Buying a New Computer

Buying a New Computer


Introduction

Weighing up the merits of components when buying a new PC can be confusing. Whether you’re trading your old PC in for a newer, more powerful model or looking to buy a second computer for the home or even contemplating a first-time buy, it pays to know exactly what you’ll get for your money. There are few machines you can buy whose performance can be so accurately judged simply by knowing what’s inside it. It might make sense to choose a TV solely on picture quality alone, or a new car on the bases of its reputation for reliability, but to buy the right PC you have to learn to play the “Numbers Game”. This guide will show you how it all adds up.

You may be buying from an advert in a magazine, a manufacturer’s or retailer’s website or a computer superstore, but in every case you’ll end up considering a list of components and trying to make compromises. There’s no one-size-fits-all machine, so the best choice is always a PC that delivers the power and performance you need now … plus something in reserve for the future without wasting money on features you don’t need.

Processor

Starting, as most computer specifications do, with the processor, you should choose something towards the upper end of the speed range. Speed is measured in Gigahertz (GHz), with higher numbers representing faster speed.

If you choose the fastest processor out there now, you’ll pay a premium price for what is only a marginal increase in performance, but buy the cheapest and you may find it struggles to satisfy the demands of the latest software.

As a general rule, the best-value processors run a couple of notches slower than the fastest chips, which in current terms means buying a Pentium 4 running at 2.8GHz or an AMD Athlon XP 2800+ offering broadly equivalent performance. Don’t buy a processor slower than two-thirds of the speed of the top-of-the-range CPU, nor be tempted to buy an Intel Celeron or AMD Duron as these CPUs have a severe restriction in there processing power - you’ll be looking to upgrade in a very short period of time instead of the more usual 2-3 years.

When comparing Intel’s Pentium 4 and AMD’s Athlon XP processors always remember that Athlons work faster than Pentiums of the same GHz rating, which is why AMD designates its chips with numbers like 2800+ to make the comparison easier. Simply move the decimal point three places to the left to get a GHz equivalent.

Intel is about to adopt a similar policy of naming its new processors according to performance rather than rated speed, which will simplify things still further when trying to compare.

When picking a processor the choice is not just between Pentium 4 and Athlon XP. There’s also an advanced Pentium 4 Extreme Edition, and AMD offers a choice of two 64-bit processors designated the Athlon 64 and the Athlon 64FX. Standard Pentiums and Athlons are 32-bit processors, so doubling the rate at which they can shift data sounds like a great idea in principle, but until there’s a 64-bit version of Windows on the market that can take advantage of all this high-speed data, the benefits of 64-bit computing will largely remain untapped. A new 64-bit version of Windows is on the cards for next year or the year after … or a year after that … so buying a 64-bit processor now may future-proof your investment. Bear in mind though, that by the time the operating system is ready, processor speed will inevitably moved on and today’s fast chip will seem rather second rate.

Memory

There are three factors when considering memory … Type, Speed & Quantity. The best type is DDR, which stands for Double Data Rate, so no prizes for guessing why this is a must. The maximum possible speed of the memory is determined by the Motherboard, to which it and the processor are attached, and the rule is to buy the fastest memory the motherboard and CPU can support. For DDR memory this is 400Mhz (Megahertz) … usually referred to as PC3200 … and the slowest is 200MHz (PC2100). Insure at least 512Mb (Megabytes) is offered so as to give your programs and applications enough elbow room, or one can double this to 1Gb (Gigabytes) if you can afford it. If you can’t, and it’s not essential, it can be added later if needed, but check that there’s a spare socket on the motherboard. There nearly always is, unless buying and ultra-compact system.

Note:
Some Pentium-based systems can use a different sort of high performance memory called RAMBUS or RD-RAM. It’s a lot more expensive than DDR memory but it offers no major benefits and is not worth paying extra for.

Hard Drives

Memory is just a temporary workspace and it clears itself every time you turn off your system. So to store things permanently, you need a Hard Disk, and the bigger the better. Typical sizes range from 40Gb (small by today’s standards) to 250Gb (phew, that big) and beyond.

If you intend to store your entire collection of music and digital pictures on the hard disk of your computer and indulge in some video editing as well, buy the biggest drive you can afford and certainly no less than 160Gb. For general use regard 80Gb as a minimum even if you’re a “Gamer” this will meet your requirements. Speed is important too, but you don’t need to compare performance statistics; simply insist on a 7200rpm (revolutions per minute) instead of the less efficient 5400rpm. It’s a certainty that if the “system builder” has fitted a 7200rpm disk, the fact will be quoted. If in doubt, ask.

Graphics Cards and Monitors

The “graphics system”, consisting of Video Card and a Monitor, can easily account for half the cost of the New PC and it’s an area where one can save some money by not paying for features not needed. If, however, your passion is fast, live-action games, then a powerful graphics card, such as the ATI Radeon 9800 or nVidia GeForce 6800 with 256Mb of memory is the way to go. To run standard Windows programs and multimedia applications, a lesser ATI or nVidia card at a fraction of the price will do just as well … just look for AGP 8x and 128 of DDR memory.

Probably the worst mistake you can make when buying a PC is to choose one with the graphics card built onto the motherboard instead of supplied on a card, especially if it “borrows” its working memory from the main memory of the PC. If in doubt, ask.

Now, even the best graphics card in the world is totally worthless without something to connect it to. Enter the Monitor. Flat-screen TFT (LCD) monitors are currently all-the-rage and there’s no disputing they look cool, save space and are easy on the eye … in every sense. Choose a 15” screen if on a budget and a 17” if not. Beyond this prices escalate faster than council tax bills for every extra inch.

Conventional CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors are much cheaper, and they actually deliver better performance for fast-moving games and video, though the undistorted true-right-to-the-edge of geometry of TFT screens is superior for most other purposes. You must also bear in mind when making comparisons that the quoted sizes of a CRT monitor overestimates its visible dimensions. The edges of the glass tubes are obscured by the plastic surround, so a 19” CRT monitor may offer only 18” of viewable screen area. All monitors are usually measured on the diagonal. TFT / LCD … confusion? See Here for a better explanation.

Supporting Components

There are a wide variety of supporting components in every PC, but none are as critical to performance as those already mentioned. The most important of the remainder is a “recordable optical drive” for installing software, storing large files and making back-ups.

The best solution is a dual-format, 8-speed DVD drive, able to use, DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW disks. These are also capable of playing and recording CDs. A cheaper but less useful alternative is what’s sometimes called a “combo drive”, which is a CD R/RW recorder with DVD playback capabilities (DVD/CDRW).

Unless you want to use headphones all the time, speakers are a necessity. You can use anything from two desktop speakers to a “surround-sound” home theatre system, although whether these are driven by an onboard audio chip or a separate sound card depends on your personal needs. Onboard audio is adequate for everyday use but if you need digital input/output sockets and advanced recording features, or if you intend to use voice-recognition software, you’ll need to invest in a more advanced plug-in sound card.

For internet access you’ll need either an internal/external dial-up modem for connection to an ordinary telephone line, or a ADSL/network card if you’re going to connect to a broadband service. The use of a USB device to connect to broadband is not recommended, as they are often unstable and more troublesome.

At least 4 and preferably 6 x USB2 (universal serial bus) ports are essential for connecting external accessories such as printers, scanners and cameras, and if a couple of these ports are on the front of the case it will save you a lot of fumbling around the back of the PC in the future. Most digital video cameras download their movies to a PC via a “FireWire” port, so check there is one if you need it, whilst analogue camcorders require a “video capture card” (or a capture facility built into the graphics card). For digital still cameras, a multi-format “memory card reader” saves connecting the camera itself and running down the batteries. A memory card reader is also handy for other devices that use a memory card.

Conclusion

At the current time (July 2004), a good "all-round" PC with long-term staying power would read something like this …

2.8 GHz CPU
1Gb DDR Memory
160Gig Hard Drive 7200rpm

These essential components can be adjusted up or down to suit your pocket, and graphics and sound systems should be considered according to the way you intend to use the PC.

If you’re buying on a tight budget, go for a mid-ranged graphics and a large CRT monitor rather than an onboard graphics controller coupled with a so-so 15” TFT display. A multi-format DVD recorder will be a great asset, as will the widest range of input and output options. After all, you never know how you’ll be using your PC at this time next year.

Extra! Extra!

If you're buying a computer system from scratch you may be tempted by some of the “special offer” package deals on offer, where you get a PC, printer, scanner and even a digital camera and £1500 of software thrown in for what seems like very little extra.

Without saying there aren’t any “good deals” out there, but if you end up with a printer whose ink costs more than a new printer and a cheap camera with a plastic lens then you’ll soon be ditching them for something better. Always research any peripheral package deal before buying.

The best advice is to check that any “deal” contains branded products you can read reviews of on the internet, and that you don’t pay for anything you’re never going to use. £1500 of software is no good to you if you don’t even get a “proper copy” of Windows (the actual CD, rather than a restore disk or copy on the hard drive).

A printer is essential, even in these days of almost universal email, but lots of people can get by without a scanner. A WI-FI network card will be handy if you’re thinking of setting up a wireless home network, and splashing out on a wireless keyboard and mouse will clear your desktop of cable clutter and even let you compute from an armchair if you can see your monitor from there.

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