How to Get Your Best Buy in Desktop Computers

Many of you are die-hard Mac lovers and many of you are PC fanatics. For the PC-ers, this is for you. Most PC consumers are under the impression that a desktop computer becomes obsolete after one to two years, but this is far from the truth.

The computer I currently work on (and play high quality games with) is about five years old and will continue to perform for another two. I’ve never had to bring it in to a chain store’s tech squad, either. So how did I buy a winning computer?

Before the basics: a computer budget

Computers are usually over-priced in the chain stores, but even if you get one built, expect to pay about $1200. This may seem like a lot, but think of the benefit in the long run. A decent computer will almost never need to be repaired and you won’t need to trade it in after a couple years. This is five to seven years of no stress!

The basics: computer terminology

The most basic thing you need to be familiar with is computer terminology. It’s important you don’t wholly rely on the sales associates to help you make a final decision. A sales associate’s goal is to sell, not inform. They tend to use terminology able to make a lemon computer sound like lemonade. When customers don’t understand the terminology, they can end up making poor decisions. Here are some hardware and Microsoft Windows terms to be familiar with:

Hardware

  • processor (also called CPU): this is the “brain” of your computer
  • RAM (also called memory): used to perform tasks, such as keeping programs running
  • hard drive: storage space for all files and software
  • video card: the piece of hardware to create what you see on the screen

Another term to always remember: the box that holds all the above hardware is called a computer, not the CPU. I realize before the days of hard drives, the big box was called a CPU, but it’s more than this today. Your CPU is now about the size of a postage stamp, but the large box part holds all of the above. While this fine point in terminology won’t help you pick out a computer, using correct terms will make one appear less vulnerable to sales associates.

Microsoft Windows

  • OS (operating system): the program a computer needs in order to run. The two Microsoft operating systems most commonly available are “Windows XP” and “Windows Vista”

The OS is the program that controls your hardware and runs all your software. Windows XP is the older OS, but it’s far more reliable and requires less out of your computer. It works with newer and older technology. Vista is the newest OS, but it has many glitches and requires updated (and more expensive) hardware.

Computer specs: what to look for

Once the computer terms are clear, they can be used to determine the usefulness of a computer. Below is a basic guide on hardware, but certainly isn’t the end-all manual.

RAM

  • Recommended RAM amount for Windows XP is 1 Gigabyte
  • Recommended RAM amount for Windows Vista is 2 Gigabytes

Technically, Windows XP can run off of as low as 128 Megabytes and Vista can be run off of 1 Gigabyte (or 512 Megabytes for Vista Home Basic), but so much performance is sacrificed that the computer becomes unusable.
I personally recommend at least 2 Gigabytes of RAM across the board. With 2 Gigabytes, XP can be upgraded to Vista and Vista will then have enough RAM.

Processors

  • Good Intel processors: Pentium, Core 2 Duo
  • Failed Intel processors: Celeron (and anything not Pentium or Core 2 Duo)
  • Good AMD processors: anything Athlon
  • Bad AMD processors: Sempron, Duron

Processors are difficult to understand, because AMD and Intel use a set of names and numbers to show the quality of each processor. Unfortunately, the numbers only compare within a brand. This means one can’t compare the numbers of an Intel to an AMD — it’s an apples to oranges comparison. The numbers are a sort of code to tell computer builders the specs of the processor and while this is helpful for gamers, the casual computer purchaser doesn’t need to worry about the processor specs. You’ll be fine, so long as you follow the above chart.

Currently, the Core 2 Duo is generally the stronger processor, though it’s the most expensive chip on the market. AMD has a chip like Intel’s Core 2 Duo (called the Athlon X2), which is cheaper than Intel’s chip and performs slightly worse. I recommend the Intel Core 2 Duo, because your computer won’t become outdated quickly. If your budget is too tight for the previous chips, I recommend an Athlon 64, but be warned: it is already outdated.

Video Cards

  • ATI
  • Nvidia
  • Never buy an Intel video card (in my opinion)! Most people don’t care about their video card, because they think the video card doesn’t impact the usability of the machine. The video card is actually another integral part of your machine. It controls everything you see on the monitor.

A poor video card may cause:

  • movies to become choppy
  • menus and programs to display slowly
  • the monitor to display lines or other strange visual occurrences
  • problems with scrolling a web page

So how does one avoid this? The best advice I have is to never purchase a machine with an Intel video card. I encourage you to spend the extra money on a better and faster card — anything on ATI’s or Nvidia’s product line should suffice.

Wrap up

The best thing to remember is to not make an impulsive purchase. Bring a pen and paper to write down all the computer specs, then research. It would be horrible to confuse Athlon and Celeron processors when you’re shopping — the Athlon gives top performance and the Celeron is a poor processor! A computer is an investment, so take the time to make your investment last.

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