BUT wait! What about all those cool options?
Buying a personal computer is a little like walking into a car dealership. Sure, the dealer will sell you the advertised model for that low-low price. But who wants that old stripped-down version, when there are so many tantalizing options?
In the computer world, these options are called peripherals. Some you need; some you don't. Here's my list in order of importance:
* Surge protector. This is a $25 strip of electrical outlets that protects your system from lightning strikes. Get one. Home-business owners who need to protect valuable data from power failures should consider an uninterruptible power supply, or UPS. Starting at about $100, these devices will keep the computer running long enough for a proper shut down.
* Printer. Somewhere along the way, you'll want to put on paper what you've written or drawn on screen. Printers range in price from $170 for the least-expensive, dot-matrix models to several thousand dollars for high-end laser printers. The low-end is great for printing out letters; lasers do a fine job with graphics. An intriguing alternative is the ink-jet printer. For less than $500, you can buy an ink-jet that prints out color images. It's not as fast or as pretty as the color laser models, but it'll save several thousand dollars.
* Modem. After printers, modems are the most common computer peripheral. They allow computers to hook into a telephone line and log onto on-line services and the Internet. Most modems now come with built-in fax capabilities, which means you can send a copy of your document over telephone lines to any fax machine in the world. You can also receive faxes, but I've never found this option as easy as it should be. It means having to leave your computer on all the time. So my office has a regular fax machine as well as a fax modem. Insist on a speedy modem, one that sends data (not just faxes) at 14.4 kilobits per second (Kbps) or 28.8 Kbps.
* Multimedia. In practical terms, this industry buzzword means a CD-ROM player, computer speakers, and a sound card. Macintosh computers usually come standard with these; more and more IBM-compatibles include them, too. A CD-ROM player runs optical disks (much like the compact-discs that have replaced records) that include sounds, photos, and often video clips. Software companies are increasingly using these to spruce up everything from computer games to tax-return software. The sound card and speakers allow you to hear these special effects. These options are highly recommended, especially if you have children. Make sure to get at least a double-speed CD-ROM player.
* Backup system. Ask yourself what would happen if all your computer files disappeared. You'd be able to restore the original software programs, of course, but all your creative work would be gone. That would be a major disaster. Get either a removable-disk or tape-backup system. These make regular copies of your most important files. Of course, you can do the same thing with floppy disks, but I've never had the discipline to do that daily. Backup systems do this automatically.
Other peripherals will prove useful to only a segment of users. The list here will give novices a sense of the possibilities.
* PC Cards. If you're buying a portable computer, these devices are extremely handy. Formerly called PCMCIA cards, they're about the same shape as credit cards and greatly expand the usefulness of your ''laptop.'' You can slide in a PC Card that works as a modem, another can act like a second hard drive, a third adds random-access memory, and so on. Make sure the portable computer you buy comes equipped with PCMCIA slots. The typical configuration includes two slots that accept two regular-sized Type II cards or one larger, Type III card.
* Joysticks. These are the devices that allow computer gamers to blast, zap, or otherwise move their way through countless digital adventures. Recommended if your PC is going to be a game center.
* Scanners. These devices work like printers in reverse. You put a sheet of paper into the scanner and it copies it onto the computer's hard drive. Artists use them to copy images into computers. Offices increasingly use them to keep picture copies of their paper files. Special software, called optical character recognition, will translate the picture of a letter or magazine article into computer-usable text. Eventually, this will mean that secretaries won't have to retype paper documents. But the technology isn't foolproof yet, and it requires powerful computers to be useful.
* Digital cameras. These devices capture snapshots or even live video and store them on a hard drive. Except for some very high-end systems, these devices can't capture as much detail as film or video. They also take up huge amounts of storage space, requiring hard drives that hold thousands of megabytes of data.
* Music keyboards. Increasingly, musicians are hooking up electronic keyboards to computers so they can record and manipulate sounds. Some systems allow the machine to write down the music as the composer plays it.
* Digitizers. These are boards that translate onto a computer what users write or draw. Artists can create a picture or sign their name and then see the result on-screen.