Ok, so one of the following is true.
First of all, let's get some garbage out of the way. As long as you use computers, they will do something that you are not quite expecting. They will lock up at unexpected times. They will fold, spindel and mutilate your print jobs. They will give you a different color on the screen from what they print on paper. That variation will be accented by changing to another paper. They will lose messages that were sent to you, and fail to send messages that you ask it to. They will do all kinds of unexpected things, usually when you least want them to cause you problems.
I have had spreadsheets crash on over an hours worth of work, only to crash an hour later when I was at just about the same point. I have had word decide that it didn't like the settings in some file, apparently unrelated to what I was working on, and subsequently refused to let me save what I was working on, or shut down the application.
I have had hard drives fail with years of messages on them, systems that refuse to recognize floppy disks, when the driver for a card was on the disk. (Worse the disk was readable on other systems, and swapping the floppy disk drive did nothing to change the situation.) I have had CD-Rom drives that read CD's one in five times.
I have probably built, torn apart, and re-built more systems at home than you have used at work. (Ok, journalists who review systems are one of the few exceptions.) I have put Windows 95 on 486's with 10 meg or ram, and have worked with over a dozen different operating systems, though many are very similar. I.e. I count MS-Dos, PC-Dos and DR-Dos as different operating systems, though they all support most of the same programs. Likewise Slackware, Red Hat and Debian Linux. Other operating systems I have used are the variations of OS/2 from 2.0 through 4.0, Windows 95, 98, NT3.51, NT4.0, and Plan-9. I currently use the Be operating system, and have used variations on the MacOS from 6.0 through 7.5.3. I do not claim to be the expert in any of these platforms. I can usually get what I want to do done in any of them, though I have to admit that my Plan-9 experience base is the smallest, and I have never run an application on that operating system.
Some of the environments that I have worked in, on top of Dos include GeoWorks and Windows 3.0, 3.1, and 3.11. On top of Linux I usually use a text shell environment, but I have worked with a small variety of the packages running on X.
Now lets walk through the possibilities from that short list above.
First I am going to discard items 1 and 5. If you fall into one of these two evaluations, I don't have anything to offer you as a recomendation.
2. You have been thinking about getting a computer, but are not sure.
First of all there is some good news on this front. You don't have to get a full blown computer. I have an uncle who loves to watch movies on TV, golf, and spend time with friends and relatives. He now has a very nice computer that gets very little use. He has sent and recieved some e-mail, but asside from that it mearly takes up space on his kitchen table. He recieved the computer as a gift, and would normally have fallen into an evaluation 1 situation. What would have been a better fit for him?
Ok, he is not interested in computer games, or internet chat. He has no real interest in buying things over the internet, and I don't believe he has even started a web browser. If I were going to recomend a solution for him, I would probably look to something like a WebTV, or a e-mail station. They each cost about $200 or less, and provide about the feature set that he is looking for, plus a bit more. I would not recomend something like a palm pilot, as he doesn't have a busy enough lifestyle to take advantage of it, and for him even a Handspring Visor would be more expensive than what he is looking for.
If all you are looking for is the ability to send and recieve e-mail with a family member, you would probably be happy with one of the consumer electronics devices that are on the market at places like Circuit City, or Best Buy. They also sell full blown computers, but unless you know for sure that you are going to take advantage of some of the advanced features, I would recomend staying away from them.
3. You have commited to getting a computer, but would like some help picking one out.
You already know some of the things that you plan on using a computer for, but have not decided what to spend on a computer, or how much of a computer you need.
Unless you are planning on doing some CAD work or you plan on building really big spreadsheets, say 20 layers deep with multi-layer clculations built in that you need real-time responses in, we can probably save you some money.
The exception to that is if you want to play first person simulator type arcade games on your desktop. In that case, be ready to open your wallet wide, and be ready to constantly be buying new parts for your system. Quake and the related software are some of the most intensive users of computer power that exist. I really recomend that you go to one of the usenet news groups that exist to support the game or games you are interested in playing, and look for the frequently asked questions lists that are posted usually weekly. That list will describe what hardware is recomended, and may give you pointers on where to find that hardware.
Ok, if you are planning on doing some serious CAD work, I am going to recomend first deciding what software you plan on using, then based upon that decision buy a system that contains the components supported by that software. I won't do you any good to buy a 27" monitor if the monitor uses an interface that is incompatible with the video card in the computer, or to get a high end grafics card if it is not supported by your software. The good news is that there are a large number of software packages that use the Windows9x interface, so you are probably safe in buying an off the shelf system if you select one of those packages.
If what you need is a system that will allow you to run an office suite, send and recieve e-mail, browse the web, listen to music, etc., the good news is that you don't need to spend a fortune to do it. Most of these systems will allow you to run CAD programs, and even play the first person games as described above, however don't expect to get the best performance out of them. Even if you plan upon recording music, or mastering music CD's, you probably don't need a system much more powerful than a 300 Mhz Celeron system. There are several older edition AMD chips that can be in systems that are equally powerful, and may not cost as much as an equivalent Intel processor system.
The days are over when you were beign told buy as much of a system as you can afford. More important is to get what you need to do the work you want to do. Fortunately most pre-built economy systems will provide you with all the power you need do do basic office work.
If you work with small graphics, or short vidio clips, say you are doing grafical design for a web site, or sending vidio mail, you are probably going to be happy with about twice the base memory that most economy systems come with. Bump memory up from 32meg to 64 meg, and you will see a tremendous boost to your systems performance. However if you plan on working with either large graphics, or larger video clips, you will want to spend a lot more on memory. 24 or 32 bit color on very large images will take a lot of memory to work with, and will eat up hard disk space very quickly. Video footage will eat memory even faster, and can really stress the bandwidht of a very fast and very large hard disk. If you are doing full frame capture, with no compression, at standard ntsc video, you will eat up about 50 megabits per second. This come to a little over 6 megabytes of hard disk space per second. A 1 minute video clip will take up about 360 megabytes. An hour will be about 22 gigabytes. These numbers may be low, but remember that HDTV uses about 4 times that much space.
If you are going to do video work, there are several locations on the web that you can find out more about what you need, however the basics are: Lots of hard disk space, lots of memory, a HSB port or when they become available a USB2 port and a camera that will support output that will connect to the cmputer. If you want to save a bit of money, you can do video capture off of a composit or s-vidio port from a standard cam corder with a variety of video capture cards. However unless you are doing live video with your computer on the set, you will see some degredation of the signal quality as it comes off of an analog video tape.
Depending upon where you shop, what you are buying, etc, an HSB port may be called one the following: On macintoshes it may be called Firewire. On Sony devices it will be called I-Link, and on older PC devices it may be called IEEE-1394. This is not the same as Universal Serial Bus, which now comes standard on most buget PCs, as well as on all IMacs.
4. You have a computer, and are running into problems.
Ok, some presumptions. If you bought or recieved your system over a year ago, you may get more bang for your buck upgrading to a buget system than by doing anything else to the system. This is because the newer processors, faster memory and faster hard disks that have come on the market within the last year are going to work together to provide far better performance than anything from two years ago.
The down side is that you will probably need to get updated software that will take advantage of the new hardware as well, and that can run into significant money.
The alternative is to take what you have, and where ever possible update and replace components.
For example, you can probably pick up a new motherboard, with a CPU and a new hard drive that will more than quadruple your hard disk capacity for about $200 to $300. Memory is another matter, Until prices start comming down, (I am writing this in the midle of January 2000) you may wish to transfer what memory you have to the new system.
High quality Video cards, and monitors are coming down in price as well. If you have a 17" monitor, you may wish to wait until flat pannel monitors come down in price a bit more, but otherwise a new 19" monitor is going to run you anywhere from $300 on up, depending upon the features you need. Fast video cards are available for under $100 that have 8 meg of memory on them. This will support true color at 1280x1024 resolution. You can also get 3d cards for graphics rendering that will provide even better response if you are interested in playing games. Then again at some point you are going to need to increase your processor speed to keep the game flowing to the video card as well.
Now if you are running into problems where software is crashing, you may need to look into simplyfying your system by ading more complexity. What do I mean? Well, lets discuss this.
I realize that you really like that video game, but do you need to have the system set up to run it when you are working on that novel, or doing your checkbook? Probably not. To some degree you can do some adjustments to the system by setting up seprate accounts on the system. Perhaps a games account for when you wish to run games, and a business account for when you want to do other work.
With a new hard drive, and a copy of Partition Magic, you can set up multiple bootable systems on your hard disk. Most people who do this use it to install multiple different operating systems. Say Windows 98, and Linux, or BeOS. However you can set up to four primary partitions, or three primary partitions and an extended partition containing common data files. If you put Windows 98 on each of the primary partitions, you can set up one partition for games, one for business, and one for working on videos or some other activity. You can custommize the amount of virtual memory each instalatioon has, Less virtual memory for faster response in video games, more virtual memory to work with larger graphics, are a couple of examples.