Q. I am trying to find a computer that will be good for gaming, school, music and video (mostly gaming). I don’t want to go too expensive (around $500 to $600). Where should I go, and what’s the best on the market for that price? — Anthony
A. When it comes to buying a new computer, one of the most important first steps is evaluating what you want to do.
The good news is that you clearly know what you want to do, but the bad news is your desired tasks aren’t likely to match your budget.
Of all the things that you can ask a computer to do, two of the most intense uses are gaming and video editing, which means you have to have above-average hardware to perform these functions well.
Your price range will get you into what is referred to as an “entry level” computer, which will perform standard tasks (e-mail, surfing the net, writing letters, etc.) very well but will be severely underpowered for gaming or video editing.
Unless you’re talking about simple games like Solitaire or online poker, you will need a fairly sophisticated video card for today’s state-of-the-art games to render in a playable manner.
Most systems in the price range you mentioned have a basic video card built into the motherboard that must pull from the processor and system memory (RAM) to function. That further deteriorates the performance of the entire system under heavy-use activities. This mismatch will often lead to a very poor gaming experience.
True gaming systems have separate video cards that have their own processor and memory, which is what allows the game play to appear realistic.
Hardcore gamers routinely spend $200 to $500 on the video card alone, and true gaming systems often start at $2,000 and go up from there. So you may want to begin by managing your expectations of what the gaming experience will be like based on your budget.
As for working with video, if you just want to watch streaming videos on the Internet, your entry level system will work fine. But if you want to create and/or edit your own video, you will need a lot of RAM and a fast hard drive, neither of which is typically included at the low end of the pricing scale.
Most folks who are serious about either of these pursuits prefer to have a computer custom-built so that they can control the exact configuration of the system and likely will have an upgrade path for on-going improvements.
In your case, you may want to consider lowering your immediate expectations but buy a system that will allow you to improve the performance over time. This means you will want to get a computer that has fairly generic parts with lots of expansion slots.
Another consideration for anyone buying a new computer is the hardware hungry Windows Vista that will be forced on you at some point in the future.
Whether you’re buying the machine loaded with Windows Vista or not, you would be wise to consider what it will take to run it properly in the future.
Microsoft requires above average hardware (especially RAM and video processors), which is typically not included in entry level systems, in order to run anything beyond the basic version of Windows Vista.
Entry level computers are typically Vista Capable, which may not mean much to you today, but it’s just a matter of time before Vista will become an issue for your new computer. So add it to your consideration list.