How to Buy a Computer – stepping into the store like a Guru
How to Buy a Computer is a little informal buying guide that should make it easy for you to look like a genius and choose the new computer that is going to serve you for a long time. It is amazing how many people wish they had a guide like this before buying their first computer!
A complete guide on how to buy a computer cannot simply talk about the top desktop computers available. If you check out online computer reviews, you’ll soon discover that there are many choices available today, in many different configurations.
Where once there was only the desktop computer, even that came in numerous different styles, even twenty years ago! There were tower computers, easily recognized by their tall cabinets, horizontal cabinets, integrated cabinets where the monitor and computer were all one, and more.
Today, just in the so-called desktop offerings, there are tower computers, mini towers, cubes, tempered glass, panoramic (clear cases where you can see everything inside), slim profile mini towers, gaming cases, liquid cooled gaming cases, mid towers, box cases, towers that can be mounted vertically or horizontally and more. In fact, there are very few configurations you won’t find. If you can imagine it, it probably exists.
Then there are laptops. The first laptop may have been a wooden box with a small blackboard built into the inside of the lid and a storage area for chalk and a brush! But seriously, laptop computers have come a long way since the first commercially available laptop, an Epson HX-20 appeared in 1981.
While laptops have gotten much lighter, trimmer and so much more powerful since their introduction in the early 1980s, they have also become available in much smaller versions, often referred to as netbooks, with touch screens and even with removable, stand-alone touch screens. In fact, since the introduction of touchscreen tablet computers with optional keyboards, the lines between laptops and tablets has become increasingly blurred.
Today, the field has become even more crowded with choices, as even phones have become smart. Most smartphones of today can do pretty much anything a desktop can do and more, including letting you browse the internet, create documents and spreadsheets, send and receive email, play games, listen to music and watch videos, plus make phone calls and text!
Furthermore, while the field may seem at a casual glance to be divided into only PC and Macs, there are more operating systems available than you might think. Android has become very popular for portable computers, and the free open source, Linux-based Ubuntu continues to gain popularity.
How DO you decide how to buy a computer?
With so much to choose from, how do you decide how to buy a computer? Price? Quality? Power? While these are important considerations, there is much more to the subject of how to buy a computer than any one of those.
First of all, and probably most importantly, what do you need the computer for? What are you going to use your new computer for, once you buy it?
For example, if you want a computer for gaming, you want massive power and speed. They can get really hot, so you want the best cooling money can buy, such as multiple cooling fans and even a liquid cooled case. Forget about laptops and tablets. The equipment you need for serious gaming is going to take up the kind of space you can only get in a big box, like a tower or box computer. Things like RAM (random access memory) and storage (the hard drive) and CPU (central processing unit) speed and CPU cache size are very important for gamers. We will look at these a little closer, later.
For a student, especially on the campus of a large university, you want a computer that will handle all the work a student needs to do, such as searching online, email, taking notes, watching videos, writing essays and creating other specialty documents. You want it to be practically indestructible, but at the same time, you want it to be really light, because you have to carry it around in your backpack all day. For you, a netbook with lightweight, solid state memory, rather than the standard hard drive is what you really want, and you want it to run as cool as possible on its own, so it doesn’t burn your knees or overheat when you watch videos. An alternative could be a tablet, as long as you have a good productive case to carry it in.
For work, a laptop, convertible or hybrid is probably the best all around choice. While being portable and lightweight, they generally offer more power, storage and features than a netbook. When closed, the screen is protected for storage and transport, while open, they provide almost the same experience as a desktop computer.
For the office, a desktop computer is still the best choice for most. For some of the same reasons that a tower or box computer is best for gaming, a desktop computer, which is a generally a tower or box computer hooked up to one or more monitors that gives you the most options for power, cooling, expansion and peripherals
The size or more properly, capacity, of the storage unit is a really important thing to consider in any discussion of how to buy a computer. The top desktop computers today often have hard drives that exceed one terabyte (TB) in capacity, which is roughly 1000 gigabytes! That’s a lot of space. However, if you are a digital photographer, videographer, musician, you want lots of storage.
The kind of storage available in many netbooks is simply not suitable for this kind of use. If you fit into one or more of these categories but really want the portability of a netbook, consider buying an external hard drive at the same time or even better, consider buying a desktop and a netbook if you can fit them both into your budget.
For gamers, you want a big, massive, powerful, fast everything. There’s really no such thing as a cheap gaming computer – only relatively cheap gaming computers. In other words, some gaming computers cost less than others. Make sure you check out some gaming desktop reviews before you go ahead and decide on the cheapest. You might regret your choice, otherwise.
Really ask and check the specifications of the hard drive before making your decision. A very high capacity hard drive might really disappoint you with poor speed performance. Make sure you get the storage capacity you need, but also check the speed (rpm). The time it takes to access the hard drive, especially for gamers, musicians and videographers is critically important.
Definitions that will make you a genius and help you decide…
As part of a good discussion on how to buy a computer, there are some definitions that are very helpful. They will make you sound like someone who really knows what you’re talking about when you’re talking to the sales staff at the computer store.
A desktop computer is a general term that refers to a computer that is controlled from an office desktop. This usually means that the computer is in a tower or box case, with one or more monitors on the desktop, plus a keyboard and mouse. The storage is on a hard drive.
A laptop computer is similar to a desktop, except that it is portable and much smaller. Today, with modern technology, there is very little difference in what you can do with a laptop from what you can do with a desktop. The main differences are in power and cooling. With so little available space for the actual “brains,” power supply, hard disk drive, CD/DVD drive
A netbook is very much a scaled down laptop. The are generally smaller and lighter than a laptop and use solid state storage, rather than a hard drive. The do not have disk drives of any kind, and some have their own proprietary OS (operating system) or a “light” or scaled down OS. Google’s Chromebook is just another example of a rather specialized netbook computer.
A tablet computer (as well as a smartphone) is basically a computer similar in many ways to a laptop, but without the keyboard. It is naturally even more compact (which means heat is a further consideration), because rather than the mother drive and other hardware being mounted below the keyboard, it’s all mounted behind the touchscreen. Tablets generally have no hard drive, but use solid state storage instead, and have no disk drives.
Convertible or hybrid computers are almost identical machines very similar to laptops. Some would argue that they are identical, but there is a slight difference between the two. With a convertible computer, the screen stays attached to the computer, but can be folded back all the way so that it can be used just like a tablet. The difference with a hybrid is that the screen on a hybrid can be completely removed, turning it into a true tablet computer.
The hard drive or hard disk drive (HDD) is the main storage unit on most desktop and laptop computers where all your documents, videos, photos, music, etc., are stored. It is a high capacity, self-contained, sealed unit that contains one or more hard disks that has a mechanism that can both read and write information to or from a disk.
A lot of times there is a mix-up between the concept of computer memory and computer storage. The memory is used to run everything, while the hard drive is used to store everything. When something on the hard drive is needed, it is located, read and sent to the memory.
The keyboard is the main input device for a computer. A keyboard is laid out like the word processors and typewriters of yesterday. It can be hooked up to a desktop via wire. Today, wireless keyboards are also readily available.
The keyboard on a laptop is built in, requiring no external wiring or devices. On a tablet or other touchscreen, the a virtual keyboard is used, which appears when needed, usually at the bottom of the touchscreen. It looks exactly like a keyboard, but is actually a creation of the operating system.
A computer “mouse” is a single hand operated pointing device that rests on the desk surface, often on a little mat called a mouse pad. Like the keyboard, it can be hooked up to the computer via wire, or wirelessly if you purchase a wireless unit. A wireless mouse is often included with a wireless keyboard. Moving the mouse controls a pointer icon on your screen, allowing you to move it around your screen and perform various functions simply by moving it around with your hand and clicking the function buttons on it.
Again, the mouse is built in to a laptop, and is most often not really a physical object, at all, but instead a flat area below the keyboard where you perform the same functions as a physical mouse with finger gestures. On a tablet or other touchscreen, you do not need a mouse, since you work directly on the screen with your fingers.
The operating system (OS) is the system or software platform your computer runs on. It is stored on the hard drive and interfaces with the computer via the BIOS. PCs generally use a Microsoft Windows OS, Apple computers use the Mac OS, while many tablets and smart phones use Android, iOS or Windows. Ubuntu OS, a Linux-based OS, also has some very loyal users. Ubuntu is most commonly used to replace the tired and overwhelmed OS on an older computer.
The motherboard is very important to consider when we talk about how to buy a computer. The motherboard, as you may have guessed, is the main board or card that everything is attached to, including the CPU, BIOS and RAM. Again, it will often pay you to check out computer reviews to find out what people are saying about the various motherboards available. All motherboards are not created equal!
A new computer will boot to BIOS without a hard drive. The BIOS (Basic Input Output System) is the very basic computer system instructions the control input and output operations. It is stored in a flash memory chip on the motherboard, and is used to manage data between the computer operating system (OS) and peripherals such as the hard drive, keyboard, mouse, video adapter, printer, etc. Without a properly operating BIOS, a computer will not work.
CPU – Central Processing Unit
The CPU is the real “brains” of your computer. It’s basically the “chip” you’ve been hearing about when you hear people talking in computer-speak. There are two main manufacturers of CPUs for desktop computers, laptops and gaming computers, Intel and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices). The CPU is a critical factor in choosing your new computer. In a nutshell, the more GHz or Gigahertz the CPU is rated at, the faster your computer will run. If you are planning to buy a cheap gaming computer, this is not the place to cut costs. Get the fastest CPU you can afford. Otherwise you will soon be crying.
Incidentally, if you think speed CPU speed isn’t really that critical, check out this CPU sold by Dell for large systems, such as network servers. It starts at $26,700.00 and has a market! That’s because it doesn’t matter how good or fast or pretty the rest of the computer is – if the CPU is slow, the whole computer will be slow.
RAM is an acronym for Random Access Memory. The CPU has its own lightning fast memory, but it’s not very large. Therefore, it shuffles information it doesn’t immediately need in and out of RAM as needed. Although RAM isn’t as fast as CPU memory, it’s still lightning fast, and very important. It saves the need for the CPU to have to keep searching through all the files in the hard drive for information necessary for the programs that are running on your computer.
Once again, more is better, especially if you are a gamer or videographer. If you are either of these, get as much RAM as you can, because your computer will still run a lot faster. RAM basically helps the CPU with the lifting.
RAM cards are connected to the motherboard in slots, and can be removed. Another good question to ask the computer store is if you can add more or higher capacity RAM later if you need it. Many computers out of the box come with less RAM than they are capable of using.
ROM (Read Only Memory) is another type of computer memory that should not be confused with RAM. The BIOS is one example of the type of information that is stored in ROM. As the name suggests, it is either impossible or difficult to modify. Unlike RAM, ROM is not lost when the computer is turned off or the power disconnected. It is permanently attached to the motherboard.
The cache is another kind of memory that helps to make your computer run faster. Files that are opened, such as web addresses and programs are stored in a the cache. That way, when you go back to a recently visited website or call up a recently opened file from your hard drive, it opens way faster, because it has been cached for faster discovery the next time it’s called up, rather than the CPU having to send a query all the way to then Internet or through all the files on your hard drive to find the picture of your puppy you added yesterday. There are other areas of the computer that also use caches, but we’re not going to get that technical (I don’t want you asking me for your computer engineering diploma!).
What is important to remember is that a larger cache will help your computer to run faster, which is really, really important for gaming and videography.
Here is the secret you need to know to help make you an expert when someone asks you how to buy a computer and get the right one: For a Windows computer, ask what the L2 and L3 Cache size is. They are very important for your computer’s speed. The one you should be most interested in is the L3 cache. Simply put, the higher the L3 cache memory of your new desktop, gaming or laptop computer’s CPU, the happier you are going to be with its performance. Higher L3 cache memory is more expensive, but especially if you want a gaming computer or are creating a lot of videos, you will be really glad you spent a little more.
Here is a hint for anyone wanting to see what they have right on their existing Windows computer: There’s a cute little program you can download from CPUID called CPU-Z that will tell you all about your existing CPU.
The graphics or video card is a printed circuit board that attaches to the motherboard in one way or another and controls the output to your screen. It is what determines the clarity, quality and overall appearance of images on your screen.
In a laptop, it is much more compact and tightly enclosed, meaning it is naturally going to run hotter if you’re doing a lot. Remember that everything you do on a computer requires electricity to travel from one place to another, which creates heat! These cards use various methods for cooling, including a heat sink (a ribbed device made of highly heat conductive metal), but again, the heat has to go somewhere.
Gamers can practically melt regular graphics cards! For that reason, you should seriously think about having a graphics card with its own fan installed in any computer you decide to purchase. Videographers should also consider this type of video card. You won’t regret it.
Peripheral devices, often just called peripherals, are auxiliary devices, such as the mouse, keyboard, printer, scanner, webcam, speakers, etc. that connect to and work with a computer. This list is far from complete. Most peripherals today are plug and play, meaning they don’t require special software installations, but automatically install any software they need.
An expansion slot is a slot that is otherwise known as a socket where an expansion card can be installed. An example of a card you might want installed in an expansion slot on a desktop computer is a wireless card that lets you hook up to wifi, rather than figuring out how to get the wire from your new computer all the way to the router in another room. Others might be things like a powerful, fan cooled video card for your gaming computer or more memory (RAM).
What computer should you buy?
As you can see, when you start thinking about how to buy a computer for yourself, there are a lot of things to consider. The bottom line is, ask yourself what you’re going to do with it.
Never use price to decide what computer to buy. That’s an almost sure fire way to end up really disappointed with your computer.
No matter who you are or what you’re going to do with your computer, I seriously recommend that you buy more power than you think you need. This is the surest way to get the most value out of your computer, after everything else is figured in.
Technology is changing very rapidly, and like it or not, almost everything that is being created is being continuously upgraded and tweaked, requiring more and more resources. Just as a computer from the late 1990s will choke if it even goes near the Internet, today, a basic, bare bones computer from today with the minimum memory and CPU capacity is going to start crawling within a very short time.
On the other hand, if you get a good, fast CPU, and better that basic memory with room for boosting and expansion in the future, you will enjoy your new computer for years to come!