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2 Minute Tutes
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Buying a computer
CD Burning
Digital Music
Instant Messaging
Further Reading
2 Minute Tutes

In 2 minutes, you should know:

  • What to look for
  • What the specifications mean
  • Your shopping list
  • What else do I need?

What to look for

Choosing a new computer can be difficult because the technology changes so quickly.  Even this guide is probably out of date because something new came along the next day.  There are, however, some basics that don't really change:

  • The latest technology will cost more

  • The cheapest computers are cheap for a reason

  • The best value is usually mid-priced & reasonably fast

  • Any new computer will outperform a computer from a few years ago

  • In a few years time, it will be easier to upgrade your computer's hard drive & memory than the processor, so try to buy the best processor that fits your budget

  • a laptop is about twice the price or half the performance of a comparable desktop computer

What the specifications mean

Here are some guidelines for each component.  Use this as a reference - you don't need to read it all & please contact us if you would like more information.

  • Processor: Ask for a Pentium 4 from Intel or an Athlon from AMD.  If you're after a budget system, each manufacturer has a cheaper version with lower performance - Intel Celeron or AMD Duron.  The speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz).  A 3 GHz processor is 25% faster than a 2.4 GHz, but because a computer's performance depends on other components as well, the overall benefit may be more like 15% faster.
  • Motherboard: If you buy an IBM, HP, Compaq, Dell, Toshiba or other big brand name, they usually design & make their own motherboards.  Otherwise there are many fine makers of motherboards including ASUS, AOpen, Shuttle, Gigabyte & Intel.  There is not much performance difference between models for the average user so just look for the features you want, such as more USB ports if you need them.
  • RAM or memory:  Basically, more is better but there is a limit.  Windows XP will run on 128 MB of RAM but runs much better on 256 MB.  512 MB will improve performance again, but not by as much.  You will need more RAM if you plan on working with large files such as images & digital video.
  • Hard drive: The hard drive stores all your data.  IDE drives are still common, but the newer Serial ATA drives are faster.  Choose a size that will accommodate all the data you wish to store, including photos, videos & music.
  • Video card: The video card you choose will depend on what you want to do with your computer.  Some motherboards include a video card "on-board," which means that you don't have to buy an extra one.  These are usually fine for general tasks like word processing & web browsing, however if you want to play games that use 3D effects, use computer aided drafting or rendering, you'll need a video card with better 3D capabilities.  The two biggest video manufacturers are nVidia and ATI.
  • Sound card:  Many motherboards include on-board sound, some can even drive a home theatre sound system of 5 or more speakers & a subwoofer.  If you want better sound quality or features, a popular upgrade is the Creative Audigy sound card.
Your shopping list

The following table gives typical configurations...

Business/Student High-end/Gamer
Pentium 4 - 3.0 GHz
ASUS motherboard
256 MB PC3200 DDR RAM
80 GB hard drive
On-board video card
On-board 6-channel sound card
On-board 100 Mbps network card
52x speed CD burner
1.44 MB floppy disk drive
56k modem
Stereo speakers
Multimedia Keyboard
Optical wheel mouse
Mini-tower case
Windows XP Home
Pentium 4 - 3.4 GHz
ASUS Motherboard 
512 MB PC3200 DDR RAM
160 GB hard drive
ASUS V9520M FX5200 128MB 8x Video Card
On-board 6-channel sound card
On-board 100 Mbps network card
DVD burner
1.44 MB floppy disk drive
56k modem
Speakers with Subwoofer
Multimedia Keyboard
Optical 5-button mouse
Mid-tower case
Windows XP Professional

Then you need to add a monitor.  The cheapest are conventional glass tube monitors, but the sleek LCD monitors are dropping in price and becoming more popular.  Because they are higher resolution, a 17" LCD screen is comparable to a 19" glass tube monitor (with 18" viewable).

What else do I need?

Other items to consider:

  • Printer
  • Scanner
  • Microphone
  • Webcam
  • Ink & paper
  • mouse mat
  • blank disks & CD's
  • surge guard or uninterruptible power supply (UPS)