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COMPUTER BUYING GUIDE
BY STEPHEN DYE

INTRODUCTION
         
          If you are in the market for a new computer, then this guide is for you!  This document is not an all-intensive database of computer knowledge, but is only meant to provide you with the most important information to help your decision making when considering which system to purchase.

DESKTOP OR LAPTOP?

          Of course, the first step in your decision making is to choose whether to purchase a desktop or a laptop.  This is a very significant decision and one that should not be made lightly.  If this will be your first or main computer, then I would encourage you to purchase a desktop, unless you are a college student or someone that does a lot of traveling.  Desktops are typically cheaper and much easier to upgrade later on.  Laptops, however, have come down in price significantly over the years, making them accessible to the masses.  If you do purchase a laptop, make sure to buy the absolute best one you can afford, as these are often expensive and difficult to upgrade.

THREE MAIN COMPONENTS

          Whether you choose a laptop or desktop computer, there are three main factors you should become familiar with in order to make an educated purchasing decision.  The most important parts of the computer to pay attention to (in my humble opinion) are the processor, the system memory, and the hard drive.  There are many more factors to take into account, but these are the main ones to focus on.

PROCESSOR

          The processor speed will affect the overall performance of your system.  As with anything, you should try to get the best you can afford.  But sometimes what the sales clerk will try to sell you may not be what you need.

AMD OR INTEL?

          Which manufacturer should you trust?  Both claim to have the best products on the market, but which one is right for you?  Here are some things to consider.  Intel processors are known for their speed.  If you are a gamer or a “pro-user” you will probably want an Intel.  Higher end Intel processors boast things such as HyperThreading, a unique way to make the processor work faster, and a higher front-side bus than its competitors, making the processor communicate with the rest of the computer at a much faster rate.  Intel’s bargain based Celeron processor is great for the average Mom-and-Pop user who just wants to check their email and surf the web.  Celerons are usually pretty quick and aid in keeping the overall price of the computer low.  Intel also has special processors just for laptops, the Centrino and the Pentium-M, both of which are good choices.  AMD also has great processors, using a technology called Quanti-Speed Architecture.  This gives the processor more paths to the motherboard, allowing more work done per clock cycle.  This is why AMD doesn’t market its processors through the megahertz rating (such as a Pentium 3.0Ghz processor), but rather uses numbers that correspond to its competition (AMD Athlon 3000).  Typically AMD processors generate less heat, and therefore we can assume they will last longer than Intel processors, since we all know heat is bad for any computer.

LAPTOP PROCESSOR

          What type of processor is included with your new laptop is very important.  In past times, manufacturers would just put a plain old desktop processor in your shiny new portable computer.  Wrong answer!  Desktop processors consume way too much electricity and produce massive amounts of heat, both of which are not good for portable computers.  So what are your choices?  Very easy.  You can either go with Intel’s mobile processors (Centrino or Pentium-M) or choose an AMD processor.  Either of these selections would be a wise decision.  Make sure you are not buying a laptop with a desktop processor in it!

DESKTOP PROCESSOR

          When choosing a desktop processor, personal preferences play a large role.  Some people prefer AMD over Intel, or vise-versa.  Some key points to consider:
          Intel has a faster front-side bus, enabling it to communicate faster with the rest of the computer.  This type of processor is very good for gamers and advanced users.
          AMD processors generate less heat and will typically last longer.  However their limit on the front-side bus can be a big bottleneck to speed.

SYSTEM MEMORY

          System memory, or more commonly known as RAM, has a very profound effect on the speed of your computer.  When you open a program, or play a game, those are loaded into your RAM.  The more RAM you have, the faster your computer will perform.  So, in short, you should try to get a computer with plenty of RAM.  But how much is plenty?  Here is an example of what you should be looking for:

          Average User—Just buying a computer for Mom to check her email and look at websites?  256MB will be just fine.
          Pro User/ Gamer—At a bare minimum you should be buying a computer with 512MB of RAM.  Anything less and you will be disappointed with the performance of your new system.
          Super User—If you can afford it (or really need a fast computer) you should get 1GB of RAM or more.

          The good news is, RAM is one of the easiest system components to upgrade, and usually it isn’t that expensive (this includes laptops too!).  The standard today is DDR RAM.  There are varying speeds of this type of RAM, but we won’t get into that here.  Just keep in mind that more is better, when dealing with RAM!

HARD DRIVE

          Your hard drive is your physical memory, your storage space.  As with system memory, the more space you have, the better.  Hard drives are typically easy to upgrade, and in most desktop systems you can usually add a second drive with little trouble.  Here is what you should be looking for:

          Average User— I recommend at least 40GB.
          Pro User/ Gamer— You shouldn’t buy a system with less than 120GB
          Super User— I would recommend a 200GB drive, or buy a system with a 120GB drive and add a second drive to it.

          You should also be concerned with the speed of the hard drive, measured in RPMs.  Of course, the faster the drive, the faster your system will perform.  The average for desktop computers is 7200rpm—this is what you should be looking for.  For a laptop 5400rpm is great.  Be sure to check the speed of the hard drive!  Many manufacturers will not advertise this, so you will have to actually look up the information (off the internet).

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS

          So now you know the main things to look for in a computer, what else should you be looking at?  Here are a few other things to keep in mind.

GRAPHICS CARD

          If you are buying your computer to play video games on, then this will be your main concern.  Make sure you buy a computer with an AGP slot (8x if possible).  Newer computers will contain PCI-Express slots (PCI-E) which are faster than AGP.  Currently, though, some AGP cards still outperform PCI-E cards (but only because of software configuration).  Your graphics card should have 128MB of memory (desktop) or 64MB of memory (laptop).
          For anyone else, this is not as big an issue (unless you are really into digital photography, or want to use your computer for things like recording television).  A lot of cheaper computers use integrated graphics, which mean the graphics processing unit (GPU) is on the motherboard.  This is a great way to save money, but if the GPU ever goes out you will have to add a video card.  Many desktops that come with integrated graphics do not include an AGP slot, so be sure to check this out first!  Also, try to get a computer with dedicated video memory (not shared video memory—this just uses your RAM as video memory, slowing down your computer!).

OPTICAL DRIVE

          Choosing which type of drive your new computer includes is a key factor.  Do you want a DVD-ROM, a CD-RW, or a DVD-RW?  Many people are not familiar with these terms, so I will elaborate.
          DVD-ROM – Why would I want a DVD player on my desktop computer?  Yes, some people may watch movies on their home computer, but more often than not this will not be the case.  Still, having a DVD-ROM drive on your computer can be useful, especially if you do not have a DVD burner (the DVD-ROM will enable you to read burned DVDs from your friends.  On a laptop you most definitely want a DVD player, which is a great feature to have when you are traveling.
          CD-RW – “CD Burners,” as they have become called, are a great feature of any computer.  Blank CDs are cheap, they hold 700MB of data (great for backups), and they are quick to burn.  CD-RW drives go up to speeds of 52x now; you should try to get one with at least 24x.
          DVD+ or DVD- RW – There is a big debate over which is better for recordable DVD drives, + or -.  I have read several very technical documents on the issue, and let us say that they are very comparable.  Either one would be a good choice, but try to get a drive that does both.  Make sure you get one that is RW (rewritable) so you can use the erasable discs as well, great for backing up your computer.
          COMBO DRIVES – Combo drives are great in laptops, incorporating the best of both worlds into one drive.  It is common to see CD-RW/DVD drives in laptops, and this would be my recommendation.  On desktops these are not as common, as most home computers have room for several optical drives.

MONITOR

          An often overlooked feature, your monitor is important to consider when purchasing a new computer.  Laptops have LCD monitors, which are great – they use small amounts of electricity, generate little to no heat, and are very compact.  Desktop computers generally come with a CRT monitor.  If you get a CRT monitor, try to get one with the flat glass—this greatly reduces glare and adds to a sharper image overall.  LCDs for desktops are becoming more popular now, but they are still a bit pricey.  However, they are a great feature:  they take up less desk space, they are better for your eyes, and they look much cooler!  For games, though, LCD monitors are not always the best choice.  Sometimes they have trouble keeping up with the graphics cards, and will present a choppy image (newer LCD monitors are eliminating this problem).  Bottom line, if you can afford an LCD monitor, it is best to get one.

OPTIONAL COMPONENTS

          It really bothers me when I see someone that wants to buy a computer just because it comes with a printer (half the time it won’t even come with the cable to connect said printer to the computer!).  Do not base your purchasing decision on what “extras” you get with the system.  Be more concerned with the overall quality of the system and components you get, not with the extras manufacturers may try to entice you with!

WHAT ELSE TO BUY

          Top priority should be getting a very good surge suppressor/ protector or a UPS (uninterruptible power supply, or battery backup).  Why spend all that money on a new computer and then get a $10 power strip for it!  Surge suppressors measure their performance capability in joules.  The higher the number, the better the protection.  UPS battery backups are great, but typically only the higher end ones offer true uninterruptible power (your computer is continually powered from the battery, not from the wall outlet).
          For a laptop, you should consider buying an extra battery (if you will travel a lot), a good case, and an extra power supply (it is nice to have one to leave at home and one to keep in your bag).
          While you are at the store, some other good things to pick up include:  mouse pad, recordable media (blank cds or dvds), printer paper, etc.  Try to plan ahead and get everything you will need to set up your new computer.

I HAVE MY NEW COMPUTER, SO NOW WHAT?

          You’ve done all your research, checked out the computer you wanted and compared prices.  Finally the day comes; you purchase your new computer and bring it home!  But now what?  Just because you’ve made an excellent purchase decision, it doesn’t stop there.  You must take several more steps to ensure the quality of your purchase.
          Perform a Burn-In test – Once you buy a new system (desktop or laptop) it is important that you test it.  Most retail stores will only offer a 2-week in-store warranty.  What you are supposed to do when you buy a new computer is take it home, set it up, and leave it turned on for two weeks straight.  This is known as a burn in test.  It will put an electrical stress on your computer, and will give it time to generate heat.  This will not hurt your computer (unless something is wrong with it).  Typically, if something is bad in your computer, it will break during this test.  Be sure to test everything, including burning cds, printing, etc., during this time.
          Save all packing materials – This is especially important if you had your computer shipped to you.  Keep the packages for at least the time of the initial warranty.  If you have to bring it back to the store or mail it in for replacement or repair, you will be thanking yourself later.
          Read up on your warranty – It is extremely important that you become familiar with the terms of your warranty, if you haven’t before purchasing the system.  Since most desktop computers that pass the burn-in test will typically last upwards of 10 years, this is not a big problem.  On laptops, however, it is important to know your warranty and its limitations (as laptops are much more expensive to repair).  Make sure to take advantage of your warranty if a problem does develop; however, be aware that you may have to pay for things like service calls or shipping charges.

CONCLUSION

          After reading this document you should have a good understanding of what you need to look for when considering the purchase of a new computer.  Keeping this information in mind will help you to make an educated purchasing decision and will ensure your satisfaction with your new equipment for years to come.  Proper prior planning will help you go to into a store (or website) with the knowledge of what you are looking for.  Of course, the main factor in any computer purchase is how much money you are willing to spend.  You really should not limit yourself by the finance aspect of the purchase though.  Buy what you need now, and you will save money in the long run by not having to upgrade.

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