Saturday, August 7, 2010

Consumer Reports - Computer Shopping Guide

Getting Started - Computer Guide

Microsoft and Apple recently updated their operating systems, Microsoft with Windows 7 and Apple with Snow Leopard. Windows 7 is less prone to crashing than Vista, more refined, with additional features but fewer annoyances. Snow Leopard boots up faster than its predecessor, loads Web pages more quickly, and eats up less hard-drive space. Below, we'll help you to decide whether to upgrade.

Meanwhile, there's plenty of lean, mean, and green in new computers, be they Mac OS- or Windows based. You'll find space-saving profiles, more powerful and efficient chips, and environmentally friendly designs. The best computers are also security conscious, offering features designed to keep your machine and your data out of harm's reach.

Many desktop computers are still boxy and bulky but you can also choose from among slimmer models. Most major brands also offer all-in-ones, which integrate the parts of a computer into the display rather than in a separate tower.

Smaller, more efficient laptops are also available. Netbooks have 10- to 12-inch displays and weigh about 2 to 3 pounds. They aim to be your second computer, the one you use to surf the Web and check e-mail while traveling, or a child's first system. But their small size imposes tradeoffs.

When you shop, watch out for "great deals" that may not be so great. Before you buy a bargain PC at a rock-bottom price, take a closer look, because some computer manufacturers are replacing dual-core processors with single-core Pentium and Celeron processors to reduce costs. Others are using less-powerful Atom processors in systems that otherwise look like full-blown laptops and desktops. The result, our tests show, is more sluggish performance when you try to surf media-rich Web sites, watch videos, or play 3D games.

The bottom line when shopping: If you're looking for a primary PC for general-purpose computing, avoid computers with single-core processors, such as some Atoms and Celerons. Also make sure you get more than 1GB of memory. Of course, if all you need is a low-cost netbook for general Web surfing and e-mail, with perhaps some word processing thrown into the mix, then an Atom-based netbook with a gigabyte or two of memory and at least a 160GB hard drive should serve you well.

Do you need a new PC?

If your old computer is sluggish, it might be time for a new PC. First try these steps to beef up its performance: Delete programs you no longer use. If that isn't enough, and the computer is no more than four years old, add 1 GB of memory. Adding memory is an inexpensive and easy way to upgrade your computer.

If you're running out of space on the hard drive, burn your old music, photos, and videos onto a CD or DVD and delete them off your hard drive. To add a lot more storage space, consider adding a hard drive. (An external hard drive is one of the easiest computer upgrades that even a computer novice can perform.)

Once you've cleared all your old files and moved any files to an external hard drive, run the Disk Defragmenter that's bundled with Windows. That will help your hard drive access files faster.

If none of that works, and the computer is more than four years old, it's probably time to replace it. Be sure to recycle your old computer, but don't forget to wipe your hard drive first. We recommend Eraser, available free at http://www.heidi.ie/eraser, for Windows-based computers. Apple computers have an erase feature built in.

Windows or Macintosh?

Windows 7 is the latest iteration of Microsoft's operating system. It costs from $120 to $220 off the shelf, but if you purchased a new computer running Vista after June 26, 2009, chances are you qualify for a free upgrade (you might have to pay for shipping). Eligible college students can grab an upgrade for $30 until early January at www.win741.com.

An Apple computer running Mac OS X is a fine alternative to Windows. Apple computers can also run Windows, but you have to purchase and install it yourself. The latest version is Snow Leopard; current Apple users can upgrade for $30. If you bought a new Mac after June 2009, you can upgrade for $10.

Should you upgrade to Windows 7?

Before you make any decisions, you should check your computer's compatibility, and that of your peripherals, with Microsoft's Upgrade Adviser.
Then, find the description of your situation below and proceed accordingly:

You're happy with your current system and OS.

Save your money, at least for now. Sure, Windows 7 has some new interface tweaks that we think are pretty cool. But any time you upgrade, there's a potential for unpredictable problems. So why mess with success? Meanwhile, always download any critical Windows updates. Make sure you're using the latest version of your browser. And if you don't have any security software running, install a free antivirus program. We recommend Avira AntiVir. Alternatively, Microsoft just released its free antivirus/antispyware software, Microsoft Security Essentials.

You're a Vista user frustrated with its performance and other shortcomings.

Get the upgrade if your system is compatible. Windows 7 is more stable than Vista and it's got a good number of ease-of-use enhancements. And as a bonus, you'll get a grip on those frustrating User Account Controls, because Windows 7 provides options for different levels of settings.

You recently bought a new computer and qualify for a free upgrade.

Get your upgrade. Most computer manufacturers are offering free Windows 7 upgrades to those who bought Vista-based computers from late June through January 2010. Be sure to register for the upgrade, and keep in mind that you might have to pay shipping and other costs to have the software sent to you. But also keep in mind that the Windows 7 upgrade option does not apply to Vista Basic-based computers.

You're an XP user.

If your computer is no more than four years old and running Windows XP, and you want to upgrade to Windows 7, run the upgrade adviser. If you're cleared for Windows 7, you can upgrade, but you'll first have to either upgrade to Vista temporarily to allow the Windows 7 upgrade or you'll have to backup and then erase the contents of your hard drive before moving to Windows.

Types of computers

The choices among desktop and laptop computers can be confusing. New desktops can be smaller and less conspicuous than some laptops. Meanwhile, some portable computers laptops offer features and capabilities that rival traditional desktops. Here are the types of computers—and the pros and cons—you need to consider.

Desktops

Desktops
Desktops

The desktop computer has become just another appliance you use every day. However, considers these pros and cons of desktop computers in general:

Pros:Desktops deliver more performance than laptops. They are less costly to repair. They allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment. They let you work on a larger screen and they can be equipped with better speakers. Desktops are available in various styles and configurations, all designed to appeal to different tastes—and uses.
Cons:They take up a lot of desk space, even with a thin LCD monitor.

Full size

If you have the space for a tower under your desk, consider a full-size desktop. While they are the largest type of desktop, they are the least expensive and the easiest to upgrade and repair. Full-size desktops offer the most features and options.

Compact

If you don't have the space under your desk or you plan to put the computer on top of your desk, consider a compact desktop. Compact desktops are less than half the size of a full-size desktop. Like their larger brethren, compact desktops tend to be inexpensive. But they may be more difficult to upgrade and repair.

All-in-one

These incorporate all components, including the monitor, into one case. The components are tightly packed behind and underneath the display, making it difficult to upgrade or repair. Meant to be space savers, they're also designed to look less stodgy than a traditional computer. You'll pay a premium price for these models.

Gaming

The sky's the limit for these, which are geared primarily toward gamers. You get the fastest quad-core processors, the most sophisticated graphics cards, multiple large hard drives, and plentiful RAM. Cases are usually large—and, in some cases, offer a fair amount of bling—with lots of room for expansion.

Laptops

Laptops
Laptops

Laptops let you use your computer away from your desk, but you pay for that mobility with a smaller screen and keyboard, and often at the expense of performance. Technological advances have lessened the performance compromises somewhat, though. Whether portability or power is your main consideration, screen size will be an essential factor in deciding which type of laptop is right for you:

Pros:Laptops can travel. They take up less desk space. They're easily stowed after use. They can do anything desktops can do.
Cons:Laptops cost more than comparably equipped desktops. Our reliability surveys show laptops are more repair-prone than desktops. Laptops are more expensive to repair.

12- to 13-inch

If you're planning to carry the laptop around with you frequently, a 12- to 13-inch model is probably the right choice. In our tests of 13-inch systems, we found that you might have to sacrifice some speed, and you'll spend a few hundred dollars more than you would for a larger laptop. But you'll also lighten your load by at least a pound, and you'll find many of the same features on these laptops that are available on larger laptops, including webcams, memory-card readers, and fingerprint scanners.

14- to 16-inch

Laptops with a 14- to 16-inch screen generally offer the ideal balance of performance, portability, and price. They weigh about 5 to 6 pounds or more. They're a good choice for those who need to take a laptop along less frequently, and a system in the 14- to 16-inch size range can easily be configured to serve as a desktop replacement.

17-to-18-inch

For a full-blown, entertainment-oriented desktop replacement, consider a 17- to 18-inch model. You'll get better performance, a good-sized screen, and better speakers. It will cost more than a comparable desktop, but it's handy if you have space constraints or if you're planning to use it in areas of your house other than the home office.

Netbooks

Netbooks
Netbooks

Inexpensive and portable, netbooks are downsized laptops with a 10- to 12-inch screen that weigh 2 to 3 pounds and cost $300 to $500. They are designed chiefly for Internet use and light word processing. They are not meant to replace the full-functionality of your laptop or desktop. Many newer netbooks run Windows 7, but you can also find models based on Windows XP or a version of Linux called Ubuntu.

Pros:Not much larger than a hardcover book, netbooks are lighter, smaller, and less expensive than most standard laptops. They're very good for travel and might also make a good computer for a child.
Cons:Netbooks have small displays, keyboards, and touchpads, and performance is slow. They have no optical drive (although you can add an external one), so you can't easily install shrink-wrapped software or play CDs or DVDs. Netbooks are a relatively new computer category, and we currently have no reliability data.


Computer features

Many components play a key role in how a computer performs, including the processor, memory, operating system, hard drive, video adapter (with video memory), optical drive, and display (monitor). Laptop computers have additional features and considerations that are important. Where applicable, we've noted feature information that is important and distinctive to the type of computers.

Processor

Processor

Also known as the CPU (central processing unit), the computer's 'brain' is responsible for processing information. Speed is the most important factor when choosing a processor, so pay attention to the processor's family, the number of cores, and the clock speed.

Intel and AMD are the dominant manufacturers of processors. Intel's processor families include the low-end Atom, Celeron, and Pentium; the mid-range Core 2; and the high-end Core i7. AMD's processors range from the low-end Neo, Sempron, Athlon, and Turion; and the mid-range Phenom and Phenom II.

Processors with multiple cores can process more data at the same time. You can usually tell how many cores a processor has by looking at its name. A Core 2 Duo has two cores and a Core 2 Quad has four cores. A Phenom X3 has three cores. But it's not always that clear; a Core i7 has four cores.

Clock speed, measured in GHz (gigahertz), determines how quickly it can process information. Within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the computer. Clock speeds typically range from 2 to 3GHz.

Power consumption is another important factor when choosing a processor. This is especially true for laptops--lower power consumption translates to longer battery life.

When buying a computer, make sure it has a processor that will be fast enough to handle your needs. If you are buying a desktop or a laptop, avoid computers that use the AMD Neo or Sempron processor, the Intel Atom or Celeron processor, or the Via Nano processor. For basic tasks like browsing the web and checking e-mail, opt for a low-end dual-core processor like the Intel Pentium Dual-Core and AMD Athlon/Turion X2. If you plan to use your desktop or laptop for entertainment like watching videos or playing games, get a faster processor such as the Intel Core 2 Duo/Quad or AMD Phenom/Phenom II. If you're a gamer or plan to edit high-definition video, buy a computer with a high-end processor like the Intel Core i7. If you're in the market for a netbook, stick to the slow but low-power-consuming Intel Atom processor.

Random access memory (RAM)

Random access memory (RAM)

Most brand-name computers sold today have at least 1GB of RAM, the memory the computer uses while in operation.

For laptops: We recommend at least 2GB of RAM (random-access memory).

For desktops: For Windows Vista or Mac OS X, we recommend at least 2GB. Memory upgrades are not expensive, but don't get more than 3 GB in a Windows PC unless you opt for a 64-bit version of Windows, which requires 4 GB or more of memory.

Memory

The computer's memory, or RAM (random access memory), is used to temporarily store data while in operation. Computers with more memory tend to be faster than those with less, up to a point. Memory is measured in GB (gigabytes). Most brand-name desktops and laptops sold today have at least 2GB of memory. Computers with 3GB can be slightly faster. Any more than that is probably not beneficial unless you plan to run multiple memory-intensive applications at the same time and use a 64-bit operating system. Netbooks typically come with 1GB of memory, which is adequate as long as the netbook runs Windows XP and not Windows Vista or Windows 7.

Operating system

Many people choose PCs running Windows because they're less expensive than Macs. Others choose PCs because they have a wider selection of games or they want to be fully compatible with Windows files and programs. If you go with a PC, you have a choice of several versions of Windows 7, each with its own hardware requirements. We recommend Home Premium as the Windows 7 version for most home users.

Macs are more expensive but are stylish, and they're also immune to most, if not all, viruses and spyware. Apple's support has been tops in the industry in our surveys. While the company's phone support is only available free for 90 days, you can get unlimited technical support through the Genius Bar if you live near an Apple store. Apple released its most recent version of OS X, called Snow Leopard, in September 2009.

Graphics adapter and video RAM

A computer's graphics adapter is either integrated onto the motherboard or on a separate internal plug-in card. In addition to feeding the computer's display with an analog (VGA) or a digital (DVI) signal, a graphics adapter might have an output such as an S-video or HDMI port to feed video to an external TV (common), or accept video from an external analog source (rare). But an adapter can always display video from sources such as a file, a DVD, an external analog feed, or a TV tuner. All desktops and laptops come with a minimum of integrated graphics capability for watching DVDs or playing casual games such as solitaire. Video RAM, or VRAM, is secondary RAM that works with the graphics processor to provide smooth video imaging and game play. To run Windows Vista's 3D interface or play 3D-intensive games, we recommend at least 256 MB or more.

Video adapter and video memory

Also known as the video card, video accelerator, or graphics card, this is responsible for drawing what you see on your screen. There are two types of video adapters: integrated and discrete. The vast majority of computers sold have integrated video, which is slower and uses up part of your system's memory. That said, integrated video is perfectly fine as long as you don't plan to play complex 3D games like The Sims or World of Warcraft. Otherwise choose discrete video, which is faster and uses its own video memory. If you choose discrete, make sure that it has at least 256MB of video memory. Hard-core gamers should get 512MB to 1GB of video memory.

Video outputs

If you're buying a desktop, check to see what video outputs it has. Almost all desktops have an analog VGA output, which is compatible with flat-panel LCDs and older CRT monitors. Some have a digital DVI output for use with LCDs; this delivers a much cleaner and crisper image on the screen. If you're buying a laptop, a VGA output can be used with a projector for delivering presentations. The newest desktops and laptops might have an HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) output to feed video to an external HDTV.

Hard drive

Hard drive

Also known as a hard disk, this is where your programs, documents, music, photos, and videos are stored. Bigger is better. Hard drive sizes are measured in gigabytes (GB) and commonly range from 160 to 750GB. You'll even see drives of 1 terabyte (1,000GB). While size matters, speed is equally important. Speed is measured in RPMs (revolutions per minute). A slow hard drive will take longer to start up programs such as Windows) and complete tasks (such as installing programs or scanning your hard drive for viruses). For desktops, make sure it has a 7,200RPM hard drive. For laptops, make sure it has a 5,400RPM hard drive.

Hard drives often fail, and when they do you need to have a backup to recover your data. The best option is an external hard drive. These connect to your computer through a USB (slowest, but most common), FireWire, or eSATA (fastest, but least common) port. Some desktops offer portable hard drive bays, which save space by letting you insert a removable hard drive inside the desktop.

Some high-end desktops and laptops can be configured with a RAID (redundant array of identical disks) array. These computers have two or more hard drives. There are several types of RAID arrays, the most common being RAID 0 and RAID 1. RAID 0 distributes your data across multiple hard disks, which can greatly improve speed. But if one drive fails, you'll lose data on all of your hard disks. On the other hand, RAID 1 automatically copies data from one hard disk to the other. There is no speed boost, but if one crashes, all your data will be safe on the other one.

SSDs (solid-state drives) are on the cutting edge of storage technology, allowing your computer to access data without the moving parts required by a traditional hard drive. So-called flash drives don't have the spinning disk of a conventional hard drive, so they use less power, work quieter, and should be more resistant to damage from rugged use. And because there are no moving parts, they promise quicker access to data Netbooks are an exception; they may be bundled with very small solid-state drives that perform worse than traditional hard drives.

Optical Drive

This lets you read and write to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs. DVD burners (also known as DVD+/-RW) are standard gear on today's computers. DVD burners can read and write to CDs and DVDs so you can backup your home-video footage or digital photos, for example. Recordable CDs (CD-R) can hold up to 700MB of data. Recordable DVDs (DVD+R, DVD-R, or DVD-RAM) can hold up to 4.7GB of data (single layer) or 8.5GB of data (dual layer).

With the HD disc format wars over, Blu-ray Disc (BD) drives are the newest standard. BD drives are capable of playing the growing list of Blu-ray movies and can store up to 25GB of data (single layer) or 50GB of data (dual layer), almost six times the capacity of a DVD.

Monitor

For desktops: Unless you're a graphic artist, there's little reason to choose an almost-extinct CRT. LCDs offer numerous advantages over the CRT, chief among them their smaller footprint. Sizes range from 15 to 24 inches and larger (measured diagonally). The most common sizes are 19 and 20 inches.

Better LCD displays can use a DVI connection, found on some PCs with graphics processors. You can often obtain a deep discount on an LCD monitor by buying it bundled with a new computer at a manufacturer's Web site.

Display

For desktops, LCD sizes range from 19 to 24 inches and larger (measured diagonally), with 19- and 22-inch displays most common. Most are widescreen, which are designed to fit widescreen movies better without the black bars, but give you less screen area per inch over a non-widescreen display. Those who plan to edit or view photos or videos may also want to pay attention to differences in color, viewing angle, contrast, and brightness. You can often obtain a discount on an LCD monitor by buying it bundled with a new computer.

For laptops, a 15- to 16-inch display, measured diagonally, should suit most people. Displays that are 13, 14, and 17 inches are also common. The screens on most laptops are glossy instead of matte. Glossy screens have more saturated colors and deeper blacks, but are also much more prone to glare. Like desktop displays, most laptops have widescreen displays to fit widescreen movies better.

LED-backlighted displays are making their way into laptops, resulting in more efficient use of power and longer battery life. Color on LED-backlighted screens is sometimes better, sometimes worse than displays using older technologies.

Battery

For laptops: When not plugged into a wall outlet, laptops use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for power. Laptops go into sleep mode when used intermittently, extending the time between charges. You can lengthen battery life if you dim the display, turn off wireless when not needed, and use only basic applications. Playing a DVD movie uses more battery power than other functions, but most laptops should be able to play one through to the end. Many laptops can accept an 'extended' battery, adding size and weight but giving as much as twice the battery life.

Case

For desktops: Form factors for computers are more varied now. In addition to the most common tower format, you can find all-in-one and small-form-factor (SFF) computers. Mainstream computers usually come in towers, which fit on top of or under a desk. The all-in-one form factor, such as the Apple iMac, packs all the components into the same enclosure as the LCD display. Only the keyboard and mouse are separate. Sony, HP, Dell, and Gateway also have all-in-one models. SFF cases include the Dell Studio Hybrid and the Apple Mac mini.

Networking

For connecting to the Internet, all desktops come with an Ethernet port that lets you run a wire between your desktop and your router. But if it's not possible to run such a wire through your home, consider a Wi-Fi wireless adapter. Some desktops have this built-in, while others require you to buy one and install it separately. You'll also need a wireless router. All laptops come with wireless built-in, and most have a wired Ethernet port as well.

Wireless adapters run either the older 802.11g standard or the newer 802.11n standard (which is backward-compatible to 802.11g). Unless you have an exceptionally large house, there's no reason to buy an 802.11n wireless adapter. 802.11g is less expensive and fast enough for most people's needs, and its range is wide enough to cover a medium-sized house. If you do select an 802.11n adapter, make sure your router supports 802.11n as well.

Mouse

Desktops typically come with a mouse to move the cursor on the screen. Most mice bundled with desktops are optical mice, which have light sensors on their underside to track movement. Apple recently introduced its Magic Mouse, which has a touch-sensitive top surface that works in a similar manner to a multitouch touchpad. To save a few dollars, some manufacturers, notably eMachines and Compaq, bundle ball mice. Those are less accurate than optical mice, and unlike an optical mouse they require you to periodically clean the ball's rollers. Mice come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ergonomically contoured to match the shape of your palm, while others are designed to be stylish. They can also be either wired or wireless. If you have a wireless mouse, you won't have to deal with a cord, but you will have to recharge or replace the batteries every few months.

Touchpad

Touchpad

Most laptops use a small touchpad in place of a mouse; you slide your finger across it to move the cursor. You can also program the pad to respond to a 'tap' as a 'click,' or scroll as you sweep your index finger along the pad's right edge. Touchpads come in various sizes; the larger ones let you move the cursor farther across the screen without lifting your finger. Some new models let you use multi-fingered gestures for zooming and rotating images. An alternative system uses a pointing stick the size of a pencil eraser in the middle of the keyboard. You can attach a USB or wireless mouse or trackball if you prefer.

Keyboard

Most computers come with a standard wired keyboard. Some keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls that let you pause, play back, change tracks, and change the volume. Some also have additional keys to expedite getting online, starting a search, launching programs, or retrieving e-mail. Like mice, keyboards can also be wireless.

Sound system

Computers for home use feature a high-fidelity sound system that plays CDs or downloaded music files, synthesized music, game sounds, and DVD-movie soundtracks. Three-piece speaker systems with a subwoofer have deeper, more powerful bass. Surround-sound systems can turn a PC into a home theater. There are connections for an external audio source (such as a microphone) and for headphones.

For laptops: The small speakers built into laptops often sound tinny. And a brand name like Altec Lansing or Harmon Kardon doesn't mean that they'll sound good. Headphones or external speakers deliver much better sound. But some larger laptops include much better speakers and even a subwoofer for deeper bass.

Speakers

Most desktops come with a basic pair of two-piece speakers. The only exceptions are Compaq and HP, which do not bundle any speakers with most of their retail desktops. Computers with three-piece speakers include a subwoofer; these tend to sound much better than two-piece speakers. If you plan to turn your computer into a home theater, consider six-piece speakers, which add a front speaker and two rear speakers for surround sound.

If you're buying a laptop, in most cases don't expect good sound. If you plan to listen to music on your laptop, consider a good set of headphones or a separate set of three-piece speakers.

Most computers offer connections for a pair of headphones or a microphone. Some offer digital coaxial or optical connections so you can plug the computer into your home theater system.

Ports

Ports

The ports to look for on a computer include USB, FireWire, Ethernet, and S-video or HDMI. USB ports let you connect many add-on devices, such as digital cameras or external hard drives, as well as a memory drive for copying files to and from the hard drive. Having these ports at the front of the case makes connecting devices more convenient. An Ethernet port or wireless network card lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or a broadband Internet connection. FireWire or IEEE 1394 ports are used to capture video from digital camcorders and connect to other peripheral devices. An S-video or HDMI output jack lets you run a video cable from the computer to a television so you can use the computer's DVD drive to view a movie on a TV instead of on the computer monitor. Media-center PCs (equipped with TV tuners) can also capture video from a VCR, letting you copy tapes to DVDs. The once-ubiquitous modem port is disappearing from new PCs as dial-up Internet access marches toward oblivion. Other slots to look for on a new computer are memory-card readers for flash cards.

For laptops: Most laptops let you attach those devices without the docking station. At least two USB ports for easy hookup of, say, a printer, digital camera, or scanner are standard. A wired network (Ethernet) port is also standard. A FireWire port for digital-video transfer is common. An internal wireless-network (Wi-Fi) adapter is standard. Another option is an internal Bluetooth wireless adapter to link to a Bluetooth-capable cell phone, camera, or another laptop.

Card slots

Card slots

For laptops: Portable computers usually include at least one PC-card or ExpressCard slot for expansion. You might add a wireless-network card or a cellular modem if those are not built in.

Docking station

For laptops: Some notebooks offer a connection for a docking station, a $100 to $200 base that makes it easy to connect an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, network, and power in one step.

Log-on securtity

For laptops: A growing number of notebooks include fingerprint scanners as a convenient alternative to typing a password when logging in. Some of Lenovo's laptops use face-recognition technology, as do some from Toshiba and other manufacturers. Lenovo's new IdeaPad uses VeriFace technology when you log in. With VeriFace, your face is scanned, via the laptop's webcam, and then scanned again to make sure it matches the initial scan every time you log in.

Computer brands

This list includes a number of major brands of computers. Among these brands, only Apple computers run the Macintosh OS, while newer Macs can run Windows. Manufacturers often change their retail distribution. For the most current list of outlets where a laptop brand is available, use a shopping search engine.

Acer

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

Gateway and eMachines were acquired by Acer in 2007. The companies do not sell their products direct to consumers, unlike most other computer makers. The Acer Aspire line is targeted toward mainstream users, while eMachines systems are positioned as a value line. Gateway desktops and laptops focus on design and style.

Apple

Sells desktops and laptops.

Positioned as a premium brand, Apple computers usually cost more than Windows-based systems. Apple computers use Apple's operating system, Mac OS X. Macs can also run Windows. Mac OS X is known to have fewer problems with viruses and other malware. The company primarily offers several consumer lines, the MacBook and MacBook Pro (laptops), the iMac (all-in-one desktops), and the Mac mini (a small form-factor budget desktop). Apple's telephone tech support is limited to three months, but you can get unlimited free tech support at the Genius Bar in Apple stores.

Compaq

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

HP is the second-largest seller of desktops and laptops in the United States. The Pavilion is HP's mainstream and performance line for desktops and laptops. Premium laptops carry the HDX moniker. The TouchSmart is HP's all-in-one desktop line, and HP Mini is its netbook line. The value line of desktops and laptops is sold under the Compaq Presario brand.

Dell

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

The largest seller of desktops and laptops in the United States, Dell also offers netbooks. Its mainstream/value line is called Inspiron. Studio is the design- and style-oriented brand, while Studio XPS models are premium performance and gaming systems. The Dell Mini is its netbook series. For hard-core gamers, Dell offers Alienware systems.

eMachines

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

Gateway and eMachines were acquired by Acer in 2007. The companies do not sell their products direct to consumers, unlike most other computer makers. The Acer Aspire line is targeted toward mainstream users, while eMachines systems are positioned as a value line. Gateway desktops and laptops focus on design and style.

Gateway

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

Gateway and eMachines were acquired by Acer in 2007. The companies do not sell their products direct to consumers, unlike most other computer makers. The Acer Aspire line is targeted toward mainstream users, while eMachines systems are positioned as a value line. Gateway desktops and laptops focus on design and style.

HP

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

HP is the second-largest seller of desktops and laptops in the United States. The Pavilion is HP's mainstream and performance line for desktops and laptops. Premium laptops carry the HDX moniker. The TouchSmart is HP's all-in-one desktop line, and HP Mini is its netbook line. The value line of desktops and laptops is sold under the Compaq Presario brand.

Lenovo

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

Previously part of IBM, Lenovo has been expanding its offerings to consumers. IdeaPad (laptop) and IdeaCentre (desktop) are its consumer lines, while ThinkPad and ThinkCentre are Lenovo's corresponding business lines.

Samsung

Sells laptops and netbooks.

Samsung is a relative newcomer to the U.S. laptop market; it primarily sells netbooks in the US.

Sony

Sells desktops, laptops, and netbooks.

Sony's line includes laptops, all-in-one desktops, netbooks, and an Atom-processor-equipped system that it calls the Lifestyle PC. Sony PCs are known to include a lot of extra software, from free Sony multimedia programs to demos from other manufacturers.

Toshiba

Sells laptops and netbooks.

Toshiba sells laptops and recently entered the netbook market. Its consumer laptops include the Satellite line for value and mainstream systems, and the Qosmio line geared toward gaming and multimedia.

Computer shopping tips

Go to the store

Buying in a retail store instead of configuring a system online is generally less expensive. Most retail configurations are quite robust, unless you're interested in playing 3D-intensive games or editing lots of high-definition video. And you won't have to wait two weeks or more for the manufacturer to build and ship your system. On the down side, you'll find fewer customization options.

Or buy à la carte

If you have special needs, order from the manufacturer's Web site. Menus show you all the options and let you see how a change affects the overall price. You might decide on a less-expensive processor, for example, but spend more for a bigger hard drive. Configure-to-order will often give you choices that you won't get if you buy an off-the-shelf model. But be sure to double-check your choices before ordering, and look for unwanted items that some manufacturers include by default.

Shop at the right time

January, July, and October are good times to shop; new models are expected to show up in stores at those times, which means older inventory needs to be cleared out to make room. If a computer you like you like isn't on sale, ask for a better price. Apple usually offers free iPods and educational discounts to students buying computers during the back-to-school season. Otherwise, the best time to buy an Apple is right after the company makes a new-product announcement and retailers are selling off old inventory.

Get your coupons

Check out coupon and deal sites such as Techbargains.com, FatWallet.com, and Ebates.

Ergonomics can make or break a laptop

Especially when you're buying a laptop, you should try it before you buy it, if you can. Look for a keyboard with keys that don't feel mushy. Touchpads should be large enough so that your finger can cover the span of the screen without repeatedly lifting it, and touchpad buttons should be easy to find and press. The touchpad should also have a dedicated scroll area. Carry the laptop around for a few minutes and make sure it's not too heavy or too big. The laptop shouldn't get hot during use (89 to 100 degrees F is a good range), and it should run quietly. Glossy screens are now standard on most laptops. Several have added antireflective coatings, with mixed results. Finally, manufacturers are emphasizing design as much as what's inside; find one that suits your style.

Think green when you buy

Some computers meet the Energy Star standard for efficient power use. Energy-use guidelines cover three operating modes—standby, sleep, and running—with systems entering sleep mode within 30 minutes of inactivity. Power supplies also need to operate more efficiently. You probably won't notice much difference in the operation of your computer but your electric bill might go down a bit. Look for the Energy Star label on qualified computers. Prices won't increase because of the new standard, according to a spokesperson for the Energy Star program. Another standard is EPEAT, which offers guidelines on what materials can be used in a computer. Depending on how well each computer meets their criteria, they are rated bronze, silver, or gold. A list of EPEAT compliant systems can be found at www.epeat.net.

Recycle when you toss

Most manufacturers also have recycling programs that help you to dispose of your old computer, but the programs vary considerably from one company to another.

Consider tech support

Inevitably, that brand new laptop or desktop computer will break down. Or, you'll run into some technically difficulty with installing or removing software. So, when choosing a computer, it helps to know which company offers the after-sale support that matches your needs.

Which computer company is tops in terms of free tech support? Don't expect it to be anyone on the Windows side of the computer world.

Our latest survey on computer tech support (available to subscribers), conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center and drawn from our readers' personal experiences with 10,000 desktop and laptop computers, finds that Apple owners have much to smile about. Apple's tech support was able to solve Mac problems more than 80 percent of the time, according to those surveyed who used Apple's support.

Overall, however, the news isn't stellar when it comes to using tech support to fix annoying computer problems. According to those surveyed, problems were solved for only about 60 percent of those who actually had to contact a manufacturer for help. What's more, many computer makers' free technical support policies end in a year or less. (One notable exception is, again, Apple. Free phone support runs out after 90 days, but you can get unlimited support at Apple stores—if you live near one.)

As such, salesmen will try to pitch an optional, extra-cost "extended" service plan. Our general advice is to skip such pricey extended service warranties. But if you absolutely need the hand-holding or know you'll travel everywhere with your laptop, you might want to consider one—especially since our latest report on extended service plans for computers (available to subscribers) finds that a few companies' extended plans do offer significantly better tech support compared to their limited free services.

ConsumerReports.org subscribers also have online access to more information, including which laptop tech support and desktop tech support scored among the lowest in our readers' satisfaction (Hint: It's a top-selling computer maker) and how to get free computer help.

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