Home Computer Buying Guide
By David Cloyd
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
Prior to Buying
Every tool is designed for a specific function. Hammers were made to drive nails and shovels were made to dig holes. Computers are tools designed to transmit or store information and then do something with that information. The something is what needs to be considered when purchasing or designing a new home computer. When buying a new computer the intended use should be determined well before visiting a store or browsing an online merchant. The single most important question to consider when buying a computer is not how much you have to spend, or who manufactures it, but what you intend to do with it. Once this question is answered you can then determine what hardware and software will be necessary to accomplish your goals.
Some people struggle when trying to answer this question. To help determine the primary intended purpose ask yourself what you spend the most time doing while on the computer and what you would like to do but cannot because of your current limitations. If 90% of your time is spent reading emails, using social network sites, or browsing online merchants and 10% is spent watching movies then you will want to invest in a particular category of computer (probably a laptop, netbook, or tablet). If you would like to replace your media center (TV, DVD, etc) and use your computer to watch movies or TV then a different system will need to be purchased.
Individual hardware Components
Buying a new computer can be a daunting task especially if you are unfamiliar with the individual components which comprise a computer. The following is a list of common components and their function within the computer. These hardware components also influence the price of the computers hardware more than any other components in a pre-built system.
CPU (Central Processing Unit)
Processes instructions from software and does something based upon those instructions. The faster the CPU the more instructions can be processed during a fixed time period. CPU quantity is measured by the number of CPUs available (both physical chips and “cores”). The speed a CPU can process instructions is measured in Gigahertz (GHz)
Example of a common specification:
Intel 3.2GHz dual Core CPU
Translates in to:
Processor made by Intel, which has two “cores” which run at 3.2GHz each. Effectively giving you two 3.2GHz processors.
RAM (Random Access Memory)
Used to store instructions used by the CPU. RAM is the area which the CPU can store instructions and perform calculations. Think of a black board which can be used to perform math problems. The more area for the CPU to do calculations the faster a computer can perform. This is what people refer to when they mention “computer memory”. RAM quantity is specified in Gigabytes, the speed in which information can move in and out of RAM is measured in Megahertz.
Example of a common specification:
CORSAIR XMS 8GB (2 x 4GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800)
Translates in to:
Two 4 Gigabyte RAM components made by Corsair which uses the DDR3 chipset and form running at 1600MHz.
The hard disk is the component which actually stores all of your data. Photos, emails, documents and music are examples of files which might be on your hard drive. The hard drive is also where your operating system resides. Hard drive capacity is measured in Gigabytes and the speed of the drive is measured in RPM (Rotations per minute)
WD Caviar Blue 1 TB 7200 SATA
Translates in to:
Drive made by Western Digital which has 1 Terabyte capacity, runs at 7200 RPMs and uses SATA as the interface.
Many people are confused as to exactly how much “stuff” a hard drive can hold. As an example, a 1TB drive can store approx. 200,000 photos or 76 hours of video or 250,000 songs. Hard drives are routinely oversold by computer manufactures for this very reason. Many people end up using less than half of the storage space on a drive. It is one area that can be bought small and increased relatively cheaply later on.
There are many other components which together make up a computer, however, the CPU, RAM and hard disks will determine the cost of your computer’s hardware more than any other single item.
Types of Software
A computer is only a useful tool if we can do something useful with it. Software is created to allow us to do something with the hardware. The something is why people use and buy computers at all. Hardware as interesting as it might look is not useful to us if it cannot run the software we need. Software can be grouped into two broad categories, Operating systems and Applications.
Operating systems manage and control the computers resources and make them available to applications. Every computer has an operating system. The most common operating system on home computers is a version of Windows by Microsoft. Microsoft’s current version is Windows 10, previous versions which are still in use include Windows Vista and Windows XP and Windows 7. Other operating system include Apple’s OS X and Linux.
Applications are the programs which we use to make the computer do something. All applications have “minimum system requirements” these requirements are the bare essentials which the computer must possess in order to simply run the software. Running software at the minimum requirement will generally cause frustration with the application and the computer as a whole. Minimum system requirements can include hardware and software qualifications such as hard disk space, CPU speed, RAM quantity and operating system type. Always, always, always, check minimum system requirements prior to purchasing software as most retailers will not accept opened software for return (unless there is some type of physical defect with the software)
Common types of applications include
MS Money (legacy)
Small Business Management
There is an application for almost every conceivable use of a computer, chances are if you are looking for an application to solve a type of problem someone has created it.
Putting it all together
Now that you have an understanding of the components which make up a computer you can match those to your primary use of the computer. Choose the applications you wish to use, determine the system requirements for those applications and purchase a system which meets at least the minimum requirements.
The cost of a home computer will be determined by the software which comes with it and hardware which is used to support the software. In budget systems retailers will usually supply the operating system, a basic office suite and basic security software. The hardware will be either older technology (6 to 12 months old) or newer technology manufactured by an “off brand” manufacture and offer a low amount of upgradeability.
These systems are usually chosen by people who are looking for primary uses such as email, online shopping and simple home finance. People with primary uses such as home business management, online communications (Skype, iChat) and some form of media usage (listening to music, watching movies, etc)will choose systems with a faster CPU, more RAM, greater hard disk space and more upgradeability than what budget systems provide. Home computers which are built for intensive gaming, heavy media usage, in depth small business management or an eye towards the greatest return on investment will use the newest and fastest hardware thereby increasing their cost.
A final point to consider when purchasing a new home computer is that of durability. Most hardware warranties are for a single year yet many people use a home computer between 3 and 5 years before purchasing a new system. Extended warranties can sometimes be a good investment depending upon what the warranty covers, the cost of the warranty, the availability of quality computer support in your area and your budget.
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