Buying a Computer
Buying a computer is a technical matter as much as buying a car. You
have to decide what you want the car to do, how much you have to
spend, and what features you require. The computer is the same way.
Unlike cars, computer technology doubles in speed every 18 months
(Moore's Law). The average computer, if it is used much, lasts 3-5
years before it becomes more cost-efficient to replace it rather than
to repair it if it breaks or has simply become near-obsolete. Because
the technology changes so quickly, it is not my advice to buy an
terribly expensive computer. In a few months that computer will be on
the shelves for half the price it was originally and you won't be
able to sell yours for that amount. So, for the cost-conscious
shopper I suggest looking at the top-of-the-line models, then
stepping back and looking at what used to be the top-of-the-line
models six months ago and ask, “is it worth the price
difference?” Having said that, it is also worth noting that
prices are coming down all the time, and that there are places to buy
used and refurbished computers that may suit your need. If you have a
technically oriented person in the family, you can even build one
from parts you bought off the shelf or off the Internet.
One of the more expensive elements of a computer is the computer's
silicon chip. The chip may be one of three major types: Pentium,
Celeron, or Athalon. These chips are made by two major manufacturers:
Intel and AMD (Advanced Micro Devices).
Pentium chips are manufactured by Intel and are usually the more expensive but they
also “do” more than some of the others chips. Intel also
makes the Celeron chip, which is a slightly less functional chip in
some regards than the Pentium chip. This, however, is not a problem
unless you want to do some very, very technical work that requires
the advanced functions of a Pentium chip, such as using a CAD program
that requires the advanced math micro-processing features. If you
don't know what CAD is, then you don't need the Pentium. The
Pentium chip is an industry standard and occasionally you find
software or hardware that does not function quite right with other
chips, but those experiences are fewer and fewer so don't let that
scare you into paying extra for a Pentium. One way to think about it
is that Pentium chips are the “do everything” chips and
Celeron chips are the “do 99% of everything” chips.
Unless you need the 1%, don't worry about it. The pre-built computer
you buy at the store has been designed for the chip that it has so it
will work just fine.
AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) is Intel's chief competitor. Their
products are virtually the same in function to the Intel chips, but
usually cost a little less.
As to what chip is the “fastest”, well that depends. Yes,
you can determine which chip is fastest, but depending upon how the
computer system is designed, a faster chip may not be faster once it
is in the computer! There simply is no easy way to determine which
computer design is fastest so I urge you to simply go by the numbers
on the computer. They will likely be close enough to reality that it
RAM (Random Access Memory)
This is the memory that is active only while the computer is on.
Simply put, the more the merrier! I urge you to buy as much as you
feel you can afford. RAM is an important part of making a computer
“fast” in real use. One of the two complaints I hear most
is that “my computer is so slow.” It will be faster,
especially when running games and working with picture editing, if
you have lots of RAM.
Video Card Memory
In addition to RAM, you will have a
video card in your computer. These cards come with memory on them and
some you can add memory to. Again, I strongly urge you to get a very
large video card. This will make things like games run so much better
than they otherwise might. As games become more and more
sophisticated and realistic looking, they take up more and more
memory. A slow game is no fun to play. This will also help in
handling other video-demanding operations, such as scanning and
editing pictures. Bigger is better and the more the merrier. You will
likely keep your computer longer and be happier if you have lots of
RAM and a big Video Card.
Hard Disk Capacity
Hard disks are where your data is
stored. Most computers come with only one, but you can easily and
cheaply add a second one or replace the first one if it gets too
small. Prices on these have plummeted over the years so they are a
bargain even coming off the shelf at a local retail outlet. You can
order even cheaper ones over the Internet. If you plan to download or
copy a lot of music, pictures, or load lots of games, then disk size
probably will not be a problem for you. Most computers come with 40
gigabytes of disk space or more these days.
With the availability of Digital
connections and Cable connections to the Internet, it may seem
strange that most people still use a comparatively slow dial-up
connection to surf the net. The reason for this is simply “need.”
Digital and Cable connections cost more than dial-up access and most
people don't want to spend the money for something they don't use
that much. Dial-up is available for $10 per month and more companies
keep getting into the action. Recently Walmart and Netscape have both
started offering $9.95 connections and there are oodles of lesser or
unknown companies that do the same. See my notes above on finding and
ISP. So, unless you are going to network your computer or need some
other special connection, what comes with the computer will likely be
sufficient. You can always upgrade if you change your mind.
Monitors have come down in price
drastically from a few years ago. The reason is that newer and more
expensive monitors are being developed. The large, bulky monitors are
now very cheap while the slim, flat-panel displays are expensive. The
flat-panels are very good but the LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) still
don't function quite as well as the old bulky ones for certain tasks,
like very close-up editing of pictures. For everything else the
difference is negligible. Cost will determine which you decide to
buy. If I had the money, I would get a flat-panel simply because it
takes up less room. Laptops come with flat-panel LCD screens and they
do everything I want them to do, even when editing pictures.
Every computer today comes with a CD
player and now they come with CD/DVD players. Usually the player will
also write CDs, but check to make sure. You can get players that
write DVDs, too, but expect to pay more for that. Unless you just
want to copy your DVDs, or need it to back up your disk, I would not
stress out over a DVD writer. They are simply more money than they
are probably worth for the average person.
Your computer will come with some
pre-installed software. The software will be of two basic types:
fully functional and trialware. Trialware is only good for a limited
time, unless you buy it. Usually the time limit is 30 days.
Alternately, the program may work but only have limited features
until you buy it. My laptop came with a version of Quicken which is
free, but I cannot install my old Quicken data, I can only create a
new database for my banking records! I thought that was rather
It is almost expected that a computer
will come with some fully functioning software programs, such as a
word-processor, a spreadsheet program, an Internet browser, and
e-mail reader at the very least. What you don't realize is that when
you buy your computer, you are paying for all such software,
including the operating system, which is likely Windows XP at this
time. Accordingly, Microsoft has started putting a lite version of
its famous Microsoft Office Suite onto computers. This is known as
Microsoft Works. It is a scaled down version of Word, Excel, and
Powerpoint. If you are accustomed to using these products then you
will be dissatisfied with Works. So, if you buy a cheaper computer
but still have to spend a couple of hundred dollars to get the
software you want, the computer is probably not cheaper for you.
You can copy, cut, paste, and undo with
a few simple keystrokes left over from the days of DOS.
When you select your text, to copy use
Ctrl+C, to cut use Ctrl+X, to paste use Ctrl+V, to undo what you just
did, use Ctrl+Z.
To more quickly
move from one word to another, hold down the Ctrl key and hit the
right or left arrow key to move either right or left. To go from one
paragraph to another, hold down the Ctrl key and hit the up or down
arrow key to go to the previous or next paragraph.
To select text in a document most people us their mouse, but there is
another way. By holding down the Shift key and then using one of the
arrow keys to go up, down, right, or left you will be able to select
text from the point where your cursor rests. You can combine it with
the Ctrl key and select whole words or paragraphs at a time.