NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2008
Whatís a Good Computer to Buy?
Some Tips by Doug Fairchild, Director, Exton PC Council, PA
dbfair(at)verizon.net (click to email author)

Obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups.

As a person who is active with a computer userís group and who has had formal training in Windows 2000 and Windows XP, Iím often asked ďwhat computer should I get?Ē

This is an age old question in terms of computer technology time. Almost any professional that provides unbiased advise will tell you that it is not an easy answer. The first question that comes to mind is, what do you intend to do with it?

Many persons, who are not involved with whatís current, do not really know just whatís encompassed with their regular routines. A typical answer is, ďI donít do that much and donít need an elaborate machineĒ.

It seems to me that as technology advances, more and more uses will become commonplace requiring more oomph from the computer being bought today. Therefore, my recommendations focus on a machine that is good enough for now, with specifications that would hopefully add enough to carry over for a little time to come.

Any professional who keeps up with technical publications can tell you that ratings change faster than the weather. Also, new machines and technology keep changing.

So howís a person to choose?

Typically, in the past, the common time frame was to hope for a machine that would last 5 years before being outdated. Today, the best equation I can offer is that itís like buying a new car. How much can you live with, before getting something that has great new features?

With that being said, letís look at the core components of a computer with what, in my opinion would be the minimum for a Windows machine to last for a little while. These choices are based on using equipment with name brand components and include web sites where applicable for further research of these products. I strongly recommend that if you are considering an alternate to name brands, you research that brand.

Some comments about Apple computers follow after the discussion on recommendations for Windows machines.

OPERATING SYSTEM Ė Windows XP (any version) Ė Windows VISTA (Home Premium or better) Since the release of VISTA, many computers are still being offered with Windows XP. VISTA Home basic is considered by most professional reviewers as less desirable than any version of Windows XP. While there has been a lot of VISTA bashing, some of the derogatory statements are not true. For clarification and a better understanding of problems related to VISTA see: http://blogs.zdnet.com/Ou/?p=785

It is definitely true that some peripherals like various printers and some other devices do not work with VISTA. However, it needs to be said that at some point, progress needs to preclude older technology. For example, how many people can work on their automobiles like they used to. It takes much more sophisticated and expensive equipment. To see what devices will be affected by VISTA, download and run upgrade advisor. Even though you are not upgrading but considering a new computer this will let you know what devices will be affected by VISTA. http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/windowsvista/buyorupgrade/upgradeadvisor.mspx

CPU - Processor - Intelģ Coreô2 Duo or AMD equivalent. http://www.intel.com/ - http://www.amd.com/us-en/

RAM (base memory) Ė Window XP -1GB (or more Ė consider 2GB) Ė Vista -2GB(or more) The type and specifics will be controlled by the computer model you select. One consideration is to allow for expansion at a later date. Check to see if there are open slots to add additional memory. It can be worthwhile and can save in the long run to pay a little more upfront by having the memory configured to allow for this upgrade. While Windows Vista states 1GB as minimum, you probably will want 2GB.

VRAM - Video Ram (Memory on your graphics card) Ė 256MB (or more) This is frequently ignored by inexperienced shoppers, but can make a world of difference on the performance of a PC. For a detailed explanation see http://searchstorage.techtarget.com/sDefinition/0,,sid5_gci213325,00.html A few popular graphic card manufacturers: http://ati.amd.com/products/index.html http://pny.com/ http://nvidia.com/

Hard Drive Ė 100GB (or more) Most new hard drives use a newer type of interface referred to as SATA (Serial ATA). Look for this specification unless you have an older hard drive you wish to use in your new computer (which is more likely a PATA (Parallel ATA)). One of the newest technologies is a FLASH Hard Drive. Currently this is primarily for notebooks (laptops). It has some definite advantages but also some drawbacks. Itís expensive and has limited capacity. It may be the upcoming future of Hard Drives. See http://www.pcworld.com/article/id,126833/article.html for a PC World review.

A couple of popular hard drive manufacturers: http://seagate.com/ (note that Maxtor has been acquired by Seagate Technology) http://westerndigital.com/

POWER SUPPLY Ė Varies with the devices built into the computer. If you believe that you may be adding internal devices, consider a computer with a power supply that has more capacity than needed for preconfigured devices. This can be a little complicated, but should be an answerable question to the person selling the computer (get someone who has technical awareness). For an explanation of the power supply see: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/power-supply.htm

There is also an excellent video at this site to gain a basic understanding of the core components.

MOTHERBOARD Ė Normally this will be controlled by the computer model you select unless you are purchasing with the option to customize. Being aware and specifying the other core components listed, the motherboard should be suitable and not normally something you choose independently. If you are buying a desktop, you may want to inquire about available PCI slots or other expansion capabilities. In the past, this has afforded the ability to economically install hardware upgrades which may keep your machine current for a longer period of time. Laptops do not, as a rule, offer the same capability to expand and upgrade other than memory and optical drives.

OPTICAL DRIVE AND OTHER PERIPHIALS Ė There are many choices and most computers today offer a DVD drive with read/write (this is the ability to play and create DVD and CD disks). Ask what it has and what it will do Ė also compared to other options. Notes on Apple Computers - While I do not have firsthand knowledge about Mac (by Apple) computers, the reviews and information Iíve seen tends to make me believe that the new Macís are superior to many other brands of PCís. I would emphasize new versus computers manufactured prior to 2007. One of the indicators that this is true, is the fact that while sales of other PC manufactures are falling, Macís have realized an increase in sales. They are, however, more expensive.

If I had the money I would look seriously at a new Mac with the idea of loading Windows as a second OS (operating system). Mac has a feature called Boot Camp which accommodates adding other OSís. Boot Camp is software included with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard that lets you run compatible versions of Microsoft Windows on an Intel-based Mac. While they do not offer technical support for other OSís, Macís will run multiple OSís (including VISTA) as well as other PC OS. You, of course, have to own or buy the additional OSís to be installed. See: http://www.apple.com/

Notes on Linux OS Ė Again, I do not have firsthand knowledge about Linux OSís. However, Iíve been led to believe that they make a lot fewer demands on the computer. From what Iíve heard, you probably in most cases do not need a new computer to install and run. For more information see http://www.linux.org/

This article has been provided to APCUG by the author solely for publication by APCUG member groups. All other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

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