How-to: Buy a new computer – Part II

Difficulty: 1.5

bits.jpgFollowing on from “How to: Buy a new computer – Part I“, which covered some initial questions you should ask yourself when buying a new PC, you should have an understanding of what you would like to do with your new computer and have an idea of what type of computer you are after. If you have not yet checked out part one, please do so before reading this article.

keyboardmouse.jpgThis section of the article we will break down the components of a computer system and show you what is important for the tasks you want to achieve with your new computer. By the end of this article, you should be armed with enough information to feel comfortable going to the shop and making your purchase.

Components that make up a computer system: I will now go into the components that make up the computer itself. With any preconfigured generic PC, you will be able to do just about anything you could want to do on your computer. I have a few tips about the components to ensure that the computer you buy will do the tasks you want if you have any special requirements.

Motherboard: This is a crucial part of of your computer as all other components plug into this. You have a couple of different choices when it comes to setting up your motherboard. You can buy an all-in-one motherboard that has a basic version of the different aspects you will need like sound, video cards etc. This is a cost-effective option that will be sufficient for most people. If you find that any part of this isn’t powerful or fast enough, you can disable that component and then add on a more advanced card as a replacement. (It is also possible to use both parts at the same time e.g. if you want three monitors to run, you would use one port on the motherboard and the other two ports you would get from the additional video card.) Or to really get into it, if you know you want upgrades on a range of aspects you can buy a “motherboard” stand-alone type and then add on all your advanced video cards and other bits and pieces.You just need to ensure that the components you want to plug into it, will work with it. The shop should help you out with this.

Processor (CPU): The processor is the brains of the computer. It processes all the logic to get your tasks done and gets your programs running. You would hope a shop should not sell you a processor that will not work with the motherboard you are buying. There are two main processor companies being Intel and AMD. They both have their strong points so it’s really just personal preference. They both manufacture numerous models within a range of budgets. You will obviously get better performance out of a more expensive chip. In my opinion the budget versions of each are very weak, so I would recommend buying whichever your budget will allow.

The speed of a processor is not the best way to decide which is best for you as the MHz (speed measurement) does not explain the power of the processor in real terms. The fastest processor will be very expensive, however the chances of an everyday person noticing the speed difference between that and one slightly slower is very unlikely. Say you have the choice of buying a 2.4MHz or a 2.8MHz processor, get the 2.4 and save yourself a lot of money. Keep in mind the processor is generally the most expensive component in your computer, so you may like to research this further.

RAM: This is the memory that the computer uses to keep programs up and running. The operating system uses up some if this and then more is used by the programs you load up. For most purposes, 2GB will be enough but playing games and other multimedia intense applications may require more. If you don’t know, start with 2GB as it is easy to upgrade later on. I am currently using only 1GB of RAM and that has been plenty for me using Windows XP. If you want to use Windows Vista, 2GB would be a good starting point.

Video Card: This is the card that processes all the pictures you see on your screen. You don’t need to get all fancy with this unless you are playing the latest games or using feature rich multimedia applications. Video cards from 3 years ago can play most modern games and video, so you will have to be doing something fairly special to require more than a cheapy.

Sound Card: As the name says, this card sorts out all of your computer sounds and music and converts them from computer data into audio signals that your speakers can play. PC speakers sound great but they don’t recreate the sounds a home theatre will. My advice is, don’t get carried away and buy a fantastic sound card as the sound quality out of even the cheap cards is more than enough for most uses.

Back when I was recording bands I spent $2,500 on a multi-track card with a breakout box. It sounded great but I would still use my Soundblaster Live for most uses as it did the job fine. This Soundblaster live card is now around $50 and it is more than enough. These days, you are likely by default to get better sound with the inbuilt sound features of your motherboard than this model of Soundblaster. So if you are not a sound person, don’t spend a lot of money on a sound card.

Keep in mind that you may want to purchase some PC speakers. Alternatively, you can hook your computer up to your stereo and hear the computer sounds through your larger speakers. This is great if you want to use your computer as a jukebox or if you want to play movies on your PC.

Hard Drives: These hold all your data and applications. The smallest desktop PC drive you can buy is around 100GB which is more than enough for most people. If you want to store lots of music and movies you may want to get more but you will find it hard to fill it up just with applications and documents. This is easy to upgrade later by adding another drive, and by the time you need more, the drives will be much cheaper!

Optical Drive: This is the CD/DVD drive you will need to get data and applications to and from optical disks onto your computer. It’s not worth getting a CD drive these days as DVD drives are so cheap and they play CD’s. I would strongly recommend getting a DVD re-writable drive so you can backup your data to DVD. It won’t cost much. Also consider newer formats such as Blu-ray or HD-DVD. There isn’t much available to run on these drives yet, and they will cost you a lot more as they are fresh to the market. You can always purchase a DVD rewriter now and add one of these Blu-ray/HD DVD drives at a later date. Keep this option open.

Network Card: This is only necessary if you would like to hook your computer up to other computers so that you can share files and internet. You will often find that the network card is built into your motherboard. You may want to choose a wireless network card so that you don’t need to physically connect your computer to another computer or router.

Other Components: There are many other components that are available but they are much less frequently used than those listed above.

So that’s the components of a computer listed in their most basic form. You should now have a better understanding of how a computer operates, and a good idea of the direction you want to take selecting its components.

Peripherals, the other bits: As shown above, there are many components that make up a computer system. We also need to purchase peripherals which are the items you touch and see outside the computer. These are the least important aspect when it comes to buying a computer as they are generally quite cheap compared to the computer itself and any keyboard, mouse and monitor will do the trick to get you up and running. There is just a few points I would like to mention about each.

keyboard.jpgKeyboards: Any keyboard will do the job of inputing data but you may want to investigate various types of keyboards for ergonomic reasons. Ergonomic keyboards look a little bit funny and are a little hard to get the hang of but once you get a feel for them they are more comfortable to use than standard keyboards.

As with most things, you get what you pay for and keyboards are no exception. The best way to find which keyboard is right for you is to go to a shop and try a few out. See which ones are more comfortable and decide how much you want to spend.

Another thing to consider is if you would like it to be cordless or corded. I have seen many cases where people get cordless keyboards and after around 6 months they think it is broken. In every case I have come across, the batteries have died and the replacement of batteries has got them running again. If you have no reason to have a cordless setup apart from aesthetics, get one with a cord and save yourself some money. If money is not an option, look into bluetooth keyboards and mice as you can use them from a much further distance than regular cordless keyboards. These are especially useful if you have your home theatre hooked up to your PC and would like to have your keyboard on your coffee table.

Mice: Yet again, it does not matter what type of mouse you get as they will all work but it is worth considering if you would like a ball, optical or laser mouse. A ball mouse is older technology. They have a ball on the underside which rolls when you move the mouse. Both optical and and laser mice receive reflections back from the surface the mouse is used on to calculate how the pointer should move. Optical mice are the best choice for most people but gamers and graphic designers may want to consider investing in a laser mouse for more accuracy.

Mice can cost as low as $5 and then be upward of $200. You should also consider as with the keyboard if you want corded or cordless.

trackball.jpgThere are also trackballs in which the ball is on top and you move the ball to get your pointer around the screen. I have never felt comfortable using these but many who do use them, swear by them.

You are also able to get keyboard and mice in matching sets which will save you money, and spare you from having multiple receivers if you choose the cordless option.

monitor.jpgMonitors: If space is not an issue for you, a CRT monitor (same technology as older TV’s, deep footprint) cannot be beaten for value for money. Around $200 is all you will need to get one. Otherwise if desk space is an issue, you will need to get an LCD monitor. LCD monitors have come a long way over the years and are the way to go for most people. They are no longer too expensive and the quality is good. You can tell the difference between cheaper LCD’s and more expensive ones but for general use, they are all fine. Spend more if you want to play games or if you are spending a lot of time in front of your computer.

The next thing to consider is how much screen space you need. A standard monitor is 17″ but you can get them up to 24″ in size. The cost can become very high buying the larger monitors so you may want to consider connecting 2 or more smaller monitors. Most video cards will let you connect two monitors easily and all major operating systems will allow you to have multiple monitors. It is very handy to have multiple screens if you are likely to have multiple programs open at the same time.

There are many other peripherals available on the market such as joysticks and printers. If you would like these, consider them in your final cost.

I hope you now feel armed with enough information to make your purchase. You can now end up with the computer you initially set out to get, without being swindled by the shop assistant. You should find the computer that will do the job you want it to do now and for the next few years. In 3 years time you will have all the experience you need to upgrade or purchase a new machine. Sadly or wonderfully, thats the way of technology. Start saving now!

Last but not least, my final tip is to buy your PC when you need it. No matter how long you wait for the best deal, the same configuration will cost less in six months. Technology evolves very quickly when it comes to computers.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and it has helped you decide what type of computer to get. Please check out some of my other how-to’s at Inspect My Gadget.

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