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How to Buy a Computer Choose the Right One

    Computer Buying Considerations

    Why buy a computer?

    Think long and hard as to why you want to buy a computer. Do you want to buy a computer to get on the Internet or do you want to run a specific software application? Do you want to buy a computer just to play games? Then you might be better off buying a game console like a Sony PlayStation 2.

    It makes a lot of difference for which purpose you buy a computer, as to what hardware configuration you should look for and the price you have to pay for it.

    This document is intended to help you make those choices. Hopefully you will be more prepared when you think about buying a new computer and get the right configuration for your needs.

    If you have children aged 5 and up, it is almost a must to have a personal computer in your house. But even if you don't, computers and the Internet already form a big part of today's life style, and you don't want to be left out.


    This question will be answered in great detail. We will look at all parts of the computer and what to look for if you go for those bargains, which might not be bargains at all.
    You also want to buy a computer that lasts. If you buy a computer that is already outdated, you might run the risk that you are not able to run the latest software on it.

    A computer is as fast as it slowest components. This means that you can have a fast computer, but if a component like a hard disk slows down the computer, you might have just wasted lots of money on a high speed CPU that will never be fully utilized. That's why this document also talks about some technical specifications that might be important when selecting the right machine for you.

    Additional features

    We will also talk about additional hardware, like printers, scanners, digital cameras, modems and networks.

    The right additions might get you more use out of your computer for only a little bit of extra money.


    We will also take some time to look at some software features and what's best to buy when you are just starting out.

    Where to put the computer

    The best spot to install your computer is the living room or family room. This way, if you have children, you can all share the computer.
    It's important to chose a location that in not too humid, not in direct sunlight, away from heat vents, and away from electrical appliances that could cause interference.

    Problems and Support

    The time that you would probably find that there was anything wrong with a computer from a hardware point of view is in the first month that you operate your computer.

    If your machine is running okay for a couple of months, it will probably be okay forever (figuratively speaking). You can buy a computer from a company like Dell, or Gateway and get technical support with it.

    I have only had good experience with Gateway's technical support service as long as you keep buying everything from them (both hardware and software). As soon as you buy something through another source, they will not support it and tell you to contact that manufacturer.
    [The same is true with other computer manufacturers, they will not support other companies' products. - Ed]

    Computer Hardware Options - CPU and System RAM


    The CPU (Central Processing Unit) or processor is the heart of the computer. There are many different types of CPU's and with different types of speeds. The CPU in a large part, determines how fast the computer will be and what capabilities your machine will have.
    Older computers might still have 486 CPU's but all new computer have an Intel Pentium, Intel Celeron or AMD Athlon chip. These CPU's come in different types and speeds. You have a choice of Intel Pentium III, Pentium 4 or Celeron CPUs, and AMD Athlon XP, and Athlon CPUs.
    CPU speeds in new computers can vary from 1.6 GHz to 3.2 GHz.

    What does this all mean and what is right for you?
    You should compare this with buying a car. If you do not need the speed, why would you buy a Porsche? And if you can do with a Ford why buy a Rolls Royce? The most expensive CPU's are the Intel Pentium 4 and Athlon XP processors. The greater the megahertz (speed), the more expensive they become.

    For just normal use (writing letters, playing basic games, desktop publishing) a 1.8 GHz CPU is very fast. But if you can afford the money, you might be better off buying something a little faster, so that future software that needs more brain power can still run on your computer. Faster CPUs also improve Internet speed and game playing.
    We recommend that you buy a Celeron, Pentium 4, or Athlon XP based computer in the 1.8 GHz - 2.8 GHz range.

    If you intend to use only the basics of the computer, like typing letters, going on the Internet and doing some basic desktop publishing, new desktop computers can be purchased as low as $450. New laptop computers can be purchased for as little as $750.

    Recommended CPU: Intel Celeron based desktop computers for the more cost conscious, Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon XP for the power user. Current new desktop systems are no slower than 1.8 GHz.
    For more in depth information on selecting a CPU, please see our article InfoHQ Desktop CPU Rundown.
    For current prices of computer systems, see our Sunday Shopping Watch feature found every Sunday in ourDaily Computer News. Also see ourBest Selling Computers page for information on which computers are the best sellers.

    System RAM

    Buying system memory (RAM) for the computer is important for the overall performance of the computer. Programs are loaded from the hard disk and stored into the computer's memory upon usage. Whenever a program is stopped, the program is stored from memory back to the hard disk again.

    Not enough system memory will result in a state called swapping. This means that the hard disk will be used as additional memory, but since a hard disk uses mechanical parts, the overall performance of the computer will degrade.

    It is also important to have memory that has the same speed as the rest of your components (like CPU). Memory comes in many different forms; EDO, SDRAM, DDR, and Rambus DRAM. Your computer will only be able to use one of these types of memory. Memory comes in different speeds, the faster the memory, the higher the price.

    More memory makes your computer faster too. To go from 128 MB to 256 MB will cost you about $30 and will increase the performance of your computer.

    Recommended Memory. 128 MB - 512 MB for all new computers. Memory is relatively cheap right now, so there is no reason not to have the added speed and convenience of 256 MB or more of system RAM.

    Disk Drives

    Hard Disk Drives

    With hard disk drives, both speed and size matters. In terms of the brand, I would personally stick with the leading brand names like IBM, Seagate, Western Digital, or Maxtor. With hard disk drives there are basically five different types, EIDE, SCSI, Firewire, Serial ATA, and USB.

    For SCSI, Firewire, and Serial ATA drives, you may need a separate interface card and the hard drives themselves are more expensive, but faster than EIDE drives.

    Within EIDE you have three different types, regular EIDE, Ultra DMA and Ultra ATA. The difference is that Ultra DMA and Ultra ATA have higher speed in terms of disk access and data transfer since the hard disk runs faster (DMA 5400 RPM, ATA 7200 RPM and higher) and because of a special interface the data transfer rate is higher (66 MB/sec, 100 MB/sec, or 133 MB/sec).

    Serial ATA drives are the newest type of hard drive and promise transfer rates of 150 MB/sec or more when used with a native serial bus controller.

    The access to data on the disk (seek time) is very important for the overall performance of the computer. Data transfer rate is important if you are using big files like big databases or video files. Hard disk drives are relatively cheap.

    Recommended hard disk: 40 - 200 GB, 7-9 ms seek time, 7500 RPM, ATA 100 or 133. See our articles Installing a Second Hard Drive, and ourInfoHQ Tech Watch Newsletter for more information about hard drives.

    CD-ROM, DVD, CD-RW, and DVD-RW Disk Drives

    These drives come in four different forms; the standard CD-ROM, the DVD ROM the ReWritable CD-RW, and the ReWritable DVD-RW. (DVD multi-drives read and write all CD and DVD formats).

    The standard CD-ROM is read only and can read standard Music CD-ROM's and data CD-ROM's up to 700 MB. CD-ROMs have various read speeds 32X, 48X, 72X etc.

    DVD-ROM, is a different kind of CD-ROM that can read the same kind of CD's as a standard CD-ROM, and on top of that it can read DVD-ROMs. One single DVD-ROM can store up to 6.4 GB of software which is 8 times the size of a conventional CD-ROM.

    DVD-ROM also gives you the possibility to view Digital movies on your desktop, although you also require a so-called MPEG2 decoder card or a software DVD driver.. This sometimes comes as part of the DVD set but may need to be purchased separately.

    A CD (CD-RW) gives you the possibility to record your own CD's, both data and/or Music up to 800 MB of data or 80 minutes of music. The speed of writing a CD is from to 2x to 48x. At 2x speed it takes 1 hour to record 800 MB of data, at 48X it takes less than 3 minutes. CD writers can be purchased for as low as $50 dollars. This is a great way to make backups, copy software and create your own music CD's.

    A DVD read-write (DVD-RW) drive functions in the same way as a CD-RW but has much greater capacity. DVD-RW drives have speeds of 2X-4X.

    Recommended: 1 DVD-ROM ( if you want to watch movies on your computer)or 1 CD-RW 40X or faster (for backup or recording music) or a DVD-RW drive (if you want to record movies or large data files).

    Floppy Disk Drives

    While older computers were required to have a floppy disk drive, newer computers may not have one. This is the slowest type of disk drive and it holds the least amount of data ( the typical 3.5" floppy disk drive holds 1.2 MBs of data).
    Newer computers replace the floppy disk drive with CD-RW drives. Another good alternative to a floppy drive is a flash memory drive.

    Video Cards, Monitors, Sound Cards, Modems, etc.

    Video Cards

    Video cards are the interface between the CPU and the monitor. The faster video cards use an AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) port on the computer motherboard, as it has a faster transfer rate than the PCI bus. Most video cards also have their own video memory installed on the card, which increases memory performance.

    Cheaper desktop computers do not have a separate video card and instead have an integrated graphics chip. This means that the graphics chip is designed into the motherboard. All laptops and notebooks also use integrated graphics chips.
    Graphics chips are not as powerful as separate video cards, so if you plan on playing the latest computer games, or using 3D graphics for other purposes, you should probably have a desktop with a good 3D video card.

    For more information on video cards see ourTech Watch Newsletter.

    Recommended Video Card: 2X-8X AGP, 16 -256 MB RAM, 3-D card with a good brand name. For business purposes a 16-64 MB video card is adequate. Serious gamers should invest in a 128 - 256 MB card.


    Buying a monitor for your computer is almost a separate study. Monitors can vary in price between $100 to $1500. Important factors in the price determination are the monitor size and viewable image, maximum resolution, refresh rate, and the dot pitch.

    The monitor size (for example 19 inches) means that the viewable size (measured diagonally) is about 18 inches.
    The smaller the dot pitch, the greater the resolution, e.g. an 0.25 mm pitch is sharper then a 0.28 mm pitch. Everything over 0.28 mm is not considered super VGA.
    Another important factor is the refresh rate. This is the rate in which the image is built up on the monitor. A higher number (85Hz) gives a steadier image then a lower number (60Hz).

    With Windows 98 and higher versions, a second monitor can be attached when a second Video card is installed creating a two-monitor size desktop.

    Recommended Monitor: 19 Inch (18 inch viewable), 76 Hz or higher refresh rate, 0.26 mm dot pitch or less.

    Note: Digital flat panel LCD monitors take up much less space than conventional monitors, but have the disadvantage of not being as bright and costing more. Also, some LCD monitors require a DVI (digital video interface) connector, which is not typically found on low end computers.

    Sound card and speakers

    It does matter a lot in terms of quality of sound, which sound card is installed in the computer. One thing is that it has to be compatible. Lots of games come equipped for most common sound cards, but if the system has a strange sound card, at least make sure that it is Adlib or SoundBlaster compatible.

    A sound card and its quality really becomes important when you want to work with sound, e.g. connect a midi keyboard or record sound through your sound card onto the computer. There are many brands of sound cards and the quality of the sound card is mostly reflected in number of bits; 16 bit, 32 bit, 64 bit or 128 bit sound cards. The sound card that I have personally had the best results with are the ones manufactured by SoundBlaster.

    Speakers are personal. I advise someone to go to their local computer store and listen to different computer speakers. I personally like the Cambridge SoundWorks with subwoofer, good quality sound for reasonable price.

    Many computers now come with integrated sound chips. These sound chips are not as powerful as separate sound cards, but for most non-audiophiles, they are perfectly adequate.

    Recommended sound cards: The family of SoundBlaster Live/Audigy cards.


    Modems are used to either connect to the Internet through a phone line or send or receive fax documents through a phone line. Most computers come with a modem. Most modems are 56K V.92 modems which indicates the speed of the modem.
    56K is the maximum speed you can achieve with a so-called dail-up modem. To get more speed for Internet usage, you will have to go to DSL or Cable modem connections.

    Top brand modems are 3Com, Zoom, or U.S. Robotics. Modems can be sensitive to power fluctuations and need to be protected. This can be done by a surge protector or uninteruptable Power supply (UPS) that protects both power and telephone outlets.

    Recommended modem: A good brand 56K V.92 modem.

    Keyboard & Mouse

    The keyboard and mouse are very personal. Some people love the ergonomic keyboards and some keyboards have a different click then others. Go to a computer store and see which keyboard and mouse are best for you. You can also buy a cordless mouse and keyboard, which work on infrared. Again, a very personal choice.

    If you don't feel like disassembling your mouse every once in a while to clean its rollers, then you might want to look into corded and cordless optical mice. Optical mice have no rollerball, and can be used on most flat surfaces however they are more expansive.

    Recommended Keyboards: Microsoft, Logitech, or IBM.
    Recommend Mouse: Microsoft, Logitech, or IBM.

    Additional Features - Printers, Digital Cameras, Scanners, Networks, etc.


    Basically there are two types of printers, laser or inkjet. Laser printers are more precise then inkjet printers and print a lot faster then inkjet printers. The down side is that they are black and white only. (Color laser printers are still very expensive).

    Color inkjet printers give you more flexibility in terms of your printing work since you can add color to your end result. My personal recommendation is to buy a HP color inkjet printer. They give the best results in terms of quality, durability and least use of ink cartridges. Buy a HP color inkjet with photo printing technology.

    Recommendation: HP Inkjet. Epson and Lexmark printers are also good.


    With a flatbed scanner, you can scan color photo's and black and white text. Printed text can potentially be converted to documents (with OCR software) without having to reenter the text and color images can be used to add to documents, send over the Internet, etc. You can buy a scanner for $40 or more.

    Most important is the resolution of the scanner and the ease of use of the software that comes with it. I have had good luck with Microtek scanners.

    Scanners can be connected via the printer port or USB (Universal Serial Bus). If USB is present on the computer's motherboard, it is recommended to use this over reusing the printer port. However, we do not recommend you add a USB port to an old computer just to run a scanner.

    Recommendation. HP, Epson, Visioneer, or Microtek.


    If you have more then one computer (or desktop and laptop) you can install a network. This connects multiple computers together. You can share an Internet connection, printers and hard-disks/CD-ROMs through the network and play certain games through the network.
    A network is not expensive and Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP has standard network software built-in. You can install a complete network between two computers for less then 100 dollars.
    If you can't or don't want to use a wired network, you can use a wireless, telephone line, or power line network. These networks are more expensive than a wired network.

    Note: Router boxes are very useful for allowing several computers to share one Internet connection at the same time.

    Digital Camera

    With a digital camera, you definitely get what you pay for. I would recommend that you get at the very least a 3X optical zoom camera with a resolution of 2 megapixels. The optical zoom is important to bring objects closer to your camera. The resolution is important for keeping the pixel size small in your printed pictures. Good quality Digital cameras can be found starting around $200.

    <I have had great performance with my Olympus D-450 Zoom 1 megapixel camera (cost about $400-450 retail when I purchased it 3 years ago). I used it to take the pictures in our Adding a Second Hard Drive article. Recently I upgraded to a Minolta DiMage 7i, 5 megapixels, which I am also extremely happy with.- Ed>

    Game Controller

    To be able to play games, you can either use your keyboard as a control device or connect a game controller to your PC. Game controllers come in many different varieties and vary enormously in price. Purchase a game controller that is compatible with most games and that is easy to use.

    Recommendation. Wingman Extreme Digital 3D joystick (40 dollars), one of the Microsoft joysticks or gamepads, or Gravis Gamepad Pro.

    Recommended Computer Software

    Windows Operating System

    For a single processor system the choice is pretty simple; Windows Millennium Edition or Windows XP. Windows 2000, and its predecessor Windows NT are used for running business applications in a secure environment.

    If you have Windows 3.1 or newer versions, even on diskette, you can buy the upgrade rather then the full version. Windows Me and XP have the added features of system file deletion protection, enhanced networking, and system restore protection.

    During the install, Windows 98 and Me will ask for verification of purchased Microsoft products, simply insert the windows 3.1 diskette and the install will continue. The upgrade version has all the features of the full version.

    If you want to use two CPUs on one motherboard, then Linux, Windows NT, Windows 2000, or Windows XP Professional is a must.

    For those that haven't upgraded to Windows XP yet, you might be interested in our article, Windows XP Upgrade Guide.

    Office Suite

    There are various office suites like Corel Office (with Word Perfect and Quattro Pro) and Microsoft Office (with Word and Excel). The most compatible and most used is Microsoft Office.

    Antivirus and Firewall

    A good anti virus program is a must these days. Buy one that also protects email and downloads from the Internet if you are going online. You do need to download the latest antivirus information at least once a month.
    If you have a high-speed Internet connection (cable or DSL) then you should run a firewall program. Firewall programs keep hackers from gaining access to your computer.

    More information on antivirus and firewall programs can be found in our articles; InfoHQ Computer Maintenance Tips, and Fighting Back Against Email Spammers, Internet Hackers, and other Web Thieves.

    Desktop Publishing

    There are various desktop publishers, Adobe Pagemaker ($500 ), Microsoft Publisher 3000 ($90) and QuarkXPress ($770 ). Unless you are a professional Desktop publisher, I think Microsoft Publisher is good enough. Possibilities include making fliers, brochures, booklets, newspapers and small magazines.

    Photo Editing

    Again lots of different choices with different options, Photoshop 6 ($600) for professional graphics users or Paint Shop Pro ($100).

    Recommendation: Paint Shop Pro 7 or Photoshop 6 ($600)

    Printshop / Creativity

    These programs allow you to make greeting cards, banners, labels, crafts and come with lots of clipart (color drawings and pictures). Various different titles like Print shop and Printmaster. Windows XP also has a very good picture printing utility.

    Recommendation : We have had good results with Printmaster Platinum, cost $60.

    Basic Bookkeeping

    QuQuickbooks 2003 (Business) $100, or Quicken 2003 (Personal) $40.

    Recommended Computer Systems

    General System Recommendations

    1. You mainly want to play games. You like renting games at video stores. You care little for email, going online, or running business applications.

    Recommendation: Buy a game console like XBox or Sony PlayStation 2.

    2. You need a computer for you and the kids to go online, send E-mail, play games, and run business applications.

    Recommendation: Buy a desktop computer with a printer.

    3. You are mobile and you need to move your computer from place to place.

    Recommendation: Buy a laptop/notebook computer or a handheld/PDA for light computing duties.

    Desktop System Recommendations

    Beginner's Desktop Computer

    You want a computer for you and the kids to go online. You want the computer to be able to do spreadsheets, taxes or word processing. You don't want to spend a lot of money, but you want a computer that can keep up with new software.

    Price: $450 and higher

    CPU: Celeron 1.8 GHz or faster
    RAM: 128 MB or more
    Hard drive: 30 GB or more
    Video Card: Graphics chip built into motherboard. May have up to 64 MB of Video RAM.
    Sound Card: Sound chip built into motherboard. Sound is pretty good but not as good as an audio card.
    Monitor: Usually a 15 inch CRT. Adequate but nothing special.
    Modem: V90 or V92.
    Software: Windows XP Home

    Good Points: You saved money and finally got a new computer. You can adequately run new software except for graphics intensive games and business applications.

    Bad Points: You have more or less invested in a throw away computer. It may not be possible to upgrade the video chip/card as you may not have an AGP port. The computer may only have 2, or less, unused PCI upgrade slots. Low-end computers typically do not have CD-RWs or DVD players.

    Workhorse Desktop Computer

    Most people will buy computers in this category. These computers have the best price to performance ratio.

    Price: $800 and higher

    CPU: Athlon XP or Pentium 4, 2 GHz or faster
    RAM: 256-512 MB, more is better
    Hard drive: 60 GB or more
    Video Card: Business users - a video card with 16 MB - 64 MB of video RAM. Those that want to play 3D games or 3D business applications should have a video card with 128-256 MB of Video RAM.
    Sound Card: A soundblaster Audigy or Live card. The less audio demanding can use cheaper solutions.
    Monitor: Usually a 17 inch CRT. Some have flat panel LCD monitors.
    Modem: V90 or V92 modem, or network card.
    Software: Windows XP Home or Professional.

    Good Points: Can run all new software and games adequately. Upgradeable with new video or sound cards, hard drives, and CPUs. Best price to performance ratio.

    Bad Points. There are much faster systems out there. Cannot be upgraded to the fastest configurations.

    High End Graphics Desktop Computer

    Price: $1500 and higher

    CPU: Athlon XP or Pentium 4, 3 GHz or faster
    RAM: 512 -1000 MB or more of DDR or RDRAM
    Hard drive: 80 GB or more
    Video Card: Those that want to run 3D games or 3D business applications at the fastest speeds, ATI Radeon 9800 with 128-256 MB of DDR Video RAM or GeForce FX 5900 video card with 256 MB of DDR Video RAM.
    Sound Card: A SoundBlaster Audigy or Live card.
    Monitor: The bigger the better.
    Modem: Network card.
    Software: Windows XP Professional.

    Good Points: You have one of the fastest computers around (until something faster is made in the next 2 weeks).

    Bad Points. You pay big bucks to have the best. Your system depreciates rapidly in value as new CPUs, chipsets, motherboards, and graphics cards are announced.

    Laptop Recommendations

    Beginners Laptop

    You want a computer for you and the kids to go online. You want the computer to be able to do spreadsheets, taxes or word processing. You don't want to spend a lot of money, but you want a computer that can keep up with new software.

    Price: $800 and higher

    CPU: Celeron or Athlon XP 1.8 GHz or faster
    RAM: 256 MB
    Hard drive: 30 GB or more
    Video: Graphics chip built into motherboard. May have up to 64 MB of Video RAM.
    Sound : Sound chip built into motherboard.
    Monitor: Usually a 14 inch liquid crystal display. Adequate but nothing special.
    Modem: V90 or V92.
    Software: Windows XP Home
    DVD/CD-RW drives: Basic notebooks should have combo DVD/CD-RW drives.

    Good Points: You saved money and finally got a new laptop. You can adequately run new software except for many 3D games and 3D business applications.

    Bad Points: Notebooks in general cannot be upgraded. Buy what you need.

    Workhorse Laptop

    These laptops have the best price to performance ratio as long as you stay away from the fastest available.

    Price: $1150 and higher

    CPU: Athlon XP, or Pentium 4 at 2 GHz or faster
    RAM: 256-512 MB, more is better
    Hard drive: 40 GB or more
    Video A 3D video chip with 16 MB - 64 MB of video RAM
    Sound Card: A good sound chip
    Monitor: Usually a 15 inch or larger LCD
    Modem: V90 or V92 modem, or network card
    Software: Windows XP Home or Professional
    DVD/CDRW drives: These notebooks should have combo DVD/CD-RW drives or DVD-RW drives.

    Good Points: Can run new software and games adequately.

    Bad Points. Cannot be upgraded. No matter how much you spend, will not be as fast as a similarly configured desktop.


    We hope this guide has helped make your computer buying process more enjoyable. This is an introductory article and there are many other articles on this site to help you with your computer buying decisions.

    Published on: 2006-03-13 Author: