[blockquote]Bruce Maliken, a Forest Hills neighbor, has been providing professional computer services to the DC and Maryland area for over 20 years. I run into all sorts of folks who know and use Bruce. In his debut column for the Connection, Bruce has tips for choosing the right computer – no despair allowed. -Marlene Berlin[/blockquote]
by Bruce Maliken
UP and Running Computer Services
There is a way to begin cutting down the choices. Concentrate on what you want your system to do. Think about the sort of applications you want to run on your new device. This will help determine which features your system will need. If you only intend to run basic tasks – browsing the web, sending emails, running office-type software like Microsoft Word – then most computers, even at the budget end of the market, will be able to cope with your requirements.
Do you want to watch TV and movies, listen to music, play some games, and perhaps share music and video files across a home network. Systems like this need a little more in the way of hardware power, like a larger hard drive to store all your music and movies, as well as a big screen, a good sound card and speakers, but they still don’t have to be too expensive. Many entertainment PCs are all-in-one PCs these days.
If you want to play the latest games with the best possible performance, then you’ll need a gaming PC. This can be much more expensive. You will need a quality screen, a good sound card and speakers, a powerful graphics card, fast hard drive and a decent processor.
And if you’re not a gamer, but need to run some heavy-duty software – editing HD (high definition) videos, then you’ll need a high-end performance PC. This should include a powerful CPU (computer processing unit), plenty of memory, and a large, fast hard drive, so expect a sizeable bill. But you may not need the large screen or powerful graphics card of the entertainment or gaming systems, which will help to keep prices down a little.
With the basic applications of your new computer resolved, it’s time to think about the type of system that might be appropriate: a netbook, laptop or desktop? Netbooks are compact notebooks with small screens (typically 10 to 12 inches), and components that are more about saving battery life than delivering raw power. So expect a slow CPU, only a little RAM (1 to 2GB, usually), no DVD drive, not too much hard drive space, and so on. This is all that you need for basic web browsing, emailing and similar tasks. Their small size makes netbooks extremely portable (most are only around 1-1.5kg), battery life is usually very good at 4 to 10 hours, and you can buy some great systems from as little as $375.00.
Laptops can seem bulky by comparison. They might be more than twice the weight, with larger screens, and more powerful CPUs, which means battery life may struggle to reach 3 hours in some cases. The advantage is that they can also handle much more powerful applications. If you’ll be spending hours typing on the system, you’ll appreciate the larger keyboard. The built-in DVD drive makes it easier to install software and create backups, and high-end laptops can even deliver very acceptable gaming performance.
The best cheap laptop is under $500.00. The best gaming laptops guide reveals that you buy mobile gaming performance for as little as $900.00.
If you don’t need a computer you can carry around, though, a desktop will be your best option. These are larger, but deliver more power for your money, and are generally much easier to upgrade or reconfigure. So if you decide you need better gaming performance, say, you can just buy another graphics card at a later date, something that won’t be possible at all with most netbooks or laptops.
If you decide to go with a PC, you will need to consider the hardware you need. Again think about what you want to do with your computer. If you only want to run very basic programs, browse the web and send emails, then you might get away with 2GB of RAM. It could run slow. Opting for 4GB will improve your system’s performance. Windows 7 and Windows 8 run with 4 GB of memory but more is better. Go for 8 GB if price is not a concern.
It’s a similar situation with hard drives (data storage). If you’re buying a budget PC (around $600.00, say) then look for the highest capacity you can afford; we’d recommend at least 500GB, although even many budget PCs now include 1TB drives.
Then of course there’s the issue of your computer’s processor: which one is the best CPU? The good news here is that even the cheapest PCs now include CPUs with two cores, essentially separate processors that allow you to run multiple tasks at the same time. Look for something with more cores, if you can: something like Intel’s Core i3-530 or AMD’s Athlon II X4 640 offer decent performance at a budget price.
While hopefully most of your concerns have been covered here, there may be one or two other issues you want to consider. If you aim to play the latest games on your computer, the choice of a graphics card will be critical. And whatever you’re doing on your system, you will need a quality LCD monitor.
It’s a lot to consider, then, but doing your homework now will really pay off later. And that’s because understanding the features you need (and the ones you really don’t) will both save you money and help you choose the best PC that will serve you well for years to come.
Which, of course, is the best news of all, because your systems’ extended life means you won’t have to go computer shopping again for a long, long time.
Bruce Maliken, a resident of Forest Hills, is owner and operator and senior technician of UP and Running Computer Services, LLC in Washington, DC (firstname.lastname@example.org, 240-475-4193). He has over 25 years of computer experience, including computer programming, system testing and design, Computer Technologies and operating systems from 1985 to present day. He is also a former Murch, Deal and Wilson parent.