoled into writing Buyer's Guides for computers when the Dragon and the Acorn Atom were state of the art machines. [Were they ever state-of-the-art machines? Ed]

In truth, although we confess to having written many such pieces over the years, choosing a PC now, and advising which PC people should buy now, is harder than it's ever been. Most folk don't swap their PCs every other month, seeing as they still cost quite a lot for a typical household, but are willing to make the change if they think they can get two years of life out of the beasts.

This guide is intended not for the hardware aficionado, who will know most of what follows and may well be able to build her or his PC from scratch, but for your average punter on the Clapham omnibus, who can't really be fashed with understanding too much about the innards of a machine, whether it be a Toyota, a Toshiba or a Black & Decker drill.

The Background

Over the last ten days, we have published an extensive series of roadmaps from Intel which show two things. First, Intel is embarking on an adventure in 2001 in which it will position its Pentium 4 processor as both the performance and eventually the mainstream microprocessor for the masses. Whether this is a risky venture for Intel or not can be left to its shareholders and to stock watchers, and technical issues, like benchmarks, can be left to those who understand or want to understand those things.

What's for sure is that Intel will put its best foot forward, gradually wave goodbye to the Pentium III platform, and attempt to push the Pentium 4 in 2001 for all its worth. That means that prices of the Pentium III will fall swiftly.

Meanwhile, AMD, the other microprocessor chip maker of note, is positioning its Athlon and Durons against Intel's offerings, meaning that prices of its processors will also, inevitably fall.

Memory is made of this

The microprocessor or CPU, the so-called "brains" (doh) of a PC, is still an expensive component compared to hard drives, graphics cards and the rest. The other expensive component in a PC is memory, whether it mystifies itself under the acronyms of SDRAM, RDRAM or any other kind of RAM.

However, the performance of software on a PC is heavily dependent on the amount of memory that comes with the machine. Whether a chip runs at 1GHz or 1.13GHz or 1.3GHz, without a sufficient amount of memory, your operating system will run like a slug, your Internet pages will load like a sloth and your application software will sing not like a canary but a crow.

If you've bought a machine in the last year or so, and it comes only with 64Mb of memory, try adding another 64Mb or more and you will be astonished at how much faster everything seems.

Go for a machine with loads of memory then -- as much as you can afford. Here, it may not matter too much whether the "brains" of your shiny PC is an AMD 1GHz Athlon or an Intel 1GHz Pentium III. Think about what kind of software you are going to use the machine for and load up on memory and machines with high-spec graphics cards.

It doesn't matter too much whether the processor in your machine runs at 999MHz either, unless you're the kind of bore who goes to a pub to boast that yours is bigger than the other guy's. The 1GHz "milestone" is marketing hype, intended to get you to spend your hard earned ringgits to keep the PC industry rolling. K'ching.

But what about the Pentium 4?
This microprocessor will reach speeds of 2GHz during 2001, but you cannot realistically expect to buy such a beast until the third quarter of next year at the earliest. Speeds of 1.7GHz will come sooner, but these will demand that the memory type will be RDRAM, with the chips in the modules relying on Rambus technology.

At the time of writing (the third day of Christmas), this type of memory is four times the cost of the older type of memory, synchronous RAM. However, Intel's strategy is to push the Pentium 4 very hard in 2001, and so we can confidently expect to see prices of this type of memory fall more or less steeply throughout the year.

Nevertheless, the Pentium III and the Athlon chips, which will be at bargain base prices in the first half of next year, use synchronous memory, and if you get yourself, for example a 1GHz PC with stacks and stacks of this type of memory, you'll be sitting pretty for at least the next year and a half, because as far as we can see there isn't going to be that much software (unless you're a gamester) that will take advantage of Pentium 4 features down the line.

If you're doing a little Web smurfing, word processing, using spreadsheets and such, a 1GHz machine with oodles of memory and a decent graphics card will see you right for quite a while. Your DVD movies will run just fine, and you'd be better off splashing out on peripherals such as a lovely lovely monitor, a beauteous colour printer, and all that sort of good stuff than finding yourself a battle scarred victim in the Megahurts Wars.

Don't get too depressed if you read in The Reg that AMD is just about to announce a 2GHz chip a week after you've spent your dosh - this is one of the inevitabilities of life, like marriage and divorce, or catching colds the minute your holiday starts.

Bargain Basement Prices

Take a look at the stories we've written about pricing over the last few weeks by flicking to the Semiconductor section of La Reg.

The 'disappeared' microprocessors on, for example, the Intel and AMD roadmaps, are going to start appearing in machines 'for sale' real soon now. They won't be around forever, and if you're the kind of person who likes dickering over prices, when you stroll down Tottenham Court Road in London, or wander in Akihabara Tokyo, you may be able to take advantages of the Great Chip War of 2001.

Drive a hard bargain, beforehand, knowing as you now do, the dates when chips will shuffle off their mortal coils. There will be a fevered attempt by vendors to shift their stock, so if you choose the right time, you can spend your extra dinaros on more memory, a better monitor, etc.

You don't need to worry about the state of the industry. Strike while the iron's hot and save yourself some oof. ®

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