Buying a Computer for Vista ... and Beyond

With careful planning, you can buy PCs that will both support Windows Vista and last well beyond today's standard life span

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And the Rest

So far, we've covered the core components you'll need to be a happy Vista camper both now and in the future. There are other considerations as well. However, they're mainly electives; your preference is the important thing. So if it seems as if we're breezing through them, you're correct.

Optical drive(s): Forget about HD-DVD and Blu-ray drives for a while. There's no clear standard, and one of them is sure to end up as the Betamax of the 21st century. You'll need a DVD drive that also functions as a CD drive, so you're covered on all fronts if you purchase a DVD burner. Get two if you plan to do a lot of copying of data or files. An 18x version is currently top dog, but there's a 20x model in the works. Faster is always better, but media prices go up as they get faster as well.

Sound card: In the words of that famous TV show, "Fuggedaboutit!" Today's motherboards sporting integrated 7.1 and 8.1 audio do it just as well as any card you might find, unless you're using high-end recording and effects software. If you spend a lot of time with MP3 files and have a lowly 2.1 speaker system, something akin to Creative's Xmod, a module that restores fidelity to MP3 recordings, might prove interesting.

TV tuner: Vista incorporates Windows Media Center. As with Windows XP Media Center Edition, Vista without a TV tuner is like a car without a driver. It has form and function but lacks purpose. SnapStream Media seems to have the best bundled software and hardware combinations covering the digital end of things (satellite, cable and terrestrial HD antenna reception). Just follow its decision tree. And Hauppauge Computer Works has an over-the-air HD product called the WinTV-HVR-950 that plugs into your USB port.

On the analog side, AMD-ATI has announced that it's decommissioning its line of ATI All-in-Wonder cards. Something else may come along, but for now, Hauppauge's range of analog tuners, in both single- and dual-tuner varieties, is quite popular.

Networking: It would be odd to find a desktop or laptop without LAN connectivity built in, usually in the form of an RJ-45 Ethernet connector, and of course many laptops have wireless connectivity installed as well.

The real question is whether you should jump on the faster 802.11n almost-a-standard or not. Our take on the situation? Wait. Once all of the interoperability issues are resolved and the official standard is released, what you'll get is a superior -- and faster -- way to communicate than you have currently. You'll be upgrading your LAN equipment anyway at that point (after all, an 802.11g router or switch will only communicate at 802.11g speeds) so you might as well do it all in one swell foop.

Monitors: On the desktop, CRTs are out and LCDs are in. A reasonable 19-in. LCD will set you back around $200, sometimes less. A 20-in.-plus LCD will probably become the standard within the next 10 months. Those prices have already begun to drop as well. Widescreen displays are nice, but if you're under 22 in., it's difficult to work in a multiwindow environment in any meaningful way.

Laptop displays are, of course, a matter of portability. The bigger the LCD panel, the more weight you'll be lugging around, so you're trading viewing ability for ease of transport.

Batteries: In that same vein, laptop batteries are always a fun issue. More cells mean more operating time unplugged but add to the carrying weight. It's buyer's choice.

Power protection: Line voltage surge protectors are always a good thing, even in the most urban environments. Normally, the electrical voltage feeding your computer can swing by +/-10%. That's no big deal. There are, however, times when those levels can be exceeded. On the downside, your PC will shut off, and in the upper range, it can burn out. A surge protector will help in that burn-out zone.

Look for an Underwriters Laboratories (UL) rating and a fast response time listed on the device. How fast? It's comparative. The longer your computer is exposed to a high-voltage condition, the more likely it is to be damaged -- so find one with a lower rating than its associates. It would also be nice if your surge protector had an indicator light that monitored whether it was working. The protection circuitry can stop working after one or multiple surges (or even from age), but it'll still function as an extension box. Without the indicator, you'll never know if it's working as it should.

Some computer sellers offer surge protectors, and they are legion from third-party vendors. The only advantage to buying it from the same seller from which you purchase your computer is the catch-22 factor. Surge protectors don't always work. Like everything, they have limits. If one fails and your PC fries, "But I bought this from you specifically to protect the computer I bought from you as well" is a great argument.

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