Buying A Computer

I get lots of questions about buying a new computer. Lots of people know how to use a computer, but really don’t have any clue as to what is going on behind the monitor. Therefore, they don’t know quite what to look for or ask about when shopping for a new computer. In this article, I will share some trends that I have seen, I will define the most common and relevant abbreviations and acronyms, and explain what they mean to you. I will also clear up some misconceptions that I see in the field. I will also provide some guidance for deciding what computer related goodness you need, based on what your needs are, and not what some salesman wants to sell you.

One thing that has become obvious to me, is that computer company marketing efforts have done a great job of driving home the thought that users need look at only two things when buying a computer. These would be the price tag, and the CPU speed. I can’t tell you how many people that I have seen that are buying, as well as people selling, that base the whole value of a computer on how fast the CPU is and what the price ends up being.

This is wrong, and I am going to explain why. First off, the cost of a PC is important, but it is only a factor in the whole value of the package. Lowest price doesn’t always equate to best deal. Cheap computers are exactly that, cheap, cheaply made computers. In many cases you will take a hit, not only in performance, but also in quality, and thus the longevity of your machine, not to mention compatibility, upgradability, etc. Cheap (and I mean cheaply made) computers don’t perform as well, don’t last as long, and are harder to upgrade than quality made, standards based computers. This doesn’t mean that you can’t get a good computer at a good price, just that price alone shouldn’t be the primary factor in your decision. I say this from the standpoint of getting a good quality computer at a fair price, if the price is your driving force, you may have no choice. For example, if you can only spend $500, you don’t have much to work with, and price will be your primary focus.

Second, it’s not all about the speed of the CPU. Lots of folk look at how fast the processor is, and that’s the determination of how fast the computer as a whole is. While the processor plays a key part in how well a computer performs, it is not the only thing on the list. There are many other concerns like memory, and hard drive speed just to name a couple. If you don’t have enough memory (RAM) in your computer, you can have the fastest processor in the world and your computer will still be slow. This is because your memory is where all of your real work is being done, and when you don’t have enough, everything slows down. Your disk speed is important too, although not as much as your memory. Memory is where programs are executed, and where they run, but everything loads from and then is saved back to your hard disk, so if it’s slow, your machine slows down.

The point is, it’s not just one thing that makes a computer fast or slow or valuable, it’s many things that work together as a whole. With all that being said, let’s look at what all of the terms and abbreviations that you are likely to see actually mean?

CPU

Central Processing Unit, or sometimes simply called a processor. This is the chip in your machine that, well, processes everything. The faster the CPU, the more stuff it can process in a given amount of time. Processor speeds are rated in cycles, called Gigahertz. The more cycles you can squeeze in per second, the faster the CPU. Think of it like a big wheel, and each time that wheel spins around, your computer performs an instruction. The faster that wheel goes, the more instructions you can perform. Now, think about the wheel moving millions of times around per second, and now you are getting an idea of how fast your CPU is doing things.

CPU speed is important, no question there, but the thing you must realize is it’s not the most critical. Especially when you are talking close numbers. A computer with a CPU speed of 3.0 GHz compared to a computer with a CPU speed of 3.4 GHz will not be much different from the what the person using it can tell. So get a good, fast CPU, but don’t stress over getting the fastest one available, you don’t need it.

RAM

Random Access Memory, or sometimes simply called memory. This is a very important component in your computer, because if you don’t have enough, your system will slow way down and start to swap or use virtual memory. Swapping is when, running out of real memory which is very fast, your computer starts swapping data to your hard drive which, in comparison is very slow. Ram is measured much like your hard disk, in megabytes and then gigabytes when you get above 1024 megabytes. You really need a minimum of 512 megabytes of memory, and to be honest, I wouldn’t go with less than 1 gigabyte. It’s always better to have more memory than you need, rather than not enough.
Having enough memory in your machine will make it operate much faster, and this is one of the areas that I see most underpowered in cheap systems. The sales people will wow you with the CPU speed, but only give you a little bit of memory. It’s kind of like buying a Ferrari with a quart gas tank. So make sure you get enough memory when you buy your next computer, don’t let them short you!

HDD

Hard Disk Drive, or sometimes simply referred to as the hard drive. Your hard drive is where all of your data is stored. Earlier we talked about the memory being where data is loaded so it can run, and you can work with it. Keep in mind that memory doesn’t save anything when you turn your machine off, when you turn it off, whatever was in memory is gone. Your hard drive is where data is written, to be saved for the next time you turn your computer on. So, your operating system’s files (a.k.a system files) are stored on your hard drive, as well as all of your documents, songs, movies, pictures and whatever else you may have on your computer.

Hard drives are obviously an important part of your computer, and can have an impact on it’s performance. Hard drives are measured in several ways, aside from capacity (how much data it will hold), there are performance measurements as well, and these are the ones that affect the performance of your computer. Let us start with capacity, which is measured in Gigabytes nowadays, and this is measurement determines how much data (documents, pictures, movies, etc) you can store on the computer. Obviously the larger your drive is, the better, but one thing I have seen is that most users have hard drives that are much, much larger than they will ever use. This is not especially a bad thing, except that it can needlessly drive up the cost of your computer if you buy more than you need.

Back to the performance measurements. The three things to look for are RPM, cache and seek time. RPM is exactly what is stands for, Revolutions Per Minute, just like the engine in your car. This is how fast the drive spins, and the faster the drive spins, the faster that data can be read off of, or written to the drive. Think about peeling an apple, the faster you turn the apple around, the faster you can get the peel off. Most drives nowadays are 7,200 RPM, some slower (and cheaper) ones can be 4,500 and some of the faster (and more expensive) drives can get up to 10,000 and 15,000 RPM. The faster your drive is, the better performance you will get from it.

Next, there is the cache memory on the drive. This can be a few kilobytes, or in the megabytes. Again, the more the better because cache memory is a memory buffer between the drive and the computer that is requesting data. This isn’t the place to get into a detailed explanation of how cache works, suffice it to say that the more cache you have on the drive, the better the drive will perform. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see 2 megabytes to as much as 8 or 16 megabytes of cache on a hard drive. Me personally, I wouldn’t get a drive that had less than 2 megabytes, but ideally 8 or more megabytes is preferable.
Third is the seek time, and it’s pretty much like it sounds, how long does it take the drive to seek or find data on the disk. Naturally, the lower this time the better, and it is measured in milliseconds. If it takes a long time to find the data, each time you need it, your overall performance will suffer.

There is one other hard drive factor I need to mention, and that is the interface type. The standard for home computers and low end servers for years has been what’s generically called IDE (Integrated Drive Electronics), and was based on the ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) standard. This interface is cheap and reliable, but it wasn’t very fast. In the last few years, a new interface came about called SATA or Serial ATA, based on the same ATA standard but with a serial interface that is much faster. Drives using the SATA interface are becoming the standard in todays computers, and naturally if you are buying a new computer, you would want to get SATA drives for best performance.

It is only my opinion, but I have found that as long as I make sure I have a good RPM (7,200 or better) and a good amount of cache (8 megabytes or more), the rest will take care of itself. However, it’s good to be familiar with some of the basics in order to make good decisions.

Video Card

Video Cards can also be known as Display Adapters, and this is what connects to your monitor. Video cards have what is called a GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) on them, as well as their own memory. The video card is what handles all of the video processing for your computer, including activities like playing games and movies. As with many things that we have covered so far, the better the card and the better the GPU, as well as the more memory that you have on the video card, the better your computer will handle playing movies and games.

It’s at this point that I should clarify what’s important to you when it comes to your video card. I mention movies and games above, and that’s because these are two of the main things that people do with their computer where a high powered video card is needed, and of the two, games are the biggest dependent on video hardware. Lots of folk that I have worked with, tell me that they use their computer mainly for things like email, surfing the ‘net, storing and viewing digital pictures, word processing and maybe working on some spreadsheets. For activities like this, you don’t need lots of video power. It doesn’t hurt to have more than you need to be sure, but if you spend a bunch extra on video hardware and don’t need it. Well, obviously that hurts getting a good value on your computer, no need paying for more than you need.

That being said, if you are a gamer and want to play modern computer games, you will need all the video hardware you can get. The amount of memory is important, but so is the quality of the card, because the better the card the better the hardware on the card like the GPU and faster memory even.

Where to buy, what to buy, who to buy from?

In the mix of questions that I get, there are lots of questions about who or where to buy a computer from. Here I am talking about big names like Dell, HP, Gateway, etc., not local shops. I have some varied opinions on this, and when most people ask me who I would buy from, I have to be honest and tell them I just build my own.

If you are investing in a computer, that is buying a quality computer that you intend to use for years to come, there is some merit to building your own if you have the skills, or if not, working with a trusted geek to build it for you. I say this because at that level, you have total control over what you choose to put into your computer. You can make sure you get that fast hard drive with good cache, plus that video card with just the right parameters for what you need, the list goes on. You can also make sure that you build a machine that is built with standard components, so you can replace any failed components with ease later. This also ensures that any upgrades, add-ons and tweaks you want in the future go much more smoothly too.

The downside to all of this good stuff is that you will most likely spend a little more on your computer. It’s hard to compete with the big boys and the massive quantities that they purchase. There is a little more hassle involved, and you don’t have the same level of tech support that you have with a big company. Please note that one possible exception, unless of course you have a geek in the family or something, is that if you are having your local computer shop custom build your computer, you might get better support because you have someone local to contact for support, who is intimately familiar with your machine (since they built it). We have all heard the tech support horror stories, and I have seen plenty first hand that show that maybe the support you get with the big brand name companies isn’t what it’s made out to be, I have seen good and bad so it’s hard to say, maybe it’s a gamble. However, if you don’t have a local computer shop, or they can’t be there to help you when you need it, and you really want to be able to call someone day or night when you are having troubles, you might need to lean towards the big brand name companies.

Summary

When you buy from a large company like Dell, HP, or Gateway, or when you walk into Best Buy or Circuit City and walk out with that shiny new computer, you are getting short term convenience, and sometimes lower prices, by giving up that ability to customize and ensure standards. They big guys are building thousands of computers a week, they are buying components to put into the computers by the truck load. They aren’t worried so much about drive speed and disk cache, etc. Plus, they can cut costs by putting those slower drives in machines, or cutting memory back to a minimum.

Now, that doesn’t mean that this is all a bad thing, it’s just that I want you to know what you are getting, and make that decision consciously. I know folk who bought brand name computers, never had problems and have used them for years, ultimately being very happy. I have seen the reverse as well, and lived some of the nightmares. The same can be said for custom built machines, in the end, there is no right answer. Just look at what is available, what your comfort level is, and make the decision that makes the best sense for you. Don’t let anyone talk you into buying something you don’t want, or need, or you don’t understand. Find someone you trust who knows, and ask questions so when you go looking for that computer of your dreams, you don’t end up with a nightmare.

Got a question? Need some advice? Head on over to the forums and ask some of our local resident experts!

Last updated 2007/07/14

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