Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

The holidays are just around the corner.

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Hi everyone, this is Leo Notenboom with news, commentary and answers to some of the many questions I get at

Yes, the holiday season is coming up, and that means that a lot of folks are going to be looking to give new computers as gifts.

Now, I get asked all year long "what's a good computer", "how much memory / disk space / processor should I get" and so on - but the rate, and the reasons, intensify with Christmas approaching.

The good news is that prices are lower than ever. I recently picked up a brand new Dell laptop for under $900 when in the past that class of machine would easily have cost me twice as much, if not more.

The bad news for you gift givers out there is that the choices have multiplied almost as quickly as the prices have dropped.

So, what are some rules of thumb I can throw out at you?

Definitely understand their ... religion. Don't give a Mac person a PC, and vice versa. If it's for school, make sure it'll be compatible with whatever requirements the school or its courses might have.

Stick to brand names. I'm a big fan of Dell and have had nothing but good experiences with them.

Don't buy the "low end" line - if there is such a thing. I've been lead to believe, for example, that Dell's Latitude line of laptops is sturdier than the slightly less expensive Inspiron line. Based on anecdotal evidence, I can believe this.

Know your needs. Or rather, know your intended recipient's needs. Laptop or Desktop? Do they need raw horsepower, or will it simply be an email and web tool? Do they need wireless or wired? And so on.

Regardless of all that, I do have a couple of specific recommendations. For the computer itself.

I would not put less than a gigabyte of memory in any new machine, and I'd make sure it could be expanded up to at least twice that amount in the future. Adding memory is the single best way to get more performance out of Windows, and with Windows Vista on the horizon, more can only be better.

If you're getting a desktop, spring for the LCD/flat panel monitor. They, too, have come way down in price, they look better, they use less power and they take up less space.

Don't forget the "extras". How are they going to connect to the internet, if they're not connected already? Will they need peripherals such as a printer, a router or something else?

I go into all of these issues in a little more depth in my article What computer should I give? - if you're considering a computer as a gift this year, I encourage you to give it a read.

And if you are giving a computer this year - good on you! Now take those extra steps to make sure it's the right computer, and a gift that will be enjoyed for years.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit ask leo dot info, and enter 10924 in the go to article number box. Leave me a comment, I love hearing from you.

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Article C2844 - November 18, 2006 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

Greg Bulmash
November 19, 2006 3:33 PM

One thing to watch out for when buying the "weekly special" at a lot of the big box stores like Best Buy, Circuit City, and Comp USA is shared video memory.

You'll see in the fine print of the specs that the laptop or desktop has "64 Megs Video RAM (shared)" or something to that extent.

Shared memory means that the computer is taking a portion of its system memory and assigning it to the onboard video processor. So if you get a machine that claims it has 512 megs of RAM with 128 megs of video RAM (shared), you're buying the equivalent of a machine with 384 megs of RAM and a fairly low-end 128 megabyte video card.

I say low-end video card, because unless you have high-end RAM in the machine, the system RAM may be slower than the RAM you'll find on a good video card. And the "onboard" graphics processor on your motherboard is generally much less powerful than the ones on even mid-range video cards.

The other thing to consider is, though Leo recommends Dell, do you want to go the mail-order route? If you do go with mail-order, you need to factor in an extended warranty with "on-site" service or a local repair center option.

If you don't get that warranty, then if anything goes wrong with the computer while its under warranty, the recipient of your "gift" may have to pack it up, ship it to the manufacturer (often at their own expense), and wait weeks to get it back. Either that, or they'll have to try to diagnose the problem over the phone with a tech in India who will then have a warehouse in Indiana ship them a part they'll have to replace themselves.

If you buy an on-site service warranty, they may still have to go through some phone-hell, but in the end a local contracted tech will come out to their home or office and fix their machine.

If you don't want to pop for the price of the on-site service warranty, buy the machine from a big box vendor. That way, if something goes wrong, the recipient can throw the CPU in the back seat, drive to the mall, and drop it off for repairs at the local outlet of the chain where you bought it.

November 25, 2006 6:30 AM

HI Leo: Read your comment re an inquiry #2 key wasn't recognized by windows as not working. Well, from day one, my xphome, sp2, and all the regalia of anti sypyware. Mcaffee, spysweeper, etc. MY 'l', font is sometimes missing in print-out, the bottom part. and appear's an as normal L, but in small, reverse. I justignore it. Is that an norm. + k

Eli Coten
November 25, 2006 12:11 PM

I don't know what they are like in the USA, but Dell UK is certainly not the place to get computers from. Their customer support is known to be abysmal, and they have a nasty record of delivering faulty machines and then claiming that its the user's fault, which means that the repair somehow 'isn't covered under warranty'.

Other brand-name makes in the UK can also be problematic. I find that the best place to get computers from here in the UK is the smaller companies that custom build the computers. They often offer very competitive pricing as well. I liked Elonex ( until they went into administration, but right near them, there is a company called Mesh ( and that is the type of place I would get computers from.

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