There are many methods people use in deciding what computer to buy. True Geeks (my comrades), pour over specifications for mother boards, hard drives, video cards, LCD monitors, and other hardware bits for many hours. Once this research is complete, the Geek now with furrowed brow, blood shot eyes, and a malnourished body has decided either to buy a computer, or assemble one from parts. Our Geek knows the pieces and how each should function, working together in a Gestalt form of cyber-harmony. Then, of course, there is everyone else (the Technologically Challenged). For these folks, advertising has done its job, and brand preference and cost are deciding factors. In comparison, the Geek knows what he wants (and from enthusiasm with technology, he is likely to purchase or build a machine that has more than he needs, – I am truly guilty of this). On the other hand, the Technologically Challenged, after seeing streams of advertising, trusts that the brand he purchases will meet his needs.
I used two extremes to make my comparison. In the “real world”, if one plotted and graphed all the types and variables of computer buyers, a “bell shaped” curve would no doubt emerge, with Geeks counting for 10% on one end of the curve, the Technologically Challenged, would make up 10% of the buyers on the other end of the curve, with the remaining buyer-types in the middle. I took the extreme view to make a point: Both approaches, from the most knowledgeable, to those with the least amount of knowledge on the subject, are wrong. From this one might conclude that if the wrong decisions are made initially about buying a computer, other decisions along the way in the process might also be faulty as well.
When it comes to technology, we Geeks have questionable judgement, as it is hard to find a balance between logic and enthusiasm. It is for “everyone else” that this article is written. There will be minimal discussions of specifications and numbers, and a whole lot of common-computer sense. Let’s get going. Here are 5 tips for buying a new computer:
Tip 1. Ask Yourself The BIG Question
The Big Question is the reason the buying processes in the example above would likely end in some degree of buyer’s remorse for both the Geek and the Technologically Challenged. That question is: How will I use my new computer? Ultimately, how you will use your computer should become a part of almost every computer and computer peripheral buying decision. That being said, let’s create some loose guidelines:
- Light Use = Internet, email, some writing, video streaming, a little gaming
- Moderate Use = All the above plus: blogs, video editing, photo editing, video editing, audio editing, papers, books, business applications, gaming, a need for document storage, fast processor(s)
- Heavy Use = All the above plus: heavy gaming, professional photo editing, professional video editing, professional audio editing, lots of document storage,
For Light Use, a tablet computer should fill the bill…..something like an iPad or Samsung Galaxy tablet will do just fine. If this is your solution, your quest for a computer is over. Go forth and prosper.
In Moderate Use, a desktop computer or a laptop will likely work well for you. The choice of either is your personal preference. Today’s laptops (excluding the anemic “net books”) can be very powerful machines. They provide mobility. Even if you don’t travel the country, you can take the laptop with you to any room in the house. The tradeoff for the laptop comes from the reduction in size to make the machine mobile. Monitors larger than 15″ make the device clumsy. As well, monitors 15″ or less lack some of the ease of visibility that comes with the larger desktop monitors. One could rattle off more Pro’s and Con’s for each, but at the end of the analysis, the result will still end up being your personal taste.
A computer designed for Heavy Use, will likely be a very robust desktop computer. Four core processors at the minimum, one or two video cards with lots of memory, a load of RAM, and a few terabytes of hard drive or SSID storage, and maybe even a RAID setup. Total Geek-land; Pro stuff.
Tip 2. Memory
The types of memory you need to be concerned about are RAM and Storage. RAM (Random Access Memory) holds code that is loaded into it at startup, and when programs are opened. It has other uses, but basically think of it as a temporary storage device. The computer can use it quicker than reading and writing data to the hard drive. Storage memory is permanent (hopefully). Here, programs and data are recorded in a hard drive, or a solid state drive.
How Much RAM do you need? I see a lot of advertisements from manufacturers and retailers showing computers with 8 gigabytes of RAM. For Moderate Use, you will see very little benefit from going from 4 gigabytes of RAM to 8; however, there is a significant difference in the computer’s performance when you go from 2 gigabytes to 4 gigabytes. To me, the sweet spot is 4 gigabytes. (Learn more about Random Access Memory….click here)
For storage memory, and Moderate Use, a hard drive of 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte should be more than enough. If you plan to use cloud based storage, or you are attaching your computer to a local file server, you could use a 320 gigabyte hard drive.
Cloud storage has some benefits, most importantly, it is reasonably safe, and you usually can access it from anywhere, or from any computer. This might be handy if you travel or wish to share info with family and friends. One downside is that uploading data to the Cloud is very slow. Check out the options and decide if using the Cloud is for you. (Learn more about Hard Drive Storage….click here) (Learn more about Cloud Computing….click here)
Tip 3. Video Memory
Video memory on a graphics card plays an important role in both the clarity and the smoothness of both graphics and video. For Moderate Use, 256 megabytes will work fine. One thing that is important to look at is where the video memory is located. The ideal choice is on a video card; however, some manufactures in order to save both space and money often use some reserved RAM memory as video memory. This later option, gives you less RAM for temporary code and data storage/access, and as result of using RAM for video memory, the overall computer’s performance might be impeded. (Learn more about Graphics Cards and Video Memory….click here)
Tip 4. The Processor
Think of the processor as the computer’s brain. The old adage, “Two Heads Are Better Than One”, holds true here. Multiple processors are not redundant, rather they work together. With today’s operating systems becoming heavily graphic dependent, dual core processors (two processors) are a must, but for Moderate Use, four-core processors are over-kill.
As for processor speed, the usability of the number is questionable, as there are so many other factors (like bus speed, amount of RAM, etc.) that affect how fast data moves, or is perceived to move, within the computer. This little test will give you a feel for how the computer will respond in your home:
In a store, take a look at the sample computers on display. Load an Office Suite, like Microsoft Office, Photoshop, or other large program. If it seems to you that the computer is taking a long time to load the program, then this may not be the computer for you. If the program loads fast, go to the next step, and without closing any programs already loaded, load several other programs. Does this still seem like an excessive amount of time for them to load, or “Wow! That was quick”? The loaded programs are filling up the computers RAM, and challenging the hard drive with a lot of “Read” and a little “Write” access. If after several programs are loaded in succession, and you are comfortable with the speed in which they were loaded, especially the last few programs, then you have a responsive computer.
Specifications can only tell you so much…..to me, “feel” is very important. That being said, for Moderate Use, most computers manufactured within the last few years will have more than enough power and speed to accomplish your tasks. (Learn more about Processors…click here)
Tip 5. The Monitor
Today’s monitors are mostly LCD flat-panels, and most can generate picture quality equal to or better than many high-definition TV sets. Without going into all the technology about how these monitors work, some major variables are the number of pixels (loosely interpreted as the elements that provide a portion of the image and its color) the screen carries, and how the screen is back-lit. High resolution/definition images are dense with pixels, and back lighting improves your ability to see the image on he screen. LCD monitors connect to your computer either through VGA, DVI, or HDMI cables and connections. DVI and HDMI have digital high-resolution capabilities, and VGA is analog, standard definition. You will probably want the DVI or HDMI options.
Once again, when you look at LCD monitors, the specs and performance numbers must take a back seat to how the image on the screen looks to you. You want brightness, vivid colors, and clarity in definition/contrast. Depending on how the LCD Monitor back-lit, and/or the type of screen technology employed, LCD monitors can have a problem in that the picture looks great when you view it straight in front of you, but as you move to the left or right from center (toward the top or bottom as well), the quality of the picture diminishes in clarity and color. This can happen in TVs, desktop monitors, and laptops. “Good” LCD monitors should be visible with clarity and color from most any viewing angle. (Learn more about LCD Monitors and displays…click here)
As we said earlier, for Light Users, a tablet computer is the ticket. Heavy Users want or need all the computing horsepower they can get, and they mostly know what they want. For the Moderate User, a desktop or laptop computer with dual-core processors, 4 gigabytes of RAM, a 500 gigabyte hard drive, and a “good” LCD monitor should get you started in the right direction.
Still confused, or have any questions? Leave me a note, and I’ll answer your questions.