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Buying a New Computer
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It's not always worth fixing.

If your computer is more than three years old, you may get more for your money by replacing it. This page is intended to help you understand what matters -- and what doesn't -- when you are buying a new PC.

This page is mostly aimed at desktop computers. Laptops are another matter, with different prices and complications, but many of the basic specifications here also apply.

1. What do you do on your computer?

A $400 computer is enough to check Email and surf the Web, but it won't be much good for high-intensity gaming or video processing. If you need a computer that can handle games or other intensive work, you will spend more... most importantly, on the video hardware (see below).

2. What specifications are most important: how do you get the most for your money?

There are three main specifications people see in computer ads: Memory (or RAM), Processor speed, and Hard disk capacity. Knowing what each one means, and how each one affects the computer's speed, will help you get the best deal:

For most users, memory is most important. Windows XP runs best with at least 512 MB (megabytes) of memory. Many entry level computers have only 256 MB; these computers will run OK, but it is always worth spending the extra money to upgrade to 512 MB: the same computer will be much faster with the increased memory.
More than 512 MB will not produce much increase in speed, unless you run a lot high-intensity applications (Adobe Photoshop, video editing software, etc.).
Avoid shared memory, in which a portion of the system memory is set aside to be used by the video hardware. This hurts for two reasons: Windows has less memory to work with, and the video hardware doesn't work nearly as well as it would with its own dedicated memory.
If you already bought a computer with less than 512 MB of memory, you should be able to upgrade it cheaply. You may be able to install the memory yourself: it's not too difficult. Memory is usually the most cost-effective upgrade to any computer, unless it already has enough.

The processor is less important than memory, and is not really important in an entry-level computer: even the cheapest one is more than enough for checking your Email. However, it may be worth stepping up to a slightly faster processor.
Both of the major processor manufacturers, Intel and AMD, make bargain lines: Intel's is called the Celeron, and AMD's is the Duron. You might be better off with an Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon, but the bargain chips may make the computer very affordable. Don't spend too much to avoid the bargain chips, unless you expect to use processor-intensive applications like Adobe Photoshop or high-end games.
Rule of thumb: It's usually worth $50 to upgrade from an Intel Celeron to a Pentium, or from an AMD Sempron to an Athlon... but it's rarely worth $150.
It's important to make the right decision at purchase time. It isn't cost-effective to upgrade the processor after you buy the computer.

The hard disk serves as the computer's filing cabinet. It must be big enough. Once it's big enough, making it bigger doesn't speed up the computer one bit. (Some hard disks are faster than others, but that's not important here).
Most new computers come with 40 to 80 GB (gigabyte) hard disks. This should be enough for almost anyone, unless you intend to store a lot of photos, music, and/or video files.

We promised to speak more about video hardware... Many new computers have the video components integrated onto the motherboard (main circuit board). This works OK for most users, especially if it has its own dedicated video memory; however, it's definitely not high-performance, and it's rarely upgradeable.
If you don't play violent video games, or edit home videos, you really don't need to care much about this. However, if someone in your family wants to play Doom or Medal of Honor, you will need a separate video card with at least 128 MB (preferably 256 MB) of dedicated video memory. Get this now: it's cheaper than upgrading later, and some systems with integrated video can't be upgraded.
One more note about video memory: It is reported that the next version of Windows, allegedly to be released in 2006, will require high-end video to run properly. If you plan to keep your new computer for several years, and expect to be upgrading to Windows Vista, invest in better video now.

To sum up:

Memory -- Get at least 512 MB, but don't waste money going higher than that. Avoid shared memory.

Processor -- Get the fastest one you can, but don't sweat the numbers or spend a lot to increase them.

Hard disk -- Get one that's big enough, and it'll be fine.

Video hardware -- Avoid shared memory. Spend more if you'll be gaming or editing video.

3. What brand should I buy?

We offer three choices here:

A. Buy a Dell. You can go to their Web site, customize a PC, and have it in your home in a week or so. Many new Dells include flat-panel monitors and free (low-end) printers. Make sure it includes at least a one-year warranty; consider spending a bit more for an extended warranty.

B. Go to a big-box store. You will have fewer customization choices, but you seemingly have the advantage of dealing with a "local" retailer. To get the best deal, you may need to send in several rebate forms.

C. Buy from a local system builder. They can offer the most customizable, upgradeable PC you can get. It will be as good as the system builder's skill (which varies) can make it. You may pay a bit more, but the computer will be exactly what you specify.

Which one do we recommend? All of them, depending on your needs. We stand ready to help our customers navigate the confusing array of options, and choose what is best for you.


Send mail to bob@digitalhousecall.net with questions or comments about this Web site.
Last modified: 10/08/05