Looking at buying a new computer?
The good news is that today’s systems are cheaper and more powerful than ever. On the other hand, the playing field has got rather wide. To make the right choice, it’s a good thing to sit down and consider what it is that you plan to use the computer for.
Just as most people don’t need a Porsche or a Hummer, they might need something more than a Smart car. Absolutely, there are still ultra-powerful gaming computers that cost several thousand dollars to be had, but there are also ultra-cheap systems you can have for only a few hundred dollars.
The rest of the crop fall between these two extremes. So which is right for you?
Let’s break down the parts of a computer that you’ll have to choose from to see what fits your needs. Here we’ll focus on the parts that make the biggest differences in performance. Nearly every computer comes with decent 5.1 audio, and a Dual-Layer DVD burner, so we’ll leave those out. Our main focus will be the Processor, the RAM, the video card, and the hard drive. These parts will either make or break your computer experience.
The processor is often the part people talk most often about, but which is right for you? The processor is the brains of the operation. All the data that goes though your system goes through the core of your processor. Many newer models have more than one core on a single chip, acting like a second brain. The faster a processor runs, and the more cores it has, the faster it will perform. But the faster they are, the more expensive they become. A low-cost Celeron is the cheapest processor, and while very fast by the standards of just a few years ago, it struggles with the games and video editing programs of today.
- A low-cost processor is fine for web surfing, email, word processing, and DVD viewing. Examples: Intel Celeron, or AMD Sempron
- A mid-range processor is good at everything mentioned above, as well as gaming with two-year-old titles, and light photo/video editing. Examples: Intel Core 2 Duo, and an AMD Athlon X2
- A high-end processor is made for only the most extreme and well-funded user. A single high-end processor can cost $1,000 all by itself. These are best for people who wish to play today’s latest games, or do really heavy video editing. These are really meant for those who have the need to justify the cost. Examples: Intel Core 2 Quad, and the AMD Phenom
RAM is where your computer stores the information it’s currently working on. How much RAM your computer has is like how much food you on your plate. The bigger the plate, the less often you need to go to the pantry, or - in your computer’s case - the hard drive. Fewer trips to the hard drive means that your processor can keep working away without stopping. With RAM, more is always better. Most systems built today use DDR2 RAM, but a few high end systems are using DDR3 RAM. With Windows XP systems 512MB is just fine. But 512MB is not enough for Windows Vista, which needs at least 1024MB (or 1 GB). Like the processor, different steps in performance grant you similar gains in ability.
- For a low-cost XP computer, 512MB is fine, but for a low-cost Vista system, 1GB is the minimum. You can do e-mails, web browsing and DVD playback here.
- For a medium-cost system, 1GB is the sweet spot for an XP system, while Vista will run well with 1.5GB. For both XP and Vista, you can play older games and do small video edits.
- A high-end system will have anything above what was previously listed. Some high-end users have systems with 4GB of RAM. But for what they do with their systems, this is needed.
This card has one purpose in life; and that is taking the data on your computer, and turning it into images on your screen. The cheapest of the cheap have the video bits integrated into the computer itself. Midrange and higher end systems have separate cards that are replaceable. Again, you get what you pay for here, and the main use for a high-end video card is 3D gaming. One thing to bear in mind is that while they are referred to as video cards, they actually have no real impact on video editing. nVidia and ATI rule the roost in the mid- to high-end, but Intel actually dominates the lower end of the market.
- A low-end system often has Intel Extreme Graphics chips built right into the system. Regardless to what the name implies, there is nothing ‘extreme’ about this chip. It’s great for e-mail, browsing, DVD viewing and perhaps some light 3D gaming, but forget about playing any games made within the last two years.
- Mid-range systems often get a separate card installed in one of the PCI express slots. These are often good enough for decent gaming, but make sure that your Intel or AMD processor and RAM are at the same level, or else you’ll be playing a slide show instead of a game. Good examples are an ATI Radeon X1600 or the nVidia GeForce 7600 series cards.
- High-end video cards are expensive and powerful. These are almost exclusively used by gamers who want to squeeze every last bit of detail from the latest games. Paired with a high-end processor and lots of RAM they can produce movie quality graphics at 30 frames per second. But if gaming isn’t your thing, these cards are overkill. The best of the best are the Radeon HD 2900 series cards, and the nVidia 9 series, like the GeForce 8800 Ultra.
Your hard drive, as stated earlier, is like your computer’s pantry. It’s where all the data is stored until the processor needs it. ‘The-bigger-the-better’ also applies here. Hard drive prices are actually fairly flat, so a really big drive isn’t a great deal more expensive than a smaller drive. The old adage applies here, ‘It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it’.
- A low-cost system can have 80GB and be OK for the basic user, but be aware that it can fill up really fast.
- A medium-cost computer should have at least a 200GB hard drive for storing all the music games and movies that it can handle.
- For a high-end system, size isn’t the only factor, but also how fast the drive spins. High-end computers have drives that spin at 10,000 RPM. A faster spinning drive means that the data comes off it faster as well. High-end computers often have a high-speed, but smaller 150GB drive, as well as slower, but larger 1TB (1000Gb) drives. For the ultimate user, saved seconds are worth the cost.
Using these suggestions, you can build the best system for what you need. Just remember that this is an investment not just for today, but into the near future, too. A good deal today might not be so good in two years if it’s too slow by then. Buy what you can afford, but with help, you can make every penny count.