NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2002
Choosing A New Computer for the Kids-- Part 2
by Ira Wilsker
(click to email author)

In Part 1 last week in the EXAMINER, I discussed the different types of CPU chips commonly available in new computers (I personally recommended the AMD Athlon chips over the comparable Intel Pentium and Celeron Chips), memory (generally the more the better), and video cards (AGP is better than "on-board" with shared memory). Some of the other factors that influence both usability and cost are the hard drives, CD and DVD drives, modems, network cards, and other items.

Recently, when comparing desktop computers at several local stores, the smallest installed hard drive I found was a 20- gigabyte, with 40 to 80 gigabyte hard drives common. Now that hard drives have become relatively inexpensive, large hard drives are becoming the norm rather than the option. One of the classical rules of computing is "Whatever size hard drive you have, you will manage to fill it with clutter." This is as true today as in the past. Almost any hard drive installed in a new computer will be adequate for normal use, but if the child is involved with downloading MP3 music files, ripping music CDs, or into video editing, then a larger hard drive would be preferable. Another hard drive consideration is the speed of the drive. Often they will be labeled as ATA-66, 100, or 133 speeds. This is a relative comparison of the speed when reading or writing data. Within a similar price range, faster is better. Last summer I built a computer for one of my daughters before she went off to the University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson). I put in a 20-gig ATA-100 speed drive, which I thought would be adequate. With the broadband access available in her dorm, she downloaded many MP3 music files, and videos. Her 20-size drive quickly filled up, and I recently gave her a new ATA-100, 7200 rpm, 40- gig drive to install in her computer as a second hard drive. Almost all new computers can handle an additional hard drive at a later date, if more storage is necessary, as most computers can support, without additional hardware, up to four hard drives, CD drives, and DVD drives.

CD-RW (rewritable CD drives) drives have become ubiquitous as their prices have plunged, and in some new computers, are even intended to replace the traditional 3.5" floppy. I would not recommend an old style CD player (play only) in a new computer, unless it is used in addition to a CD-RW drive for making copies. CD-RW drives are listed with three sets of numbers, such as 32x10x40. The numbers represent the relative speed when writing a CD-R disc, writing a CD-RW disc (a slower process), and reading a CD. The faster the better, but when comparing computers, the differences in CD-RW speed are not significant unless the user intends to "burn" many discs. The discs themselves have plunged in price, with bulk spindles of the one-time writeable CD-R discs often advertised as "free after rebate." The more expensive CD- RW discs are rewritable, and can also be used to supplement a hard drive, as they can be written to over-and-over again.

Also, as prices have plunged, DVD drives (players) have become common. On some computers, they are integral with the CD-RW drive, and in some computers DVD players are a separate drive. If the child already has a separate DVD player, then the computer DVD drive is redundant, although it can often be used as a "host" drive when copying CDs. When DVDs are played on a computer, the quality of the video and sound is often superior to being viewed on a TV, because most new computer monitors are far higher resolution than all but the newest digital TVs. Becoming more common on the market are DVD writers. They and the blank DVD discs they use are currently expensive, and there are several competing but non-compatible formats on the market. While some manufacturers are starting to produce "universal" DVD writers that can read and write most of the competing formats, they are quite expensive. Until standards are decided in the market place, and the price of blank DVD discs inevitably drop, I would not recommend a DVD writer on a new computer unless the child just has to make DVDs. Be aware that some formats of computer burned DVD discs may not be playable in conventional DVD players, just as some computer burned music CDs may not be playable in conventional CD players.

While broadband internet is becoming more common, a telephone modem is still often an inexpensive necessity. While most factory built computers now come with the inexpensive, and less desirable "controlerless", "Winmodems", or "softmodems", if a computer is custom built, a real modem, with its own processor, is generally superior, but slightly more expensive. Almost all new computers now come with an industry standard "Ethernet" 10/100 network card installed. While there are some differences between the brands, they have become so standardized that they will generally work fine with any network or broadband service.

As integral items on most new computers are a variety of connectors for external peripherals. USB and Firewire are becoming the universal standards. Typically there may be two or more USB ports, and one Firewire port. For peripherals, Firewire is much faster (and usually more expensive) than the older USB 1.1 standard, but the new USB 2.0 standard, which is also downwardly compatible with the older USB standards, is a direct competitor to Firewire. There are many peripherals, such as printers, digital cameras, MP3 players, and scanners that generally come with USB connectors. Inexpensive external hubs can be used to increase the number of USB ports. Firewire, and the newer USB 2.0, is commonly used for recording and editing video and other high-capacity uses.

A rule of thumb is that locally built computers are typically easier to maintain and upgrade than the name brands, and can be readily customized for the child's use, and should be considered.

As with all big-ticket items, shop around, and compare. An informed shopper is a wise shopper.

Ira Wilsker if a member of the Golden Triangle PC Club, on the Board of Advisors for APCUG, on the faculty of the Lamar Institute, and writes a column each week for the Examiner, along with other things. You can email him ira@apcug.org

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using the article as long as it is kept in context, with proper credit given to the author. This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an International organization to which this user group belongs.

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