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Buying a Home Computer
This is meant to be a how-to on buying a desktop, notebook or laptop computer for your home, and its' intention is to help you decide exactly what you need before you go and get baffled by the massive range of parts available and salespeople looking to earn better commisions.

The considerations for business computers are similar, however the backup requirements of a business usually dictate a custom planned solution rather than "buy it from a guide" computers.

Important considerations are your budget, the planned life of the unit and intended use.

I do not recommend anyone buy a preassembled brand name desktop computer. Typically they use budget components and are not easily upgraded. Price wise, if you shop around you can have a custom PC built with quality components and often for less money.

For laptops and notebooks, the brands I would choose from are Acer, BenQ (also by Acer) Toshiba, IBM and Asus. I certainly have come across many cases of poor performance, short working life and horrific after sales support from Dell, HP/Compaq and Alienware (now owned by Dell) laptops and notebooks.

These statements are based on facts from my experiences and not simply my opinion of those brands.

So what are the components I need to think about for my Desktop computer?

The case
You can spend $80 to $400 on the case for your new computer. The old beige box is long dead, colour has come to the PC and you can get fancy led displays that dance around and blah blah blah blah blah. Looks pretty but adds zero function. ThermalTake and Coolermaster both make stylish cases packed with functionality. A good quality mid range case will have easy USB, firewire and speaker port access at the rear, but also ancillary ports at the front or on top of the case. Perfect for plugging in your iPod, digicam and flash drives for example. For around $180 you can buy a case like the ThermalTake Soprano that offers excellent airflow to keep things cool and nifty drive mounts that mean you will never need a screwdriver to swap a drive again.
I was so impressed by this case I bought one for my new PC and another for our home theatre triple channel digital video recorder.

The motherboard
The MoBo (mother board) is the mounting point for all the hardware except for the drives, which also plug into the motherboard via their cables.
There is a dazzling variety of these things available, but I give you only 2 tips in buying your mother board.
  • Avoid boards with "onboard" video and sound. They are not easily upgraded later on, and some have very limited options if you needed to. Keep in mind this means you need to buy at least a video card, and a sound card if you need it. The memory they need to run is shared with the main memory of your computer as well, so if you only have 256Mb of memory and the video card needs 128Mb to run, you are going to have very disappointing performance from the remaining memory. Onboard networking is not such an issue, most of the boards will have gigabyte ethernet capability and you can use these with older and slower routers and so on without issue.
  • This is the component upon which all others are dependent to communicate. You don't need to buy the most expensive, but stay away from the cheaper end and you will be happy for many years to come.


  • My prefered brands are Gigabyte and Asus.

    Budget CPUs
    The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the work centre of any computer.

    Intel vs AMD will be the first choice you need to make. For the budget concsious the offerings from both AMD and Intel with their respective Sempron and Celeron CPUs are attractive as they are both cheap. Unless you spend hours gaming with the latest release games, or do a substantial amount of video editing or video rendering, both of these will serve you well.

    I have a long held preference for AMD CPUs, based purely on the fact I have several AMD based computers in the office that run 24/7/365, the eldest now over 5 years old.

    Having said that I made the switch to the Intel core2duo for my latest office machine, and I am completely happy with the choice I made. It runs very quick when multitasking, and it also runs cool (around 40C) which means lesser cooling requirements and that reduces fan noise.

    Mid price CPUs
    Intel and AMD currently have their respective Pentium and XP range of chips that provide remarkable performance even against the latest gaming releases. Great value for money and certainly worth considering as a purchase if you are planning on keeping your computer for only 1 to 2 years.

    Topshelf CPUs
    Intel and AMD are currently switching their production to dual core 64 bit CPUs. The processing capacity of these CPUs is enormous, however the software that can make the most of that enormous potential is yet to be written, tested and bug proofed. You may have heard of Windows Vista, which is the 64 bit next generation operating system. The beta period of this operating system has been so long you could jokingly suggest it will be outdated before it even gets released.

    If you can afford one of these latest generation chips, buy it. The wait for software that can utilise it will be worth it when it gets here.

    RAM
    RAM is the random access memory that your computer uses to store temporary information while it is working on the applications you are running. The more of this you have in your computer, the more enhanced the processing power.

    I only buy "generic" RAM and have yet to be let down by it, despite the claims of many that you need to buy premium name brand RAM. Most generic RAM these days is made by Samsung or Hyundai. 2 Gb is pretty much a minimum requirement if you want smooth operation. Windows Vista is rumored to need at least 2 Gb to function efficiently.

    Hard Disk Drive
    HDD is the hard disk drive, which is where your computer stores all the programs and information it needs to perfrom the tasks you bought it for.

    Storage is an important consideration for your new computer. The images from a common 8 Megapixel camera are about 2.5 to 3 Mb in size, giving you a storage capacity of 330 to 400 per gigabyte of disk space. MP3s of reasonable quality will give you around 160 per gigabyte of disk space. I have some 800 gigabytes of storage in my main computer, and yes, I could do with even more!.

    Serial ATA (SATA) is the new connection standard for harddrives and this has lead to remarkable increases in the speed of data transfer.

    I have a preference for Western Digital and Seagate hard disk drives

    Floppy disk drive
    FDD is the floppy disk drive and is almost an obsolete component in new computers.

    As good as obsolete, don't bother considering one unless you have some floppy discs you absolutely must have access to. Better to spend the money on a small USB drive, which not only is smaller and easier to carry than floppy discs, but is far less likely to suffer read failures.

    Video Cards
    The Video card is responsible for producing the images you see on the screen. If you are a gamer then the DDR memory as quoted on the flashy box should be a minimum of 256 Mb (megabytes) and preferably 512Mb if you can stretch the budget.

    Sound Cards
    The sound card reproduces sound stored on your computer. It is possible to buy sound cards that can rival expensive home cinema components for sound quality and clarity.

    DVD Burners
    DL DVD/CD burner is the hardware that allows you to "burn" data to DVD and CD disks. DL (Dual layer) means it can store almost twice the information, (8.5 Gb as compared to 4.7Gb for a single layer burner).

    Monitors
    CRT (old style TV) and LCD are your choices, but I'm not sure they even make the old style "TV" monitors anymore. In LCDs, look for response times of 4ms or lower, high contrast ratios and wide viewing angles. For old school shoppers, a 17" LCD has the same viewing area as a 19" CRT monitor. Ask the salesperson to unpack and switch on the actual monitor you intend to buy so you can check for dead pixels. Rare these days, but some still get through quality checks.

    So what are the components I need to think about for my Notebook/Laptop computer?

    The motherboard
    Laptops and Notebooks are not as readily configurable as desktops sytems. Almost all of the components you choose will be "onboard" and not readily changed.

    CPUs
    AMD and Intel CPUs can be built into laptops and notebooks. They also have power saving CPUs known as their "mobile solutions". AMDs is the Turion, Intel have the Centrino CPUs and these would be my choice for a new laptop or notebook.

    RAM
    As with the desktops, the more RAM you have the better your laptop or notebook will perform. RAM is expensive for these computers.

    Hard Disk Drive
    If your laptop or notebook is the only computer you are going to own, spend money on the largest hard drive you can buy. If you are going to use it as part of a home network, storage may not be as important.

    Floppy disk drive
    Can't remeber the last time I saw a FDD in a laptop or notebook. Really not necessary.

    Video Cards
    Unless you plan on gaming or doing a lot of video work on your laptop or notebook, video card choice is not critical. Many have onboard video.

    Sound Cards
    Most laptops have onboard sound.

    DVD Burners
    If you plan on using your notebook to save photos while you are away on holidays, which is what I do with mine, consider a DVD burner. During extended holidays you can simply burn your photos to DVD and mail them back home if you need more storage, and I do the same thing incase my laptop is stolen so memories of our trip are preserved.

    Monitor/Screen
    Wide screen means a larger and more comfortable keyboard. In my opinion Acer/BenQ make the nicest viewing screens of all the laptop manufacturers. Look for a screen with some sort of glare reduction, high contrast ratios, and check the screen of the one you buy for dead pixels before you pay for it.

    Batteries
    The single largest complaint you will hear from laptop or notebook owners is the battery life of their machines. If you have the option to upgrade the battery to more cells or a longer life battery, do it. You might also want to consider getting a car charger to increase your functionality on the road, since then you can give the kids a decent sized screen to watch their favorite DVD on.

    Those of you who have had me visit to fix a problem for you will have noticed my laptop of choice is an Acer. The one before my current laptop was also an Acer. So was the one I bought wayback in 1998, which is still used regularly by my wife. My experience with Acer products has always been positive. While they may not be as cheap as some of the brand name laptops you see advertised on TV or bundled with your newspaper, you are in my opinion buying a quality product.