In the market for a new gaming system - You’re in luck
Originally published in November 2001.
Listen. Thump! Hear that? Thump! That’s the sound of me kicking myself. Now you ask, why would my friendly computer gaming columnist kick himself? Well, lots of reasons may leap to mind, but in this case it is because he bought a new, top-shelf, full bragging-rights, gaming computer four months ago that currently sells for $900 less than what he paid for it. Thump!
I know by the time this hits the newsstand we will most likely be officially in economic recession, and we will most likely still be engaged in a protracted war against terrorists, and I suspect that we will all be weary of bad news. However, it will also be the best time in years to buy a new gaming system. The combination of a technology downturn, a recession, an international conflict and a price war between the major players in computer manufacturing, will conspire, and have already conspired, to make this the best possible time to buy a computer system, at least for individual consumers.
Super powerful computers with Intel Pentium 4 and AMD Athlon chips, large amounts of RAM, fantastic amounts of hard disk space, DVD CD-ROM drives, CD-W drives, 3D video accelerators, and large flat-screen monitors are selling for $1200 or less. This much power for this low of a price is unprecedented. If you even have so much as considered purchasing a new computer recently, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity.
What you need
Accepting that this is a good time to buy a new computer, the question arises as to what makes a gaming computer different than a computer used for running a small business or for creating videos. In general, the base system is the same for all Windows-based computers sold these days. They all come with CD-ROM drives, large hard disks, and fast CPUs. For gaming, consumers should specifically look for these additional features: at least 256 Mb RAM, GeForce 2, GeForce 3 or ATI Radeon video cards, and CPUs running at 1 GHz or better. For a gaming personal computer that will play all computer games sold during the next two years you cannot compromise on these three specifications. You may get away with a smaller hard drive or the lack of a DVD drive, but you will regret not spending money on these three features.
In the interest of equal time and full disclosure, I will admit that I am not really familiar with the gaming capabilities of Apple PCs. I do know that, as a gaming platform, Apple computers seem to be an afterthought in the game software industry and suffer because of it. However, if you are “thinking different” you should concentrate on features comparable to those discussed for the Windows universe. The fastest processor with the most memory and the best video accelerator available is the mantra for Apple users as well as Windows users.
One piece of hardware often given short shrift when purchasing a computer is the monitor, especially when it comes to size and scanning specifications. I consider the purchase of a monitor to be an investment. This is because monitors can and should be used over the lifetimes of several computers. Each new computer you buy should not also need a new monitor; that is if you invest in a good monitor at the beginning.
When purchasing a monitor you should consider three specifications to be critical. One is size – get a large monitor, 17 inches at least. Two, get a monitor with a wide range of compatible frequency settings, preferably a multi-sync monitor. Not to get too technical, but this is basically how fast the picture is drawn on the screen. A monitor with a wide-range of available frequency settings will be compatible with more video cards, causing less future problems. And, three, get a flat-screen monitor (don’t confuse this with flat-panel – that is completely different). A flat-screen will reduce the glare and enhance the picture not matter the ambient lighting.
I also want to take a moment to discuss the onslaught of gaming consoles that just recently hit the market. While the computer is my platform of choice, and is all I really have time for, I do like these new consoles. They are powerful and easy to use and the games being released are better than most of the previous console offerings. I think this generation of consoles reflects a definite maturing of the industry.
On the other hand, I view consoles as consumables, something you purchase with the intention that you will one day throw it away. Computers are much too flexible and reusable to be just thrown away. Like a car, you sell your old computer, or you pass it down to the youngest child to use until they get older, or you give it away to charity. In less than two years, the X-Box or the GameCube will be replaced by their sequels while your new gaming computer will still be going strong. The system I have outlined will still be viable two years from now and with some minor upgrades, it will still be viable four years from now. That is because the CPUs, being the one central piece of hardware that is not easily replaced, have so outpaced the gaming software that it will take several years to catch up. This is another reason computers are so inexpensive right now.
So if you are contemplating the purchase of a new gaming computer your timing is impeccable. The confluence of several flowing events and circumstances has created a buyer’s market in computers. The advantages of buying a computer now are not likely to be repeated anytime soon. For a gaming computer pay particular attention to the CPU speed, get the fastest, the amount of RAM, get at least 256 Mb, and the video card, get a GeForce or a ATI Radeon. I don’t know what the mood of the country will be as we approach the Christmas shopping season, but if you consider it your patriotic duty to be a spending consumer, you might at least be frugal about it.