The first thing to remember when buying a computer is: Whatever you buy today will require upgrading in six months (or less) anyway. Likewise, whatever recommendations we make today will be obsolete in a similar amount of time. That being said, here's what to look for in your next (or first) computer.
More than likely, the first question you should ask yourself is, "What do I want to do with my computer?" The second question will probably be: "How much can I afford to spend?" These questions will assist you in choosing the right machine for you. Let's break down a computer system into its basic components:
The first and most important part of the computer system is called the MICROPROCESSOR or "CPU". This is the heart, or main component, in ALL microcomputers, or PCs (personal computers), as they're affectionately called. As far as IBM-compatible PCs are concerned, Intel was, until recently, the main (and only) supplier of microprocessors. Within the last few years, however, a few other companies have sought to challenge Intel's dominance, and though Intel still has the majority share of the market, an upstart is slowly, but surely, gaining market share: Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), who makes the Duron and Athlon lines. Although it is still playing catch up, the results are being felt in lower prices for processors and computers overall. You will see or hear such terms as Celeron/Pentium III/Pentium IV or Duron/Athlon, along with numbers from 500Mhz to 3Ghz and higher. Basically, the higher the numbers, the more powerful the computer is and, of course, the higher the price.
Look at it this way: Intel and AMD are probably the lines to stick with; they are not only the major players, but they have better compatibility. So:
For Intel: The Celeron, a low-end Pentium IV chip, is a cost-effective way to go; there are quite a few speeds available and the prices are continuing to fall. This is the line you will probably be interested in; the prices are continuing to fall as new models are introduced. As of this writing, the Celeron line starts at 700MHz and ends (currently) at 2.6GHz; the Pentium III line, at 733MHz and ends (currently) at 1.4GHz, and the Pentium IV line, at 1.3GHz and ends (currently) at 3.2Ghz. The newest Pentium IV, the Extreme Edition, has just recently released. More about this shortly. At the least, consider getting a Celeron 2GHz if you are not doing computer-aided design, heavy spreadsheet or graphics programming. If you are, a minimum of a Pentium IV 1.5GHz is advised.
For AMD: The Duron is rumored to be discontinued soon, though you can still find some suppliers with these chips in stock. The Athlon family is your only option here; the prices are continuing to fall as new models are introduced. As of this writing, the Duron line runs from 800MHz to 1.3GHz, while the Athlon starts at 700MHz and ends (currently) at 2.167GHz. The newest Athlon lines have just recently been released: The Athlon 64 and the Athlon 64 FX. More about these shortly. At the least, consider getting a Duron 1.3GHz if you are not doing computer-aided design, heavy spreadsheet or graphics programming. If you are, a minimum of a Athlon 1GHz is advised.
The next thing to consider is MEMORY (or "RAM", as it is usually called). Again, the more you have, the better off you are. If you will be running Windows 95/98/Me, get AT LEAST 64MB (MB means megabytes, the measurement for memory) of RAM. This is sufficient to run most applications. For Windows NT/2000 users, a minimum of 128MB is recommended, though you may want 256MB for better performance. If you decide to load Windows XP, you should consider a minimum of 256MB for best results.
Third, a large HARD DRIVE (an internal drive that stays inside your computer) is mandatory. As software (a set of instructions that do things on your computer) becomes more complex, it takes more room to store it. You should get AT LEAST 10GB (GB stands for gigabytes, the current measurement for hard disk storage) of permanent storage. This may seem like a lot, but believe me, you'll need it soon enough. Most major applications take up 100-350 MB each, so you can see how quickly your hard drive will fill up. You can never have too much hard drive space.
Next, a MONITOR or "CRT" (the thing that looks like a TV; this is so you can see what's going on) is very important, because chances are, you'll be spending a lot of time staring at it! Look for a monitor that has a .28 dot pitch or better (the smaller the number, the better the picture you'll get). Also, make sure it's a SVGA monitor, non-interlaced, 17" or better, with a refresh rate of 85Hz or higher. A maximum resolution of AT LEAST 1024x768 and 65536 colors is best. You'll also need a SVGA CARD to drive the monitor. For a 17" monitor, get AT LEAST 4MB video memory; for a 19", at least 8MB is suggested, and for a 21", AT LEAST 16MB of video memory is suggested. If you are thinking cutting edge, however, LCD screens are the way to go. Keep in mind, however, that LCD panels are still 2-3x as expensive compared to regular CRTs of the same size, but prices are falling rapidly. More information follows:
Don't go LCD shopping armed only with your knowledge of traditional cathode-ray monitors; LCDs are quite different. Check the list below before you buy.
Warranty: Most LCD makers warrant the monitor and the backlight separately (up to three years for the screen, and usually one year for the backlight). The reason: fluorescent-tube backlights have estimated lives of about 10,000-50,000 hours, and they're pretty fragile. As a result, they're the part most likely to die. A longer warranty gives you extra peace of mind.
Pixel death: Even with the latest techniques, it's not uncommon for LCD panels to have a few dysfunctional bits. A standard 1,024-by-768-pixel resolution, color, active-matrix LCD screen contains more than 2.3 million subpixels, and the odds are that a few will be dead in nearly every panel. So flat-panel vendors expect LCD buyers to live with a black or a green dot here and there.
Most makers have a minimum number of pixels that must malfunction before you can have the screen fixed under warranty, but they often don't advertise those numbers--often because they're willing to bend the rules if the bad pixels appear close together or near the screen's center. Try before you buy. Hook the monitor to a computer, load a black screen, and look for white or colored pixels. Then switch to a white screen and check for black dots. If you see more than you want--or if they're in the worst places--ask to see another unit.
Video card compatibility: Many of the latest LCD monitors work with most graphics cards. But some require that you use an included digital adapter. Such cards skip the digital-to-analog step most analog graphics cards go through, theoretically resulting in faster system-to-screen performance and higher frame rates. The card also means your hot-stuff 3D accelerator may have to go by the wayside.
The good news, however, is that several LCD monitor vendors have worked with graphics card companies to create combination analog-digital graphics cards that support both outputs, as well as the fancy acceleration features we all love.
Resolution support: Both CRTs and LCDs are designed to work at one optimal resolution. But unlike CRTs, most LCDs have a hard time smoothing out the jaggies when running at resolutions below 1,024 by 768. Every LCD attempts to present a worthwhile picture, but only a few do it well. Most produce jagged, nearly unreadable text and blocky graphics. So ... If you know you'll need to run at lesser resolutions, be sure the monitor you pick can handle the task.
If you're into MUSIC or SOUND/GAMES in general, you'll definitely be interested in a SOUND CARD. These cards really spice up music; some can even give you CD-quality sound. They range from 8-bit (terrible) to 16-bit (minimum) to 32-bit (pretty good) to 64-bit (very good) to 128-bit(cutting edge) and are made by a variety of companies. Who makes the card you buy doesn't make much difference unless you compose music for a living; if not, make sure that it is 100% SoundBlaster compatible (SoundBlaster, from Creative Labs, was one of the early sound card makers, and set the standard for sound cards). Of course, you will need some speakers to go with it.
If you use computers at all, you'll probably need a MOUSE. This device is a necessity for clicking on icons and also for drag-and-drop applications. If you like to move the whole mouse around, the standard mouse should be fine. But if your desk space is limited, you may want to consider a TRACKBALL mouse, which has the ball on top, so you just roll the ball and the pointer moves, or a TOUCHPAD, which you can just slide your finger across the top of to move the cursor around.
For those who are students or have children (or are really into entertainment/games), a CD drive is a must-have. This is almost like the CD player on your stereo, except it reads information from CD-ROMs (ROM means Read Only Memory; these CDs, like your stereo, can't be recorded on; however, there are now CD-R/W drives and discs that you can use to record your own data or music) which look just like regular CDs. The good news about CD-ROMs is that they hold A LOT of information; about 650MB worth. The older drives ran pretty slow, but the new generation is quite a bit quicker. An 24X speed (or higher) is recommended. Look for an access time under 150ms (milliseconds) and a data transfer rate of 1200 KB/Sec or higher (the higher, the better). These drives are used extensively for multimedia applications and games. DVD drives are now a viable alternative to CD drives, however, because not only do they play CD-ROMs, but they can also play full-length DVD movies! Besides that, DVDs quite a bit more thant CDs do: currently from 4.7 - 17GB! With DVD recordable drives currently under two hundred dollars, look for CD drives to slowly phase out as DVD becomes the medium of choice. Also, you can now put your own movies on DVD affordably!
A SCANNER (a device which copies an image from paper directly into your computer) is also a great device to invest in. They are now very affordable and are a great help if you constantly write things on little pieces of paper, then proceed to lose them. Or if you get a lot of correspondence on paper and don't want to keep all of it around. If you are going to scan pictures or from books/magazines most often, you should definitely get a FLATBED scanner; otherwise, a SHEET-FED model should be sufficient. Don't settle for a model with less than 24-bit color or 1200x1200dpi, and you should get one that plugs into your USB port.
With the invention of the computer, many people thought that we were well on our way to the "paperless society" so many had talked about. However, with the advent of fast printers, we started generating more paper documents than ever. If you want to do letters, memos and other such documents on your computer, sooner or later (probably sooner than later) you're going to need a PRINTER. This is almost like a typewriter, except it's a lot better and a lot faster.
Printers come in three or four basic types:
Dot Matrix - these are in a category called "impact" printers because the print head actually strikes the paper to make the letters print. These are kind of slow, and the print is about like that of a typewriter, or a little better. This printer is usually used for multi-part form use.
Inkjet/Bubblejet - these printers are so called because the ink is sprayed on the paper, then an impression is made for the letters you want. These are good if you are working with a small budget, and they also come in COLOR.
Thermal - used mostly for specialized photo-quality printing applications. Not really practical for regular use because of special paper required, but print quality is very good.
Laser - The king of the hill. Lasers are like copy machines; they print a page at a time. They work by "baking" the text or graphics on the entire page first, then spitting it out. Print speeds range from about 3 ppm (pages per minute) on the low-end lasers to as fast as 24 ppm on the most expensive models and print quality goes from about 300dpi (dots per inch - the more dots, the better the picture) to 1200dpi. You can get a good 600dpi laser printer for under $200 or a great 1200dpi model for under $300. One of these printers would be good to get if your budget affords it and you don't need color; if so, consider getting a mid-range inkjet or bubblejet printer. Make sure it has a resolution of AT LEAST 1200x1200dpi, preferably one that will load both the black and color cartridges simultaneously.
There are a couple other necessary accessories that I didn't mention in detail, but I'll list them here:
Floppy Disk Drive - You will need at least one floppy disk drive, preferably a 3.5" 1.44MB drive since you may be using disks a lot, although most software makers are switching to CD-ROMs for their software. The battle is raging, however, for the next floppy drive standard, since more and more users find that 1.44MB is just not enough. Iomega has quite a head start with their "Zip" drive, which now holds 100MB, 250MB & now 750MB of data. It is rapidly replacing floppy disks as the portable media of choice. However, Imation is not to be denied. They currently have the LS-120 "SuperDisk"drive (120MB capacity), which not only holds more than the regular "Zip" drive, but has the added advantages of being able to format/read/write all previous 3 1/2" floppy formats, i.e. 720k, 1.44MB and 2.88MB, as well as the new 120MB format (The Que's 240MB, a sister drive, holds twice as much, reads 120MB and regular floppies and, as a bonus, formats regular floppies to 32MB ... Wow!). Both of these drives have their sector of the market. Only time will tell which will win out. They both come in internal and external models. There are a few newcomers trying to find their way in also; most are backward-compatible with the floppy drive: Sony's HiFD, a 200MB drive; Samsung's Pro-FD, a 123MB drive; Caleb Technologies' UHD144 (or "it"), a 144MB drive, and, to a lesser extent, Castlewood's ORB, in 2.2GB and 5.7GB capacities; Iomega now has a new drive, Peerless, which holds a whopping 20GB! It is probably too late for these newer entries, but it remains to be seen who, if anyone, can unseat the floppy drive and take home the "standard" prize. The most recent entrant may have the upper hand, however; the new USB flash drives, which hold from 16MB-1GB, and require no drivers on newer operating systems, may surprise everybody to become the next standard, as some major computer companies are already selling them as an alternative to the floppy drive.
Fax/Modem - Useful if you want to get faxes at home, or to join the "online" revolution. Make sure you get AT LEAST a 56kbps (speed) model. Some newer models have voice mail capabilities, so one device can handle your voice calls as well! Make sure the modem you get has the v.90 standard included. These also come as internal or external devices. With the advent of DSL (high speed internet access via your phone line) and cable modems (high speed access via cable), look for regular modems to play less and less of a role in your online access.
Software - This is an INTEGRAL part of your computer, as it tells the computer how to communicate with all the rest of your hardware (disk drives, printers, etc.) Your computer WILL NOT work without this. You will need an operating system (described below), as well as other applications (or programs, described below) to write letters, handle your finances, etc.
Your computer will probably have Windows 2000 or XP installed. They offer quite a few features for the technically frustrated user, particularly one called Plug & Play, which means that you can add devices (sound cards, modems, etc.) and the computer will know where they are and how to configure them without your having to set jumpers on the hardware itself.
You should be able to get applications for doing such things as word processing, graphics, etc., installed when you buy the computer. Some computer stores will "pre-load" this software for you for less than you would be able to buy it. They may offer you one of the popular "suites", which are a number of different types of commonly-used programs bundled together. These would include: a word processing program, a spreadsheet program, a database program and a graphics or presentation program, along with a few others. Corel has WordPerfect Office, Lotus has SmartSuite and Microsoft, of course, has Microsoft Office. Which one you choose will probably depend on what software you have used before or what others recommend.
This information should give you enough ammunition to go and bravely buy your first (or next) computer!