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Considering buying a new PC?

An article by Hameed Mughal

The information below is intended to give the average person some basic information on the various components of a PC system that need to be considered when purchasing a PC. This is intended to be a starting point for gathering more detailed information. The intention is to get the prospective buyer to think about what he really wants from his PC and to give him some basic information to allow him to ask the right question.
In making the decision to buy a PC you will have decided on the types of applications that you want to run on the PC. The next thing will be to decide what your system requirements are. In trying to determine these requirements you will have to consider the following: -

Motherboard

This board contains the main circuitry of the computer. You will need to ensure that the motherboard can support cached memory (RAM). Cache RAM is an area of very fast memory, whose purpose is to ensures that the processor always has work to do and is not consistently waiting for work. If you are considering the possibility of later upgrades e.g. use of ‘overdrive chip’ to speed up the processor, etc. check that the motherboard in the PC can accommodate your upgrades.

System Memory (RAM)

This is a variable that will have a major effect on the performance of your PC. This memory is where every piece of software that you use will run. E.g. Windows 95 runs OK in 16MB RAM (standard configuration on new PCs), but you will find that it runs much faster with 24MB. It is important for you to remember that RAM is very easily to upgrade, so don’t go for 24 or 32MB RAM if you don’t need it just yet. When you are comparing prices, be careful not to jump to the wrong conclusion, as the price difference may be due to the difference in the amount of RAM.

Expansion Slots

These are important because they take the expansion cards that you will need to extend the functionality of your machine. Its this potential to expand the capabilities of your machine that helps it to be future proof. In the modern 32bit world, there are 2 flavors of expansion slots VL (or Local Bus) and PCI. PCI is the more popular. You should have at least 3 PCI slots of which 2 should be free for future use. As there is still a lot of useful kit that require an ISA (serial) slot, e.g. modems and serial cards. Its suggested that you check that there are at least 3 ISA slots on the machine.

Hard Disk

Over the past years the price of hard disk space has been plummeting, which is just as well as the size of an average software package has grown dramatically. Nowadays the average machine will have at least 1 – 1.2G bytes of disk space as standard. Due to the drastic drop in disk space prices you shouldn’t have much problem upgrading your hard drive later. Also bear in mind that it is possible to add a second hard drive to most machines.

Video Card

This provides output from your system motherboard to your monitor. If you want to do a lot of drawing or graphic work then a faster card will be useful. But as a starting point remember that the amount of memory installed on a video card is probably the most significant factor as it dictates the maximum number of colours and the largest screen grid that the video card can work with. 256K is the absolute minimum, while 1MB is the more standard. Ideally your video card should be expandable to 2 MB. Beware of video cards that use System Memory (RAM). Your 16MB RAM PC could end up having only 15 or 14MB left to run your software. Check also that your video card can support ActiveX especially if you are interested in playing games.

Monitors

The size of your monitor can be important depending on what you are using your computer for. The standard screen size for most systems is 14 inch (standard resolution of 640 X 480 pixels). As 800 X 600 pixel resolution is becoming more and more common, you may be able to getaway with a 14-inch monitor but a 15-inch will be much better. Remember only go up to the larger screens if you can justify the expense in terms of the amount of high-resolution work you will be doing.

CD-ROM

Quad speed (X4) CD-ROMs are still around but being phased out, and should certainly be the bare minimum for multimedia PCs. Even if you don’t want a multimedia system, more and more software these days is being delivered on CDs. Also installing large programs from CDs is mush faster and easier than floppies. A X6 or a X8 are the more standard CD-ROMs and even the X12 and X24 are becoming cheaper by the day. Most CD-ROMs are read only (i.e. cannot write to the CD), but there are writeable and re-writeable ones available. These inevitably are much more expensive.

Sound Card

This is necessary for multimedia systems. Most are SoundBlaster compatible and will generally be adequate for most sound enabled software. Be aware of tiny speakers in a sound card bundle – many of them are too cheap to do the sound justice. If you have a second hi-fi system in the house consider connecting to that.

Modem

This translates the computers internal digital signal into tones suitable for sending down a standard voice telephone line. They can be external (connected to the back of the computer) or fitted internally on a card. Generally speaking an internal modem will be cheaper than an external one and will also be out of the way. The faster a modem (faster it sends / receives a given amount of data) the more expensive it generally is. The minimum speed that you should consider is 28,000 baud (bits per second). There are also modems with fax, and modems that have the capability to distinguish between incoming fax or voice calls.

Printers

Basically there are three types of printers, dot matrix, ink jet and laser printer. The dot matrix generally produce the lowest quality (and are the cheapest) and the laser printers the highest quality output (and the most expensive). The ink jets come in a range of prices and many produce almost photographic quality output. Again the higher the resolution of the print that the printer produces the higher its price will be. Ask to see a test page from some of the ink jets, you’ll be surprised with the high quality print.

Keyboard/Mouse

This should be supplied as part of your PC. Ensure that they are included in the price when comparing prices. They are the easiest items to replace/upgrade. You should check to see if you are happy with the feel of the keyboard, the keys and the mouse. Many mice will have 3 buttons, but typically only two are used for most applications.

Documentation

Documentation on the PC itself is very sparse. Proper user guides are rare and most likely you’ll only get a basic booklet. Consider buying a few good books to overcome the failings of manuals and user guides. Try and get some books thrown in with the price of the PC.

One of the best ways of getting information on the different types of PCs is from friends and relatives who already have a PC. Not only will you be able to try it out first hand, but you will also learn about any problems that they may have had and hopefully avoid them. Another very good source of information is computer magazines. These quite often have reviews and comparison reports of some of the more common PC makes and regularly run detailed tests and have recommended best buys.

Happy & Safe Computing