Get straight forward honest advice on purchasing a new computer.
Hey Brent, I’m about to buy a computer. Which one should I buy?
I get asked that question on a daily basis. Instead of giving them an answer I ask them a few questions. Most of them are blown away because they are expecting me to tell them a specific computer or name brand to purchase. Although I do have my brand names and specifications I prefer, that computer might not be what will work for best for you.
Many IT professionals will spit out the name of a computer that they would buy. That computer might be capable of playing high end games and much more. The person asking the question might just want a computer to check their e-mail and surf the internet. The person asking the question doesn’t know any better and goes out and buys a computer that is overkill for what they want to use it for. That’s why I ask them a few questions to get a feel on what they’ll be using the computer for. Once I get a feel to what they want the computer to do, I point them in the right direction.
I can’t ask you the questions I ask people when I help them with buying a new computer so I’ll try to help you learn everything you need to make an informed decision when purchasing a new PC. I’ll try not to suggest certain name brands but give you the knowledge to make the decision yourself. By the time I finish writing this guide you’ll have everything you need to be confident you’re making a good solid decision when purchasing a new PC.
A Few Words of Advice
Before you jump into purchasing a new PC remember this:
You get what you pay for. If you purchase a $299 PC you’re going to get a $299 PC that doesn’t do much, even if it is one of the better name brands. After a few months of using the PC you’ll be back in the store purchasing the computer you should have purchased in the first place or you’ll be very unhappy with your $299 computer and you’ll probably stop using it all together.
PC manufacturers do things like using a cheaper motherboard that has a front side bus that is half as fast as a more expensive computer to cut the price down. The front side bus on a motherboard means nothing to you but can cause you’re computer to run much slower than it is capable of running at. If you put two computers with the same processor but different bus speeds side to side you’ll notice a big difference in the one with the slower bus speed. PC manufacturers cut corners like this in almost every piece of their low end computers to save money.
So remember, if you’re purchasing a computer based on price and not features you’re going to end up spending more money in the long run. I see this happen every day.
I understand that some of you might not be able to purchase a higher priced computer. If all you can afford is a cheap computer, fine. You can only buy what you can afford. I strongly recommend waiting and saving a little more money and buying a better PC though.
Don’t believe everything you hear. Occasionally when I’m in one of those stores that sell PCs I let a “computer expert” attempt to sell me a computer or device just to see what they will tell me. Many times they tell me things just to make a sale. Other times they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Do you think a real computer expert will make a living selling computers? No, they do everything but that. The best thing to do is get the knowledge you need to make an informed purchase.
Do your homework. You’re much less likely to purchase a PC you will regret purchasing later on if you know and understand what you’re buying. Reading guides like this one that inform you on what you’re purchasing helps a lot.
When purchasing a new PC most people decide how good a computer is by how large its hard drive is. Although the hard drive is very important, you shouldn’t base your decision on just that.
For those of you who don’t know a hard drive is the part of the computer that holds all of your software, data, and so on. A hard drive is made up of a disk that spins at 5200-10000+RPMs with a head that moves across the disk and reads data off it. A hard drives size is measured in Gigabytes. An average sized hard drive is around 40-80 Gigabytes but can be as large as 500+ Gigabytes.
Hard drives come in different speeds. Slower hard drives run at about 5200RPMs. Most hard drives run at 7200RPMs. Some faster hard drives will run at 10000+RPMs! The faster the hard drive runs the faster it will be able to give and save data for the computer. There are different methods of connecting a hard drive to the computer. They are ATA which is the slowest, Serial ATA which is faster, and SCSI which is the fastest (used in servers). Most computers come with ATA or Serial ATA style hard drives. Note: There are other types but you won’t see those when purchasing a new computer. There are also different speeds of each type of connection.
Hard drives also come with memory to buffer data that’s going in and out of it. The larger the amount of memory the better. Most hard drives come with a decent amount of memory. Don’t buy anything that has less than 2MB.
If you plan to just surf the net and check e-mail a 40-60 gigabyte hard drive will do just fine. If you plan on downloading music, movies, and lots of games a larger hard drive is better.
Note: The hard drive is one of the slower parts of your computer that is very important for your computer to work. A computer is only as fast as its slowest part. If you can, buy a computer with a fast hard drive to boost your performance.
RAM in today’s computers is by far the most important part of the computer. (I bet you thought it was the processor.) Not purchasing enough RAM is one of the biggest mistakes I see most people make.
RAM is very similar to a hard drive. The only differences are when the power is turned off RAM looses its memory, RAM is much faster than a hard drive, and RAM is much more expensive per Gigabyte than a hard drive.
When you turn on your computer Windows is loaded from your hard drive and stored in RAM for the computer to use. The same goes for software. If you were to run Windows or software from your hard drive your computer would be very slow because your computer is only as fast as its slowest part. To enable your computer to run faster you use RAM to hold Windows and any software you are using at that time. Since RAM is much faster your computer can access Windows files and software that is stored in it quickly.
Maybe you will use software that reminds you to do things at certain times of the day. That program has to run all the time in the background for it to work. That takes up memory because it has to be loaded in RAM. The more software you run at one time the more memory it takes for your computer to run. You also have to consider things like spyware that can also take up space in memory. You want to have extra memory to offset things like that.
So what happens when you run out of memory? Your computer is set to use your hard drive as memory. That’s when problems start to happen. Before you know it your computer barely runs and your hard drive crashes from thrashing because it was being used as RAM.
RAM is the one part of the computer you SHOULD NOT cut back on. If you’re buying a computer with less than 512MB of RAM you WILL be sorry. Don’t get me wrong, the computer will run fine right out of the box. The problem comes when you install software and start to use the computer. Over time little games here and there start to add up and start taking memory to run. Before you know it your computer will be no better than a 5 year old hunk of junk computer.
My recommendation is no less than 1 Gigabyte of RAM. You can get away with 512 MB but I would spend the money and double that to 1 Gigabyte. If you plan on upgrading to Windows Vista in early 2007 you will need a minimum of 1 Gigabyte of RAM (2+ Gigs are recommended).
Most people don’t pay much attention to the monitor they’re purchasing with there computer. Most monitors work fine and get the job done. Be careful when purchasing a monitor. You might think you’re getting a great deal on a BIG 19? flat screen monitor but you’re really getting a large monitor that will work but was not built with quality in mind.
Here’s what to look for:
The first question is do you want a big CRT or flat LCD monitor. The big CRT monitors are much cheaper and are capable of giving you a great picture for low cost. The LCD is more expensive but just plain looks cooler, takes up less space, and is capable of a very high quality sharp picture.
If you choose to purchase a CRT monitor there is not much to consider. They have been around for a very long time and they basically all come with the same capabilities in picture quality.
If you choose to purchase an LCD monitor there are a few things you need to look out for.
DVI vs. Analog: LCD monitors can connect to your computer in a few different ways. Better LCD monitors will use a DVI connection. This is a 100% digital connection. Make sure if you purchase an LCD monitor with this type of connection that your video card supports it. The other way to connect an LCD monitor to your computer is by an analog connection. An analog connection is the same as a large CRT monitor. Serious games will argue that a DVI connection is better (it probably is) but I’ve never seen a difference between the two.
Response Time: You will see that a monitor might have a response time of .24 milliseconds. The lower the number the better. The response time is how fast a pixel can change color on the monitor. If you have a slow response time video will not look good.
Contrast Ratio: The contrast ratio is the difference between the levels of the brightest whites and the darkest blacks. You will see the contrast ratio as 700:1. The higher the better.
Native Resolution: Many people complain that their new LCD monitor looks blurry. When I take a look at it I notice their screen resolution is set too low. Most LCD monitors have a native resolution. If you’re used to using a screen resolution of 800 X 600 and don’t want to move to a higher screen resolution an LCD is not for you. An LCD will only be clear in its native resolution or higher.
NIC, Modem, Floppy, USB Key
Listed below are miscellaneous parts of the computer that needs a brief overview.
NIC: The NIC of a computer is the part that connects your computer to a network or broadband internet connection like DSL or cable. A NIC is standard on most PCs. Make sure it comes with one if you need it just to make sure.
Modem: Many computers don’t come with modems anymore. A modem is used to connect to the internet via a phone line (dial-up internet access). It can also be used to send and receive faxes with your computer. If you need a modem check to make sure the computer has one.
Floppy Drive: Most computers don’t come with a floppy drive anymore. If you want a floppy drive you’ll probably have to pay extra on the major name brand computers. I don’t recommend getting one because floppy drives are being phased out and will not be used at all in the near future.
USB Key: An alternative to a floppy drive is a USB key. It can save much more data and is very small and dependable. I suggest using this instead of a floppy drive.
The processor is the “brain” of the computer. It’s a little chip the size of your pinky fingernail on a plate the size of a silver dollar. The processor only knows how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and knows the answers to a few questions. That’s it. Everything a computer does is in its simplest form adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.
The processor is usually the most expensive part of a computer. There are two main processor manufacturers. Intel and AMD. Intel is more expensive and has a slight edge over AMD in my opinion. Each brand name has its strengths and weaknesses and has many different lines of processors. Below I’m just going to give you a very general explanation to the most common processors you’ll see when purchasing a new PC. There are many more processors out there and much more to know about each one. Heck there are entire books written on just this subject.
Pentium D: This is a new and very powerful processor. It’s basically 2 Pentium 4 processors in one. It’s a true dual processor that has a lot of power. This will be the new king of home computer processors.
Pentium 4: This processor is king at this time. Computers that come with this processor will be higher in price but are well worth the extra money. There is an option to get Hyper Threading (HT) with the Pentium 4. You will see an orange HT in the top right of the Pentium 4 logo if it has hyper threading. Hyper Threading fools your computer into thinking it has dual processors. You get a medium performance boost with hyper threading. This processor is ideal for gamers and people who demand a fast computer.
Pentium 4 Extreme Edition: You might see this version of the Pentium 4 processor with some of the high end gaming computers. This processor is very expensive and uses technology used in Intel’s server processor (Xeon). In my opinion if you’re not out looking for this processor you don’t need it.
Pentium M: This processor is made for laptops. The Pentium M is slower but uses much less power to run which lets the battery on your laptop last much longer. I suggest this processor for laptops.
Celeron: This is the low end processor Intel offers for low cost computers. These processors can be fast but are lacking in many other things that will slow the computer down or reduce the quality of your computing experience. You’ll find these processors in many low budget computers. If you just want to surf the net and check e-mail these processors are just fine for that. If you want to play the latest games and do things like make custom DVDs this processor will have a hard time doing that.
Athlon 64: This processor is king in AMD’s line of processors. It’s a 64bit processor which means it’s capable of calculating twice as much as a Pentium 4 in one clock cycle. You can only benefit from this 64bit technology if you have a 64bit version of Windows. This processor and all of AMD’s processors are slightly cheaper than Intel’s equivalent processor.
Sempron: This is a low budget processor. It’s fine for checking e-mail and surfing the net. You might come across these when purchasing a new computer.
There are a few more AMD processors but you won’t see them very often when purchasing a new computer. AMD processors are mostly used by people who build their own PCs.
Purchase Online or In Store
Ahhh… another big factor in purchasing a new PC for many people that should not be. Many people think if they purchase a new PC from a store they’ll get better service if they ever need it. Not true.
If you purchase a computer online you’ll get the exact if not better service from independent local computer shops that are certified by the computer manufacturer to fix their computers that are under warranty. If you think about it a small computer shop that is trying to build their business will try much harder to make you happy than a large retail store that doesn’t care as much.
If you order online don’t worry about the computer getting lost, stolen, or broken. It’s all covered by the manufacturer.
So don’t let purchasing a new computer online or at a store be a decision maker for you. Personally I’ve purchased them both online and at a store with the same results.
Sound & Video Cards
For most people the sound card that comes with the new computer is just fine. Remember one thing though. If you purchase a high quality sound card you need to purchase high quality speakers to go with it. High quality speakers make a BIG difference even on low quality sound cards. Trust me on that one.
The video card can be a very expensive part of your computer. The best advice I can give you without going into deep detail is the more you spend the better video quality you’ll have.
For most people the video card that comes with a new computer is just fine. Some people want to play cutting edge games with their new computer. Those people will have to spend more money on a high quality video card to be able to play the better games. You’ve got to pay to play.
So what makes a video card good? Generally the processor, chipset and the amount of memory it has. I’m not going to go into detail about which processor and chipset to use because it will only confuse you. Your best bet is to just purchase a higher priced video card to get better video quality.
Ah… viruses and spyware, the number one cause of computer problems. You know most of the computers I deal with at work and on my free time are having problems due to viruses and/or spyware.
Most people who buy a $1000+ computer won’t purchase or renew antivirus software for their computer. They tell me it’s too expensive. So you can buy a computer for $1000+ but you can’t spend $50 per year on virus protection? I don’t get it. Do you know that if you catch a virus and you have to pay someone to remove that virus it will cost you more to remove one virus than to buy a whole year of protection?
Not all antivirus and spyware software is the same. Most of them are trash and are viruses in themselves. Here is a list of the top trusted antivirus software packages in order from best to worst in my opinion. They all cost the same so why settle for less.
PC Cillin: These guys are new to the home PC business but have been around the corporate business for a long time. This is the ONLY antivirus software I use on my computers. This is the best by far antivirus software out there.
Symantec: This software suite is by far the most popular out there. This is because it’s bundled with most new PCs. People tend to stick with what they know and not change software very often. I used this software for a long time with OK success.
McAfee: This antivirus software is OK too. It’s also bundled with many new PCs. It’s been a while since I used them.
Panda: I personally have not used these guys in a while so I’ll stick it down here. I’ve been told they are good too by many people.
For spyware I only use Windows Defender. That software works great and it’s FREE.
The bottom line is anything is better than nothing at all. Purchase good virus and spyware protection and keep it updated. The best antivirus software is no good if it is not kept up to date.
Still need help? Ask your computer question now.