Tech Toys 2006, Part 4: Computers and Computer Accessories

For all the talk about non-PC devices these days, PCs remain the workhorses of the connected home. And with good reason: PCs are the ultimate multitaskers, offering a virtually unlimited range of functionality and usefulness. Best of all, prices are down across the board, whether you're looking at desktop systems or more portable notebook computers.

Desktop Computers
In 2006, Intel made the transition to the Core 2 Duo processor, a 64-bit dual-core powerhouse that will define mainstream computing for at least the next year. Whether you prefer PC or Mac, the Core 2 Duo processor is the way to go on mid-level and high-level systems. It leaves previous-generation Intel and AMD processors in the dust. This is a sharp change from last year, when AMD's designs were more efficient and powerful. However, less expensive AMD Sempron and Intel Core Duo processors are available for lower-end systems.

Desktop PCs can be categorized into three basic product segments: Budget, midrange, and high-end/gaming. Budget PCs are typically characterized by economical pricing, low-end components, and minimally acceptable system configurations. Midrange PCs are generally the best deals, with features and functionality that should satisfy all but the most demanding users. And high-end/gaming PCs, of course, target the upper echelon of PC buyer, offering dual video-card setups, massive amounts of RAM, and other expensive amenities. These machines, naturally, often come with a heady price tag.

In the budget market, you're looking at a basic box that can get the job done at a minimum cost (typically under $500), and you're probably going to be shopping for a complete system that includes a display, speakers, and other add-ons. The HP Pavilion a1410e Series ($249.99 and up) is typical of this type of PC: It includes a free 15" flat-panel display and an all-in-one printer.

In the midrange, things get truly interesting. For the second year in a row, Dell is out of the running, thanks largely to the company's woeful support rating. But HP has stepped up to the plate with a variety of excellent systems, including the HP Pavilion d4650y Series ($899.99 and up), a blazingly fast Media Center PC that you can upgrade with massive amounts of RAM and high-end video cards.

On the Mac side, Apple has completed its transition to Intel's microprocessors. On the low end, the Mac mini ($599 and up) is more expensive than last year but now features the Core Duo processor, running at 1.66GHz or 1.83GHz. The machines also include 512MB of RAM, a 60GB or 80GB hard disk, a combo drive or SuperDrive (DVD burning), and built-in wireless on some models. The Mac mini is a thing of beauty and nearly silent, and although the price is a bit higher than that of comparable PCs, some might find the elegant design worth the difference.

In the midrange, Apple offers its iMac, which features an integrated widescreen display and is now available in three models. The iMac 17-inch ($999) offers just basic amenities, with a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 512MB of RAM, a 160GB hard disk, a 24x combo drive, and integrated graphics. Apple offers an upscale version for $1199: This version offers a 1.83 GHz processor, an 8x dual layer SuperDrive, and ATI Radeon X1600 graphics.

Moving up a bit, you can get the iMac 20-inch ($1499) with a 2.16GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 250GB hard disk. And although this is firmly in the high-end category from a pricing perspective, Apple's iMac 24-inch ($1999.00) sports the biggest iMac screen yet: It's a monster, but a beautiful and elegant monster.

Apple's high-end computer line, the Mac Pro, is really a workstation and not a personal computer. These systems are extremely expensive, starting at $2499 and quickly escalating from there as you add features. However, the Mac Pro offers dual 2.66GHz Dual-Core Intel Xeon processors for an almost obscene amount of power, and the sky is the limit on expandability: You can configure these systems with as much as 16GB of RAM and 3TB (yes, terabytes) of storage. Yikes.

Notebook Computers and Tablet PCs
Portable computers are now available in a variety of form factors, sizes, and capabilities, but the market can be broken down pretty easily: These days, the larger and heavier systems, called desktop replacements, tend to be less expensive than their smaller and lighter contemporaries, but they offer more expansion space. And whereas the Tablet PC form factor never really took off, a variety of notebook computers now offer pen input options and come in convertible notebook and slate form factors. There are plenty of excellent choices.

As with the desktop PC market, the market for portable computers has switched largely to Intel Core 2 Duo and Core Duo systems this year on both the PC and Mac. (Last year, Pentium M systems dominated on the PC side, and Macs were stuck with low-class PowerPC processors.) As with the desktop market, machines based on Intel's chips are thriftier and offer better performance than those based on AMD chips.

On the low end, you can get the HP Pavilion dv2000t ($599.99 and up) with a 14.1" widescreen display and a variety of processor options and other features. For something a little more entertainment-oriented, check out the HP Pavilion dv6000t Series ($569.99 and up) and HP Pavillion dv9000t Series ($1049.99 and up), which offer 15" and 17" screens, respectively, powerful Core 2 Duo processors, and numerous multimedia niceties.

As always, Apple's portable computer offerings are divided into product lines, although the consumer-oriented iBook has been replaced by the all-new MacBook, and the prosumer-focused PowerBook has been replaced by the new MacBook Pro. Both are excellent and offer surprisingly reasonable prices and spectacular performance.

The MacBooks ($1099 and up) feature 13.3" widescreen displays, Core 2 Duo processors, and your choice of white and black bodies. There are three models: a low-end white version with a 1.83GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, an 80GB hard disk, and a combo drive ($1099); a mid-line white model with a 2.0GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and a DL SuperDrive ($1299); and an upper-level black model with a 120GB hard disk.

Like the previous-generation PowerBooks, the MacBook Pros ($1999 to $2799) come in aluminum enclosures, but Apple has dropped the old 12" model. Now, there are three versions, with two different screen sizes. The entry-level 15" MacBook Pro ($1999) includes a 2.16GHz Core 2 Duo processor, 1GB of RAM, a 120GB hard disk, and a 6x DL SuperDrive. At the middle of the pack is a second 15" version ($2499) that adds a 2.33GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, and more video memory. And at the top of the heap is the impressive 17" MacBook Pro ($2799), which features a humongous screen.

Computer Accessories
Thanks to their versatility, an innumerable number of PC accessories are available. In fact, the market is so large, it's impossible to cover it all, so let's look at some basics.

Portable storage continues to improve as prices get lower. I'm a big fan of Western Digital's stellar external storage solutions, including the highly portable Western Digital WD Passport portable hard drive ($199.99), which features 160GB of storage, a stylish small form factor, and USB 2.0 compatibility (smaller capacities are also available for less money), and the MyBook Premium Edition ($329.99), which features 500GB of storage space, USB and FireWire interfaces, and a cool book-like enclosure that will look great in any home office.

For USB thumb drives, the new standard is the SanDisk Cruzer Titanium 2GB ($109.99), although a 1GB Cruzer Titanium ($69.99) is also available for less money. These useful little critters now include a retractable USB connector, a rugged new exterior, and fast performance. Don't leave home without one.

From a software perspective, Microsoft's bargain-priced Office Student and Teacher Edition 2003 ($119.99) for the PC is still a good value, although it's about to be replaced in January by the 2007 version. On the Mac, Office Student and Teacher Edition 2004 for Macintosh ($119.99) is a safer bet.

If you're looking for an even cheaper offering (PC only), Corel offers its Corel WordPerfect Office 12 Student and Teacher Edition for just $99.99. This package includes WordPerfect 12 (word processing), Quattro Pro 12 (spreadsheet), Paradox 12 (database), and Presentations 12 (slideshows).

Mac users still have nothing to fear from viruses and other malware, but PC users need to be protected. This year, go with the new champion in the PC health care space, Microsoft OneCare Live 12 Month Subscription ($19.99), which is bargain priced, better than the competition, and can be installed on as many as three PCs. It's the best deal out there.

Finally, don't forget the games. Although game consoles such as the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii get a lot of press, PC gaming still offers more variety and, with the right hardware, even better graphics and sound. Some of the better games this holiday season include Microsoft Flight Simulator X ($64.99), which offers unmatched realism, Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion ($44.98), a solid role-playing game (RPG) for Dungeons and Dragons fans, and F.E.A.R. ($29.82), a year-old horror shooter that was recently updated with the F.E.A.R. Extraction Point ($27.99) expansion pack. And if you're looking for fun for the entire family, be sure to check out the whimsical Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy ($26.82), which is just good stuff. The original version, Lego Star Wars ($17.82) is also available for a bargain price.

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