PCs are faster, have more capacity and cost less than ever before. As this year's home-computer buying guide shows, you can get an adequate machine (without monitor) for $500 or so. There are deals like never before.

But there are also choices and options--in short, decisions. So long as someone's going to make a profit by selling you something, they'll try to get you to buy more than you need and pay more than you should. They'll roll out a faster processor, spin you a bigger hard drive, then cut costs on the software they bundle and smile all the way to the bank.

That's where we come in.

WHAT INNARDS?

Allow us to repeat ourselves (again!): If you're doing normal business or recreational tasks on your computer--writing, tracking numbers on a spreadsheet, connecting to the Web, reading and writing e-mail, playing mildly obsolete games--any computer powered by any chip for sale today will do the job. To delve into the Talmudic distinctions between Intel Celerons and Pentium IIIs is to move closer to making a contribution to Andy Grove's retirement fund--a nice gesture on your part, certainly, but unnecessary.

If you're a serious gamer (you know who you are) or you do 3-D modeling or computer-aided design to while away the hours, you'll probably be looking for a system powered by a high-end chip. For Windows users, that used to mean a top-of-the-line Pentium, but no more: This fall, AMD bested Intel with its 700-MHz Athlon chip, which outdid the PIII in just about every benchmark test. If you need the very best, right now Athlon is it--but, unsurprisingly enough, at a higher cost. (Intel's next move is the Coppermine chip, a smaller, faster Pentium III running at speeds of 500 to 733 MHz. Stay tuned.)

If you're in the Mac market, things are much simpler, with only two alphanumeric processor monikers to choose from: G3 and G4. For almost all home uses, the G3-powered iMac is machine enough, but the desktop G4 models are a pricier option for people in need of additional speed (and willing to put up with shipping delays caused by limited supplies of this new chip).

Although processors get the most attention in ads, other computer components tend to make a much bigger difference in performance, or at least perceived performance. So get at least 64 megabytes of memory, for instance, and add a 3-D graphics accelerator card if you're into games. And don't overlook the monitor, the part of the computer you interact with more directly than anything else besides the keyboard--consider trading up to a 17-inch monitor if you're going to spend a lot of time in front of the keyboard. See the glossary at right for more info on the finer points of computer shopping.

THE SIMPLER PC?

For years, critics of Wintel computers have asked why those machines can't emulate the Apple model--why can't they be as simple to operate, without the usual bird's nest of wires protruding out the back? Much of the answer to that question has to do with the huge installed base of aging equipment with which new computers must be compatible.

But recently things have begun to change, thanks in part to continued prodding from Intel and Microsoft to retire older technology. For instance, earlier this month Compaq unveiled its iPaq, a $499 computer with no ISA or PCI slots and no serial or parallel ports, just hot-swappable multiple-user drive bays and USB ports. The catch is, it will be marketed only to businesses and will ship with Microsoft's business-oriented Windows 2000 operating system.

In the meantime, there's Gateway's Astro, which we review here--a $799 all-in-one box that attempts to offer the same simplicity as Apple's iMac. As we note, it has its limits, some of which will make this computer unacceptable for many home users. But it's a start.

HOW LOW CAN THEY GO?

Every year it seems computer prices can go no lower, yet they drop again. The most recent indications are that PCs can be produced so inexpensively that they can be given away as incentives. PeoplePC, for example, will charge you $25 a month over three years for Internet access and a PC roughly comparable to the ones we report on in this issue. Again, if you have no specific requirements for high-performance computing, you aren't likely to go too far wrong with any of the inexpensive PCs on the market.

Once you assure yourself that the machine has all the components it should, your concern should be with the machine's human interface. Does the keyboard design allow you to type on it for long periods? Are the keys large enough and well placed? Does the mouse fit your hand? Is the monitor sharp enough for you to be able to stare at it for long periods?

If you're never bought a home computer before, those questions may be enough to persuade you to buy from a store where you can try out the merchandise first, as opposed to buying online, sight unseen, from a manufacturer such as Dell or Micron that will ship the machine directly to your house. And first-timers will almost definitely be better off purchasing from a name-brand manufacturer than wading into the universe of local custom-build shops.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Your next home computer might not be a traditional computer at all.

The biggest looming change in home computing will be the arrival in substantial numbers of consumer appliances to perform PC functions, particularly sending and receiving e-mail and viewing Web pages. They were everywhere at this week's Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, each more sleek and curvy than the next, and most with retail price tags in the low three figures. This is the beginning of the realization of the vision of the computer as toaster--and how the issue of the Mac-like PC will most likely be finessed. But don't worry: Somebody will probably still be ready to "upsell" you on a faster--or maybe just shinier--model.