Tech Shopping? Look Past the Numbers.

A bewildering array of high-end electronics is now affordable, but what is best suited to you?
A bewildering array of high-end electronics is now affordable, but what is best suited to you? (By Spencer Platt -- Getty Images)
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By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, November 27, 2008

The electronics industry has done cash-strapped customers a favor this holiday season: Across a wide range of devices, it's brought once-expensive capabilities down to a tolerable price.

This can leave you with an overwhelming array of choices when you see that pretty much everything on sale has the specifications you were told to look for. But if you shift your attention from those numbers to other issues -- like simplicity, reliability and compatibility -- you can pick out the right gadget quickly enough.

Consider your choices in three popular categories of electronics: computers, flat-panel TVs and smartphones.

ยท Computers. Instead of worrying about processor speeds, start with the "Mac or PC?" question. Mac OS X works better than Windows Vista, and Macs ship with better add-on applications than most PCs. (Dell lets you opt out of bundled software on its Web site, but other vendors, such as Gateway, HP, Sony and Toshiba, can't stop tarting up their machines with junk programs.) A Mac can run a copy of Windows. And you can take a Mac to Apple's own stores for face-to-face help.

But Apple's computers also cost more than Windows PCs, in part because they include many extras that not all users want. And they offer less expandability, with fewer USB ports and no memory-card slots.

That brings up the next big question: Desktop or laptop? You don't need to take a computer places to prefer a laptop: Many desktops take up too much space on a desk. Among laptops, cheap, compact and increasingly popular "netbooks" can suit people who need only Web and e-mail access -- if they can deal with typing on diminutive keyboards. (Next week, I'll compare netbooks from a handful of vendors.)

With any computer, wherever it sits, you can ignore not just processors but also (unless you play games) graphics cards.

You will need at least one gigabyte of memory on a Mac, 2 GB on a Vista PC. But a PC with 4 GB or more requires Vista's 64-bit edition, which won't run some older programs and peripherals.

Most new computers include enough hard-drive storage, though digital-video enthusiasts will want a 320 GB or larger drive and a DVD burner. A better storage upgrade, however, is an external hard drive to back up data.

More USB ports for external items like printers always help. Some computers also include FireWire ports to connect digital camcorders and external drives. Bluetooth wireless -- on all Macs but absent from most PCs -- links many cellphones.

Ignore such upgrade options as Blu-ray drives and the Ultimate Edition of Vista on PCs, and extended service plans on Macs. (Apple doesn't cover accidental damage.)

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