Numbers Don't Lie, but They Mislead
There are lots of numbers -- gigabytes, megabits, megapixels -- in bold type consumer-electronic ads designed to make products appealing. But letting those numbers dictate your shopping usually leads to buying more than you need.
Instead, consider how and where you might use a gadget. That should prune the universe of possible purchases down to a manageable handful.
Here's how you can apply this method to computers, digital cameras and television sets:
The number to ignore is the speed of the processor. Unless you edit video or photos for a living, it won't make a meaningful difference. If you use a computer for basic Web access, e-mail, digital photography, music playback and light productivity work, you might as well ignore the entire upper two-thirds of a vendor's product line.
Can you name any one program that you must use? If you can't, that's your cue to get a Mac.
Apple's MacBook laptop, iMac all-in-one desktop and the cheap, compact Mac mini desktop all come with a secure operating system, capable Web and e-mail software and a terrific set of photo, music and video programs. The only extra software you'll require may be a productivity program, such as Microsoft Office for Mac or Apple's iWork. You won't need any of the usual Windows Internet-security bundles.
If you have a spare copy of Windows, you can install that on a Mac too. But if you spend most of your time in Windows, you'll do better with a PC.
So what kind of PC? Serious gamers need a laptop or desktop with a fast graphics card, not "integrated" graphics.
Non-gamers have the widest possible choice. But that choice will often end up being a laptop: Most Windows "desktops" are too big to fit anywhere but under a desk. Only a few PCs, such as all-in-one models from HP, Dell, Gateway and Sony, as well as HP's Slimline desktops, are smaller.
With any computer, PC or Mac, a few numbers do matter. The most important is memory (RAM, short for "random access memory"). Skip anything with under a gigabyte, and upgrade to 2 GB if you run Windows Vista or if you'll run Windows on a Mac.
Hard-drive space is not quite as critical -- even low-end computers come with 80 GB. But spend a little extra for more space; it's a chore to add it later.
Any new laptop or desktop should burn CDs, and most can burn DVDs. That's helpful for backups and home-movie making.