One of the main things people ask me after getting to know me and what I do for a living is:
“Tim, can you help me pick out a new computer? I just don’t know what to get and I don’t understand all the tech jargon that goes along with it.”
It never fails. I’ve even met people at parties and had them ask me after 10 minutes of conversation. I love to talk computers and I enjoy specking out new models so feel free to ask, but I thought I would write down the basics of purchasing a new PC so that you can be more informed consumers and not get snowed by those lousy, good for nothing BestBuy Geeks. (A quick sidebar – I hate BestBuy. If you can find someone to help you they rarely work in the department your question is about, and when you do find the correct sales rep he or she usually only knows enough about the products and technology to make themselves sound proficient in their area of “expertise”.) Anyway, when purchasing a new PC you have to balance the latest in technology with the amount of cash you are willing to hand over. Don’t skimp just because it may cost a few more dollars, but you probably don’t want to ride the bleeding edge of the technology curve either. Here is a quick rundown of the key components of a computer:
- Processor – This is the “brain” of your PC. The faster it is the more quickly your computer can process data. However it relies on the cache and RAM to feed it the data that it needs to process making the processor and the RAM contingent on each other. Speed is measured in gigaherz (Ghz). Processors can also have multiple cores which allow each single processor to basically function as multiple processors while remaining the size of a single processor – a dual core processor has the equivalent speed of two processors but fits in the space of a single processor – really cool technology. Dual core processors are pretty standard now and I wouldn’t recommend anything less. Quad cores are even better.
- RAM – the RAM or Random Access Memory is what temporarily stores data while your computer is processing the information you are feeding it. Usually more RAM is better, however it can get expensive really quick. RAM is measured in gigabytes (GB) and 4 is pretty much standard anymore.
- Graphics Card – This is what processes and displays the graphical images you see on the screen. Most computers come with one built in now, however you can upgrade to much nicer ones if you are going to be doing graphics intensive work like photo/video processing or playing games. Measured in megabytes (MB) and 256 or 512 is about standard.
- Hard Disk Drive – where your files are stored. The bigger the hard drive, the more files you can store. Measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB) where 1024 GB = 1 TB.
- Audio Card – most likely integrated into the system and not necessary to purchase an extra one – unless of course you are doing high end audio recording and playback. Then you need to spend the money on a good audio card.
- Operating System (OS) – This is what allows you to actual interface with the computer hardware. The most prevalent are Windows and Mac, but Linux is becoming more prevalent. The biggest question you face now when purchasing a new OS is 32 bit vs 64 bit. Basically these numbers simply tell you the level of processing the OS can do. Until very recently most programs didn’t run in 64 bit making the 64 bit OS highly impractical for every day use. In my opinion Windows 64 bit is still fairly impractical. Apple however is doing all of the 64 bit migration in the background and allows you to run in both 64 bit and 32 bit mode simultaneously making things much easier for end users (basically you can run any software on it regardless of whether the software is 64 or 32 bit compatible). In my opinion you should purchase a 32 bit OS
- Display – The thing you look at. Most displays are LCD or LED backlit. Both are good but the LED backlit screens use less power allowing for longer battery life on laptops.
Anything else being sold with the computer is probably extraneous. Don’t spend your money on anti-virus software or this that and the other thing that a computer retailer is going to try and sell you. Keep it basic and you’ll save yourself a lot of money. There are free applications for almost everything anymore, all you have to do is look for them.
Now, when you go to purchase all you need to do is look at the processor speed, the amount of RAM, the size of the video card, the size of the hard drive and the operating system you want to have on it. Combine all those together and you’ll get your final price. Dell has a really good method for customizing your own computer which can give you a great estimate of what a computer with your desired specifications should cost.
My final tip is SHOP AROUND! Don’t buy the first computer you come across that looks good and is in your price range. Take your time and find one that fits your needs exactly. Good luck!