A computer is a very important purchase. It’s an investment of potentially a thousand dollars or more, so you want to make sure you do it right. A computer has many different parts, options and accessories, so two machines are rarely identical. But by following the simple tips in this article, you can feel perfectly confident that the computer you purchase is just right for you.
It’s hard to find a home these days that doesn’t have one or more computers. There are a bewildering number of decisions and hardware options to be made when you purchase a computer. How big should the hard drive be? What size monitor should you get? How much RAM? Should I get a PC off-the-shelf or a custom build? We’ll try to keep it all simple and easy, so you make the right decisions and get the machine that’s perfect for you.
Step 1: Understanding the Parts
Don’t be intimidated by all the terminology that goes into describing a PC and its various hardware components. You only need to know a few key concepts and terms to shop like a computing pro.
Hardware and Software
Put simply, hardware is the physical parts of the computer, the case and everything inside it, monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, etc. Software includes all the programs on your PC or laptop, like the operating system, word processor, web browser, games, and so on.
When shopping for a computer, most of your efforts will be in identifying and acquiring the proper hardware. Hardware is integrated into the system and can be difficult and costly to upgrade or replace.
Getting new software is as simple as buying the software and installing it on your computer, typically by downloading or inserting a disk into your CD disk drive.
You’ll need a good combination of both for your computer to reach its full potential.
The central processing unit (CPU, or more commonly, just “processor”) is the brain of the computer. More than anything, it determines the computing speed of your system. Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), and usually the higher the number the faster your processor.
The hard drive is the bulk storage device of the computer. All your information—files, programs, settings, etc.—reside on the hard drive. Think of it as the giant warehouse where a company stores all its products.
Hard drive capacity is rated in gigabytes (GB), usually in the hundreds. The more GB’s your hard drive has, the more file storage you have. Hard drives are now large enough to store hundreds of thousands, if not millions of files.
RAM (Random Access Memory)
RAM is a storage space independent from the hard drive that keeps track of what you are working on right now. If the hard drive is a warehouse, then RAM is the shipping area where things are packaged up and prepared for shipping.
RAM is measured in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB), with 1 GB being about equal to 1,024 MB. RAM is typically measured in multiples of 1 GB, 2 GB, 4 GB, etc. Like processor speed, RAM helps determine how fast your computer runs.
Unlike the processor, RAM is easily upgraded, meaning that if your computer starts with 4 GB of RAM and you decide later on you’d like 8 GB, it is easily upgraded. This is something you could do yourself.
Many computers today use integrated video which is built directly on the motherboard, (on-board video). This type video adapter is more than adequate for your every-day computing needs. A graphics card can be added if more intense video is required.
Your graphics card, also called a GPU or video card, is hardware specifically designed to render graphics (such as from a video game) or videos for your computer.
Graphics cards also are rated in MB and GB, but the measurements vary significantly across manufacturers; a 1 GB card may be better than a 5 GB card, and two cards are rarely identical. The more graphics-intensive you intend your computer to be, the better the graphics card you’ll need.
The sound card is just what it sounds like—it determines the quality of your PC’s audio output. A good sound card is a must for people who want to use their computer for music, video, or games.
That said, you don’t need to worry too much about the various sound cards when buying a computer. Most are built in and will perform the basic duties of providing the necessary audio output.
Just as important are the speakers for your system, both in terms of quality and positioning.
These days, most computers don’t come with a DVD drive, which can read both DVDs and CDs. While some software still comes packaged on CDs or DVDs, most is down loaded so you might not need a DVD drive. You will need to request a DVD drive when ordering a computer.
If you want to be able to create your own DVDs or CDs, you’ll want a DVD-RW (or CD-RW) drive, where the “RW” stands for “read-write.”
You’ll probably want a few other important pieces of hardware separate from the main computer. Most are a matter of personal preference and need, though a few are required for proper use of your computer.
Required equipment: mouse, keyboard, monitor, speakers.
Any off-the-shelf computer will at least come with this basic equipment, with the possible exception of a monitor, which you may have to buy separately or with an upgrade.
You’ll probably want at least a minimum of 24 inches for your monitor; you can get larger and thinner monitors for more money. Go with what works for you and fits your budget.
Step 2: Determine Your Needs
It should be obvious by now that not all computers are created equal. Which hardware configuration will best meet your computing needs? Something basic, high-end or somewhere in between? Would a laptop be better for you than a PC? There are numerous preliminary issues to clarify before you start shopping.
What kind of software are you going to need? At the very least, you’ll need an operating system (the underlying program that makes your computer work), and you’ll probably want some basic applications for tasks like word processing or desktop publishing.
Desktop vs. Laptop
Will you be wanting a desktop machine, suitable for the home or office, or a laptop, which you can take anywhere? Desktops and laptops share many of the same characteristics and are, after all, both computers, but each also has its advantages and disadvantages:
Easier to upgrade.
Somewhat more powerful overall (though laptops are closing the gap).
Heavy and generally non-portable.
Bigger, requiring space to use properly.
Lighter and more portable.
All-in-one package; you don’t need separate mouse, keyboard, monitor, speakers, etc.
Poor ergonomics; people tend to stoop over their machines and smaller keyboard and monitor can be more difficult to use.
Easily lost or stolen; don’t leave your laptop in your car, even if it’s locked!
Battery life can often be measured in hours, requiring frequent recharges.
Difficult or impossible to upgrade.
May not include CD/DVD drives.
Finally, give a little thought to your computer’s operating system. While whatever OS that comes with your computer will accomplish nearly all of your computing tasks just fine, you might want to spend a little time looking into your options.
If you buy an off-the-shelf PC, you’ll get the current Windows system.
Step 3: Shop Around
Now that you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you want to buy, how should you go about buying it? And, perhaps most importantly, how much are you going to pay for it? Are you going to choose an off -the-shelf unit or a custom build.
Make a list of what you think you’ll need in terms of hardware and a rough idea of what components (like hard drive, processor speed, RAM, etc.) you’d like.
It’s a good idea to set a budget, but keep in mind that prices can vary widely– even on seemingly similar systems or hardware. A general guide is about $500-$800 for a low-end computer, about $800-$1,500 for a midrange computer, and anywhere from $1,500 on up for a high-end computer. This includes the basics, like monitor, mouse, keyboard, and speakers; printers and other accessories may cost extra. As with any shopping experience, watch for sales!
Don’t be shy about asking for advice, especially from computer-savvy friends and family. Store employees can also help, but keep in mind that they’re trying to sell you something; take their advice with a grain of salt. Calling a local computer repair shop can shed light on what brand computers they see most frequently.
Once you know what you want and have a rough idea of your price range, go to a few stores and scan the computer aisles for the best prices. Even if you plan to buy on-line or get a custom build, it’s helpful to browse a physical store to get an idea of what the computers will look like and to see if you can understand their features from the descriptions. Take notes if you have to.
You may decide to choose a custom build PC instead of one from a major manufacturer. Custom build PC’s are generally higher in quality and fairly equal in price.
Step 4: Make the Purchase
Now comes the moment of truth: actually buying the computer. As mentioned before, it’s a big investment, and not one you should make lightly. Take one more look at the budget you set. If you’ve exceeded it by a ridiculous amount, it might be wise to pare back some of your computer’s features.
Don’t buy anything you don’t need. If your computer is part of a package deal, you might be getting hardware and software you don’t need. A custom build PC is designed specifically for your needs without extra software or hardware.
Don’t forget the software! Any computer will come with an operating system, but you’ll probably want more that just that, like a basic office package or games.
After you’ve browsed through multiple stores—both physical and on-line—and know exactly what you want, make that purchase with confidence! Once you get your computer home, follow the instructions
on how to hook everything up, power on, and enjoy your new computer!
An advantage of having a PC custom built is the computer will be brought to you, setup, and any files from your old computer are transferred to your new system.
There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Buying a computer is like making any other major purchase, like a house or a car. If you do your homework, know exactly what you need, and shop around for the best deal, you’ll find that it’s easy to get what you want with a minimum of hassle and confusion.
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