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Beginners' Guide to Buying Computers

Updated on April 12, 2012
GUI (left) is simpler to execute with clicks and words than DOS (right) which operates with strings of commands, making it largely popular with the consumer market.
GUI (left) is simpler to execute with clicks and words than DOS (right) which operates with strings of commands, making it largely popular with the consumer market. | Source

Using a Computer is Simple, Buying a Computer Should be Simple Too

In the age of digital technology, a good 70% - 80% of us would have come across and used a computer in some point of our lives. Perhaps the interest sparked from there, like a schoolkid in the 90's who first touched a box-like computer and accessed internet at dial-up speeds for the first time. Many of us get hooked from there and computers are now a part of most first world countries' daily lives. As I'm typing this, I'm doing it on a computer. And as you're reading this, chances are at least half of you are reading it from a computer too.

A partial reason for the popularity of Macintosh computers have always been their simplicity and ease of use. Back in the days where home users running all versions of DOS (Disk Operating System) you can name, the Apple Lisa started to market a revolutionary change to consumers - GUI (Graphic User Interface). What makes GUI so popular that it is used predominantly today is that it is SIMPLE to use. No more staring at rows and rows of commands and memorizing the prompts. People want to be able to operate a computer without having to learn what's going on inside.

Using a computer is being made simpler every day. Choosing a computer (to purchase) should be made simpler too. Of course you can just blindly pick any computer available on the shelf but we all want to get our money's worth so I am going to try to break it down on the few specifications to look out for:


Things We are Aware Of

The commonly understood component of a computer are these 3 details:

  1. Operating System (OS)
    Most people know that the main OS that is available to the consumer market that is pre-installed are Windows, Mac and Linux (there are several versions including Unix and Ubuntu)
  2. Processor
    Thanks to the extensive marketing and little stickers on the casing of computers and laptops, most of us are very familiar with the brand - Intel. From the days of Intel Pentium, to Core Duos and Quad Cores and now to the three musketeers i3, i5 and i7. AMD processors are not as well known in the consumer market but marketing seems to be picking up in the recent years and awareness for AMD Athlon and Phenom is growing.
  3. HDD (Hard Disk Drive) Storage Space
    The floppy diskette days marked the start of portable information storage that we can bring along with us on the go for use on other computers. With thumbdrives and portable hard drives that increases in storage size and decrease in prices, consumers are getting more educated on the significance of storage size - the higher the number reflected, the more storage and 'better' it is. Storage capacity of 500GB, 640GB, 1TB is commonly found in the market although there are drives with storage up to 3TB available.

the latest from the Intel family are the 'three musketeers i3, i5 and i7.
the latest from the Intel family are the 'three musketeers i3, i5 and i7. | Source

Digging (Slightly) Deeper

Since we have the basic moves and grooves, we can focus on the smaller details of the 3 components above:

  1. OS
    Different OS has different system requirements. Generally, the older or more lightweight an OS, the less system resources it requires or uses up. Windows, for example has 32bit and 64bit versions of their operating systems.

    32bit VS 64bit OS
    A 64bit operating system is capable of handling large amounts (about 4GB and up) of RAM (Random Access Memory - I will talk about this below) more effectively than 32bit systems. Which sounds good in theory if you want to have the possibility to upgrade your RAM in future for better performance. However to do that, your processor must be able to support running of a 64bit OS. 64bit OS does not support 32bit drivers but does support most 32bit programs.
  2. Processor
    Since we've covered the base of what a processor is (basically it 'processes' the information and commands that you type/click by transmitting resources to different parts of the computer to execute the actions), we will move on to the details of a processor.

    Number of Cores
    The newest processors in the market are Duo (2 cores) or Quad (4 cores), there are even several processors that have 6 cores! Generally, the more number of cores, the faster it can process your information (imagine a single lane road and a multi-lane freeway). However, we must also note that with more cores its harder to optimize performance by distributing resources evenly among the cores and sometimes it may actually causes the performance to slow down as different processes are queuing up to use each neighboring process' resources.

    Cache Size
    The cache of a processor stores frequently accessed data (somewhat like your browser history and login information) for faster access to those information. Therefore, the larger the cache size of the processor would mean that it can store more cache data for 'more' faster access. For example, an i5 processor with the details (3M Cache, 2.40GHz) means that the cache size is 3MB.

    Gigahertz (Clock Speed)
    Hertz (Hz) is the measurement of frequency and one hertz equates to processing of one piece of information. 1 Gigahertz (GHz) is equivalent to 1 billion hertz, and so a processor with the clock speed of 3GHz would mean that it can process 3 billion pieces of information in one cycle. In this case, generally the larger the amount of gigahertz, the faster your clock speed will be, allowing for smoother processing and better performance.

  3. HDD
    There are several other details to look out for when buying a HDD with exception of the storage space. The storage size is crucial but you will need to check up on the following details to ensure you are getting a computer with a HDD that performs well enough to keep up with all your storage (note: speed of accessing information stored in the HDD).

    Generally known to public are these two types of interfaces - ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment - aka IDE, ATAPI and PATA) and SATA (Serial ATA). Most PCs nowadays come equipped with SATA drives (max transfer rate of 150mbps - megabyte per seconds or 300 mbps depending on the cable used), which has a faster performance as compared to PATA (max transfer rate of 100mbps or 133mbps), its predecessor.

    Rotational Speed
    Standard 3.5 inch SATA drives and newer PATA drives run at 7,200rpm (rotation per minute). There are drives that run up to 10,000 rpm available in the market however you would have to pay a premium price for them and they generally offer a smaller storage capacity (for the price) as compared to a 7,200 rpm drive. The faster the disk spins or rotates, the faster you can write or access data on the drive, which would make a big difference in the time taken to copy large amounts of data (say 8GB and up).

Example - a 1024 x 768 (width x height) screen which displays a total of 786,432 pixels
Example - a 1024 x 768 (width x height) screen which displays a total of 786,432 pixels

Other Things to Look out For

  1. Graphics Card
    If you are looking to run any cutting-edge technology games or pretty GUIs with plenty of animations smoothly, a good graphics card is a must. Modern day graphics card contain a graphics processing unit (GPU) which is like a CPU specifically for your graphics card.

    Types of Graphics Card
    There are generally two types of graphics card - dedicated (or discrete) and integrated. Integrated, as the name suggests simply means that the graphics card is one with your motherboard and thus also uses part of your computer system's RAM to operate. Dedicated graphics card are usually fitted in an expansion slot to interface with the motherboard and hence are usually easily removable/replace with other graphics card (that your motherboard can support). They also have RAM that is dedicated solely for use by the graphics card and does not tap on your system's RAM.

    If you are looking to get a dedicated graphics card, the same rule of thumb for RAM applies.

    Model of Graphics Card
    Before purchasing your computer, you should also research online on reviews and comments of the make and model of the graphics card that you plan on purchasing (whether individually or bundled in the PC). I once had a buddy who experienced much trouble and frustration with his seemingly decent spec graphics card which was rampant with bugs issues with a click of Google.

  2. Monitor Resolution
    Most people uses their computer to double up as a personal entertainment system. In that case, you'd also need to take the resolution of your screen display into consideration while evaluating the price and pull factor. Current HD (High Definition) standard screens are 720p and/or 1080p, translating into a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels and 1920 x 1080 pixels respectively. Generally the larger the amount of pixels that your screen can display indicates a "better" or "clearer" quality.

    However, a large resolution screen will make words and icons appear smaller on the screen so despite the clearer quality, you may still have trouble navigating on the computer. You can choose to adjust the resolution of your screen display but it may look pretty weird with a giant screen and giant wordings so the idea would be to find a display that you are comfortable navigating at its default resolution.


types of screen display resolution sizes
types of screen display resolution sizes | Source

Which do you prefer...

Laptop or Desktop?

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