Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle ... In With the New

By John Avignone

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Last week we looked at internal upgrade options for your PC. This week we'll talk about add-ons and upgrades that don't require removing the case.


Monitors

The most noticeable improvement you can make to your system is a new monitor. Monitor prices are way down and now might be the time to get a nice, big display. A few years ago a decent 17" monitor sold for over $700. The same quality monitor today can be had for less than $300. Even top-of-the-line 17" monitors are available for under $500.

No matter what you do with your computer, it will look much better on a bigger screen. There are a few basic performance specs to look at when comparing monitors. The first is dot pitch size. The smaller the dots that make up the screen, the clearer the image. Look for a maximum pitch size of .28mm. The best monitors have .22 pitch size.

The next thing to look for is resolution. Here, the bigger the numbers, the better the quality. Resolution is the number of pixels, the smallest point your monitor can draw, that make up an image. Look for at least 1,024 x 768 resolution. If you're heavy into graphics or games, you'll want the best resolution possible. On home monitors, 1,280 x 1,024 is pretty much the limit, though some high end displays go up to 1,800 x 1,440.

The last thing to look for is the refresh rate. This spec tells you how often the image on the screen is redrawn and is given in cycles per second (Hz). Higher is better. Look for at least 65Hz. Top quality displays run up to 85Hz.


illustration by Jason Stout
Before deciding on a monitor, check the specs of your graphics or video card. Unless you plan to upgrade, it doesn't make sense to get a monitor with more capabilities than your video card. If you can't find the specs for your display adapter, go to the manufacturer's Web site or, if your graphics card is built in, the computer manufacturer's site.

For those running Win98, there's another option. Windows 98 allows PC users to use two monitors at once for the first time (Macs have had this capability for many years). Depending on your needs, this can be pretty handy. It also means you can buy a new monitor without having to sell or trash your old one. With a second monitor you can extend a single image across both monitors or display completely different information on each.

I use my old monitor to hold all of my shortcuts. This allows me to keep one screen clear for work and the other for easily accessing my most used programs. It also allows me to keep more windows open at once and still be able to see them all. For example, right now I have this text up on one monitor and I'm doing Web research at the same time on the other without having to switch back and forth between windows. Very handy.


Printers and Scanners

Does stuff you print look like a Rorschach test? Does the clatter of your pin printer scare the cat witless? When you print an image, does it look like a bad impressionist painting? Does your printer occasionally spit out blank pages faster than the pie machine from I Love Lucy? It's time for a new printer.

Most of today's printers use one of two methods to create an image. Bubble jet or ink jet printers use ink that is heated and blown onto the page by a tiny stylus. Laser printers use an optical imaging system. Laser printers are generally faster, more reliable, and print better quality images, though there are some excellent jet printers out there. Laser printers are also more expensive.

First, decide if you need color capabilities. Even boring office documents can benefit from some well-placed color graphs or charts. There are top quality b&w-only laser printers, but most home users want color. Decent color printers start at around $150 and range up to, well, how much ya got? Photo-quality color printers start at about $250. Keep in mind that printing in color, particularly photo quality, is an expensive proposition. Photo quality prints can cost a dollar a page in ink and paper. And they're not really photo quality.

Printers are rated mainly by resolution, those little pixels again, and speed, given in pages per minute. The better the resolution and the faster the printing speed, the more expensive a printer is likely to be. There are endless options here, so decide what is most important and go for that. Also look at optional capabilities. Do you want to make T-shirts? There are printers specifically optimized for iron-on transfers.

There are also all-in-one machines, a combination of a printer, scanner, copier, and fax machine in one box. Generally the quality of any single function will not be as good as a dedicated machine, but all-in-ones can be a good option for the small office.

Another option to consider is no printer at all, or only a very basic model. I've never been much on printers. I use a cheap old 24-pin printer for drafts. The few times I need a top-quality printed image, I hoof it over to Kinko's. One note on using a rent-a-printer. Make sure you take any fonts you may need and, if possible, a copy of the software you are using. Otherwise, your print may not look like you intended. Most places will allow you to install your own software as long as you remove it when you are done.

Scanners used to be too expensive for most home or even small office uses. Not any more. You can buy a entry-level color scanner for under $100. A scanner allows you to take any printed image from anywhere and turn it into a digital image that can be stored on your hard drive or floppies. The image is stored as a picture of whatever was scanned, but there is software available that allows you to convert the text in a scanned image into a regular text file, allowing you to edit, search by keywords, etc.


CD ROM and DVD

We left this as an outside-the-box option, though many internal models are also available. My favorite new toy is a CD-ROM recorder, often called a burner. Prices start at under $300.

For less than $2 each (the price of a blank CD), you can now make CD-ROMs containing data or regular audio CDs. You can take CDs from your collection, copy only the songs you want onto your hard drive, then arrange them in any order to make a custom CD. Using MP3, Sound VQ, PAC, or CTE compression (the latest digital audio formats) you can fit more than 200 songs, all CD-quality, on one disk.

You can also master digital audio or video to CD. My computer is currently set up as kind of a mini recording studio. I can create music, record it, add arrangements, mix it and master it to CD, all on the computer. For a true project studio with pro capabilities, you'll need to add a small mixer, an amp and some monitor speakers. A DAT recorder is also nice.

When shopping for a CD recorder, the most important considerations are speed, buffer size and whether it has re-write capabilities. CD-RW (re-writable) burners can use special blank disks that can be recorded over many times, like a floppy disk. This is a great feature for backups or storing projects likely to require change. CD-RW burners will generally run about 15% more.

Speed is a simple spec. The fastest consumer burners currently available record at up to 4x speed (2x for re-writables) and play at up to 6x. The higher the speed rating, the less time it takes to record a CD. At 4x speed you can record a 650-meg CD in about 18 minutes.

Buffer size is extremely important. The buffer is special memory built into the recorder that stores data until it is needed. If the buffer is too small, you're likely to see "buffer underrun" errors, meaning the burner ran out of data before new data was available. If this happens, the recording will fail. Better burners have a buffer of 2 gigs or larger.

CD burners come in two basic flavors, ATAPI and SCSI. ATAPI burners will work with pretty much any PC right out of the box. SCSI burners require a special SCSI control card. If you plan on doing sound or video, get a SCSI recorder. SCSI devices handle complex audio and video data far better than other types of devices.

Some SCSI burners come packaged with a controller, some don't. Some also come packaged with mastering software needed to create CDs. Your best bet is to buy a top-quality, name brand controller. The current top brand is Adaptec. A good Adaptec controller, like the 1540/42 can be had for under $100. For software, I recommend Adaptec's Easy CD Creator program.

DVD is the latest digital disk format to hit the PC world. DVD disks can store much more data than a regular CD. The main current application for DVD is playing digital-quality, full-length movies.

Personally, I have a television. I don't need to play movies on my computer. If I got a DVD player, it would be one that plays through my TV, not my computer. In the future, DVD may well replace the CD as the dominant storage system, but for now, CD offers more flexibility. It's a nice toy, but it doesn't fill any glaring need.


Digital Cameras and Other Goodies

There are almost endless add-on options available. These range from game controllers, joysticks, game pads or even steering wheel-gas pedal-brake controllers for driving games, to photo readers that allow you to import photos. Speaking of photos, one of the most popular options currently is a digital camera.

Digital cameras are still expensive compared to their film counterparts. And while the digital part is the latest and greatest high tech, the camera part lags well behind traditional 35mm cameras. To get a good quality digital camera with features you might expect on an average 35mm, you have to spend at least $700. To get features the average photographer would need, expect to spend more than a grand.

Unless you have a pressing need or lots of extra scratch, you might want to wait a year or two on a top quality digital camera. By then prices will drop and new options, like video camcorders that double as still digital cameras, will be more widely available.

Even basic point-and-shoot models run about $200. These low-line models have inferior image quality, 640 x 480 pixels maximum, compared to the top-line models with 1,280 x 960 or better resolution. Again, the more pixels, the better.

Another camera option is a QuickCam. A QuickCam, about $100 for b&w, $200 for color, is a small video camera that hooks up to your computer. With it you can turn your computer into a video conferencing center using CU SeeMe software. Connect to another CU SeeMe user and you can talk face to face in real time. Video quality is fairly poor, but the faster your connection, the better it looks.

Controllers and input devices such as keyboards, joysticks, game pads, mouses, or drawing tablets can greatly affect your computer experience. Make sure you get something that is comfortable for you. I like the Logitech Trackman mouse ($80 to $100, depending on model), the Microsoft SideWinder Precision Pro joystick ($60) and Wacom drawing tablets ($100 to $2,000). A drawing tablet allows you to use a pen to draw and paint much like you would on paper.

There are all sorts of keyboards out there from $10 to over $100. Many have various ergonomic improvements designed to combat carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries. Get a keyboard that provides a comfortable working position for you. If you think you already have a repetitive stress injury, see your doctor. You need more than a new keyboard.


Software

Let's stick to the basics: your operating system. If you have a 486 or higher and 16 megs of RAM or more, which I'm sure you do after all the upgrading you've been doing, you should have an up-to-date operating system. If you're running DOS or Windows 3.x, by all means, upgrade to Windows 95 or 98. Right now it makes more sense to go directly to Win98. It'll run you a little under $100, but you'll be amazed at how much better it really is than DOS or 3.x.

If you're currently running Win95, you may want to consider upgrading to 98, but it isn't critical. Windows 98 is more of a bug fix package and upgrade than it is a new operating system. In fact, many of the improvements in Win98 are available for free as add-ons to 95. You can get FAT32 (a better file system), advanced dialup networking and other core improvements from the Microsoft Web site (http://www.microsoft.com). One thing you cannot download is two-monitor capability.

I made the switch to 98 a few months ago and I like it. Some people tell me they hate it, but I hated Windows in general for the first month or two, so I take these pans with a grain of salt. All in all, Windows 98 is a nice package. It is more stable than 95, runs a little faster and does a better job of basic stuff like installing and uninstalling programs. It also has more and better utilities built into it, including a pretty decent e-mail program, and, of course, the controversial bundling and integration of the Internet Explorer Web browsing software.

The only thing I hate about 98 is the "Channels" menu that appears on your desktop, allowing quick access to Web sites of Microsoft content partners like Disney, MSNBC, Warner Bros and PoinCast. I'm not too fond of the active desktop, which allows you to view everything on your computer as if it were a Web page, either. Luckily, advanced users can easily turn off both of these options while many new users may appreciate the ease of use.

There are several other operating systems available that run on the PC platform. Linux and OS2 are two popular alternatives. There are also beefed-up business and networking versions of Windows, Windows NT, for power users. But most of you will probably want to run plain old Windows 95/98. It is the easiest to use and, because it dominates the desktop operating system market, has the most software titles available.


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