Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Computer Shopping Tips

So, you've decided to get a new computer; that's great. Whether you're buying one for yourself, your family, or another loved one, it's bound to bring you at least a brief flash of excitement as you start to think of all the great things can be done with a fast, new machine. But if you're like many people, that excitement may quickly be replaced by a feeling of dread as you start to realize all the questions you need to answer before you can make an informed purchasing decision.


Issues of gigahertz, gigabytes, gigabits and more can confound even experienced computer users, so it's no wonder people start to feel overwhelmed when shopping for a new PC or Mac. To help make the buying process a bit easier (not to mention understandable), I've put together this article. It provides you with the important questions to ask and the critical features to consider in your purchase. Whether you're buying your first computer or adding a second or third one to your home, I think you'll find something useful here.


  • The Basics


Before I get into the specifics, I need to cover a few basics. First, the good news is, no matter what choice you make, you can't really go wrong. Today's current model PCs and Macs offer tremendous value and computing horsepower that we could only dream about just a few years back. Even the most inexpensive models can handle any application you throw at them. In other words, they are plenty well-equipped to allow you to write letters, access the Internet, work with digital pictures, play games and do all the other things that most people are interested in doing with a PC. In fact, even advanced applications such as video editing and speech recognition--where you talk to your computer and it converts your spoken words to typed text on the screen--are usually no problem for today's lowest-cost computers.


Second, you need to figure out how much you're willing to spend on a PC. Full-blown computer systems are available for around $500 (or even less if you choose to take advantage of rebates and other special offers), but you can also spend $3,000 or more if you really want to. So, as with other big purchases, give yourself a budget range to work within.


When it comes to budgeting for PCs, there are essentially two trains of thought. You can either spend a good amount to get a cutting-edge computer with the expectation that it will last longer or you can just get a basic system that you know will be obsolete sooner, but which you can replace with another lower-cost system at a later time. Yesterday's top-of-the-line PCs have similar or even less functionality than today's bargain-basement models. Because there's no sign that trend will be changing any time soon, you might find that going the cheap route is actually a better strategy for the long term. Another alternative that I recommend for getting the most bang for your computing buck is to buy a computer that's one step down from a company's top-of-the-line. You always pay a premium to get the fastest computer available, but if you wait until a slightly faster model comes out, then the "second best" model (which used to be top-of-the-line) will lose its premium price and become a much better value.


The final general questions you need to consider are actually two important philosophical decisions: Mac or PC? And desktop or notebook? Though Apple has had its share of problems in the past, I now feel very comfortable recommending the Mac in today's computer environment, particularly for first-time computer users. If you choose a Windows-based machine, you'll need to figure out which brand. There's a certain comfort factor in selecting a brand name such as Dell, Gateway, HP, Compaq, etc., but you may find a no-name clone--sometimes referred to as a "white box" PC--is a better choice.


A somewhat similar story can be found when it comes to computer type. Traditionally, most home computer users have opted for desktop PCs. Recently, however, consumers have started to purchase notebooks--sometimes called portable PCs or laptops--and computer manufacturers have responded with notebook models that are specifically targeted towards consumers. You'll pay a price premium for a notebook over a desktop, but if you want the flexibility and freedom of being able to take your computer with you, a notebook may be a better choice.


The Specs


OK, time for the good stuff. Here are the most important computer specifications you'll hear about/read about/need to know:


* Processor Type and Speed


The processor is essentially the brains of the PC, driving all the operations that occur inside the computer and performing most of the number-crunching that needs to be done for software programs to work.


Common processors you hear about are the Intel Pentium III, Pentium IV and the Celeron, as well as AMD's Duron and Athlon. Speeds for these chips range from 700 MHz up to 2GHz (that's 2,000 MHz) and soon beyond. Other than the speed differences, there are also internal differences in the way they operate and in the amount and type of a special kind of memory called L2 cache that each chip has.


While the chip vendors want you to believe otherwise, literally any processor available today is plenty fast for regular PC applications and the Internet. That's not to say that computers with higher-speed processors won't run faster--they will--but the difference may not be as dramatic as you think (nor necessarily worth the extra costs involved).


If you're looking for a good value I'd recommend a Celeron or Duron processor and if you want the absolute best performance, take a look at AMD's Athlon or Intel's Pentium IV. The speed of the chip you choose is solely a matter of price--the faster you want, the more you'll pay. (To find out even more about processors and how they work, you can read an excerpt from my book, "Personal Computer Secrets.")


On the Macintosh, the processor choices are very simple: the G3 or the G4. The G4, which is the faster of the two, is found in Apple's tower-shaped desktop systems and their Powerbook notebooks, while the G3 is used in the iMac and iBook. G4-based computers are more expensive than G3s, but they also run faster.


* Memory and Hard Drive


A computer's RAM, or Random Access Memory, is the computer's working area. The simple rule with RAM is, the more the better, whether you're considering a Mac or a PC. Extra memory gives the computer more "working room," which allows it to get more things done at once.


I recommend any system you purchase have at least 128 MB, but 256 MB is even better. Given the recent dramatic declines in memory prices, there's no reason to get any less.


In addition to the amount of memory, you may want to investigate what type of memory the computer is using. Most PCs and Macs use Synchronous DRAM, or SDRAM, but some newer PCs (those using the Pentium IV processor) use RAMBUS DRAM or RDRAM. RDRAM is more expensive than regular SDRAM, but in certain situations it can be faster. A more interesting new memory type is DDR, or Double Data Rate, SDRAM which operates faster than regular SDRAM (although nowhere near twice as fast, despite its name).


One other thing you may also want to find out is the speed at which the computer system "talks" to the memory, which is determined by the speed of the computer's system bus--sometimes also called the "front-side" bus. Most notebook computers and some older desktops operate at 100 MHz, while newer desktops operate with a 133 MHz system bus. This is sometimes designated as using PC133 memory. RDRAM is often rated as PC400 or PC800. Note, however, that the increase is nowhere near as dramatic as the numbers may first lead you to believe. A computer's final speed is determined by a wide variety of different factors with each section contributing only somewhat to the overall whole.


Hard drives are the computer's storage area--kind of like a filing cabinet. All the computer's programs and files are stored on the hard drive and, as with memory, the more room you have, the better. Most systems today come with at least a 20 GB (Gigabyte) hard drive, but it's not uncommon to see 100 GB or more. Again, more storage costs more but, over time, you'll probably be glad you have it. (Just to put things into perspective, recording one hour of DV-format digital video takes almost 13 GB.)


In addition to size, one critical factor to look for in hard drives is the speed at which the drive spins, which is quoted in RPMs. The revolution speed can have a dramatic impact on how fast the hard drive works which, in turn, can have a dramatic impact on how fast your PC operates.


Most drives today operate at 5,400 RPMs, but some faster drives spin at 7,200 or even 10,000 RPMs. Once again, you'll typically pay more for a faster drive, but you may find it's worth it.


* CD-ROM, DVD-ROM and Rewritable Drives


Another critical differentiating factor between computers is the types of other drives they include, most notably CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. Both of these types of drives allow you to use CD-ROM discs (which most of today's software comes on) in your PC, but DVD-ROM adds the ability to use higher-capacity DVD-ROM discs and, in many cases, lets you view DVD movies on your computer's screen. You'll pay slightly more for a DVD-ROM vs. a CD-ROM, but it's a better investment for the future.


As for speed comparisons, both types of drives are rated with an "x" rating that refers to how much faster than a typical CD audio player or DVD video disc player the drive spins. So, for example, a 32x CD-ROM can run 32 times faster than a standard audio CD player and an 8x DVD runs eight times faster than a DVD video player. This spin rate directly translates to how fast data can be read from the drive, or the "data transfer" rate, and that, in turn, determines how fast the computer can operate when it's reading a disc.


In addition to these types of drives, many computers also have rewritable storage drives, such as CD-RW (CD-Rewritable) or DVD-RW (DVD-Rewritable). All of these types of recordable drives can both read regular CD (or DVD) discs, as well as store data on them, much like a huge floppy drive. This is very important because they allow you to easily back up and store your data. (And backing up your data is a critical part of using a PC--they do break down, after all.)


Recordable DVDs are the most recent development in this area and are still somewhat controversial because there are three competing technology standards (DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM). While many in the computer industry debate the relative merits of each, the only important point to remember is that most people really only need the ability to create a DVD-R (DVD-Recordable), which is a disk that can only be written to one time, but which be played back on most standard home DVD players. DVD-R capable drives allow you to transfer your home videos or any other video recordings you have onto standard DVD discs which, in my opinion, is a pretty exciting new development. At the moment, only DVD-RW and DVD+RW offer DVD-R support, so I would recommend you select a drive that uses one of these two technologies.


For desktop PCs, I'd recommend a system with a DVD-ROM and a CD-RW or DVD-RW, which gives you the convenience of two drives and the ability to copy discs. For notebooks, I would recommend investigating combination drives that offer both DVD-ROM and CD-RW capabilities in a single drive.


* Graphics Card and Monitor


Several years ago, the type of graphics card you had inside your computer was a critical factor in determining what types of applications your computer could run. Nowadays, virtually any type of graphics support inside a computer will let you run any type of software application you'd like. However, if you're interested in playing games on your PC, then you're going to want to take a hard look at the type of video card inside your computer.


Many games require a 3D-accelerated video card with 16 MB (or more) of onboard memory in order to run, but they will often run much faster or with a high-quality image if your video card has even more memory. Some of today's hottest 3D cards offer 64 MB (or more) of onboard memory, which lets you run the games at high resolutions with excellent quality. Again, you'll pay more for more onboard memory, but if you're into games, it will be worth it to you. If you're not interested in playing games, however, you'll be wasting your money for anything more than 16 MB of memory on your video card.


One other factor affecting a video card's performance is the speed of the connection it has to the rest of the computer. Most notebooks and most desktops support the AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) bus, which is faster than the older PCI bus. However, some systems support AGP 2x, others have AGP 4x and still others have AGP Pro, which runs eight times as fast as the original AGP bus. The faster connections are more important for 3D graphics than normal office applications, but as with most computer-related things, faster are always better.


The other critical visual component, of course, is your computer's monitor or display. Generally speaking, the larger monitor you can afford the better because the more screen "real estate" you'll have to see your work. In fact, if you're stuck deciding between a larger monitor or some other improvement, such as a faster processor, I would always vote for the larger monitor. After all, it's the screen that you're always looking at, so you want it to be as large as possible.


The standard size sold with most PCs today is a 17" CRT, or tube-based monitor, but some lower-cost systems are bundled with 15" monitors. If at all possible, make sure you go for a 17" model and, if you can, take a hard look at a 19". Despite the apparent two inch increase in size, the amount of stuff you actually see on your screen increases dramatically between 15" and 17" and 17" and 19". If you're concerned about size, take a look at some of the many short-depth 19" monitors now on the market. Most of these are no larger in size than many of last year's 17" models.


If you really want the latest monitor type, you can also consider flat-panel LCD monitors. Prices for these sleek, thin monitors have plunged recently, making them an affordable option for many computer buyers. You'll pay more than for a CRT, but many are happy to pay the price to gain back the desk space taken up by traditional tube-based monitors. The most common sizes for LCDs are 15", 17" and 18", but these numbers are a bit misleading because, unlike CRTs, LCD monitor size measurements refer to the entire viewable area of the display. As a result, a 15" LCD is roughly equivalent to a 17" CRT and 17" and 18" LCDs are roughly equivalent to 19" CRTs.


To help distinguish between CRT monitors, look at the resolutions and refresh rates that the monitor supports. The higher the resolution (given in pixels--such as 1,024 x 768), the more things you can see on the screen, but the smaller they appear. You'll need to find a compromise that suits your working style (and your vision!). One thing you need to make sure of is that the resolution you choose has a refresh rate of at least 75 Hz or higher, and preferably 85 Hz. Lower refresh rates cause an annoying flicker that will fatigue your eyes as you look at the screen.


For LCD monitors, you really need to look at the resolution the monitor supports because, unlike CRTs, LCD monitors are optimized to work at only one resolution--sometimes referred to as the monitor's "native" resolution. Most LCD monitors let you change resolutions through a technology known as "scaling," but the results are often far from ideal. On the other hand, refresh rates are meaningless for LCDs. All LCDs operate at 60 Hz--regardless of what any advertising or promotional literature may say--and don't have any problems with flicker.


For both CRTs and LCDs, you can also compare the monitor's dot pitch--measured in millimeters--which describes the space between display elements on the face of the monitor's screen. Generally speaking, you want at least .28mm or lower, but be aware that this measurement doesn't always provide the best comparison. When it comes to monitors, always trust your eyes and, if at all possible, look at the monitor before you buy.


Finally, if you're looking for the best possible quality in CRTs, look for the new generation of flat CRT monitors. Flat CRTs cost a bit more than traditional CRT monitors, but they offer better picture quality and less glare, which can make their visual quality even higher. In the case of LCD monitors, make sure you get one that offers both a traditional analog VGA connector as well as the newer digital DVI (Digital Visual Interface) connector. At the moment very few PCs and graphics cards offer DVI support, so you may not be able to use it initially, but this will guarantee compatibility with future DVI-enabled PCs.


* Sound Cards, Speakers and Modems


Virtually all computers sold today come with a reasonably decent 16-bit audio sound card or built-in sound circuitry. However, if you're interested in buying the best possible computer gaming machine, you may want to look for more. Some sound cards offers features such as surround sound and support for multiple sets of speakers, both of which can provide a more compelling audio environment for games. In addition, if you're a musician, you'll want to look at how many synthesized voices the sound card supports and find out if it supports digital audio inputs and outputs.


Speakers of some sort also typically come with most PCs, although quality varies widely. Typically, you get what you pay for, so higher-cost speaker systems will sound better, which may be important if you want to listen to MP3 files over the Internet or play games.


As with sound cards, almost all PCs and Macs (including notebooks) now come with a built-in 56K V.90 modem. While there can be differences between these types of modems, they're usually much too subtle to bother about. If you know that you're going to be connecting your computer to a high-speed cable modem or DSL connection, you don't really even need an analog modem, but it's still nice to have one to fall back on. This is particularly true for notebooks, where you may travel with them and need to connect to the Internet away from a high-speed connection.


If you are going to connect your computer to a high-speed Internet connection, you'll need to make sure it has built-in support for an Ethernet network port (see section below), which is how you connect your PC or Mac to external cable and DSL modems. Some computers are starting to be offered with built-in DSL or cable modems, but before you buy one, make sure it will work with the ISP with which you'll be connecting. The reason is, not all high-speed modems are standardized yet, so one type of DSL modem, for example, may not work with your DSL provider.


* Ports and Connectors


One often overlooked, but very important factor in a computer purchase is the type and amount of connectors a computer has. While today's PCs and Macs are powerful machines, you'll almost always want to connect at least some other devices to them and you'll most often do that via the computer's various ports or connectors.


The most important types of connectors to look for on PCs are USB (Universal Serial Bus), Serial, Parallel, Ethernet, and, if possible, IEEE 1394 (sometimes called i.Link or FireWire). Peripherals such as printers, scanners, digital cameras, high-speed cable and DSL modems and so on typically attach to a computer from these connectors, so the wider variety of connections a PC has, the better off you'll be.


Serial and Parallel ports are becoming less important with the rapid development of USB and IEEE 1394-based peripherals, but they're still handy to have, particularly if you have older peripherals and accessories (such as printers, digital cameras, graphics tablets, etc.) that only support these types of connections. Ethernet ports are important for home networking, as well as high-speed Internet connections. On the Mac side, you're limited to USB, Ethernet and FireWire (or IEEE 1394), although that's all you'll typically need.


The newest connection standard to be introduced is USB 2.0, which runs at rate that's 40 times faster than the original USB connector. USB 2.0 is backwards-compatible with existing USB devices--meaning that you can plug any existing USB devices into a USB 2.0 connector and the device will work (although it won't automatically get any faster)--plus it offers support for faster, new USB 2.0-compliant products. Very few computers offer USB 2.0 support right now, but it will be growing in importance over time. (By the way, USB 2.0 ports can be added to an existing computer by purchasing and installing a USB 2.0 plug-in card, much as you can add SCSI (Small Computer Systems Interface) connections to a PC or Mac by installing a SCSI card.)


One other point that bears mentioning here is that the number of open slots inside a computer--which was commonly used as a reference point for determining how "expandable" a particular computer system was--is becoming less and less important over time. The reason for this is most of the add-ons that people are buying for computers these days are external devices. As a result, the types of external connectors a computer has is becoming even more important.


Still, certain types of upgrades--such as 3D video cards and the aforementioned SCSI cards--often require an open slot inside your computer's case so I wouldn't completely ignore the issue. Thankfully, however, the base systems on many of today's computers are so good that there's less need for these types of internal upgrades.


If you're looking at a notebook computer, one final type of connectivity--or means of connecting to other computers or other devices--that you need to consider is support for wireless networking. With a wireless network connection, you can enjoy the freedom of moving around and working wherever you feel that a notebook offers you, while at the same time still have an Internet connection for browsing and e-mail. Several types of wireless networking options are available, but the most important is the 802.11b, or Wi-Fi, standard. Apple uses the name AirPort for their version of 802.11b, but it is otherwise the same thing. Support for 802.11b, which offers transfer speeds of up to 11 Mb/second (as fast as a standard wired Ethernet connection) can come in one of several ways. Some notebooks have everything you need for 802.11b wireless connections, including both an antenna as well as special wireless circuitry (a unique kind of radio, to be exact), while others only include a built-in antenna and require you to purchase a PC Card or other plug-in module separately.


Even if your notebook comes with a complete 802.11b "solution," however, it's important to note that to access the Internet, you also need to somehow connect with an 802.11b access point, which is a device that communicates with the 802.11b circuitry in your notebook and also provides a wired connection to the Internet. Just having 802.11b support doesn't magically give you a wireless Internet connection because it is only designed to replace a wired Ethernet connection. In other words, if you want to use 802.11b in your home, you not only have to have support for it in your notebook, you also need to factor in the cost of an access point. (To find out more about wireless home networking, see the "Home Networking and the Internet" article elsewhere on this site.) The same is true if you want to use it in a business environment. Some public places, such as hotels, restaurants, airports, convention centers and even coffee shops are starting to offer wireless Internet access via 802.11b, so if you have a notebook with 802.11b support, you can take advantage of these fast, convenient new connections (although you'll typically have to pay something for the privilege.)


One other wireless connectivity option you may also hear about for notebooks is Bluetooth. Like 802.11b, Bluetooth provides a means to wirelessly connect between a notebook PC (or any type of computer) and other devices. Unlike 802.11b, however, Bluetooth is not designed to be networking standard, but rather a means to connect between devices, such as a PC and a printer, or a cell phone and a handheld computer, conveniently without wires. In some instances Bluetooth can offer a simple form of wireless networking, but it's only 1/10 the speed of 802.11b and networking isn't really the best application of Bluetooth. In other words, for now at least, 802.11b is a lot more important than Bluetooth if you're looking to decide what to include on a new notebook purchase.


* Other Stuff


The final things to consider when buying any type of computer are the amount and type of software or other hardware that's bundled with the computer, the company's warranty policy and the type of tech support they provide.


With regards to the bundled software you can always (and undoubtedly will) add your own selections at a later date, but it's good to have a reasonable collection to get you started. More importantly, make sure the company provides copies on CDs of all the software they preinstall on the hard drive, including Windows and applications. Some manufacturers only provide a single recovery CD (which brings the computer backs to its original state--as it came from the factory), while others only include CDs for some of the programs they installed and some include nothing at all.


All of these situations can be a big problem if you need to reinstall only a single application at a later date or if you have to reformat your hard drive and reinstall everything. (For more on this process, see "Starting Over: Repartitioning, Reformatting and Reinstalling" elsewhere on this web site.) Find this out before you buy and, if the company won't provide you with all the original program discs, look somewhere else for your new PC. It's really that important.


If the computer is bundled with a printer or other peripheral, make sure you're happy with the output quality and features it offers.


The warranty and tech support issues are the types of things you hope you won't have to worry about, but they still need to be considered. Unfortunately, tech support quality can vary dramatically even within the same company, so it's typically a matter of luck whether or not you connect with a knowledgeable person or someone who knows even less than you.


A related point regarding tech support is figuring out where you want to buy your computer (and where, therefore, the tech support will come from). Some people prefer buying from a small, local dealer, where they can get individual service, although the tech support hours are often limited. Other people want to purchase via the Internet or mail-order, in part so that they can have access to 24-hour tech support. Like many other decisions in the computer buying process, there isn't necessarily a right answer to this question, but you should consider it during your purchase planning.


Final Thoughts


No matter what type of system you end up buying, you're bound to enjoy it and have a great deal of fun with it. Of course, if you want to maximize your computer purchase, you may want to pick up a book that helps you get more out of your PC. To that end, I would highly recommend you take a look at "Personal Computer Secrets," which will help you fully enjoy your computer purchase for many years to come.

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