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Internet 102: Buying the Right System for You (Part 2 of 5)
Buying a personal computer can be a stressful situation. There are several questions that need to be answered before choosing the system that's right for you or your business. If you're not informed about what is available, you may get stuck with a computer that doesn't (or can't) perform to your expectations. Listed below are descriptions of the most common components of today's computer systems; we'll also offer some suggestions to help you decide which computer best suits your needs.
The microprocessor is a computer's brain. When you turn your computer on, the microprocessor is the hardware that goes in motion. The speed at which a microprocessor performs is measured in megahertz (MHz). The faster the microprocessor, the more data that can be sent to and from the computer.
Two of today's best-known microprocessors are the PowerPC from Motorola and the Pentium from Intel. Recently, Intel introduced a new Pentium microprocessor with features called MMX. MMX technology lets your computer run faster when playing multimedia applications, like video, audio and graphical data. Whether you want to pay the extra money for a computer with MMX technology depends on whether you need the added performance. As of now, few programs utilize the new technology; by the end of the year, however, most computers will be sold with MMX microprocessors already installed.
Memory is the electronic holding bin for data that your computer's microprocessor can reach quickly. When your computer is operating, its memory usually contains parts of the operating system, as well as any applications and related data that you are using. Personal computers typically come with 8 or 16 megabytes of RAM, or random access memory. Most computers are designed to allow you to expand the amount of RAM up to a certain limit (64 or 128 megabytes).
There are advantages to upgrading the amount of RAM in your computer. For instance, having more RAM reduces the number of times the computer's microprocessor has to bring data in from your hard disk drive. More RAM also lets your Web browsers operate faster on the Internet.
A good rule of thumb to follow with memory is that you should have twice the amount of RAM a program says it needs to operate. For instance, the Windows 95 operating system functions well in a computer with 16 megabytes of RAM, but it functions faster and better in a system with 32 megabytes.
Whereas memory holds a set amount of data that is processed and needed immediately, storage devices hold much larger amounts of data that are either too large for RAM or are not needed right away. Storage devices include hard disks, CD-ROM drives, digital video discs, and tape backup systems.
The most common word used with storage devices is "megabyte." A megabyte is a measure of storage equal to approximately one million bytes of information. Larger storage devices have a capacity of several "gigabytes," or billions of bytes of information.
Hard disks provide quick access to larger amounts of data. A hard disk is actually a set of stacked disks, like miniature phonograph records, that have data recorded on them electronically. Many computers today include a hard disk drive with a gigabyte or more of storage. However, many computer experts recommend having a hard drive with at least two gigabytes.
CD-ROM drives offer the possibility of recording, storing and retrieving large amounts of information on a compact disc. These high-capacity drives are rated in speeds expressed as a multiple of the first CD-ROM drives produced years ago. The higher the speed, the quicker information can be transferred to your computer. Most computer systems come with a CD-ROM drive that can only read information, not write it to a compact disc. However, recordable CD-ROM drives are dropping in price, and recordable compact discs (each CD hold up to 650 megabytes of information) are relatively inexpensive.
Tape drives and recordable data cartridge devices are another option for storage. Most tape and cartridge devices are external products that plug into a port on your computer. Tapes and data cartridges hold anywhere from 100 megabytes to 3 gigabytes of data and more. They can be connected from one computer to another, so that files which are too large to store on a floppy disk can still be transferred easily.
The storage device that holds the most potential is the DVD, or digital video disc. This new technology has just appeared on the market and is expected to replace CD-ROM in the next few years. DVDs hold enormous amounts of memory; each side can contain up to 4.7 gigabytes of information, more than double the size of the average hard drive. Like the MMX chip, some computer manufacturers are already incorporating the DVD into their new systems.
Modems send and receive telephone signals from your computer. Data transmission over modems is measured in Kbps, or kilobits per second. The faster your modem's speed, the quicker you can look up information on the Internet or send and receive e-mail messages.
Most new computer systems come with a modem that has a speed of 33.6 kbps, but many users are upgrading to modems with 56 kbps technology. You can also order special connections that increase the rate of data transference even higher.
A printer is a must-have item if you'll be using a computer for billing purposes, word processing, or maintaining patient files. The type of printer you buy depends on the type of work you'll be doing with your computer. When shopping for a printer, find out how many pages per minute it prints out. Also, ask what the "dpi" rate is on printed material. DPI stands for dots per inch; the more dots per inch a printer uses, the cleaner your printouts will be. Most large computer stores have printers set up that will print out a sample copy in both color and black and white; you should try out several before making a decision.
Monitors, Video Cards and Sound Cards
A monitor is your display unit, and they come in a variety of sizes. Some of the newer monitors are bigger than the average television set, but they come with a hefty price tag. When buying a monitor, make sure that has a low "dot pitch" rating of .28 mm or less. Dot pitch is a measurement of an image's sharpness; in this case, the smaller the number, the sharper image you'll see.
To review the amount of video and sound cards on the market could easily fill an issue of DC. However, there are a few things you should look for on your system. First, make sure your video card has at least two megabytes of video memory; your computer will need it for multimedia functions and large amounts of animation. Second, try to get a video card that's upgradeable. Most aren't, but within a few years, you'll probably need more video memory to run programs that use MMX. Finally, make sure your sound card is 16-bit or better; if not, you may not be able to hear sound from some newer programs.
Who Can You Trust?
Whether this is your first time buying a system, or if you're just upgrading an existing system, here are some suggestions that could make getting the right computer a little less stressful:
* Shop around. Spending two thousand dollars on something that will alter your lifestyle (and believe me, it will) shouldn't be done on a whim. Check out the big computer stores in your area. Look in the weekend papers for discounts and sales. And compare prices between brands -- you could find price ranges up to $200 or more for the same computer system, depending on the store you buy it from.
* If this is your first system, go with an established computer manufacturer like IBM, Compaq or Dell. You may pay a little more than buying a comparable system from a no-name company, but why take that chance? These companies earned their respect by providing the customer with a quality product and standing behind that product. With a lesser-known company, you may save a little money in the short run, but if something goes wrong, can you depend on them?
* Go some place you can trust. Like the last suggestion, you may pay a little more, but spending that extra money now could pay off in the future. The larger stores are generally more dependable, have been selling and repairing computers for a longer period of time, and customer service is (usually) better than what you'd get in a store that builds its own PCs in-house.
* Get an extended warranty. Most of the larger electronics and department stores offer extended warranties that run beyond the duration of the manufacturer's warranty; Best Buy, CompUSA and Circuit City all offer warranties that pay for parts and labor, among other things. The amount of the warranty depends on the price of the system you buy, but purchasing a $150 warranty now could save you from spending $1500 on a new system in three or four years.
* Above all else, ask questions. The only bad questions are the ones that you don't ask. If you see something you don't understand, consult a sales associate for help. How fast is that modem, hard drive, video card, etc.? Is it upgradeable? How much memory does this system come with? What's your return policy? If the sales associate doesn't know, ask to speak to a department supervisor or manager -- whatever it takes to get your questions answered properly.
(Before concluding this article, a brief note about Internet phone programs. In response to the article that ran in the May 31 issue of DC, a number of readers have asked if there are Internet phone programs that run on Macintosh computers. In fact, there are about a half dozen, and they can also be accessed at C/Net's download.com page (www.download.com). To access them, simply click on the words "GO TO MAC" in the left-hand column of the download.com homepage. The page will reload, and you can then do a keyword search by typing in "phone." Unfortunately, we don't use a Macintosh in the editorial department, but with a little luck, you should be able to find a program that suits your needs.)
In our next issue, we'll discuss what to do once you've purchased a computer system and how to set it up with a minimum amount of stress. As always, we welcome your comments. If you have any questions or suggestions, please contact me at the number or e-mail address below.