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PC911 > How-To > Miscellaneous > Computer Shopping Guide

- Alex -

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There are several ways of acquiring a new PC. The more adventurous and knowledgeable of us purchase PC individual handpicked components, and assemble. This is a great way of learning about how a PC works and getting some hands-on experience with PC hardware. It is a very satisfying experience and highly recommended. The majority of computer owners and owners-to-be, however, purchases a new PC preassembled from a computer store or an online retailer such as Dell. The main reasons for that are that people have no interest in learning about PC hardware, do not feel comfortable building one, prefer a bundled system complete with software, and/or want the added security blanket of technical support when something goes wrong.

However, even buying the pretty prepackaged computer with everything included can still be a very daunting task. How do you know you get the best deal? Will this machine do what you want it to? Can it be upgraded over time? Is it made of quality parts? What do all those numbers in the ad mean? How do you compare several possible candidates?

Before you start shopping, take a few minutes to think about what you will be using the computer for. It will help you ask better questions and decide which features and specs are more important to you. Some of the components listed here you won't care about, some of the options discussed here might not be of any importance to you. That's ok. At least you will know what options you have.

This article will prepare you for your computer shopping trip, help you analyze and understand any computer ad, and tell you what questions you should be asking before your purchase. At the end you will also find the handy PC911 Computer Shopping Checklist to print and take with you when you go shopping to make sure you get all the important data, and can then compare possible candidates side-by-side.

When going computer shopping, don't forget to check out pre-built machines from reputable local computer shops. They may cost a little more, but can be built to your specifications from quality standard components. This is the next best thing to building your own, and local support can be valuable.


Component name: Processor aka CPU

What it does: The processor or CPU is the heart of every computer. It performs the actual work, and its speed determines how fast your computer will run.

What you need to know before you buy: The two popular processor manufacturers are Intel and AMD. Intel produces the Pentium line of processors, as well as the Celeron budget line. The Intel Pentium is the flagship processor and has been dominating the market for quite some time. Combined with the right components, the Pentium is the fastest processor out there. It is also the most expensive processor.

The Intel Celeron line is not quite as fast as the Pentium, and not quite as expensive. Consider it an affordable, scaled down baby Pentium.

Nipping at Intel's heels is AMD with its Athlon line of processors. The Athlon CPU is competing directly with the Intel Pentium. When you go shopping, understand what brand and model processor the computer has.

When it comes to processor speed, you have to know that it is measured in MegaHertz (short MHz) or GigaHertz (short GHz, equals 1000 MHz). One MHz means one million cycles per second. A 2.6 GHz (equals 2600 MHz) processor executes 2,600,000,000 cycles per second. Write down this speed.

When you look at AMD Athlon based computers, you will see a speed rating, e.g. 2600+ while the processor actually runs only at 2133 MHz. Don't let this confuse you, write down the speed rating. All this means is that even though the processor executes less cycles per second than the Pentium, it performs as well as a Pentium at 2600 MHz due to its architecture.

Component name: Motherboard aka Mainboard

What it does: The motherboard is where everything comes together. It holds the CPU, the memory, all expansion cards, the drive controllers, and more.

What you need to know before you buy: Find out whether the motherboard is a proprietary model, or a standard model from a third-party manufacturer. If it's proprietary, it can be a budget-level item with integrated components. If it has to be replaced, you can only go through the manufacturer. It also pretty much eliminates any upgrade paths later. A third-party motherboard usually means better quality and the possibility of upgrading down the road.

Find out how many open PCI slots are on the motherboard to plug in any expansion cards, find out whether it has an AGP slot for a graphics card, find out how many free memory slots it has.

Component name: Memory aka RAM

What it does: This is where data and programs are stored while in use. The more memory the computer has, the better and faster it works. Never skimp on memory, always get as much as possible.

What you need to know before you buy: Find out what type of memory is in the computer. Is it SDRAM (cheap, decent performance), DDR RAM (affordable, good performance), or RDRAM (expensive, high performance)? The most important question to ask is how many memory slots are on the motherboard, and how many of them are filled with memory modules? If there are 3 or 4 slots and only one memory module is installed, you can add memory anytime by filling the free slots. This is the preferred way to go. If there are only 2 slots and both are filled, you'll have to replace the existing memory modules, which is more expensive and you're more limited as to how much memory you can have.

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