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The folks who make and sell personal computers expect that the Christmas season will put the icing on what has already been a good year. If you

are planning to make the holidays happier by buying a new system, here's some advice on how to get the best value for your budget.

These days, you can do well for less than $2,000 whether you choose a Windows (or OS/2) machine or a Macintosh. For an extra $1,000, you can get a high-powered computer that's faster and may have a longer useful life.

Of course, Mac vs. PC is your first decision. Although Macs are relatively scarce in corporate offices, they have real appeal for home or small-office buyers. You can usually get a Mac to work right out of the box, while even PCs that come with Windows installed need some configuration. System 7, the Mac's basic software, is still the easiest to use operating system. Sharing your computer with kids who use Macs in school is another reason to pick Apple.

SOUND ADVICE. Still, compatibility with the office is a big reason why nearly 9 out of 10 buyers pick Windows machines. Though Macs can read PC disks, switching back and forth is a pain. While Apple has all but eliminated the price gap between Macs and PCs, many Mac programs and accessories still command a premium.

If you decide to go the PC route, the specifications of your system are considerably more important than your choice of brand. I believe the minimum processor for any multimedia use is Intel Corp.'s 486DX2 running at 66 megahertz. Insist on at least 8 megabytes of random-access memory and a hard disk holding 540 megabytes of data. A CD-ROM and sound card should be standard features, even in machines used mainly for business.

Fortunately, such a machine--a power user's dream just a couple of years ago-- can fit within a $2,000 budget. Possibilities include several Compaq Presario models, the IBM Aptiva 850, Dell's Dimension 466V, and many others.

Some units come with monitors, while others let you select one. If the display is part of the package, check it out to make sure you're comfortable with the unit--sometimes you can change monitors for a nominal charge. You'll definitely want a 15-inch display. Avoid the temptation to save a few bucks by accepting the inadequate 4 megabytes of RAM that come with many packages. And check the processor type carefully: Intel's 50-Mhz 486SX chip is a lot slower than a 50-Mhz 486DX.

If your budget can take you to the $3,000 range, you can move up to a machine powered by Intel's blazing 90-Mhz Pentium chip. Cheaper machines using the new 75-Mhz Pentium won't hit the shelves until next year. Possibilities for $3,000 Pentiums include the Gateway 2000 P5-90, the Dell Dimension XPS P90, or Packard Bell's MegaPower. If you shop carefully, you might be able to slip a couple of added features within a $3,000 budget. Possibilities include a 17-in. monitor, 16 megabytes of RAM, or a 1-gigabyte hard drive. (For Pentium ratings, see "Are you ready for a Pentium power trip?", BW--Nov. 21.)

Should you choose Apple, your options are much simpler. For under $2,000, you can get a Macintosh Performa 630CD, equipped with 8 megabytes of memory, a CD-ROM player, and a 250-megabyte hard drive. Because Macintosh software is more compact, you can get away with a smaller disk than on a Windows machine. A $3,000 budget will buy a unit using the new PowerPC chip--either the Power Mac 6100/60 or the Performa 6115.

LIFESPAN. While not absolutely essential, a modem and printer are the most important accessories. A decent fax modem that transmits 14,400 bits a second shouldn't cost more than $120. For a Windows machine, you can get a serviceable ink-jet printer, such as the Canon BJ 200e, for less than $250, while a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet 4L will run about $600. Comparable Apple printers range from about $300 for a StyleWriter ink-jet to $900 for a Personal LaserWriter.

With the pace of change in the industry being what it is, it's hard to say when technology might render your system obsolete, but the odds are good that any of these computers will meet your needs for at least three or four years. Merry computing.EDITED BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM By S.W.

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