How to choose a new computer

Topic difficulty: Beginner

A bad new computer deal

Looks like a good deal huh? For goodness sake, its even TURBO!

A friend of mine came to me the other day with newspaper advert similar to the one above.  It caught her attention and she wanted to make sure it was a "good deal".  Didn't take me long to say "definitely not!" and I asked if she knew what all the items on the list meant.  "Nope and don't care! Just know not to buy now".  Deary me.  I began imagining the disaster of a purchase she would have made if I wasn't there to save the day.

I'm assuming since you've continued reading that you have a little more interest in figuring this out for yourself.  You'd like to have the basic knowledge to make an informed decision right?  After all, not everyone has a resident computer know-it-all to make them for you!

What's in the name?

First of all, forget descriptions like "ROCKET PC", "Turbo Computer", "Inspiration 1000" and the like. They're all buzz product names created by computer bundle companies and rarely indicate the true value and capability of the computer you're buying.  What you want to know are the hardware and software set up.

What are hardware and software?

Computers require two things to work:

  • Hardware - all the physical parts that make your computer, and
  • Software - the programs and applications you install that tells your hardware what to do.  Without software, hardware is just plastic, wires and chips.

Software and hardware are constantly being improved by getting getting faster, smarter and more capable.  As hardware evolves, new software is made to complement its functionality.  As software becomes more advanced, better hardware is needed to run the it efficiently.  Older hardware is usually less capable of running the most up to date software.  Very old software may be incompatible with newer hardware.  Its a vicious cycle.

Where is software stored?

All of your software and files are stored in your hard disk.  The bigger your hard disk, the more software you can install and files you can save.  More on hard disks later.

What is an operating system?

The most important bit of software that you will ever run on your computer is the operating system.  It creates the environment you work on such as the buttons, windows, mouse cursors, the desktop, icons and task bar.  Most computers run an operating system called Windows (others include Mac OS X and Linux and they all do a similar job).  Software such as the games you play, the word processor program you use to write letters with and photo editing programs are all run inside the operating system.  The operating system is also the "middle man" that gives your programs a way to "talk" to the hardware.  Without the operating system, your computer wouldn't know what to display on the screen, what to print or what sounds to produce.

At the time of writing, the two most used computer operating systems are Windows and Mac OS X.  The latest version of Windows is 7 and for the Mac OS X it is 10.6.  It is generally a good idea to have the latest operating system version for reasons of as security and an enhanced experience.  Having the latest version of an operating system usually means requiring the newer hardware, although this isn't always the case.

How do they all fit?

Your computer hardware, operating system, and software work together to make your experience a productive one.  I could talk all day about how components relate to each other, but a picture is worth a thousand words.  Below is a basic diagram illustrating these relationships.  The green boxes represent hardware.  The orange box is the operating system.  The grey squares are the software installed in the operating system.

How computer hardware and software are connected

AS you can see, all your programs including the operating system are stored in the hard disk.  When you're writing a letterr using your favourite word processor (such as Microsoft Word), it asks the operating system to display it on the screen and to print it when you click on the print button.

Your computer's "power" is determined by factors like the CPU speed and how much memory you have.  If you have a slow or old CPU or very little memory, you may find the operating system and programs are less responsive or may even crash.

Below are some brief explanations of what some of these components do and how it affects the performance of your computer:

  • CPU - this is like your computer's motor. Its muscle. The faster your CPU, the faster your computer can run the hardware and software inside it.  CPU speed is usually measured in GHz.  Nowadays, a speed of 2Ghz is pretty good.  CPUs also come in "family names" that determine its generation.  Older generations are slower and less efficient at doing work.  The "Pentium" generation has already been discontinued.  "Celeron" are a budget family of CPUs but can struggle to perform media like tasks like creating a DVD or editing photos.  "Core 2 Duo", "Core i7", "Xeon" and "Atom" are modern CPUs that can better handle modern computing tasks.  To check where a CPU is in the "family tree" check out the List of Intel CPUs.
  • Hard Disk - (sometimes HDD) is the place where all your files and software are stored.  Storage space is measured in bytes.  Think of a hard disk as a filing cabinet.  The bigger it is, the more programs you can install and the more music, documents, photos and other files you can store inside it.  A 160Gb hard disk (about 160 billion bytes) would become full fairly quickly.  Modern operating systems may consume tens of Gb and media files can take up a large portion of this space.
  • Memory - is the "working space" of your computer.  It is also measured in bytes and is probably the most important component because affects how efficiently your computer works.  Think of memory as desk space. If you had a very small desk with many tasks to do, you'd find it hard to get organised and work efficiently.  You'd need to put some of your paperwork on the floor and see less of your work at the same time.  No matter how fast you may be at doing work, your the desk clutter will slow you down.  With a large desk, you could keep all your piles of work on the same level and have a better view of what you're doing.  Your efficiency would increase and get your work done faster.

    Memory is just the same.  No matter how fast the CPU is, if you have a small amount of memory your computer will waste a lot of CPU time moving tasks in and out of this little space before it completed a task.  Have you ever experienced a moment when your computer "thinks" for a bit too long?  It is often because your computer doesn't have enough memory!

I've placed these three important components in a table with respective analogies to further clarify their importance:

Component
Measurement
You want at least
Analogy
Measurement
CPU
Ghz
2Ghz Core 2 Duo
Car's motor
Horse power
Hard disk
Gb
200Gb
Filing cabinet
Maximum number of files
Memory
Gb
1Gb
(about 1000Mb)
Desk space
cm square

Google is your friend!

If in doubt, there's nothing like searching for reviews online.  Searching for things like "Core 2 Duo review" brings up many links with reviews on that CPU type.  Read the reviews and learn from other people's experiences and opinions.  You may even get an indication of what price you'd expect to pay if you're just looking to buy peripherals like a DVD player, printer or computer screen.

Other stuff

Sometimes adverts miss out describing components that are important to consider.  Here are a few:

  • USB ports - USB ports are the rectangular holes (about 4mm x 15mm) where you connect peripherals like your mouse, keyboard and USB keys.  Think about how many things will be connecting to your computer. Generally you'd want 3 or more USB ports.
  • Graphics cards - Graphics cards are circuit boards that are essentially a mini computer with its own CPU and memory.  It is usually attached to the motherboard (the large rectangular circuit board inside your computer where all the internal components are connected to) and entirely dedicated to processing the graphics.  The reason they exist is to take some of the hard work away from the main CPU to do other tasks.  If you're thinking of playing games with lots of 3D graphics, you want to make sure you get a quality graphics card.  There are too many types out there to recommend here, but you usually get what you pay for.  Remember Google?  Now is the time to do your research!
  • Screens/Displays - This is an important purchase because it is the object you spend most of your time looking at.  It is important that you buy a computer monitor that doesn't strain your eyes and is big enough for you to work with comfortably.  Screens usually hold their value for longer so you'd want to buy the sharpest and biggest you can afford.  There is really no excuse not to get a flat screen LCD monitor (as opposed to a CRT).  They're reasonably priced, consume less electricity and take up less space on your desk.  Again, Google is a great place to read reviews of what's out there.
  • CD/DVD - It is difficult to make a bad decision here, but make sure you get one with the ability to read and write CDs and DVDs.  You might need to back up large amounts of data in the future or have a burning desire to make a home DVD movie of your child's first birthday :)
  • Case - This is the box that encloses the main computer.  It often includes the fan and AC/DC power converter.  Although the most obvious thing to think of is whether the box looks nice enough to earn a space in your office, you'd want to check if the fan system is quiet and fast enough to push that hot hair out.  Google again!

Back to the advert

Now you should have some basic knowledge of how to tackle the above advert.  Let's look at why this product is such a bad deal.

  • FALL TURBO PC - This is just a buzz product name.  There is no such thing as a "Turbo PC". Be wary if the product is a season special.  Remember, you get what you pay for, even during the holidays!
  • INTEL CELERON 430 1.8Ghz - We already know that Celeron is a family of computers for budget PCs and can struggle with media tasks such as processing photos and creating home videos.  We also know that anything less than 2Ghz isn't very fast.  Upon a quick Google search, you'll learn this is outdated hardware and doesn't deserve the "TURBO" description at all!
  • 512Mb Memory - Wow 512! Wait a minute, that's 512 Mega bytes, which is really 0.5Gb.  That's half of the recommended 1Gb minimum.  512Mb of memory would slow the whole computer down.
  • G31 Motherboard - Okay, we didn't really cover motherboards.  I said before that this is the flat circuit board where the computer chips, CPU, RAM, hard disks, etc are connected to.  It doesn't hurt to Google the type described here, but generally, it isn't important information unless you're interested in higher level specifications.
  • DVD writer - that's one tick!  No information about its brand though.
  • ZIXA Black RTX CASE - Sounds amazing, but you really want to know more about the cooling system.  Google time...
  • Windows 7 Starter - This is the latest version of Windows which is great because this means you'll get the latest software technology. Or will you? Upon reading information about different Windows 7 editions, Windows Starter is a stripped down variation of the operating system designed less capable systems.  This means a lot of features are missing compared with its regular version, which may be misleading.  On top of that, if you check its minimum system requirements, it recommends at least 1Gb of RAM, which is not what you get with this system.

Overall, this package is an obvious attempt at putting together a very cheap configuration by pushing an operating system to its limit of minimum requirements.  It is a glorified paperweight at best.

Where to from here?

"You get what you pay for" is almost always true in the world of computing. If a deal seems too good, you can almost always be that it is. Adverts are designed to attract you with buzz words that may in fact mean very little in terms of computer power and capability.  Computer companies do this in the hope that you don't understand the jargon.  The best way to go about hunting for a new computer is to do your homework and find what you need first.  Never feel pressured to buy on a rush.  There are some great websites out there that both guide you in the latest hardware/software and provide reviews.  My favourites are PC World and Cnet.

I hope this article gives you a little more confidence in filtering out which computer deals are good and which are less than desirable.  If you have any questions please feel free to comment below, and I will try my best to either amend this post and/or reply.

In the meantime, happy computer hunting!

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