Knowing what to look for when buying a computer can be confusing. In this section of my site I try to make it a little easier by offering a few suggestions.
A Desktop or Laptop?
If you want to save space, you may consider purchasing a laptop. Over the years, laptops have pretty much caught up with desktops in terms of features and performance, coming with several USB ports and Firewire for attaching external devices, dual core processors and large hard drives just to name a few. There are also cheaper notebooks for basic tasks. See the page on laptops. However, should you decide on a PC, keep reading below.
Brand Name or Custom-Built:
There are advantages to purchasing both brand name and custom-built systems. A brand name computer may just be the perfect fit for someone on a budget or the non tech-savvy. Many are reasonably priced. Just keep in mind that to keep those prices affordable, they often use cheaper parts. They come with the operating system and other software already installed and usually have a 1 year warranty.
Custom-built machines offer more flexibility. You are in complete control from the size and style of the case to the number of drives, the type of operating system, and the quality of the parts. You can choose what other software you want installed, and you have the option of building a system that's upgradeable.
Pre-Built (non Brand Name):
Although you're not hand picking the parts, pre-built systems come with a wide selection of features. Most online stores list all the specs, so you still need some tech knowledge to decide. They, too, come with the operating system installed and allow you to upgrade depending on what you buy.
Whether buying a name brand, custom-built, or pre-built before opening your purse or wallet, the first thing to consider is, "What are my needs?" What do I want to use my computer for? Let's look at some.
Surfin' the net/Checking Email/Basic Word Processing:
If this is all you ever plan on doing, a powerful machine with a fancy motherboard or graphics isn't necessary. Very good computers are available from $300-$500 that come with an AMD or Intel CPU, sufficient hard drive space (100-160 GB, sometimes more), 1 or more GB of memory, nice graphics, and a good sound card. In addition to new systems, many discounted computers fit this category. Multimedia/Multitasking: To do a whole lot with multimedia, such as burning CDs/DVDs, storing music, videos, and photos, or running multiple CPU and memory intense applications at the same time I would suggest a PC with:
At least a 2.0+ GHZ AMD or Intel dual core CPU
At least 2-4 GB of memory
At least a 200-320 GB hard drive. If storing lots of videos I would say start with a 500 GB. At some point you may even consider buying an external hard drive for extra storage. Western Digital, Seagate, and Maxtor are three of the main hard drive manufacturers.
If you're going to listen to music or watch videos on your PC, good sound and video quality are important. Some of the cheapest sound cards support surround sound, and many PCs come with built-in surround sound. But if you're not interested in surround sound, a 2.1 speaker system still provides good quality audio. A 2.1 setup requires two regular desktop speakers and a subwoofer for bass.
If you do decide on surround sound, of course you will have to buy the appropriate speakers. However, if buying several speakers is not in your budget, there are sound cards by Creative Labs with X-Fi technology that provide virtual surround sound with only two speakers.
For video, a PC with either ATI Radeon or NVIDIA graphics technology with a DVI, S-Video, or an HDMI port. Some come with all three. You can also buy a graphics card with these ports.
If you strictly want a PC for media purposes only, you may think about a HTPC (Home Theater PC). HTPCs are regular PCs but are specifically built for the multi-media environemnt. The cases are designed to look like your entertainment system devices. But other differences include significant noise reduction (you don't want to hear fans and drives roaring when watching a show), ports to connect other devices such as iPods, and media software you may not find on the average PC such as Theatertek and Beyond TV to name a few. Some have a LCD display for movie or audio info.
Gaming - For gaming you want a PC equipped with at least a 2.5 - 3.0 GHz dual or quad core processor, an SLI or Crossfire video card, 4 to 12 GB of memory, and 1 GB of video memory. Most top-notch gaming systems run anywhere from around $700 to over $1000.
When looking for a computer, you might consider an all in one PC. Rather than having a case, all in one PCs consist only of a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. All the ports, memory, drives-anything that goes in a typical computer case, is built into the monitor, and eliminates the need for a monitor cable and display power cable.
Low-end systems (around $450 - $600) are not extremely powerful machines. Most use the Intel Atom CPU which runs at about 1.6 or 1.66 Ghz, support 1-2 GB of memory, have hard drive capacities from around 160 - 250 GB with 5400 RPM speed, and nice monitor size (around 18"). High-end machines come with dual core CPUs, large hard drives with 7200 RPM speeds, usually support up to 4GB of memory, have screen sizes from around 19 to 25 inches, Hi-Definition audio, and good graphics. Some support 64-bit operating systems. Both cheap and expensive systems possess other features such as multiple USB ports, memory card readers, wireless networking, & optical drive. Many now have touchscreens.
A primary disadvantage is that on many systems upgrading is not an option.
So, who would want to purchase an all-in-one-PC? If saving space is the goal, why not just buy a laptop? Well, the main consideration may come down to portability. Many people buy a laptop because they can take them anywhere. If you want to save space but don't have a need to carry your computer around, then an all-in-one-PC just might suit your needs.
Looking for discount pcs or laptops? If so, buying a refurbished system is a good way to save some money. When you hear the word refurbished, the first thing that probably comes to your mind is junk, but that's not the case. They are usually new computers (or other products) that have been sent back for some reason and can no longer be sold as new again, so the price is reduced. For example, the case may be scratched, there could have been some damage during shipping, a defect in a part such as the hard drive or DVD drive. Or in some instances a product may be overstocked, and the price lowered to get rid of it. Many come with warranties.
Some of these systems are often better than brand new machines because they go through extensive testing before being reshipped.
So don't let the term refurbished scare you away. You might miss out on a top-notch computer at a bargain price!!!
After becoming familiar with all the components in a computer and your knowledge and confidence grow, you might at some point get the courage to want to build your own. If so, purchasing a barebone PC is a great way to save money. A barebone system is a partly assembled or unassembled computer and comes with the essential parts - usually the motherboard, memory, case, power supply, and CPU (sometimes you have to buy the processor fan). Some come with DVD drives and you have to buy the operating system, but it's still a good deal because you're not paying to have it built for you. And many of these systems are under $400.00. So you save costs while at the same time learn how to build your own PC.