Before You Buy That Computer…

29 Mar 2012

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Everyone has gone computer-crazy. Old and young, students and working-class individuals, politicians and businessmen, and even the not-so-literate ... everybody wants to have a personal computer. Many have even taken the bold step to actually acquire one only to realise that the decision was not well thought through, or ending up with expensive equipment that failed to satisfy expectations. Others are frustrated that their “high-tech” machine is super-slow. How can these headaches be avoided. Let’s go back to the basics.

Shopping for a computer does not need to be hard. First think about what you need. Are you looking for a computer to perform basic tasks or to meet special requirements? Then do a little homework, and finally go shopping armed with that knowledge. You will get a computer you can be happy with, and you will get the best value for your money. Since personal computers (PCs) fall in 3 categories (desktop, laptop or notebook, and pocket-sized) this article will start with steps to follow before buying a desktop PC.

Before Buying:

1.       Decide if you're better served by the PC/Windows platform or the Macintosh. You can generally get a faster computer for your money by choosing a Windows machine, but Macs come with more easy-to-use built-in software. Top brands are Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM, Gateway and Toshiba. Apple, of course, makes the Macintosh.

2.      Think about whether this machine will need to work with your office or school server, or just for home (personal) use. Exchanging files between platforms is less of an issue than it used to be, but it's still worth noting.

3.       Ask your friends and co-workers in similar lines of work or fields of endeavour what machines they have, where they bought them, if there were any problems, and whether they're happy with their choices.


The Basics:

1.       Realize that if you buy a super cheap computer at a warehouse store or discounter, you're going to be on your own. Technical support from the major manufacturers tends to be a lot better.   

2.       Buy as much random-access memory (RAM), or system memory, as you can afford. At a bare minimum, get 256 MB; 512 MB or 1 GB is preferable. (For a Macintosh, get at least 512 MB.) Memory is more critical than a faster processor.      

3.       Get at least two universal serial bus (USB) connections and (where possible) a FireWire (also called IEEE 1394) connection. These will connect peripheral devices, such as a printer, PDA, digital cameras and camcorders, scanners and game controllers.      

4.       Get a CD burner so you can back up valuable data and make your own music CDs. Look into a DVD burner too if you're involved in film making or editing, but remember that there are multiple competing standards; computer-burned DVDs might not play in your home DVD player. Make sure your machine has a DVD drive if you want to watch movies on your computer. Also look for an internal modem.      

5.       Ask about upgradability if you intend to use this computer for a long time, which is considered three or more years.

6.   Choose any current computer model from the major manufacturers with a high degree of confidence if you simply want to send e-mail, surf the Web and do word-processing.

Special Considerations:

1.       Get high-quality graphics (VGA) and sound if you plan to play games. Look for a system that has a graphics card with a co-processor, and 5.1 Surround sound. You'll want a broadband Internet connection to play online games, and to improve your Internet experience overall.

2.       Buy the biggest hard drive you can afford – 120 to 180 gigabytes (GB) is now commonplace. Get more than 250 GB if you're storing music and/or editing video. For video editing, you'll also need a video input/output card and a FireWire connection.

3.       Add a TV capture card, and you can even have your computer function as a DVR. (These considerations and more will be discussed in a future edition.)


Today's laptops are much more powerful than even the hottest desktop computers of yesterday. They're also lighter and much more stylish. Many people are opting out of desktop computers altogether and use a laptop for all their computer needs. If you're thinking of going this route, check out these shopping tips.

1.      Ensure you understand the previous section (on the Basics of Choosing a Desktop Computer). The "Before Buying" points and most of "The basics" also apply when shopping for a laptop.     

2.      Pick up the laptops at approved stores (authorised dealers/resellers, where possible or available). Ask to have the laptop unlocked if necessary. Choose one that feels sturdy, solid and not too heavy.     

3.      Try the keyboard. Since you can't replace it (except with the exact same item), make sure you're comfortable with its touch and responsiveness. Test it on a desk and on your lap.     

4.      Test the pointing device, track pad or track ball, the laptop alternatives to a mouse. Some of these can be hard to master. You'll be able to connect an external mouse, but the built-in device is handier when you're mobile.

5.      Check if the computer's bottom gets uncomfortably hot when it's running – a problem if you actually use the laptop on your lap.     

6.  Pay attention to screen size and resolution. Current liquid-crystal display (LCD) screens on laptops measure from 13 to 21 inches diagonally. Screen resolution may be as low as 800 x 600 pixels or as high as 1600 x 1200. The more the pixels, the crisper the screen image. View the screen in a variety of settings: A screen that looks great in normal room lighting can look terrible in bright or dim light. 

7.  Choose a laptop with at least two USB 2 connections and at least one Firewire (IEEE1394) connection. USB 2.0 and Firewire are very popular and fast ways of connecting iPods, digital cameras and some phones to computers. 

8.  Check to see if the laptop has built in wireless capabilities, most do these days. A wireless network card (also called Wi-Fi or 802.11) will free you from having to be wired to your Internet connection. Also, Bluetooth capability will let you share information wirelessly with other Bluetooth-equipped devices, such as your cell phone or personal digital assistant. 

9.  Check to see if the laptop has a DVD Burner. That makes backing up documents, music files and pictures a snap because of the high capacity of the discs.

10.  Get an antitheft device. Hundreds of thousands of laptops are stolen every year. Look for cables that secure the laptop to a desk. Install software that disables a stolen laptop, or better yet, reports the laptop's location when it connects to the Internet.

Above all things, Select a laptop that fits your lifestyle.

            Interestingly, you can also visit a retailer's website, such as Best Buy, and read reviews left by past customers about a product you are interested in purchasing. Many times a strange quirk will be mentioned. This may sway your opinion in a different direction and in an entirely different laptop.

            As a laptop ages, the speed of the processor begins to lag your desktop speeds. Easiest and perhaps only way to speed the laptop is to increase the amount of memory. Make sure there is the ability to easily increase the memory; 512M minimum, optimally to 1G or 2G.

From Our Readers

What is the Best Laptop Brand?

This is one of those questions that will never have a right or wrong answer. Let me explain… Everyone will answer this question based on his/ her experience or those to the people this person knows.

When I asked an IT manager, he said “HP” (Hewlett-Packard). “Why?”, said I. “I have bought five for the company and they have never let us down. On the other hand, a friend of mine got a Dell the other day and two weeks later the darn thing overheated and ceased to function!”, he replied.

When asked the same question, one of my friends who owns a multimedia design business assured me that Dell was the best bet because, their post-purchase service is excellent and Dell computers are good and reasonably priced.

From the above anecdotes, you’ll notice that each of the respondents base their answers from what they have experienced or heard.

What notebook brand should you purchase?

My answer is deceptively simple. Go for the well known global brands whose other products you already own. Let’s say that you already own a Sony digital camera and a Sony MP3 player. One of your family members also happens to own a Vaio (Sony’s notebooks). What’s your obvious choice? Sony of course! An obvious tip: if you’re a Mac user, you’re obviously going to go for a Mac laptop right? Right of course! It’s in your best interests!

Another example. Let’s say that you travel a lot. It would be in your best interests to opt for a brand that is present in all the countries that you plan to visit. Why? Because, you want that peace of mind when you know that should something go wrong with your laptop PC, you can get local help instead of nightmare international calls.

Another reason why you should go for well known brands: The laptop industry is “very” competitive. What would happen if you ever bought a machine from a little company that later goes bankrupt because of the tough competition? Stick with the biggies and stay on the safe side.

Here’s an interesting point. I have never come across any claim that stated that a certain laptop brand was far better than another (among the “big guys”). What I know is that certain manufactures might make a good component but another one would fail to be top-notch.

Don’t be fooled by pricing either. It costs more or less the same amount of resources to manufacture a laptop wether your are company A or B. The end price is a marketing tool that is used to either attract those who are budget conscious or those who believe that high pricing equals to better quality.

Choosing a specific brand is another issue entirely. While a laptop has become a ubiquitous accessory for modern life, the actual process of choosing the right model can take some serious time and research. Herein are outlined the different categories of laptops and which types are best for different users. We'll also take a look at CPU, hard-drive, and networking options.

Below are a handful of typical user experiences that should help outline what type of laptop is right for you. Chances are, you'll fall somewhere in between two or more of these archetypes, so carefully consider what you'll be using your new laptop for.

The Student

Students typically require low prices and portability above all. A laptop that can be carried from class to class is key, so many students turn to low-cost Netbooks, which are small, low-power systems that generally cost less. The downside is that these have small screens and generally use underpowered single-core CPUs. Another option is a 13-inch thin-and-light laptop, which is somewhat less portable, but makes for a better experience when sitting down to write papers and do research. These have dual-core CPUs and often include optical drives. Apple's 13-inch MacBook is a prime example.

What to look for: At least 2GB of RAM; 160GB or larger HDD; 13-inch display.

The Business Traveller

Those who work on the road require a robust computing experience, a sturdy, rugged system to safeguard data, and often, access to security and management tools to satisfy the requirements of their IT departments. Lenovo's ThinkPad and Dell's Latitude are two popular examples of laptop lines made with the business traveller in mind. Both brands offer security features such as Intel's vPro platform and TPM chips, internal software and hardware components that work alongside your operating system.

What to look for: 2GB to 4GB of RAM; 160GB or larger HDD; 12- to 15-inch display; Windows Vista Professional or Windows 7 Professional; mobile broadband modem.

The Graphics Designer

Video game players aren't the only ones who need powerful processors, discrete graphics, and massive, fast hard drives. Those who work with high-definition video or high-resolution photographs are among the most demanding of laptop power users. Apple's 15- and 17-inch MacBook Pro laptops are among the most popular for these purposes. This is especially true as Final Cut, the widely used video-editing software, is only available for Macs (Adobe's Photoshop, however, is cross-platform). Either a 17- or a 15-inch screen that runs at a high native resolution is suggested. You should also look for plenty of RAM--up to 8GB is ideal--and a large 500GB hard drive that runs at the faster 7,200rpm speed (typical drives run at 5,400rpm).

What to look for: 4GB-8GB of RAM; 320GB or larger 7,200rpm HDD; 17-inch or larger display.

The Gamer

While a bit of an endangered species these days, PC gamers are among the most fervent user groups. Most serious PC gamers will naturally gravitate toward desktop computers, with their flexible upgradeability, faster components, and better cooling. But gaming laptops have made great strides in recent years. Intel's Core 2 Quad and Core i7 CPUs are recommended for 3D gaming, as is a top-of-the-line discrete GPU, such as Nvidia's GeForce N260. High-end brands such as Alienware offer flashy, expensive laptops that can be customized with the latest components, while Gateway's P-series is a good example of a budget-minded 17-inch gaming laptop, with slightly older parts, but excellent overall value.

What to look for: 4GB to 8GB of RAM; 320GB or larger 7,200rpm HDD; 17-inch or larger display; discrete graphics GPU.

The Home User

Anyone who does not fall into one of the above categories is likely to fit in here. From parents and children gathered around the laptop at homework time to watching Hulu videos in bed, these are systems that typically stay anchored to one desk, den, or kitchen--perhaps taking the occasional road trip or moving around from room to room. The traditional 15-inch laptop is still the most popular size, although 14- and 16-inch versions are becoming more common. Every PC maker makes standard mainstream laptops, and they generally have more similarities than differences.

What to look for: 2GB to 4GB of RAM; 250GB or larger HDD; 14- to 16-inch display; DVD burning optical drive.

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