NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2002
Choosing A New Computer for the Kids - Part 1
by Ira Wilsker

One of the most frequently asked questions recently by both readers of this column and from listeners to my weekly radio shows was about purchasing computers for their children. Generally, the "kids" fall into two broad categories; college bound, and middle or high school students. As I reply when asked by anyone about recommendations for buying a computer, I ask back "what is it going to be used for?" The reply to that query will often have a significant influence on my recommendations.

First, a brief overview of processors, often referred to as "CPU chips"; the two major competitors are Intel and AMD, both of whom produce a variety of chips. The premium chips are Intel's Pentium, and AMD's Athlon. Both are generally satisfactory, and the rule of thumb is the faster, the better, but faster often means more expensive. For many modern computers the CPU chip, often not much larger than a postage stamp, is the most expensive component. Generally, the AMD Athlon chips with the same performance rating as Intel Pentium chips, are less expensive. According to side-by-side comparisons published by several of the major computer magazines, Athlon chips also generally outperform comparable Pentium chips of the same clock speed when used in real-world applications. Pentium chips are typically named with their rated clock speed, or how fast they can operate internally. The new Athlon chips are named not by their real clock speed, but how they compare to an Intel Pentium chip. For example an Athlon XP 1800 chip, while actually having a clock speed of 1.53GHZ, has about the same actual performance of a Pentium 1.8GHZ chip, but has a price (just for the chip) of about 1/3 to less than the Pentium 1.8GHZ chip, according to the listings at pricewatch.com. Both AMD and Intel also manufacture a budget line of CPU chips. These chips are the Intel Celeron and the AMD Duron, currently being phased out by AMD. These budget chips, costing about again less than their premium counterparts, have a lower degree of performance, even with the same clock speed, because they lack some of the more advanced features of their higher priced counterparts, such as less on-board cache memory, and less sophisticated video and multimedia support. "Putting my money where my mouth is", all of the computers I have built or purchased for my family in recent years have had AMD chips in them. While not all computer manufacturers offer a choice of chipmakers, recently I have almost always recommended Athlon chips over Pentium, based on both their price and performance advantage. For kids' computers, purchased today, I would not recommend either Celeron or Duron chips, as today's kids are more likely to make extensive use of multimedia and graphics intensive applications, such as video games, and MP3 and DVD players. It is these applications specifically that Celerons and Durons generally lack the enhanced capability of their premium big brothers. For a child's computer today, I would pick an Athlon CPU chip over a comparable Pentium chip, if available.

As the speeds of CPU chips on the market increase, the marginal benefit of those increased speeds to the "kid" user decreases, as the cost increases. The latest "gee whiz" speeds may be impressive to friends, but using that increased CPU's additional cost for other features, rather than the highest speeds, may increase the functionality of the computer.

Memory, almost as much as chip speed, is a major contributor to computer performance. In recent years, the price of memory has plunged. While there have been some up-and-down price fluctuations, memory is often one of the less expensive components. Rule of thumb is the more memory, the better, up to reasonable limits. 128 megabytes of memory is about the minimum for new computers, with 256 megs becoming more common on new computers. Many new computers currently on local store shelves have 512 megs of memory, or more. There are different memory formats and speeds being used by different manufacturers. The type of memory used is often listed in the computer specifications. DDR memory is generally faster than the more common and less expensive PC133, but the difference in price is usually not very much. The computer I am using to type this has 256 megs of memory, which with my Windows 98 has been adequate. The computer I built last winter for my youngest daughter has 384 megs (3 - 128 meg sticks of PC133 speed memory), along with an Athlon 1.33 GHZ (266 "Front Side Bus") CPU chip. Memory sticks, of most major types, are fairly inexpensive and readily available from most computer, electronics and office supply stores. If the kids want more memory at a later date, it is usually an easy "do-it-yourself" project. Two of my four daughters have added memory to their computers, all by themselves.

New computers will also usually show the speed and type of video installed. Many manufacturers, in order to keep the cost down, use an on- board video chip that uses "shared" memory; this means that the video card is also using the computer's regular memory. This reduces the memory available for applications, and reduces performance. A separate video card, preferably referred to as an AGP card, will have its own video processor and memory. Again, the faster the video card, and the more memory on the card, the better the video performance, but the more expensive the computer becomes. If the kid wants to do a lot of intensive gaming, or play DVDs on the computer, the better video may be worth the extra money. The computer I recently built for my youngest daughter has a very fast AGP 4x video card, with 64 megs of its own memory.

Next week, in the Examiner, this column will discuss choices for hard drives, CD-RW, DVD, and other accessories, as well as try and answer the notebook vs. desktop argument.

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