The last time I browsed the selection of desktops in a computer store, I came down with a case of instant deja vu. Each time I'd spot a thoughtful feature on one company's PC -- say, both USB and FireWire ports on the front or a full set of memory-card slots -- I would look at the machine to its right or left and spot the exact same item.
After eyeballing 27 different PCs, I could have more easily distinguished them by color than any other detail. Only a shoebox-size model from Shuttle Computer Corp. stood apart in this lineup of tower-case desktops. (This store didn't stock Apple hardware.)
Transcript: Rob was online to discuss the holiday tech buying guide.
Faced with this conformity, many shoppers judge PCs by their processors' clock speeds. But that no longer tells anything useful -- any new processor easily handles browsing the Web, downloading MP3s or editing digital photos. Few tasks, such as editing video, demand more power.
A computer shopping list should focus on different criteria: hard drive, memory and removable storage.
Start with the hard drive: Forty gigabytes, the usual minimum, is plenty if you won't install dozens of games or copy hundreds of CDs to the computer. But for most uses, 60 GB seems a more realistic floor. If you want to edit video, double that figure.
Extra memory boosts performance more than added processor speed -- mainly because many vendors don't include enough. With all the software active in most Mac OS X or Windows XP systems, you need 512 megabytes -- and make sure there's a memory slot open to add more later on if you need it.
The primary form of removable storage should be a CD burner; look for fast write and rewrite speeds, as indicated by the first and second figures in the industry's "48x/32x/48x" notation. DVD playback makes a nice bonus; DVD recording is essential for video editing and a convenience for backing up data.
Most non-Apple desktops and many laptops include slots for the memory cards used in digital cameras, usually in place of the long-obsolete floppy drive. (You can add an external card reader for $20 or so, and many printers include their own card slots.)
Past those big three factors, the other details require less thinking. Any desktop or laptop should have a modem and an Ethernet port, and any laptop should include 802.11g WiFi wireless.
The only kind of expansion port you need is USB 2.0, the more the better. FireWire ports (also called 1394 and i.Link) are required for most digital camcorders and some external drives. Some of these connectors should be accessible from the front of the machine.