Things to Look for when Buying a New Computer

Posted by Shashank Krishna Friday, February 29, 2008


sharethis: If you are an IT guy who knows all about PCs, this article is not for you. This is for those people who find it hard to choose one computer over another while they are computer shopping. I will be focusing mainly on the configuration and I will keep the brands for a later article. Also, this is for PCs ONLY. I am not a Mac guy. Read my profile if you have any questions regarding my credentials.

This article will address both desktops and notebooks but the examples that are dealt in the article are mainly desktops. I am just going to scan the software surface and when I say software, I mean windows and not any other OS.

Whether you go to a store like best buy or an online store like Dell, you are bound to bump into something that looks like this :

SPECIFICATIONS

Operating System: Microsoft� Windows� XP Media Center Edition 2005 (Update Rollup 2) w/ XP Media Center Backup
Application Software: Microsoft� Office Small Business Edition 2003 (Basic + PowerPoint & Publisher) w/ Microsoft� Home Collection
Processor: Intel� Pentium� Extreme Edition 955 with Hyperthreading Technology (3.46GHz, 1066MHz FSB 2×2M cache)
Chipset: Intel� 975X Chipset with DDR2 Support
Memory: 2048MB PC5300 Dual-Channel DDR2 667MHz SDRAM (2-1024MB modules)
Hard Drive: 500GB Serial ATA II/300 7200RPM w/Raid 0 (2-250GB Hard Drives - Striping)
Floppy Drive: 9-in-1 media card reader
Optical Drive: 16x Double-Layer Multi-Format DVD Writer (DVD�/R�RW/CD-R/RW) and 16x/48x DVD-ROM drive
Extended Service Plan Including Limited Warranty: Desktop Value Plus Service Plan — 3 year parts/labor/on-site/3 year toll technical support
Case: 7-Bay Tower Case
Controller: Integrated Serial ATA Controller
Expansion Slots: (2) PCI Expansion Slots (Filled), (1) PCI-E x1 Expansion Slot (available). (1) PCI-E x16 Expansion Slot (available)
External Ports: (6) USB 2.0 (2 in front and 4 in back), (3) IEEE 1394 Firewire (2 in front and 1 in back), (1) Serial, (2) PS/2, (1) RJ-45 Integrated LAN, (1) VGA, (1) Microphone, front audio ports
Certification: Energy Star Compliant
Monitors: FPD2185W 21″ Black Widescreen High-Definition LCD Analog/Digital Performance Flat Panel Display with 4 Powered USB Ports (Includes height-adjustable stand)
Video: NVIDIA� GeForce 6600 with 128MB, DVI, VGA & TV-Out
Keyboard and Mouse: Elite Multimedia Keyboard and Soft-touch USB Optical Wheel Mouse (no mouse pad included)
Speakers: 2-piece speaker solution
Internet Service Provider: Six months America Online� Internet access
Part Number: 1008697
Additional Software: Adobe� Acrobat Reader� 7.0 and Google Toolbar
Network: Integrated Intel� 10/100/1000 (Gigabit) Ethernet
Security Software: McAfee� Internet Security Suite with VirusScan, Personal Firewall Plus, SpamKiller & Privacy Service, 36-months
Desktop Technology: Intel� Viiv� Technology
PCI Multimedia Card 1: Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Sound Card
Standard Software: Napster Trial Subscription
ADDITIONAL TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

Processor:
Intel� Pentium� Extreme Edition 955 with Hyperthreading Technology (3.46GHz, 1066MHz FSB 2×2M cache)
Chipset :
Intel� 975X Chipset with DDR2 Support
ICH7DH w/ RAID 0,1,5 Support
XD (eXecute Disable) bit
EM64T (64-bit support) support
EIST (Intel� Speed Step) support
HT (HyperThreading) support
VT (Virtualization) support (Requires additional software support)
Dual Core support
400 watt, dual voltage power supply
16.5″(H) x 8.0″(W) x 17.5″(D)
38 lbs (without packaging) Varies with options
I/O Ports:
1 9-pin serial connector
1 15-hole VGA connector
1 RJ45 network connector
2 PS/2 (keyboard and mouse) 6-pin mini-DIN connectors
6 version 2.0 USB ports (4-front/2-rear)
3 6-pin IEEE 1394 ports (2 front/1 rear)
Audio-Five 1/8″ mini-jacks for 7.1 surround sound
- Front left/right (green)
- Rear left/right (black)
- Surround left/right (blue)
- Center/sub (orange)
- Microphone (red)
S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface)
Two front-panel 1/8″ audio mini-jacks Audio
- Headphone (green)
- Microphone (red)

Thats a long confusing list which could drive most people insane. From that big list, 70% of the items are not extremely critical for computing needs. The items that matter the most are 1. processor 2. hard disk 3. RAM and 4. motherboard. Along with this there are many other smaller features that makes a perfect computer to possess. I will be briefly scanning them as well.
Processor

There are two major players in the market. Intel and AMD. Intel is widely known and highly popular while AMD’s base is growing constantly. I am not gonna delve into details of the processor technology, all I going to share is that Intel used the CISC technology and AMD used/uses RISC. But now, Intel is using RISC to do the CISC. So, in a way Intel has discarded their initial technology to follow the technology that AMD implemented. No more engineering stuff, sorry.

When you look for a processor, there are two major components that are crucial. The clock speed and the cache memory(L1 and L2). Try to choose a processor that has a higher clock speed. Higher the clock, faster the computer. Secondly the cache, its just like clock speed in speed and importance. Higher the cache, faster the computer. There is another feature that is becoming popular, the number of bits. A 64 bit computer can do the job faster than a 32 bit computer. A good analogy would be if you are building a house, 64 people would build it faster compared to 32 people. There is more data transfer between the computer and processor with a higher bit processor.

In the above example, - “Processor: Intel� Pentium� Extreme Edition 955 with Hyperthreading Technology (3.46GHz, 1066MHz FSB 2�2M cache)”. Its an intel processor, which is good. Hyper threading technology is a good one to have. 3.46GHz is fast, I will talk about the Frontside bus under the motherboard section. It has 2 caches that are 2MB each which is extremely fast. Just know that the caches will act as an intermediate memory. Let me give you another example. If you buy a computer with 6GHz and 1MB cache, it is the same as buying a 3GHz processor with 2MB cache. Intel Centrino has lower clock speed but a higher cache memory which makes up for the slower clock speed.

Comparing Intel and AMD, the performance is almost the same. For a regular consumer, it works the same way. But, AMD gets the bait as it is cheaper than Intel. How many intel ads have you seen in the past month? How many AMD ads? All the ad costs are piled upon their products and hence Intel is so much more expensive compared to AMD. There are reports that AMD is closing in on Intel.
Hard Disk

My first computer had 256MB hard disk and I was so excited when I got a 1.2GB hard disk. These days, we have broken all barriers and we are dealing with hundreds of GBs. It is a common knowledge that the higher the hard drive space, the better it is. I agree 100% on that. There is not much you could with the brand of the hard drive you could buy if you buying it in a store like best buy. But, if you happen to have a choice of choosing the hard disk, I would recommend Western Digital, Seagate and Maxtor. In my experience, I have found these three extremely trustworthy. It is important that we have a good hard drive as the data that we store is priceless. Hard disk is one thing that we shouldn’t compromise on if we had a choice. Even if a hard disk costs you $20 more, think all the data you would be storing in the future.

This is from my personal experience. Dell used other branded hard drives and we used to have so many cases of broken hard drives and people losing sleep over the lost data. Losing data is not a pretty picture. All these said, I am not saying that the hard drives that I recommended wouldn’t crash. The probability of these hard drives crashing is much smaller than the others.

I almost forgot to mention about the speed of the hard drive. It is good to have a faster hard drive. But, for daily operations, most of the process is stored in the RAM and processor cache; there is a bleak chance that you might be able to observe a slower hard drive with a faster one, unless you are a person who transfers a lot of data back and forth.
RAM

We have gone through many different kinds of RAMs in the past few years. If I go into the technologies, I could write another long article on it within no time. But I will just say that as in hard drive and processor, higher the RAM memory, faster the computer.

There are two variables in a RAM. The RAM size and the channel bandwidth. You would want to have both these on the higher end. Both are critical for the overall speed of your computer. The RAM size affects the amount of data that could be stored on a computer while the channel bandwidth is responsible for the rate of flow of data stored in the RAM and to the RAM.

There is not much to choose from in RAM brands. All the RAMs are equally good and bad. I wouldn’t press on a single brand for a RAM. I would just go for a cheaper one.
Motherboard

Apart from the processor, this is the most important part of a computer. This defines all the features that a computer might possess. There are awfully lot of things that a motherboard can integrate but I am going to scan the important ones.

First of all, a motherboard should have a higher FSB. It is the bandwidth with which the data can flow through. Higher the FSB, faster the computer.

A motherboard typically has USB ports, firewire, integrated video card, integrated sound card, integrated modem, and other different ports. It is good for a computer to have as many USB ports. Most accessories are USB driven. But this is not critical as you can always bank on purchasing a USB hub which could do the trick. A firewire port is not as widely used but its existance on your computer is important. A good video card enhances your windows GUI. Look for a video card that has a higher non shared memory. Usually, video cards that are integrated on the motherboard share the RAM memory. Also, make sure that your motherboard has an AGP slot which could give you the choice of adding your own video card instead of the one on the motherboard. A good soundcard would be a plus. I have no clue how many people still use a phone modem. I don’t. It isn’t something I would look for in a computer. But it doesn’t if there is one already sitting on my computer. PCI slots are important as well. Most motherboards have at least 3 PCI slots which should be good.

Windows is the most common OS you can get in a store. It comes in two different versions, home and professional. For any home user, home would be more than handy. Professional is for people who would like to use their computer for remote desktop and other networking features. If somebody tries to sell you a media center PC, say no. Not worth it. Many bugs. I am awaiting Vista which could change the things around in the computerdom.

I have tried to share some of the things that I felt are critical in choosing a computer. If you have any questions regarding choosing a computer, feel free to comment and I will get back to you…

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Shashank Krishna
Bangalore, up, India
nothin much to say.........doin B.tech in IIIT allahabad loves bloggingn hacking.... :) and loooves blogging
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