Computers for Beginners/Buying A Computer

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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 write someone a letter, 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. In fact, even computers as old as five years may be more than adequate for your needs. You can save a bundle by buying a refurbished or used computer from a big company (like Dell or HP) or from a small, local reseller (like Computer Renaissance -- a franchise/chain). 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 hard 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. Don't be the guy who bought a performance computer and 24" LCD screen when he just wanted to play games!

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

Desktop v. Laptop[edit]

It comes down to a choice between size and price. Desktop computers (those with a tower case and a separate monitor) 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 (although lap use tends to be discouraged by manufacturers due to heat issues, and most have gone so far as to discourage the use of the term "laptop", preferring "notebook" instead).

If mobility is a must, or in other words you would like to be able to take your computer with you anywhere you go, spend the extra to get a laptop. An important factor to consider with laptops is that, due to their compact design, they are also more prone to hardware failure, making an extended warranty a must. 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.

Optical Drives[edit]

Almost all computers come with some sort of Compact Disc drive. With a standard CD drive you can play music CDs and install software stored on CDs.

For a little extra you can get a drive that will play both CDs and DVDs. That means you can watch movies on your computer. The next step after that is what is called a recordable CD (CD-R). This allows you to be able to record your own Compact Discs. You can create music CDs or save data to a disc for safe keeping. Some CD-R can also play DVDs and are called combo drives.

The top of the line are DVD recorders (DVD-R, DVD+R or DVD-/+R). They can create both read and write CDs and DVDs. Most home DVD players will play DVDs that you create on your computer. There are two types of DVD recorders: the +R and the -R. Try to get a recorder that works with both formats. If one will fit into your budget, get a DVD recorder.

Currently, a new type of optical disk, the Blu-ray disk, has been released as the successor to double-layered/doubled sided DVD's. At 50GB storage, it is approximately 3 times as large as the largest DVD. However, Blu-ray disks are expensive, but the price of them has fallen down recently. They are generally used to watch High-Definition Movies (or HD movies) and to store large files.

Hard Drives[edit]

Hard 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. As of early 2010 the bottom end is about a 160Gb (gigabytes*). This would allow you to install quite a few programs and still have room left for your data. An upgrade to a 500Gb or 1Tb (Tb = Terabyte) is a good idea, to give yourself that little bit extra room. Photos and videos often take up a large part of the space on our hard drives. If you plan to do heavy video editing, have thousands of photos or play several commercial games at the same time, you might want to consider drives larger than 1 TB. If you start to run out of space you can always add a second hard drive later. Remember, there's no sense in buying a 1Tb hard drive if you only surf the Net.

As of 2010, a new category of Hard Drives has appeared. They make use of flash memory, a non-moving component, to store information. It's like a filing cabinet, but it doesn't open or close. Since there are no moving parts, reading from and writing to the disk is now much faster. There are Solid state drives, SSD, that do the same thing as the magnetic hard drives. These are more expensive than the traditional drives. However they are much faster and should last much longer, as there are no moving parts. There are also thumb drives aka flash drives that plug into a USB socket. These are generally smaller in capacity, cheaper but less reliable.

When sorting through HD controllers, SATA150 is better than IDE, SATA 300 is twice as good as SATA150. IDE are moving towards legacy and SCSI controllers are rarely found on consumer grade hardware.

CPU (Processor)[edit]

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, the highest-end processor in the Core i7 line, labeled the "Extreme Edition" (EE), will add approximatively $1,000 to the price of the chip for only about a 10% speed increase.

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 Phenon II lines, and the mid-range and low-range 64-bit Athlon 64, respectively. The low-end processors (i3 and Athlon 64) tend to offer 75% of the performance of their big brothers, at about 50% of the price - although this varies between applications.

RAM (Memory)[edit]

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 a application. RAM is much faster than a hard drive - every letter you type would take about a second if you used just the hard drive. As with most things computer-related, more is better. This book suggests getting a minimum of 1GB (gigabyte) - 2GB (gigabyte) of RAM. If you have a little extra money, you may want to go with 4GB or 6GB. 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[edit]

An Operating System is a software that interacts with the applications and peripherals. It is the choice of the user which operating system they wish to install. Operating systems fall under various categories-- i.e., some are designed to act as server and some as client, or server operating system, which serves many individual computers (client), and Client operating system, which serves the client itself, i.e., your individual computer. An operating system, in layman's terms, can be defined as a software designed to enable interaction between the hardware and the user. With the help of the operating system, you can install various need-specific applications and control the peripherals, such as printers, modem, speakers and removable drives. In short, a new computer is a bare hardware device, incapable of any operation; it needs an operating system that interacts between the user and the hardware to bring desired results to perform various tasks.

The operating system is likely the most essential part of a computer. An operating system is what connects the computer to the applications, or programs the user wishes to use, software speaking.

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 compact and reliable. As always, one is advised to take a look at all available options, and choose the most useful interface.

Virus Protection[edit]

If you are using Windows, 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) and due to those operative system offering a higher degree of protection against virus. You, Yourself must be very careful on what you download. Try to find history or proof on anything you download to assure yourself that it isn't a virus. Sometimes they will pop up as cool looking games that have to be downloaded. These viruses are very dangerous. Some watch your every move and others can burn out your entire computer.

Video card[edit]

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 plan to do any 3D gaming whatsoever, you need a graphics card. There are two main companies who produce graphics card chipsets: ATI 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). Sometimes, you will find PCs with dual graphics. This gives the user 2x the power of one card. It will cost more, as having a 2 card configuration requires a dedicated motherboard.
  • 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.

Also keep in mind that graphics processing requires memory. Memory can be available from any single source on your PC.

  • a video card as described here, that has its own on-board memory
  • video chip(s) embedded on the motherboard that have memory
  • video chip(s) that need to share the RAM described above

Most desktop and notebook computers have only one memory source for processing graphics.


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.