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College Resource Center : Computer Concepts : Practical Tips for Computer Users : Factors to Consider When Buying a PC

Factors to Consider When Buying a PC

Shopping for a personal computer (PC) can be enjoyable, or it can be frustrating. Unfortunately, some shoppers believe all personal computers are alike so their main objective is to find the cheapest one. Doing so can be a mistake. The old saying "You get what you pay for" is true. Many buyers have later discovered the computer they purchased lacked important components and features. Avoid making this mistake. The following sections provide some useful guidelines to help you in your search for the right PC.

Plan Before You Buy

Before spending your money, prepare a written list of your computing needs and how and where you will be using your new system. Following is a list of questions that will help you identify your needs.

1. How much can I afford to pay for a computer? Prices of personal computers range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Faster and more feature-rich PCs are usually more expensive. Also, personal computers soon become obsolete. Within a few years you may want or need one that is faster and more versatile.

2. Where will my new PC be used? If you will be using it only in your home or office, a desktop computer will be suitable. However, if you will need to take it with you, you should consider purchasing a laptop (notebook) computer weighing 4 pounds or less.

3. Which applications will I run on my computer? Make a list of applications for which you plan to use your PC. For example, will you use your PC to prepare letters and reports? Analyze numeric and financial data? Prepare visual presentations? Access the Internet? Listen to music? Create and work with graphics?

4. How long will I keep this computer? Try to estimate the length of time (years) you will use your computer before buying the next one. If you expect use your PC for several years or if you think you may later want to add new applications, consider one that is expandable, so you can add new components, such as a modem, printer, or add-on boards. Make sure the PC has expansion slots so you can connect these devices to your PC.

5. Check out the manufacturerís and sellerís reputations and warranties and become familiar with various brands and models. Talk with friends, co-workers, classmates, teachers, and others about their PCs. Ask about the performance of their PCs and get recommendations from persons you trust. Eventually you may need to have your PC serviced. Ideally, the vendor has a service department that can repair your PC. If not, you may need to locate a third-party to provide this service.

Select the Hardware Components

Hardware refers to all the equipment that makes up a personal computer system. Hardware includes the system unit, input devices, output devices, secondary storage devices, and all peripheral devices, such as printers. Following are some guidelines for selecting PC hardware components.

1. The System Unit: The system unit is typically a metal cabinet containing the essential components for processing information. Along with other standard components, the system unit contains a microprocessor, main memory (RAM), and slots for installing a graphics board, sound board, modem, or other peripherals.

a. PC architecture. PC architecture refers to the design and construction of the PC and its system unit, and not all architectures are the same. For example, the architecture of an Apple Macintosh differs from that of an IBM or IBM-compatible PC. Therefore, software written for an Apple Macintosh PC may not run on an IBM or IBM-compatible PC. However, newer Macintosh PC models run both types of software. Although some users prefer a Macintosh PC, more software is available for IBM and IBM-compatible PCs.

b. Microprocessor. Selecting the right microprocessor is extremely important. Processing speed, typically measured in gigahertz (GHz), is probably the first consideration. The higher the number of GHz, the faster the processor will access programs and manipulate data. If speed is important, consider choosing a microprocessor with a speed of 2.0 GHz or more. PCs containing microprocessors with speeds up to 3.0 GHz and higher are available.

c. Main memory. Main memory (RAM) is needed for the temporary storage of programs and data while the data is being processed. Some application software requires a considerable amount of RAM to function properly, and newer software versions usually require more RAM than older versions. Typical PCs now come with 512 MB of RAM, or more. Make certain the PC has sufficient RAM to run the software you will be using.

d. Secondary storage. What type(s) and amounts of secondary storage are you likely to need? Typical computers come with a CD drive and a hard disk drive already installed. A standard compact disc can store up to 750 MB of data, and certain DVDs provide even greater storage capacity. A hard disk drive contains one or more rigid storage platters and provides for the permanent storage of considerably more data. However, the disk itself cannot be removed from the drive. The storage capacity of a hard disk is an important consideration because it is used to store all system and application software. Typical hard disk capacities are 80, 160 GB, and up to 500 GB. Be certain the PC you are considering has sufficient secondary capacity for your needs.

Other secondary storage devices and media are available. If you will use your PC to play movies, your purchase should include a DVD (digital video disk) drive. If you will work with large files, consider purchasing a computer that includes a CD-RW drive. A CD-RW disc is a reusable high-capacity disc that allows you to store huge amounts of data and to erase data no longer needed. Flash drives are also easy to use and are portable.

e. Ports. The number of ports (slots) available inside the system unit determines the number of add-on boards that can be installed inside the system unit. External ports allow you to connect peripheral devices such as modems, printers, digital cameras, and mice. The number of available ports determines the number of devices and add-on boards that can be connnected to the system unit.

2. Input Devices. Typical input devices are a keyboard and a mouse, although other kinds of input devices are available. Most keyboards and mice operate similarly. However, there are slight differences in how each "feels" to the user. Before buying a PC, you may want to test the keyboard and mouse for comfort and ease of use. Some sellers will allow you to exchange the keyboard or mouse that comes with the computer for a different one.

3. Output Devices. Output devices produce output in either soft copy or hard copy form. Most PCs come with a monitor (for soft copy output), but you may have to purchase a hard copy device, such as a printer, separately.

a. Monitors. Slim, lightweight, flat-screen liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors have virtually replaced the bulkier cathode ray tube (CRT) displays. The resolution of most LCD monitors is quite good and they take up less desktop space than CRT monitors. There are wide differences among PC monitors, with resolution being perhaps the most important variable. Resolution refers to the clarity of the text and images being displayed. Before making a purchase, carefully evaluate the monitorís resolution. Many vendors allow you to choose from monitors with varying resolutions. A resolution of 1,024 by 1,024 pixels is considered high-resolution, in which text and images display exceptionally clearly. High-resolution monitors are typically more expensive.

Monitor size is another important consideration. Viewing areas range from 15 diagonal inches to 21 inches and higher. Larger monitors are usually more expensive, but may be worth the extra cost. For example, an individual with weak vision may prefer a larger monitor.

b. Printers. Two popular types of printers are ink-jet and laser, both of which are versatile and capable of producing high-quality output in color. Examine a variety of printers and models and check the price, print speed, and output quality of each.

Most ink-jet printers are quiet, produce high-quality output, and are relatively affordable, although the ink cartridges they use can be expensive. Print resolution is an important factor to consider. Some offer impressive resolution and can produce output of amazing color.

Laser printers are fast and can produce high-quality output in both black and color tones. Color laser printers are more expensive than those using only black toner. The cost of color laser printers ranges from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.

Choose Software to Match Your Needs List

By itself, a computer is merely a collection of electronic components and devices. Every computer must have software, including system software and applications software. System software, such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS, allows a computer to manage its computing resources, including the system unit and input and output devices. Most PCs come with the system software already installed. If the PC you are considering does not, be sure the system software you choose is will run on the PC of your choice. Recall that both system software and application software are written for a specific architecture.

Before making a final purchasing decision, review your list of the ways in which you will use your computer. Then find out if the necessary application software is available (pre-installed) on the PC you have chosen. Some PCs come equipped with a software suite such as Microsoft Office, which includes word processing, spreadsheet, database management, and other applications.

A Reminder: Be a wise shopper, and learn which PC best satisfies your wants and needs. Even the least expensive personal computer system represents a major purchase. Making the right decisions means you will enjoy using your new PC in the months and years ahead.

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