Gear From Desktops to Digital Cameras, Today's Best Tech Values
(MONEY Magazine) – When it comes to computers and peripherals, you continue to get more for your money. More speed, more power, more style, more choice. To help you sort through the at times overwhelming options, we've assembled this list of best buys--22 computer products that can make your life easier but don't cost a bundle. Unless otherwise noted, all are available at major computer stores. Since all but the most in-demand computer and electronics products sell at less than list, we provide the most prevalent street price. To get up-to-date prices online, check out www.shopper.com and www.mysimon.com.
The success of the iMac is one of the more compelling tech stories of recent years. With the introduction this fall of a $799 Indigo iMac, Apple has made this popular computer an even better value. This iMac sports a 350MHz PowerPC processor, 64MB of RAM and a 7GB hard drive, all you need for Net surfing, word processing and game playing. As with all new iMacs, it comes with the much-improved Apple Pro Keyboard, which features navigation keys for getting around the Web and volume-control knobs. And its new Apple Pro Mouse uses a more precise beam of light instead of a ball to move the cursor. Finally, this basic iMac comes with an internal modem and an Ethernet card, which means it's already configured for high-speed cable or DSL Net access.
If you're a Macintosh fan looking for an affordable laptop--or if you're any computer buyer in search of a portable machine that does everything most users need--the $1,799 iBook Special Edition is a great choice. The graphite or Key lime iBook SE's PowerPC processor is 466MHz, making it nearly as fast as the fastest PC notebook. It comes with 64MB of RAM, a DVD drive, one USB port for a printer or scanner, a Firewire port for downloading video and a 10GB hard drive--plenty of power and space for most laptop users. Plus, this iBook is easily upgradable. With this machine, there's no need to spend $2,500 to $3,500 for the high-end Mac G4 laptop.
For a good value in a PC, look no further than Dell (888-799-3355; www.dell.com), the computer maker with an unparalleled reputation for customer service and reliability. The Dell Dimension 4100 Series PC will easily meet most users' needs for the three- to four-year average PC life span. Because programs like Windows Millennium Edition are memory hogs, we suggest 128MB of RAM and 20GB of hard-drive space. As for the processor, a 733MHz Pentium III has more than enough speed for today's programs and games. To view full Web pages, you'll want a 17-inch monitor. Throw in a CD-rewritable drive for extra storage and a Microsoft Works Suite 2000 software package, and you have a complete PC setup for $1,438.
The Presario 1400 Series from Compaq is an inexpensive notebook PC with pizazz. For $1,499, you get a peppy 500MHz Celeron processor and 64MB of RAM, plus a bright 13-inch display, a recessed trackpad and standard features previously found only on desktops. Among the best of those touches: buttons to scroll Web pages, great-sounding JBL speakers, convenient headphone jacks and a choice of five accent colors.
If you're willing to splurge, get a flat-panel liquid crystal display (LCD). It gives you a high-resolution image and takes up little desk space. The best LCD values are 15-inch ones, which have nearly as much viewable screen area as 17-inch cathode-ray-tube monitors. Our favorite is the Samsung SynchMaster 150MP, which sells for $1,049 and doubles as a TV. With its Picture-in-Picture feature, you can watch the World Series while you work.
In the coming era of networked computers, you'll see more small, good-looking machines designed for Internet travel--like two from Compaq: The iPaq Internet device (right) is a full-fledged PC and a perfect low-cost second machine for PC users with high-speed Net access. Its small hard drive makes it most suitable if you network your PCs and can store programs on another machine. The best buy is the Pentium III 733MHz model ($899, plus $250 to $300 for the monitor), which is available only from Compaq (800-282-6672; www.compaq.com/ipaq). Compaq has also just brought out the first pure Internet appliance--a computer without a hard drive that's strictly for e-mail and Net surfing--that uses a major Internet provider, the Microsoft Network. At $199 plus three years of Net service at $21.95 a month, the MSN Companion, which has a 10-inch monitor and wireless keyboard, is a great buy.
To fully enjoy downloadable music, DVDs and Dolby Surround sound games like Diablo II, your computer's sound has to be topnotch. Anyone who's ever watched a movie on a computer knows that the dialogue can be flat and hard to hear. To get the full experience, you'll need at least two satellite speakers and a subwoofer under the desk. Plug Harman Kardon's great-looking translucent $199 SoundSticks (shown right without the clear dome-like subwoofer) into an iMac, iBook or Power Macintosh, and you'll be enveloped by their stunning sound. For PCs, the $100 Monsoon MM-700 Personal Computer Speaker System from Sonigistix is a knock-your-socks-off system with two sleek flat-panel speakers and a subwoofer.
A number of competitors have tried to challenge Iomega's reign as the removable storage leader, but for basic needs you still can't beat the venerable Zip drive. We like the ultrathin, 250MB USB version ($179), which works with PCs and Macs and comes with software that instantly backs up your files. Plus, it reads older 100MB Zip disks. A single 250MB disk will run you $17.99; buy 20 or more, and the price drops by as much as half. If you need to store large files like videos or MP3s, the $250 Hewlett-Packard 8230e CD-rewritable drive (above) is a great option. Each $6 disk has a capacity of 650MB.
How much you should spend on a printer depends on your needs. Want color prints, even photos? A good value is the $149 Epson Stylus Color 880 ink jet, which uses the same technology as Epson's faster $300-to-$500 models. It prints up to 12 pages per minute of text and nine of color graphics. If you print just text, a more expensive laser printer can be a better buy in the long run because toner cartridges last far longer than ink-jet cartridges do. Our favorite is the $300 Lexmark Optra E312L (above right). You can print 6,000 pages with one cartridge, which costs $120 to replace. You'll get about 900 text pages from a $30 ink-jet cartridge. Setting up a home office? Try the $799 HP OfficeJet G85 all in one. When you consider the $900 or more you'd spend on a color copier, scanner, printer and fax, it's a very good deal.
Digital camcorders remain a sizable investment, with prices easily topping $1,000. The $799 Canon ZR10 is an exception: a sub-$1,000 camcorder with ample features. The light, compact camcorder, which tapes on miniDV cassettes, has a powerful zoom and an image stabilizer. For more ambitious moviemakers, it has plenty to offer: a high-speed Firewire port to transfer images to a computer for editing; digital special effects, including vertical and horizontal wipes; and the option to manually set the focus and shutter speed. Its only drawback is the small 2.5-inch LCD screen.
With exorbitant prices and few choices, digital cameras would have been a tough fit in a best-buys guide a few years back. Today, as more cameras sit on store shelves, prices are down. Now the problem is picking one. To do so, consider what you plan to do with the pictures. If all you want is to post photos online or e-mail them to friends, the new $130 Intel Pocket PC Camera (below left) is a great value. This simple plastic camera also records up to two minutes of video. But the resolution--the equivalent of less than one megapixel--is a bit grainy. So if you want to print pictures too, the $599 Olympus C-2020 Zoom (above left) is our choice. With its 2.11-megapixel capacity, it renders crisp four-inch-by-six-inch prints. If you want larger prints and more manual features, move up to the $815 3.3-megapixel Olympus C-3030 Zoom.
It's no longer just college students downloading digital tunes from the Internet. To take that music on the road, you'll need a portable MP3 player. The Creative Nomad II player (left) stands out because it includes a simple yet often overlooked technology: a radio. Plus, we've found a way to make the PC- and Mac-compatible Nomad II an even better buy. A Nomad II with 32MB costs $200. For $40 more you can buy a base model with no memory ($99) and a 64MB SmartMedia memory card ($139 at www.buy.com). That extra memory gives you a half- hour more music. Next up? This fall, Rio launches the Digital Audio Receiver ($300), which lets you listen to MP3 music files on your home stereo system instead of on your computer.
Before you pick a handheld, you'll need to decide on an operating system: Palm vs. Pocket PC. To us, Palm is the way to go. Not only are the more popular Palm OS handhelds easier to use and less expensive, but there's more software available. Despite the recent debuts of Palm's low-end m100 and Sony's Clie, we think the Handspring Visor and Palm's higher-end Palm Vx (below) remain the best values. If you want just a calendar, address book and to-do list, buy the Visor ($179 with cradle). Its strong point, an expansion slot, lets you add more memory, a modem or games. If you want a more stylish machine with ample room (8MB of memory) for extra software, we recommend the light, sleek and sturdy Palm Vx ($399).