Computers for Beginners/Buying A Computer

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Selecting Basics

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When you choose a computer, it is suggested to think about what you want to do with it. If all you plan to do is surf the web, send a few e-mails and perform basic business tasks, any new computer you find for sale will work well. Currently available computers have more than enough processing power for the tasks most people use. The more expensive models provide extra performance or software that you may or may not use. You can save a bundle by buying a refurbished or used computer from a big company or from a small, local reseller. Most people spend more than they need.

What you need to get is determined by what you plan to do with your computer. If you don't plan to play high end games, you don't need a $500 video card, a $1000 top of the line processor, and a $400 solid state drive. If you are typing letters to your grandkids there is no way you can type faster than even the slowest new computers. Consider what you plan to do, how much you want to spend and choose your computer from there.

There are a few choices you have to make, as described below:

Desktop v. Laptop

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It comes down to a choice between size and price. Desktop computers (those which must remain stationary while in use) offer better value for money. They are usually cheaper and faster than laptops. Laptops, on the other hand, are easy to carry from place to place and can be set-up on any table or your lap.

Laptops offer mobility and are somewhat easier to start using since the set up process is typically limited to a single power cable compared to any number of cables required on a desktop. Of course once a desktop is set up, you typically do not need to mess with cabling again, while laptop owners must consistently keep track of a charging cable or dock.

If mobility is a must, or in other words you would like to be able to take your computer for serious use with you anywhere you go, consider spending extra to get a laptop. Consider if you would use your laptop for things you already can do on your smartphone if you have one. An important factor to consider with laptops is that, due to their mobility, you are more likely to put them in areas where they could be accidentally fall down or otherwise break - laptops are much harder to repair than desktops.

If you just plan to use your computer at your desk at home, save a few bucks and get a desktop. For computer gaming, desktops are generally considered greatly superior, as laptops manufacturers are forced to cram lots of hardware into a small chassis. Most laptops are oriented for business use.

The term "Netbook" refers to an increasingly common subgroup of laptops, small-sized devices which are approximately the size of a small book and so highly portable and easy to carry, able to connect to a network and make use of the Internet. In general, they are significantly less powerful than most computers, CPU wise even the average normal size laptop.

For an idea of how big the difference typically is, a laptop will generally cost 20-30% more than a comparable desktop.

Essentials and Extras

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If you are buying a desktop, the desktop may come as a complete system, including a keyboard, mouse, and screen. In this case you do not need to make an additional purchase, aside from perhaps some AA batteries if the mouse and keyboard are wireless. However some desktops are sold as the computer only, and you will not be able to use them without buying a keyboard, mouse, and screen separately.

Laptops nearly universally include a screen, keyboard, speakers, and touchpad (Mouse). Some will go farther and include a microphone and webcam.

Some items are nice to have, but not required for the computer to operate. These include printers, scanners, and speakers. Items such as these are almost never sold in the same box as the computer. There are general office supplies you may wish to consider as well, such as a surge protector to plug everything into and a mousepad.


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If you are a first time computer user, it is worth considering if your purchase includes technical support, installation, or other benefits. Most computers by major manufacturers do come with a basic warranty and phone tech support included, so consider purchasing additional service only if you need additional assistance in person. Remember that many libraries and non profits have staff help with computer literacy.

Some salespeople can be very pushy, though some are genuinely helpful and will correctly point out missing required accessories. If you are unsure which applies in your case, consider asking a local techie for help.

Selecting Specs

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Though not strictly needed, knowledge of computer specifications (specs) can help you make a more informed purchase.

Storage Drives

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Storage drives are like big filing cabinets for your computer. Although they are all the same physical size (except in desktop v. laptop comparison), hard drives come in different capacities. When it comes to hard drives, bigger is better, within reason. Photos and videos often take up a large part of the space on our hard drives. You can always add an external drive or use cloud storage if you run out of space.

Most computers use solid state drives (Commonly abbreviated as SSD), though some computers use higher capacity but slower hard disk drives (Commonly abbreviated as HDD). Both are fine choices for beginners, though if all else is equal you should go with a solid state drive for their increased speed and reliability.

CPU (Processor)

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The processor is the brains of the computer; it does all the calculating. Simply put, faster is better. However, faster is generally more expensive, produces more heat and uses more energy. Unless you plan on playing the latest games, or doing a lot of video editing, buy a middle of the pack processor. You can save some money by going with a slower processor, or spend a few extra for a little more speed. This book recommends that you stay away from the very high end as you spend a lot more money for only a small increase in performance. For instance, it is possible to buy a processor which adds $1,000 to the price of the chip for only about a 10% speed increase - Not worth it for the average or even most enthusiast users.

There are two main CPU manufacturers, Intel and AMD. Competition keeps them fairly evenly matched. Intel offers the high-end Core i7's and the low-end Core i3's processors while AMD has the high-end and mid-range Ryzen, and the low-range Athlon, respectively. The low-end processors (i3 and Athlon) tend to are still perfectly adequate for most basic computer use.

RAM (Memory)

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RAM (Random Access Memory), is memory that is not on your hard drive that your computer uses to store things you have not saved, such as a web page, a document that you are typing, or as data from an application. RAM is much faster than a storage drive. As with most things computer-related, more is better. This book suggests getting a minimum of 4GB (gigabyte) - 8GB (gigabyte) of RAM. If you have a little extra money, you may want to go with 8GB or 16GB. Unless you are going to be doing lots of video editing, anything over that is a little excessive.

In any case, the amount of memory you will need will be dictated by the applications you will be using. For example, games or graphics-heavy applications such as Adobe Photoshop will demand considerably more RAM than text-based software such as email programs and word processors.

Operating System

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Without instructions, a computer will do nothing. An Operating System is like a manager for your computer. You tell it what to do, and it in turn tells the computer components what to do. That way you only have to learn one general interface to make the most of your computer.

Fortunately most computers are shipped with an operating system ready to go. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you can generally ignore the specifics of this point. Just confirm with the salesperson that the operating system is the latest version available and you'll be set.

If you want to dig in deeper to decide which operating system is best for you, that's great! Microsoft Windows is a very common operating system, often seen both at home and in the office. Although Windows is the most popular operating system, this does not necessarily make it the best. One may also consider an Apple Macintosh system, which places focus on a better user interface, or Linux, which intends to be more free and privacy focused. As always, one should take a look at all available options, and choose the most useful interface.

Virus Protection

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If you are new to using computers, virus protection is recommended. Most of them are paid products that require a subscription such as Norton or McAfee, but there are free products or with free personal licenses (non-commercial uses) like AVG, Malwarebytes or Avast!. Linux and Mac have not received too many recent viruses being small segments of the market (a smaller target), but it is still possible for them to be infected if you ignore their built in safety systems.

You, Yourself must be very careful on what you download. Until you become more technically savvy, you should avoid installing any program not from an official app store without a technically minded friend to guide you. The authors of malware prey on those without experience, as well as those who let their guard down. Be cautious and skeptical of things you find on the internet - bad malware can lock your computer up and demand a ransom, or worse.

Video Card

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Computers aren't very useful if you can't see anything, unless you build a server or other form of distributed workstation. A video card allows the computer to 'talk to' the monitor.

  • If you only want to surf the web, write documents, send and receive email, then "integrated graphics" are fine and cost much less. Most low-end computers come with what is known as integrated graphics—very basic graphics built right into the motherboard, suitable for business applications.
  • If you plan to do serious gaming , you need a graphics card. There are two main companies who produce graphics card chipsets: AMD and Nvidia. Both make good graphics cards in all price and performance ranges and you should do more research before choosing a specific card. Basically, the more expensive cards allow you to play fancier games. Video cards have their own onboard RAM and have their own processor known as a Graphics Processing Unit (or GPU).


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See also How To Assemble A Desktop PC

Building a computer is not as difficult as it sounds. It is not recommended for absolute beginners, but if you have toyed with computers for some time, it might be a good idea, especially if you plan on playing games. It can save you a bundle on hardware. There is a separate WikiBook on this, as well as some other resources online.