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If you're looking for some computer help, then I highly recommend by starting with my first part in my series:
Computer Advice Part 1 of 9 - Hardware Terms

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Computer PC Buying Guide

Computer Buying Guide
So, you're possibly thinking about either buying a new computer? I see people buying computers day-in and day-out who don't have any idea as what to purchase. I'm hoping that the few of you who stumbled across this guide may find it somewhat helpful, and I'll try to keep it as simple as possible.
An Important Note: Since technology is constantly changing, instead of writing a guide based upon what current technologies are available just for this guide to be outdated quickly, I'll base this guide upon dollar amounts, since in the end, it's what you can afford to buy will determine what computer you will get.
Buy New or Used?
If you can afford it, always try to buy a new computer. I can't count how many times that I've seen defective computers sold to innocent buyers. However, if you're planning to buy a used computer, always make sure that:
  1. You know and trust the person or people you are buying from
  2. It powers on
  3. It doesn't show obvious signs of malware (computer infections)
  4. It can load and run most common software programs installed
  5. It can connect to the internet
  6. It comes with Recovery Discs so that you can erase the HDD (Hard Disk Drive) and reinstall the OS (operating system), when needed
  7. If possible, try to research what you're buying, especially its age and how much similar computers are being sold on an auction website, such as eBay at http://www.ebay.com.
  8. You have at least a week of where you can test it and return it for a full refund, if necessary
If you buy a new computer, I highly recommend to familiarize yourself with the retailer's return policy, including any restocking fees that may apply if you decide to return your computer for an exchange or refund. Don't make ANY assumptions!!! Different retailers have different return policies and stocking fees!
Mac or PC?
Honestly, this is a decision based upon your previous computing experience, if you have any. Most people who grew-up using Macs prefer Macs, and most people who grew-up using PCs prefer PCs. It's as simple as that. Macs are defined as computers being manufactured by Apple, and is running a Macintosh operating system; whereas PCs is a general term of a computer running a Microsoft Windows operating system. Opinions of "ease of use" will often greatly differ, depending upon what you are currently comfortable with and what you personally define as "easy to use". PCs are most commonly used in the home and business environments, whereas Macs are most commonly used in the computer arts (graphics and sound) world. However, there are pros and cons to owning either one that make them very different, if not completely opposite of each other...

PC Pros:
  • Much larger variety and brands of PCs to choose from, starting from $200 to well over $1,000. Custom-built "gaming" computers can even greatly vary between $2,000 all the way up to $10,000! There is a HUGE difference in performance between the $200 computer versus a $2,000 computer!
  • Most PCs, especially those bought from a local major retailer, are usually much less expensive than Macs.
  • Much bigger variety of components (computer hardware parts) and software program titles are available for PCs versus Macs, and are easier to find locally.
  • Many more local authorized repair shops that can service PCs under manufacturer's warranty.
  • Usually easier to replace and upgrade components (computer hardware parts), and more "computer geeks" are more comfortable repairing and upgrading PCs versus Macs.
PC Cons:
  • Much more malware (computer infections) currently exist for PCs than Macs.
  • Much of the software preinstalled are trials (time limited) and not the full versions.
  • Phone technical support is usually outsourced overseas, and is usually very frustrating to use.
  • Inexpensive PCs usually have lesser quality parts.
Mac Pros:
  • Higher quality parts specifically designed to function and work properly, much like a finely-tuned engine.
  • Much more stable with much fewer issues and problems versus PCs, including malware (computer infections).
  • Usually better phone technical support.
  • Comes with full version software already preinstalled.
  • Better software for audio and video editing.
Mac Cons:
  • Fewer choices. You have a choice of Apple, Apple, or Apple.
  • More expensive than most PCs you can buy from a local retailer, usually starting at $1,000 or more.
  • Much fewer components (computer hardware parts) and software program titles that's compatible with Macs, and much of which has to be ordered.
  • Much stricter manufacturer's warranty. Many repairs must be shipped directly to Apple.
  • Much fewer local authorized repair shops that can service Macs under manufacturer's warranty.
  • Usually more difficult to replace or upgrade parts. Many, but not all, "computer geeks" dread upgrading or repairing Macs.
Due to the current market share and the variety of PCs available, the rest of this guide is targeted towards PC buyers...
PC Brands: Many people ask which brand is better than another, and these opinions will change often. However, when a PC "breaks", many people identify the issue with the brand instead of the operating system that it is running, when in reality, over 80% of PC repairs are usually repairing the Microsoft Windows operating system and not the actual components (computer hardware parts). However, at the time of this writing, I once read that an independent company studied computer component (hardware) repairs, and rated Dell and Toshiba as having the best "track record", but this doesn't necessarily mean you won't have issues or problems if you purchase from either of these manufacturers. When you work on the other side of the repair counter, you literally see everything come in, but don't assume it has something to do with the computer brand, but most likely due to the operating system in which the computer is running.
The next thing we need to do is identify what type of PC user you are or will be. Even though PCs can be used for multiple purposes, I've created five categories of very common PC user types:
Entry-Level Computer User: All you do or will do is just check your e-mail and surf the internet, print an occasional document, and that's about it. You're not interested into anything graphical, such as games (except Solitaire), creating photo albums, or anything else you would consider "high-tech". Docs, e-mail, and web surfing is about it. Younger kids just learning to use computers and seniors, who are usually very wary of technology, generally fall under this category.
Home/Office User Or Student: Besides doing e-mail and web surfing, you also use office and productivity applications, such as Microsoft Office and Intuit's Quicken or QuickBooks for doing your finances, or for doing school projects. You may dabble a little with the occasional photo editing, such as removing red-eye and cropping pictures, but nothing extensive.
Minor Multimedia/Gaming: Besides e-mail, web surfing, and using office applications, you also enjoy editing and modifying pictures and creating photo albums, downloading and editing audio (such as music), and perhaps even dabble with burning videos. You rip and burn your music so you can take it with you wherever you go. You may also play web-based games and older games, but the graphics are usually "old-school", and are usually Flash or Java-based games (card games, RuneScape, etc.)
Moderate Multimedia/Gaming: Besides all of the above, you like to do heavy photo editing and video editing, or perhaps dabble with CAD or graphics design. You may even want to use your computer as a DVR/PVR to record live movies and shows directly from cable or satellite. You may also play many newer games that require better computer hardware to play, but you are a gamer with a limited budget who would like to have the "best of the best", but can't afford it.
Extreme Multimedia/Gaming: You must have the "best of the best". When you buy or build a new rig, you want the latest and greatest technology, and don't have to worry upgrading it for hopefully a few years. You may also do extensive graphics design, or play the newest games as soon as they come out. You want the best frame rates running at the highest resolution possible.
Once you have identified what type of PC user you are or will be, it's time to move on to Part 2...
PC Buying Guide
Buying a PC is often much cheaper than custom building one yourself. So, unless you're a computer enthusiast or hobbyist, it's cheaper to buy one from a local retailer. After identifying what type of PC user you are, here are some things to look for, based upon the category you fall in:
Recommendations For Everyone:
Always keep in mind, you get what you pay for!!!
Internet and Protection Software:
For anyone who will be using the internet, whether it's just to visit a few websites a week or playing an online MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game), don't skip out on protection software! I've seen infected computers even from those who only visit "the same few websites a week". You get what you pay for, and when you do the research, paid-for protection software always do a better job protecting you against malware (computer infections) than freebies. I currently recommend Webroot SpySweeper with AntiVirus for computer novices, or Kaspersky AntiVirus for advanced computer users. Honestly, IMHO (In My Humble Opinion), I've never been impressed with any McAfee or Norton products, and find other products with a much better detection rate (how well they are able to find and remove most malware). Plus, Norton and McAfee products tend to cause more issues and problems than prevent them.
As with the protection software, don't also skip out on the power/surge protection, either, especially if you're dropping several hundred bucks on your new desktop computer! Stay away from "power bars" or "power strips", and spend a few extra bucks getting a battery backup. Not worried about losing any personal data or keeping your computer running during a power outage? Those are only the minor benefits of having a battery backup. The main reason is to help prolong the life of your desktop computer. Computers were designed to have regulated electricity, at a consistent and constant rate. However, the power that flows from your power outlet doesn't do so. Your computer will often take constant abuse from brown-outs throughout the day anytime a major appliance turns on (such as your dryer), and then spikes when the major appliance turns off. This takes a toll on your computer's power supply and other internal parts. What an $80 battery backup costs you now may save you hundreds of dollars to repair or replace your desktop computer later. Don't take the risk!
Don't get a cheap carrying bag or case! The better quality the bag or case is, the better your laptop is protected while getting bumped and jarred while being carried around. Also, try not to move your laptop around too much while it's in use!
Entry-Level Computer User:
Details: All you need is the least expensive computer you can buy. No "bells and whistles", no fancy gizmos, and just a very basic computer that can connect to the internet. However, if you may want to do more later, I don't advise making an entry-level computer your primary computer! These are often great as a secondary computer for people who wish to do more on their primary computer.
Features To Look For: Internet connectivity
Recommended Hardware: Printer (for the occasional printing)
Recommended Software: OpenOffice.org is a free office application for occasionally creating and editing documents, spreadsheets, etc., but recommended only for home use (however, not recommended for academics or business).
General Price Range: $200 - $400
What To Buy: Netbooks are perfect as an entry-level computer (always remember that most netbooks don't come with a CD/DVD drive!), but there are also entry-level desktops and laptops, usually for a few bucks more.
Home/Office User Or Student:
Details: Besides having internet connectivity, you will probably be using office applications and financial software very frequently.
Features To Look For: Microsoft Office and a financial software program, such as Microsoft Money, or Intuit's Quicken or Quickbooks.
Recommended Hardware:
  • Air Card, and/or wireless connection (usually integrated, to connect to wireless "hotspots")
  • All-In-One Printer/Copier/Scanner
  • Flash Drive (also known as a Pen or Thumb Drive, it's not only used as a backup to keep a second copy of your data, but to take your Microsoft Office documents, spreadsheets, and presentations with you everywhere you go to use on other computers)
Recommended Software: Besides Microsoft Office and a financial software program (such as Microsoft Money, or Intuit's Quicken or Quickbooks), but also free photo editing program, such as Picasa, should suffice for doing minor photo editing.
General Price Range: $400 - $600
What To Buy: Laptops are great for anyone on the go, who mostly uses their computer for academics or small business. Pair a laptop with an air card, and you can connect anywhere that has a cell phone signal.
Minor Multimedia/Gaming User:
Details: Play some web-based games, minor photo editing, audio burning and ripping, and maybe some video burning (but not video editing).
Recommended Hardware:
  • CD/DVD Burner to rip and burn your CDs (most computers come with them).
  • Small or medium-sized external hard drive to backup a second copy of your music, photos and videos.
  • Inexpensive video card that's not integrated (built) into the motherboard, that ranges in price from about $25 - $125.
  • Integrated (built-in) 2.1 or 5.1 channel sound card.
Recommended Software:
  • Inexpensive CD burning and ripping software (about $20 - $60)
  • Inexpensive photo editing software (also about $20 - $60)
General Price Range: $600 - $800
What To Buy: Many laptops can easily handle the demands of minor photo editing and video burning, and play web-based or low-end games, but desktops will generally do it a lot faster for the same price.
Moderate Multimedia/Gaming User:
Details: Extensive photo and video editing, serious audio and video ripping and burning, and perhaps even dabble with graphics design a little. You may want to use your computer as a DVR/PVR to record live movies and shows from live (streaming) cable or satellite. Perhaps play some of the newest games without spending a fortune on the latest and greatest.
Recommended Hardware:
  • CD/DVD/Blu-Ray Burner to rip and burn anything and everything known to man.
  • Add another internal hard drive to help store ripped videos and other large files onto (desktops only).
  • Large external hard drive to backup a second copy of your documents, spreadsheets, presentations, pictures, and videos onto.
  • Mid-range video card (about $150 - $250)
  • TV Tuner card to use your computer as a DVR/PVR (about $35 - $50)
  • Inexpensive 5.1 or 7.1 channel sound card (about $25 - $50)
Recommended Software:
  • Media ripping and burning software (about $100+)
  • Photo and video editing software (about $100+)
General Price Range: $800 - $1,000
What To Buy: This is where desktops start outshining laptops, especially if you want to use the computer as a DVR/PVR, but some of the really high-end laptops can still keep-up. You will spend a lot more money for a laptop for the same features as a desktop.
Hints And Tips: The computer will also run a bit faster if you partition about 5GB - 10GB for a swap file (virtual memory) towards the beginning of the new internal hard drive and move the swap file to there from the original factory hard drive.
Extreme Multimedia/Gaming User:
Details: You want something that makes your friends drool, something that can edit and play anything new, and something you don't have to upgrade anytime soon. Money is of little consequence. Even though you may be buying a "Gaming Series" computer, here is a good way to increase the speed of your new computer even more! Hard drives are often the biggest "bottleneck" (decrease of performance) in your computer, but not usually in the terms of what many people think. Instead of having "too much data" causing your computer to run slow, it's actually how it accesses the data is what slows down your computer. Running RAID 0 (Stripping) will greatly increase your new computer's performance, for about $300 to $600 more.
Recommended Hardware:
  • Two 10,000 rpm internal hard drives (about $100 - $200 each)
  • RAID Controller Card (about $100 - $200)
  • Very large external hard drive to backup a second copy of your documents, spreadsheets, presentations, pictures, and videos onto.
  • High-end video card (about $300 - $500)
General Price Range: $1,000+
What To Buy: For serious graphics for gaming, video editing, or graphic design, you really should buy a desktop computer, and usually the manufacturer's "Gaming Series" (Alienware, Dell XPS, Gateway FX, etc.).
Setting-Up Your New Gaming Desktop:
  1. Backup your documents, spreadsheets, presentations, pictures, videos, and anything else you need to keep onto your external hard drive from your old computer.
  2. Immediately create Recovery Discs after you setup your new computer and operating system (if the computer didn't come with any).
  3. Shut down your new computer.
  4. Temporarily remove the factory hard drive (put it away somewhere safe for the time being because you may need to use it later).
  5. Install the RAID controller card along with the new 10,000 rpm internal hard drives.
  6. Setup the RAID as Stripping (follow the directions for RAID Level 0 depending upon your RAID controller card).
  7. Install the operating system or use your Recovery Discs to do so. You may need to install the RAID controller card driver during the installation.
  8. Once the operating system or Recovery Discs have been installed and setup, shut down the computer and reinstall the original factory internal hard drive.
  9. Format (erase) the original factory hard drive. I recommend creating two hard drive partitions on the original factory hard drive:
  10. The first partition should be about 5GB, and should contain your swap file (virtual memory).
  11. Use the rest of the hard drive for your personal data files, such as documents, pictures, and videos.
  12. Copy your personal data files from your external hard drive onto the newly erased internal hard drive partition and use it for your personal data (such as documents, pictures, videos, etc.).
I hope this guide will help you in purchasing that new computer!

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