Computer Buying Guide

Overview

Computer Hardware prices are so low that nearly everyone who has a need for a personal computer can now afford one. This guide has been written for the person who is either contemplating purchasing a computer, or upgrading an existing computer. I will try to cover the basic topics relating to buying a computer, including going into small detail what each component of the computer actually does. This guide will also try to give you tips or tricks on how you can get the best hardware for your money, and what type of hardware you may want to avoid. I will also discuss the question on whether it should be wise for you to purchase a computer from a major manufacturer, or to build a computer yourself, and to give you tips if you are going to build your computer yourself.

Keep in mind that this is not a complete discussion on all of the intricate details of computer hardware, nor is it designed to be your only resource when purchasing a computer. It is simply a guide to help you decide what type of computer you want to buy, and to teach you a little about computers so you know the different subjects involved when talking about computer hardware. I encourage everyone that will read this to continue to explore the subject of computers more, and find more and different articles on the subject. If you are in fact looking to buy a new computer, the best advice I can give you is to discuss the subject with people that you know who have purchased a computer themselves, and find out their opinions on different computers and computer hardware.

To Buy or To Build ?

One of the first questions that you will come across when deciding to buy a computer will be whether to have someone build a computer for you, or buy one from one of the many computer retailers. The are many reasons that will enforce each different path, but it is ultimately based on what you are more comfortable with. Something that you will definitely want to stay away from is the companies offering any kind of payment plan, with most plans you will be paying upto 2 or 3 times more for the computer than if you just buy the computer outright.

The quality of hardware is an important factor when choosing between a pre-built computer and a custom built computer. The companies that sell pre-built computers usually buy all their hardware in bulk, and is usually of low-quality. It is much more cost effective for them to put in a $5 modem and replace 25% of them than it would be to sell the computer with a good quality modem. I have even noticed inferior hardware on the more expensive high-end computers that some companies sell. So if your are a stickler for quality parts, nothing will beat a custom built system. Also I have noticed the horrible warranty periods offered by manufacturers of pre-built computers, nearly all of the companies only have a 1 year warranty on any of their computers, with the option of purchasing a longer warranty. If you build a computer with retail parts, most components will have at least a 3 year warranty included, if not a longer warranty.

Some of the advantages you get if you purchase a computer from a computer manufacturer are: savings in time (and possible headaches over building a computer) a one-stop place for warranty repair, a technical-support phone number, software pre-installation, and the computer may cost less.

If you do just want to buy a really cheap computer, many companies, like computer geeks (www.compgeeks.com), sell older refurbished computers, and you can pick one up at a fraction of the cost of a new computer. Although you will still probably need to install an Operating System on such a computer.

One thing to keep in mind when choosing whether or not to build a computer is the time involved building the computer and installing the software. Some people would prefer to have everything done for them, even though it may not be to their quality of standard. In this instance do not rule out having someone else build the computer for you. In my opinion, the benefits of building your own computer system will definitely outweigh the convenience of purchasing a pre-built computer. Also keep in mind the time you will spend working with your computer, and how much more enjoyable it can be if you have the computer custom built for your preferences.

The Processor

The processor in a computer does almost all of the work, all the other subsystems basically just supply data for the processor. Many things can contribute to the speed of a processor, and all processors are not the same. One of the most widely used ways to express the speed of a processor is by the megahertz or gigahertz rating, so a 500mhz Pentium Processor is slower than a 800mhz Pentium Processor. Unfortunately not all processors have the same processing power at the same megahertz speed. So an AMD Athlon 800mhz Processor does not necessarily have the same processing power as an Intel 800mhz Processor. To alleviate the misconceptions of this, AMD has decided to release their processors with a speed rating instead of actual megahertz rating, so an AMD AthlonXP 1800+ will be somewhat equivalent to a Intel Pentium 4 at 1800mhz.

A very common misconception is that a computer is as fast as the processor is, this is not always the case. Processors are continuously getting faster and faster, and the other components are not keeping up. So in a modern computer system, the processor is usually waiting for data from another component. So a computer with the fastest processor available today is not necessarily any faster than a well built computer from 2 years ago.

Keeping in mind that the processor is mostly waiting for data, when looking for a computer system, you do not necessarily need the fastest processor available. At any given time there is usually a sweet spot when looking for processors, an example would be that if Intel sold a Pentium 500 for $80, a Pentium 600 for $90 or a Pentium 700 for $150, the Pentium 600 would be the best deal for the money.

Also when looking for a computer, keep in mind what you want the computer's job to be. If it is for purely playing games, then yes, you would want the fastest processor you could buy, but if all you want the computer to do is to be connected to the Internet, write letters and do basic bookkeeping, then a slower processor would be just fine.

System Memory

The system memory is high speed data storage that is used by " running " programs (programs that are actually open and processing data, or waiting to process data) and the Operating System. The more memory you have in your computer, the more room your programs have to run. When you run out of system memory, the Operating System will start to use the slower Hard Drive Swap Memory, which will slow your computer down considerably. So the more programs that you open, the more memory you will use up, also the bigger applications, like word processors, will use more memory than smaller programs, like text editors.

To find out exactly how much memory you need, most Operating Systems come with monitors that will tell you how much memory you are currently using, and some will even tell you the peak amount of memory that you have used since you restarted your computer. Under Windows NT or 2000, you can view this with the task manager program, Windows 9x offers you some system monitors under the accessories program group and under Linux you can use a variety of tools such as top or Gnome system info. By using these utilities you will want to find how much memory that you will probably use during the computer session, without resorting to using the Hard Drive Swap Memory.

Each different Operating System will have different requirements on how much memory it requires to run. Most Modern Operating Systems, like Windows 2000 and Windows XP will require you to have 128 MB of System Memory. Older Operating Systems, such as Windows 98 and Windows NT 4.0 do not require as much memory. Also the amount of memory you will probably need will also depend on how fast of a computer processor you are running. An older Pentium 200 will not access data as fast as a brand new Pentium 800, so the Pentium 200 will not use nearly as much memory as the Pentium 800. Another thing to look at when deciding how much memory you will need is the type of applications you are going to use. If you are going to play a lot of games, then you will need more memory than if you are just going to use Internet applications.

A good rule of thumb to use when buying a new computer is to look at the requirements of the Operating System you are going to be running, and double the memory requirement. So, if you are going to be using Windows XP exclusively, then you would probably want 256MB of memory or more, but if you are going to be running Linux or Windows NT 4.0 exclusively, then 64MB or 128MB of system memory would probably be enough. Currently memory is extremely cheap, so adding more memory today will probably be worth it in the long run as programs and Operating Systems keep getting larger and larger.

Also there are many different types of memory available, and not all memory will work with all motherboards, so ensure you purchase the correct memory for the motherboard that you are going to use.

The Motherboard

The Motherboard is the large circuit board that all of the components are connected to or are attached to. There are many different Motherboards available and the choice of the Motherboard will directly relate to the system stability, the system upgrade-ability and overall system performance. If you purchase a pre-built computer, you will not have a choice in the Motherboard included with the system, and most of the time you will not be able to change the Motherboard if something goes wrong in a pre-built computer, because many companies build their own Motherboards for their computers, and do not design them to be able to be replaced, forcing you to purchase a new computer if you need a major upgrade.

What you want to look for if you get the chance to select your own Motherboard is the Brand Name, what kind of processor it uses, what kind of memory it accepts and what options are included on the Motherboard. There are many integrated types of Motherboards available, which means that the Motherboard includes additional components such as a video card, a sound card or a network card, and using an integrated Motherboard can greatly reduce the overall system cost, but it could also reduce system performance and affect the upgrade-ability of the computer. So if you do decide to go with an integrated Motherboard, be aware of all of the possible down-sides. Most pre-built computer do utilize integrated Motherboards to reduce the total cost, and not all integrated motherboards are necessarily bad, especially when size is a factor. An example of a well designed integrated Motherboard used to reduce the size of a computer is the Shuttle SV24 (www.shuttleonline.com/sv24.html).

When choosing a Motherboard there are many different factors to keep in mind, such as the number of PCI slots available (the connector where you add various computer add-in cards such as a network card or modem card). The best way to choose a Motherboard would be to look for different reviews in magazines and on the Internet to help you decide on what kind of Motherboard to buy, a good magazine to read is Maximum PC, and a good web site is www.anandtech.com.

Hard Disk Storage

The Hard Disk is where all of the system data (such as the Operating System and any programs you have installed) and user data is stored. The speed of the Hard Drive directly relates to how robust the system performs and the quality of the Hard Drive directly relates to how reliable the system data is kept. Also when the computer runs out of System Memory, the Operating System will use the Hard Drive for temporary storage, so if you are low on memory you will definitely want a faster Hard Drive.

The biggest misconception there is about the Hard Drive is that the more storage space (the number of Gigabytes) you have, the better the drive is. This is not necessarily true, the biggest specification that I go by to see if the drive is of high quality is the actual Revolutions Per Minute (RPM) the hard drive motor spins at. Although this in no way means that every high speed hard drive is of good quality. Faster spinning hard drives generate more heat, and to be reliable at faster speeds, the manufacturer must use higher quality parts when assembling the hard drive, so in theory, the faster spinning hard drives are of better quality.

Going back to the storage space of the hard drive, I have noticed lately that many people are overspending and getting way to much storage space for their needs. If you are relatively new to computers, and do not plan on storing any video or music files on your computer, then a 20-40 Gigabyte hard drive will probably be enough.

When shopping around for different Hard Drives, you will notice that there are two major interfaces you can choose from, an IDE and a SCSI interface. Which one you will choose will depend on how much you want to spend, and whether or not you will want to buy an additional hard drive controller ( an add-in card to allow the hard drive to be used with your motherboard). Most often if you are assembling or buying a home computer it will have an IDE hard drive because nearly every Motherboard comes with an integrated IDE controller (an interface directly on the motherboard where you can attach the hard drive cable). Although, if you are assembling or buying a computer that will be used mainly as a workstation to use CAD programs, video streaming, or high end 3D applications, a SCSI drive might be a better choice. I should warn you that SCSI hard drives are quite a bit more expensive, usually require an additional controller (which adds to the cost) and are a little bit more difficult to setup than the standard IDE drives.

In my opinion the Hard Disk Drive is the most important piece in your computer, if it fails all of your data is gone. It also acts like the fuel pump to the computer's engine (the processor), the faster the hard drive you get, the more data you will be able to pump through the processor, resulting in a very responsive computing experience. Back in 1997 I decided to upgrade my standard IDE hard drive with a faster SCSI hard drive, and the result was a computer that seemed at least 20 times faster because of the upgrade. But times have changed and the speed of the IDE drives are getting quite a bit faster, and the gap between the speed of SCSI and IDE is closing, so for most of the computers, High Speed (7200+ RPM) IDE hard drives will have sufficient enough speed for everyday tasks.

The Video Card

The video card is an add-in card that outputs the video that you see on your monitor. Not only does it output the 2D items you see on your screen, such as your word processor and Internet browser, but modern video cards also process the 3D graphics that you may see in games and certain screen savers.

Modern Video Cards will come in two types, PCI and AGP. These acronyms stand for the type of connector each uses to connect to the Motherboard. Motherboards will usually have many PCI slots and only one, if any AGP slot. The PCI slots are the long white connectors on the motherboard, while the AGP slot is usually a long brown connector above all of the PCI slots. Most video cards will come in either an AGP version or PCI version, so just be sure to get the correct version for your computer before purchasing. Keep in mind that the AGP slot is made for video cards and will be quite a bit faster for video then a PCI slot would be.

There are many other factors to consider when purchasing a video card, one of the most important, and least looked at is if the manufacturer is reliable on releasing updated video drivers. If you are purchasing a system to run any version of Microsoft Windows, having a company continuously release video drivers is very important, especially if you are going to play the newer 3D video games. The 3D video standards are continually changing and to be able to run a game that utilizes all of the latest technology, the video card manufacturer must release updated video drivers when the standard is updated. There are many video card manufacturers, but the major ones that continuously update their drivers and have good products are nVidia, ATI and Matrox.

The obvious factors to look for are the amount of memory the video card has, and what type of graphics chip-set it uses. The amount of memory will directly relate to how big of a desktop area you will be able to run, as well as the amount and detail of graphics it can hold to process for 3D applications. Also something to keep in mind is that with each new release of an Operating System, more and more 3D features are being implemented, so even though you may not play any 3D games, it may be worth while to purchase a good 3D video card in case you will want to use the advanced visual features of the Operating System.

The Sound System

The sound system consists of hardware that allows your computer to generate sounds, like the system sounds and the ability to play music. Normally the hardware is an add-in sound card and speakers, but there are other alternatives such as USB speakers which have the sound processing hardware included in the speakers, which are good if you do not have any expansion options available in your computer.

Many computers do not need a sound subsystem, especially in the office environment. Some may only need very basic sound support, while others may want a true 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound system. So when evaluating on what to buy for your computer, keep in mind what you want the computer to do. If the answer is to just provide basic sound playback, then your motherboard may already in fact have that capability integrated into it.

Things to look for when purchasing a sound card are: whether you need 3D surround sound (some games take advantage of this); whether or not you need to run any older DOS based games, if you do you will need a sound card that comes with some type of DOS emulation layer; and whether or not you will do any type of recording with your computer, like recording an old LP or tape to transfer to a CD. If you do you want to do recording with your computer, many companies release a version of their cards that will reduce the amount of line noise through the input by using gold connectors and by using other electronic filters.

Optical Storage

When referring to Optical Storage within the computing world, we are referring to items such as CDROM Drives, DVDROM Drives and CDRewriters. These drives will give your computer the ability to read data off of optical disks such as CDs. The main difference between these three drives are the ability to read, and in some instances, to write to different types of media.

CDROMs and DVDROMs read different types of disks. CDROMs can only read standard data and music CDs, while DVDROMs can read standard CDs, music CDs and the new higher capacity DVDs . DVDs have been on the market for quite some time, and for a while everyone thought that DVDs would surpass CDs as the most widely uses storage media, this has not happened. There are many applications that benefit from the extra storage a DVD (3.2 GB) has over a CD (~700MB), but the fact of the matter is that not many people have a DVDROM Drive on their computer, and it will be a long while before DVDs will become the standard, if ever, but if you do want to watch movies on you computer, you will need a DVDROM Drive.

The speed of CDROMs and DVDROMs are expressed in a numerical speed. The numerical speed is based on how many times faster each is to the reading of a CD or DVD. So a 52X CDROM is in effect supposed to be 52 times the speed a CDPlayer reads a CD. DVDs are the same, but they go by the speed of a DVD playing a movie. I really need to stress that there is no standard testing a company needs to go through to come up with how fast their CDROMs are, so you have quite a few companies using theoretical speeds, or speeds that the drive could perform under perfect circumstances reading a flawless disk. These speeds quite often are not even close to the products actual speed. I have tested 52x CDROMs that are no faster than an old 20x CDROM, except that it made quite a bit more noise when trying to read disks. So with everything in the computer industry, it is better to read reviews before purchasing a CDROM or DVDROM.

CDRewriters, and recently DVDRewriters allow you to actually save data to a CDR or CDRW. This is very handy in backing up your data, sharing data with other people with a CDROM / DVDROM or to make your own music CDs to play with any standard CDPlayer. CDR Drives are more expensive than standard CD drives, but the prices are continuously falling and are very affordable. You can pick up a good quality CDR Drive for under $100 USD now, as opposed to just under $400 USD five years ago. If you can afford one, I highly suggest getting a CDR Drive just for the fact that you can use them to back up your data, a very important task that all computer users should do, but hardly any actually do. As with CDROMs, always check reviews before purchasing.

Communication Hardware

Communication hardware consists of network cards and modems, both allow you to communicate with other computers (Servers) through a network cable, or phone line. If you are going to use the Internet, you will need one of these, along with an account with an Internet provider.

Modems are used to connect to other computers over a phone line, currently most people connect to the Internet in this way. When choosing a modem, if needed, you should look at a few factors: the first one is to ensure that the modem you are buying is not a Win-Modem AKA Controller-less Modem. These modems will slow your computer down considerably, and are very unreliable, and since they are cheap, just about every major computer manufacturer uses Win-Modems in all of the computers they sell. Win-Modems rely on the processor to do all of the work for them. The second item to look for in a modem is what kind of interface the modem uses, PCI, ISA or external standard serial interface. Almost all new computers will not come with an ISA slot, so if you are buying or building a new computer, ensure that you have an ISA slot before purchasing this type of modem. Another factor when choosing a modem is the speed and what features it has. Most modems operate at 56 kilobits per second (7 KB/sec) as there maximum speed, it is impossible to achieve this perfect speed since some signal degradation occurs, most will operate around 48 - 53 kilobits per second (~6 KB/sec).

Network cards are another way to connect to other computers. If you are going to setup two or more computers that will talk to each other, you will need network cards in each computer. You will also need a network card if your computer will connect to the Internet through a cable modem or DSL modem. The most popular type of network card is one that uses RJ-45 Connectors (100/100 Mbps), and this type of network card will require the use of a network hub or switch to connect multiple computers together. If you are just learning about networking and want to setup a network, there are many companies that sell network kits that have all the hardware, wiring and instructions you will need to set it up. Also when looking at purchasing a network card, ensure it is of good quality, because a sub-par network card can corrupt data that it accesses through the network.

The Case & Power Supply

The computer case and power supply will provide adequate storage, power and protection for your computer. The type of case will also dictate on how much hardware, such as CDROM Drives, Zip Drives and hard disk dives, you can utilize with your computer.

The type and style of computer cases that you use should be based on your own style and tastes. No matter what type of case you will want, someone probably makes one to suit your needs, it is just a matter of looking. Also when looking at cases, you may want to ensure that the case will come with an adequate power supply to power your new computer, most of the time 250Watt power supplies will be fine for an ordinary computer, but if you are adding one or more add-in cards, or multiple optical drives, a 300 - 400 Watt power supply is what you will want. If you are building a computer based on the Pentium 4 Processor, you must also make sure that the power supply has the additional connectors for the Motherboard.

The case will usually be a component that you will keep for a long time, so be sure that you pick one out that is pleasing to your eyes as well as being sturdy.

Input Devices

Along with the case, input devices, such as keyboards, mice and track balls should be purchased with you own preferences in mind, some people like mushy keyboards, while others like keyboards that will give you feedback such as a click when you type on them. Some people also prefer a track ball over a mouse, so purchase one that you will enjoy using while working with your computer. The only advice I have is that you may want to check out the new laser mice and track balls, they seem to be very durable and very responsive, as well as you never really need to clean them.

The Monitor

The Monitor displays all of the output received from the video card. The type and quality of monitor will determine maximum size of your default workspace and whether or not you may experience eye strain or headaches while working with your computer.

The Monitor can be one of the most important pieces of hardware you will buy. Not only does the quality affect your health and your eyesight, but a good monitor can be very relaxing to work with. When someone first looks at the computer system I use, the first comment that I always receive is how nice my monitor is. It is one of the products that I own that I have never regretted purchasing (it is a LACIE 19" Electron Blue purchased in 1999).

Today you not only have a choice in monitors, but you can also purchase an LCD screen. This document will not try to steer you in one way or the other. The only advice I can give you is that make sure you get a screen that will be large enough to allow you to work productively with an adequate desktop size, while providing a fast enough refresh rate as to not strain your eyes (usually 70+ Hz), and the second piece of advice is to actually look at the monitor in a store before purchasing it, because you will spend many, many hours staring at it.

Conclusion

If you are purchasing your first computer, or are a longtime computer user building a new computer or upgrading an existing one, I hope that the information provided here is very informative in your purchasing decisions. I also hope that this is not your only source of information, different people have very different opinions, and my opinion is in no way better than any one else's opinion. It is also to your benefit to ask people that have bought and used various different computer hardware and computers about their experience with the different computer hardware vendors and the actual products themselves. Also there are quite a few different essays on the subject available across the Internet, even some that are updated weekly giving the current prices of each individual computer component.

Thanks for reading, and good luck on your next computer purchases.

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