Walter Mossberg offers his suggestions:
This guide is designed to help buyers of Windows PCs wade through the confusing array of models and configurations on the market. Apple’s Macintosh computers are also excellent choices, but there are too few models to require a buyer’s guide.
As always, my advice is aimed at mainstream users doing common tasks such as word processing, Web surfing and e-mail, personal finance, simple home photo and video editing, digital music and basic games.
Memory: Memory, or RAM, is the most important factor in computer performance. You can get by with 256 megabytes, but I suggest 512 MB.
Hard disk: A 40 gigabyte hard disk is the minimum these days, but you can get up to 100 gigabytes in midrange models. Top models now have at least 200 GB.
Processor: Under Intel’s new naming scheme, model numbers in the 500s will do fine, and most people can get away with models in the 300s, called Celerons.
Security: Turn on the built-in Windows firewall that keeps hackers out, or buy a better firewall, such as ZoneAlarm.
Digital connectors: Insist on several USB 2.0 connectors, with at least one on the front of the computer.
Memory-card slots: Look for built-in slots that accept the various types of memory cards used by digital cameras and music players.
High-speed Internet: Get a built-in Ethernet networking connection for high-speed Internet connections via cable modems and DSL lines.
Video system: Get at least 32 megabytes of video memory, preferably 64 megabytes. Less expensive PCs use something called “integrated video,” sometimes known as Intel Extreme.
Monitor: Flat-panel screens are the way to go. The 15-inch flat panels now cost well below $400. The 17-inch models can be $500 or less.
Mass storage: Look for a PC with a built-in CD-RW drive that lets you record your own CDs for playing music, or for backing up or exchanging files.
Media Centers: A Media Center PC has a built-in TV, lots of memory and huge hard-disk capacity. And it uses a special version of Windows XP that can be operated with a remote control from across the room for playing music and videos, viewing photos and watching TV.
Perhaps, the next year’s guide will have a mention of Linux!