PCs have become ubiquitous in the home, office and classroom, and according to the manufacturers, they've never been easier to use or more simple to buy. But hang on, have they actually read their own adverts? In terms of understanding technical jargon and specifications, the PC is possibly the most difficult purchase you can make today. But don't run for a darkened room - we'll guide you through the maze of processors, memory, disks and other drives, and whether to go for a PC or Mac.
The only people who need a PC with a 1,000MHz processor are obsessive gamers, highly demanding graphics artists, or, of course, the folk who do the special effects for Star Wars. The bottom line is that virtually any PC will run some version of Windows, and the software designed for it - it just might be slightly less responsive than a top-of-the-range model, that's all.
While Intel and it's major competitor, AMD, have relatively expensive processors which run above 1,000MHz, the really interesting battle is for the entry-level market.
Intel has its Celeron and AMD has its Duron processors, both of which are essentially cut-down versions of the Pentium III and Athlon chips respectively. To be honest, the cutting-down is less than Intel and AMD would like you to think, resulting in great performers at low, low prices. Unless you've got money to burn, consider a PC based around a Celeron or Duron. Note, 500MHz processors are sufficient, but you'll find it hard to get anything slower than 700MHz these days.
If you must have a top of the range processor, consider the fact that AMD's 1,000MHz Athlon is over 50 per cent cheaper than Intel's 1,000MHz Pentium III and there's hardly any difference in performance. Don't worry about the new Pentium 4 either, which won't make any sense until software is written specifically for it, and that won't happen until later this year.
Processors are only one part of the picture - after all, it doesn't make any sense to put, say, a Ferrari engine into a Mini chassis, however loud it revs. Memory plays an incredibly important role in overall PC performance, and it's cheap too, so don't compromise.
64MB is minimum for a new PC, and 128MB is preferable if you can afford it. Before you get carried away, you'll only see the benefit of more than 128MB if you're into editing graphics, audio or video, handling huge databases or printing big photos.
One quick note: there are two types of memory commonly available, called SDRam and RDRam. RDRam is slightly faster, but much more expensive, so we recommend only going for a PC which uses SDRam.
The hard disk is where all your programs, documents and downloads are stored. Clearly a bigger disk lets you store more, with models on current PCs measuring between 10GB and 50GB. How much space you need depends on what you're doing with it.
Text-only documents and spreadsheets are tiny, measuring tens of KB. Pictures from Web pages normally measure no more than 100KB. Photos from digital cameras typically measure between 500KB and 2,500KB. Video is the real killer, with digital video taken directly from DV camcorder weighing in at 200MB per minute. If you're not heavily into photography or audio and video applications, then a 10GB or 20GB disk will last you for ages.
CD-Rom drives are available at different speeds, but don't worry about getting a so-called 32X or faster model, as a 16X or even slower will be more than adequate. Do however consider a CD rewriter drive, as these can read normal CD-Roms, along with writing up to 650MB of information on to blank CDs, costing around pound;1 each. A 4X writer will record 650MB in 15 minutes, while an 8X writer will do it in 7.5 minutes.
DVD drives are also increasingly common, capable of reading CDs, along with new DVD discs. If the PC has DVD playback software, then you can use the DVD-Rom drive to watch videos, saving you from buying a separate DVD player (see physics review, p21). Note you can have both a DVD-Rom and CD rewriter fitted in the same PC, allowing you to copy CDs (copyright permitting).
Any graphics card will produce a full colour, photographic-like image on your screen. Unless you want the best 3D games performance, then stick with the cheapest graphics card on offer.
PC vs Mac
According to some reports, Apple Macs are a bit easier to use than a Windows-based PC, but there's not really much in it. Apple is, however, very good at putting together a complete system, with the iMacs offering everything you could want (apart from a CD rewriter and top-of-the-range 3D graphics) in a single, stylish package.
As far as memory and drives are concerned, the same rules as PCs apply. However, Macs use different types of processors which go faster than they sound. A 400MHz Mac, for instance, is roughly equivalent in speed to a 700MHz Pentium III.
The choice between Macs and PCs depends mostly on the software you want to run, and what equipment your friends and colleagues already own - after all, you might want to share some of it. Remember that Windows software won't run on Macs and vice versa. The choice also comes down to price, and the fact is that equivalently performing PCs are a bit cheaper, while enjoying much broader industry support.
Gordon Laing is a freelance journalist and former editor of Personal Computer World
Minimum new PC specification (typically around pound;599+VAT); 700MHz processor from Intel or AMD; 64MB Ram; 10GB hard disk; 8X CD-Rom drive
Do's and Don'ts
* Don't buy a 1,000MHz processor - 99 per cent of people won't need it
* Do consider an Intel Celeron or AMD Duron processor - they're fast and cheap
* Don't get less than 64MB Ram of memory - it'll make a big difference
* Don't buy over 128MB Ram unless you're editing lots of photos, sound or video
* Don't buy an expensive graphics card unless you're worried about 3D games performance
* Don't worry about a 50GB hard disk - 20GB is more than sufficient unless you're into video
* Don't worry about a 32X CD Rom drive - 16X or even slower is fine
* Do think about a CD rewriter drive - they can store 650MB on blank CDs costing pound;1
* Do consider a DVD-Rom drive - with the right software you'll be able to watch DVD titles
* Don't expect to find the best prices on the high street
* Do consider buying your PC or Mac from the adverts in computer magazines - they're cheaper