The Basics of Buying a Computer

Initial Problem:


When buying a computer, there are so many little details to worry about, it’s usually easier to think about the basics first. The three main options are choosing between buying a bunch of parts, buying a generic preassembled model, and buying a brand name preassembled model.


Buying all the required parts has its advantages and disadvantages. You can get exactly what you want, sticking more power where you need it without wasting money on options you don’t need, and you can control the costs very well by choosing the make and model of every single componant that goes in to your system. Of course, walking away from a computer store with bags of parts is not for the faint of heart. In the best case, it’s merely intimidating. For the average PC, there are many settings that may require optimization, like fans for cooling, overclocking settings, motherboard pins, and device drivers, along with the very real possibility of forgetting to buy a needed part half way into your assembly job. In the worst case, you can easily bend componant pins or otherwise break something and waste a chunk of your investment. Still, the effort is often worthwhile, since the costs can be controlled – most home assembled systems cost less than buying a comparable generic pc in the store.

Generic PCs can be found at every corner computer store, so availability is certainly in their favor. These systems come already assembled and tested, with no money wasted on paying for name brand, and overall reliability pretty close to par with the more expensive brands. The problem is usually selection – you may not get all that you actually want or need and often end up picking up a package deal that appeals to your wallet with little to no swapping of options between the “low end”, “medium end” and “high end” systems. Of course, any currently unused options may be something you will use later, and the fact that these PCs are by nature generic means that later upgrades and modifications are fairly easy, making these middle-of-the-road in terms of price, but popular choices.

Brand name PCs put the ring into “you get what you pay for”. These systems also come already assembled and tested, but tag on guarantees on the parts and performance with extended warantee options available as well, although the reliability of the parts is only contentiously a little higher than generic parts. You may not get all that you actually want or need, and often end up picking up a package deal that appeals to your wallet, however, there are usually options available to upgrade almost every system feature, from RAM to hard drives to CPU speed to additional cables. This means that prices can quickly baloon while choices get presented that you didn’t even know existed – important because later modifications may be more difficult with the proprietary parts.

This will at least set your feet in the right direction and prepare you to begin searching for the right computer in the best store, or on the best website.

Processors (CPUs)


Processor choices are a bit more difficult now than they were before. It is still really a choice between an AMD and an Intel processor. The difference really comes in how many cores there are in the processor and its relative speed. Each company now has a performance rating system that isn’t really easy to compare. Due to the complexity, its best to refer to my links below for a more detailed explanation of CPUs for budget and uses.


Memory (RAM)


Most desktop computers now use a type of memory called DDR2. DDR3 is now finally making its way to PC systems but it is more expensive. In terms of amount, it is best to have at least 2GB of memory in the system and preferably 4GB. Memory speeds can impact performance as well. The faster the memory, the better the performance should be. When buying memory, try to buy as few DIMMs as possible to allow for future memory upgrades if needed.

Hard Drives


Hard drives really boil down to size and speed. The larger the drive and the faster, the better the performance and capacity. In a desktop, it is best to have at least 500GB or more of storage space these days. In terms of speed, they are pretty much all running at 7200rpm now. A few high performance 10,000rpm drives are available. Most drives use the Serial ATA interface now for ease of installation.

Optical Drives (CD/DVD/Blu-ray)


Most systems sold now feature DVD burners, even the budget systems. It is best to make sure that you get a multiformat DVD burner that can support both the +R/RW and -R/RW formats. Speeds should be 16x for the recordable speed. Dual or Double Layer media support is also a common feature although less likely to be used due to media cost. Options also include LightScribe or Labelflash support for burning labels directly to compatible media. Blu-ray is an option for those wanting to use their PC for the high definition video format.


Video Cards

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Video card technology seems to change every three to six months. If you aren’t really doing any 3D graphics at all, then integrated graphics may be just fine. Beyond this, there are a wide selection of cards. Things to consider include performance, the amount of memory on the card, output connectors and the version of Direct X supported. Those looking to do any gaming should really consider a Direct X 10 card with at least 512MB of memory onboard. Pretty much all new systems will use the PCI-Express graphics standard.

Extrenal Connectors


Many upgrades and peripherals to computers now connect through external interfaces instead of internal cards. Check to see how many and what type of external ports are available on the computer for use with future peripherals. Look for systems that have both USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 or FireWire ports. It should have at least six USB 2.0 connectors and one FireWire ports. Many times media card readers that support various different flash memory cards for peripherals are also inlcluded.


What good is a desktop PC unless it also has a monitor? Previously users would need to choose between a CRT or LCD monitor, but LCDs are pretty much the standard now because of their reduced size and power consumption. The real issue is more about size and cost of the LCDs. The price difference between 19-inch and 22-inch models make 22-inch the best overall value although 24-inch models are quickly dropping in price. Most all screens use the wider 16:10 format but some are now being released with a near 2:1 ratio best suited for movie watching.

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