You know it’s time to buy a new computer when the one you currently have takes longer to retrieve a file than it takes you to brew a fresh pot of coffee.

Perhaps it does not run many of the new productivity software. Or, you may just be facing your very first computer purchase.

Whatever the reasons, you find yourself confronted with a myriad of choices and you are not too sure whether to purchase a desktop or a laptop, a Windows or Mac, or even how much to spend on one.

Life Span

One thing to bear in mind is that the lifespan of a computer is relatively short.

Even the most advanced and latest model will become “retro” and outdated within two short years. This does not mean that it cannot be used productively anymore, only that after 2 short years, new and better models have come out.

Not only does the development of the processors and other hardwares move extremely fast but the newer software applications are consuming an increasing amount of memory.

Updated software applicationss may use up so much memory that your PC becomes sluggish.

This is especially true for multimedias and games. As digital picture grows in size and movies become HD (High Definition), so does the required storage memory. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to find users complaining that their 60GB hard drives are already full. Music, videos (movies) and digital images are mostly the culprit.

Although we may not wish to update our softwares we might find ourselves more and more restricted to the choices available as our operating system becomes obsolete.

When considering a computer purchase, we should think of its “shelf life” as lasting about 5 years. This means that there is no need to pay a high premium for the greatest and latest model (unless you are one of those who absolutely must have the latest); once newer models come out, the current ones go on sale.

Life Style

How you plan to use the computer is an important criteria when it comes to deciding what to buy. You can allocate your budget to getting what you really need.

Sony VAIO VGN-TX670PIf you are buying a computer mainly for work, then consider that a laptop may be more appropriate than a desktop.

A laptop allows you to telecommute (work from home) so you don’t have to miss your son’s baseball game or daughter’s ballet performance.

It allows you to prepare a presentation at your office and take it to a customer’s meeting. It allows you (and your staff equipped with laptops) to still be productive even when they cannot commute to work (say, during a snowstorm).

Feature for feature, a laptop is usually more expensive than its similarly equipped desktop. But laptops are portable and desktops are not.

If you need to do lots of video-editing — or play simulation games — you need a computer with high processing power and fast graphic card.

If you want to use it simply for email and browsing the Internet, then a low budget computer will be sufficient.

The following table gives you an idea of the type of processor (CPU) and hard disk space you may need depending on what usage you intend to put a computer to.

Uses Processor Hard Drive GB
Internet & email Any 30
Office work Any 30
Music Any 50
Photo Any 100
Movie Dual Core 150
TV Dual Core 50
Games Dual Core 30

CPU: Two Is Better Than One

The CPU (Central Processor Unit) or microprocessor is the brain of the computer.

Now that the Apple Mac runs on Intel chips, there are two main microprocessors manufacturers: Intel and AMD.

Intel’s flagship processor is the Pentium 4 and for AMD it is the Athlon 64.

AMD Turion 64 is designed specifically for laptop due to its low power consumption and the AMD Sempron is for the low budget PC.

Intel Centrino is equivalent to the AMD Turion 64 and the Celeron would be the processor for low budget PC.

AMD, which uses to lag Intel in microprocessor development, has now surpassed it in performance. AMD microprocessors are also cheaper.Intel or AMD? We do not recommend buying a computer based on the microprocessor brand. It doesn’t make a difference what’s inside — no matter what the ads may say to the contrary.

Apple iMac G5Check the frequency of the processor. Usually the higher it is, the faster the processor.

Both companies have now introduced Dual Core processing with two processors on one chip.This Dual Core microprocessor significantly increases the processing power of a PC.

[Note: you cannot and must not compare the frequency of a Dual Core processor with that of a regular processor.]

If you can afford it, we recommend that you purchase a computer with a Dual Core microprocessor.

Memory: The More RAM, The Better

RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and is the workspace the computer needs to run programs and do its processing. The more RAM your computer has, the better.

For example, you can open more programs simultaneously. If your computer significantly slows down when you open multiple applications, it may be a sign that it does not have enough RAM for your needs.

Also, the more RAM means a program be loaded completely into memory and does not need to be swapped in and out — and thus can run faster.

We recommend a minimum of 512 MB RAM. Many CPU-intensive applications may need 1GB or more of RAM.

Hard Drive: The More GB, The Better

Today’s applications do lots of things and thus require lots of storage space on your hard drive.

The size of your hard drive is measured in bytes. A byte is the storage unit of your computer. A MB consists roughly of 1,000 bytes; a GB of 1,000,000 bytes or 1,000 MB. The more GB your hard drive has, the more stuff you can store in it.

If you are going to download a lot of music or movies and store a lot of pictures, you would need a lot of gigabytes.

We recommend going for the biggest hard drive you can afford. In fact, the bigger it is, the cheaper a gigabyte costs.

[Note: Although the speed of the hard drive affects the computer’s performance it is not as significant as that of the RAM.]

Graphic Card

Some computers have an integrated graphic card that relieves the CPU from graphics-intensive computations, and thus free the CPU for other processing.

L2 Cache And Frontbus

The L2 cache is short for Level 2 cache, a memory which often resides out of the microprocessor chip. [The memory which is built inside the processor chip is called L1 cache.] Low budget microprocessors have less L2 cache (128MB) than the regular processors (512 MB above). The higher the L2 cache and the speed of the frontbus, the faster the computer.

Other Features

Most computers have a CD/DVD burner. Dual-Layer DVDs are still expensive and will take a few years for the price to go down. We do not recommend having a Dual-Layer DVD burner presently. The coming of Blu-ray discs and HD DVD might render the Dual-Layer DVD obsolete sooner than expected. We do not recommend having only a CD burner since the price of DVD is almost comparable to that of a CD.

Some computers have built-in memory card readers. This allows you to take the memory card from your electronic device, e.g. Secure Digital (SD) card from your digital camera, and insert it directly into the computer’s built-in reader. This is a useful option if available.

Ideally, you need a few USB ports at the front of the PC and a few at the back. This allows you to connect a digital camera, a USB wireless mouse, a printer, scanner and other devices simultaneously. A FireWire port, which enables the fast transfer of large amount of data, is useful for connecting videocams and cameras.

If you are interested in a laptop, check the battery life. Most can run about 3 hours. Very important is WiFi connectivity, the ability to access the internet wirelessly. Check the screen for brightness, viewing angle and clarity. Size and weight are important factors, too.

Most PC computers are loaded with the Windows XP operating system and require that additional productivity softwares be purchased. The Mac computers have a suite of softwares already included.

Editor’s Recommendations

  1. iMac G5 with 17-inch screen
  2. Dell Dimension 9100
  3. Sony Vaio VGN-TX670P (Laptop)
  4. HP DV1000T (Laptop)

Check prices for Laptops, Desktops, and Software