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Computer Buying Tips


It's hard to say when the Holiday season starts nowadays; I saw the first store display in September! But however elongated, the season is still the most popular time to buy a new computer. Considerable technological development has taken place during the year 2000. A frantic race between AMD and Intel to build the fastest computer chip has continued. Although Intel has temporarily dropped out of the race, leaving AMD with the fastest chip (1.2 GHz, which is 1,200 MHz!) as I write this in early November, Intel is expected to release its Pentium 4 in time for the holidays. The first Pentium 4 chips will be available in 1.4 MHz and 1.5 MHz speeds, which should make up for Intel's failure to field a working 1.13 GHz Pentium III. I look forward to our COMDEX team's report on Pentium 4 machines. The slowest speed processor you can find in a new computer these days is nearly 600 MHz! But processor speed is only one factor that makes a computer desirable; let's examine a wider range of factors to help you make a good buying decision. 

Desirability factors
Speed space This directly affects your productivity, since the time you spend waiting for your computer to complete an operation could be spent doing something creative.
Reliability No matter how fast your computer chip is, if the computer is broken, your speed and your productivity are zero.
Features Some features are standard; some are extra. Not all features are created equal. Getting the ones you need can require careful shopping. 
Expandability Although your computer may have todayís latest features, next year even newer features will be available, and you donít want to have to buy a new computer to get them. Fortunately, computers (especially desktop models) are modular, so you can add new parts or replace those that are obsolete.
Comfort and Convenience Operating your computer should not be painful. That discourages use, and therefore, productivity
Portability You may need to carry your computer from place to place, perhaps on a trip, or just around town. Notebook computers have become increasingly popular, due partly to their drop in price. There are drawbacks to notebook computers, however.

You perceive the speed of your computer in terms of how long it takes to execute an operation. Thatís the length of time it takes from when you issue a command (perhaps by clicking on a button in a Windows program) until the result of that command is produced (perhaps displayed on your monitor screen). Several parameters affect this length of time: CPU speed, amount of memory, hard drive speed, and video card speed. 

CPU speed
The speed of the chip inside your computer, called the central processor unit, or CPU, is a big factor. Thanks to the competition between AMD and Intel, we now have CPU chips that operate at speeds up to 1.2 GHz. If you create or edit large graphics files (including video files), play advanced three-dimensional (3D) games, or work with large files, youíll appreciate the fastest processor you can afford. Similarly, if you do a lot of multitasking, a faster processor will help. However, the real benefit of the 1+ GHz chip may be that it drives the prices of slower chips down so they are more affordable in typical systems. 

Regardless of which chip your computer may use, 600 MHz is fast, but there are some differences between the different chips. I will attempt to make some generalizations, but caution you that they may not always apply. For a chip running at a given clock speed, AMDís K6-2 chip will usually be the slowest. Somewhat faster is Intelís Celeron chip (currently available in 700, 667, 633, 600, 566, 533, and 500 MHz versions), followed by AMDís Athlon and Intelís Pentium III. The Pentium III, currently available in 1.0GHz (1000MHz), 933, 866, 850, 800, 750, 733, 700, 667, 650, 600, 550, 533, 500 and 450 MHz versions (the 450 MHz version is for laptops). By the time you read this, Intelís first Pentium 4 chips, running at 1.4 and 1.5 GHz, should be available. It uses a completely new design, and should be faster than the Pentium III. As always, it would be prudent to see if any flaws in the Pentium 4 are discovered before investing in one. Historically, Intel has had to recall several new chips due to logical or physical problems.

AMD is well-positioned in the market with two mainstream chips. The Duron, priced near the Celeron level, offers considerably better performance than the Intel chip. Duron chips (made in Austin) run at 600 MHz, 650 MHz, 700, and 800 MHz. Iíve seen some reports that it is competitive with the Pentium III! AMD has recently released a new version of the Athlon (featuring performance-enhancing on-chip L2 cache memory), which is at least competitive with the Pentium III, and cheaper. Computers with the new Athlon chips are designated as having performance enhanced cache memory or perhaps some other term. If a computer with an Athlon chip is not labeled as having the new chip, assume it has an old one. The new Athlon chips are available in clock speeds of 1.2 1.1 and 1.0 GHz, and 950, 900, and 850 MHz. As I write this in mid-October, the Athlon is the fastest chip available for a PC; and AMD can produce these chips in large quantities. The Athlonís advanced design should make it possible for AMD to keep increasing the speed. It would not surprise me to see a 1.4 GHz Athlon released at the same time as the Pentium 4.

Memory makes a difference in perceived speed, since when a computer runs out of random-access memory (RAM), it uses space on the much-slower hard drive for overflow. For consumer versions of Windows (Windows 95, Windows 98, Second Edition, or Windows Millennium Edition), 32 MB is the minimum you should consider. 64 MB is OK for most uses, while 128 MB (or more) will help with processor-intensive tasks like video editing, complex graphics, and games. For Windows 2000 (Microsoftís business operating system), 64 MB is minimum, with more memory resulting in faster operation. With memory at or near its all-time low price, thereís no real reason to have less than 64 MB.

Hard drive speed
Hard drive speed is important, both because those drives are used for memory overflow, and because you must read data from and write it to the hard drive during computer operation. IDE drives come it two speeds: 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM. The 7200 RPM drives are distinctly faster. To make things even more confusing, hard drives can have three kinds of connections, called 33 MHz, 66 MHz, and 100 MHz. These are  burst speeds, not steady-state. ATA 66 IDE connections are faster than the old standard ATA 33. ATA 100 connections are even faster, although somewhat rare at this time. Donít confuse the term Ultra DMA connection with an ATA 66 or 100 connection; they are all Ultra DMA connections. If a computerís specifications donít specifically mention the ATA 66 or 100 feature, itís almost certainly the slower ATA 33 connection.

Video card speed
A computer command is not completed until the results are displayed on the screen. So the speed of your video card, which constructs the images that are displayed on your screen, is an important factor in the perceived speed of your computer. Advanced 3D game graphics in particular demand all the speed your video system can deliver, and are responsible for the rapid development of graphics cards with three-dimensional capabilities. These cards send many of the graphics computational tasks to the video card, freeing up the CPU to run programs. Thatís why they are sometimes called graphics accelerators, and may have up to 64 MB of memory on the card!

If youíre not a gamer, and run mainly so-called business applications (word processors, spreadsheets, even presentation graphics), which use mostly two-dimensional graphics, you wonít get a lot of benefit from the latest 3D video cards. Not that they donít handle 2D graphics very well, but most of their advanced graphics concentrate on their ability to display 3D images rapidly and realistically. But donít invest a lot in a video card if you arenít going to need its capabilities. Many home computers skimp on video cards to save money, by using graphics circuits built into the motherboard and sharing memory from your computerís main RAM. Thatís guaranteed to be slow. 

The two major surveys of computer reliability, from PC World and PC Magazine, were both updated in their July 2000 issues, so the information is fairly current. Unfortunately, the news is that reliability is dropping. Why is that so? Neither magazine had a conclusive answer. A computer is much less complex than a home theater, yet has more problems. Three possibilities occur to me:

  1. users have much greater interaction with computers, and have more opportunity to screw things up, or
  2. computers are built out of major subsystems (the drives, video cards, modems, etc.) that are designed somewhat in isolation, so incompatibilities can easily occur; or
  3. due to competition to get a product to market, the software drivers that make the individual pieces work with the operating system are not fully developed (my favorite).
PC Reliability
PC World PC Magazine
Best Dell Dell
Next Best IBM Gateway, HP, IBM, Micron,
Quantex, Locally built

Next Worst Acer, Compaq, Gateway, HP, Micron, Quantex Apple, eMachine, NEC, Sony, Toshiba
Worst None Acer, AST, Compaq, Pachard Bell
The table shows reliability data from the two magazines for home computers, those that you normally find on the shelf at major retail outlets (Best Buy, CompUSA). They both divide their data into four levels of reliability, or bands, although they donít label them the same way, nor is there a direct correspondence between bands in the PC Magazine and PC World surveys. I instituted my own band labels in order to show uniformity. Although a particular computer brand may appear in different bands in the survey, there is considerable similarity in where they fall in the overall order of the survey. Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, and e-Machines are the most common brands I see on the shelves in San Antonio computer stores.

Note that PC Magazineís survey shows an entry for locally built computers ó the ones built by shops like many of the advertisers in PC Alamode. That rating is a nation-wide average, but indicates locally-built computers are pretty good, and Iím guessing that their local service is what the survey respondents really liked.

Standard features for a computer system include a CD-ROM, a sound system (including speakers), keyboard, mouse, and monitor. 

CD-ROM drives:
CD-ROM drives are measured by speed ratings measured by X-factors; the higher the X-factor, the faster the drive will read the information off the CD-ROM disc (yes, thatís the correct spelling). But the X-factor speed rating is deceptive, being measured at the outside of a CD-ROM, where itís fastest. At the inside of the CD-ROM, speeds are slower, usually about half the outside, rated speed. And most of the information on a CD-ROM is towards the inside of the disc. Unless you have specialized needs for extra-fast CD-ROM playback, I consider any drive with a 32X or higher speed to be adequate.

Sound systems:
Similar to video systems, sound systems consist of two parts. Part 1 is the chips inside the computer (they may be on the motherboard, or on plug-in cards) that actually read recorded sound files and convert them to electrical signals that are sent to the speakers. Part 2 of a sound system is the speakers that actually play back the sound. There is a wide range of quality in both parts of a sound system, since this is a popular place to cut costs. In particular, standard speakers tend to be (charitably put) undistinguished. 

Features that are not yet considered standard include things like DVD-ROM, rewritable CD-ROM (CD-RW), rewritable DVD-RAM, multichannel sound, flat-panel LCD monitors, removable storage drives, tape backups. . .the list could go on and on. With the exception of the rewritable DVD-RAM, every item in the list is available on some prefabricated computer. But even so, the items you get in a prefabricated computer (i.e., one that you find on the shelf in a store) may not represent a good value. For example, if you are very serious about using a recordable CD-ROM, you may find that those built into prefabricated computers rather slow. As I write this, the state of the art in recordable CD-ROMs is Plextorís 12/10/32A PlexWriter model, where the speed ratings are for writable/rewritable/playback. Many prefab computers with CD-RW drives may offer only 4X/4X/24X speed; the fastest I have seen on a pre-fab computer is 8X/4X/32X. So shop carefully, or even better, visit a local computer builder who can tailor a computer to your exact needs.

Case size:
Some very compact computer cases offer little or no space for adding extra devices. Of course, you can add devices externally by using USB or parallel port connections, but external devices are usually more expensive since they require separate cases and power supplies. They are often slower, too; and take more space on your desk. Most pre-fab computers offer only four externally available drive slots, and those are sometimes full. For example, a computer with a DVD, CD-RW, floppy drive, and Zip drive would have all those slots full. If you wanted to add a tape backup drive, you would have to get an external model.

Motherboard slots:
Your motherboard is the big circuit board inside your computer that connects everything together, and provides slots in which to plug expansion cards. Some computers come with all or most of the motherboard slots filled, which prevents your using them for expansion. Using external devices can circumvent a motherboard slot shortage, also.

Power supply:
Your computer’s power supply must be able to carry the load of all the devices that you install inside the case. Some power supplies offer less than 100 watts of power, which is marginal. Look for a power supply of at least 200 watts.

Comfort and convenience
Your keyboard and mouse should be comfortable to operate, and not cause pain in your wrists or arms. A curved ergonomic keyboard can help, as can a mouse or trackball that is contoured to fit your hand. I consider using a padded wrist rest for the keyboard and mousepad mandatory when using a computer for long periods.

Accessibility of ports:
If you have a digital camera, a personal digital assistant (like a Palm Pilot or Pocket PC device), or an external audio recorder, you will want to connect it to your computer sooner or later (sooner for the PDA). Front-panel USB jacks like the ones on some Compaq and Hewlett-Packard computers make connecting your external devices easy. Some Compaq and Sony cases also include front-panel and IEEE 1394 (FireWire) connectors for digital video cameras and the growing assortment of other FireWire peripherals.

Monitor size:
Larger monitors show more information on-screen, which enhances Windows’ performance. Or you can set the monitor to display larger objects, making it easier to read. Get a 17-inch monitor unless your budget is extremely tight. Also, a lousy picture can rapidly cause eyestrain, so be sure your monitor displays bright, sharp images with no distortion at the edges of the screen. The best way to determine if a monitor’s images are unacceptable is to find one on display and carefully look at the screen yourself. Or you can read reviews of monitors in computer magazines like PC Magazine, which frequently rounds up a large collection of monitors and subjects them to benchmark measurements to evaluate their performance.

Notebook computers provide almost as much power and features as a desktop computer, but in a package that (in some cases) you can drop in your briefcase and take with you on a trip. With excellent displays, some over 15 inches in size, large hard drives, and processor speeds up to 850 MHz, there arenít many features that you canít find in a notebook. But there are two tradeoffs for the notebookís portability: cost and limited expansion capability. A notebook computer is largely a custom-configuration, with limited modularity. You can generally expand the memory (sometimes using only proprietary memory modules), and sometimes replace the hard drive (which may be akin to major surgery). Other expansions, however, would have to use external devices, plugged into USB, parallel, or FireWire ports. And the cost of a notebook computer is generally $500 or more higher than an equivalently equipped desktop computer. Still, if you need portability, the notebook computer is the only solution as functional as a desktop computer.

Additional buying tips
Avoid the deep discounts offset by a three-year Internet contract that are (unfortunately) still so popular at major stores. You can get stuck with a poor, overpriced, and slow Internet service that way. These rebates are not really discounts; you wind up paying the money to an Internet Service Provider. I consider it ethically questionable to show a price based on application of an Internet discount and then make you read the fine print to figure out the real cost.

Be sure you understand the warranty. If your vendor requires you to carry the computer back to the shop, find out if you first have to remove any devices you installed yourself, like a tape backup drive or extra memory. Thatís a pain.

Beware the all-in-one system, which includes a monitor, printer, and possibly other items like a scanner or monitor-top TV camera. In most cases, these systems skimp on one or more components (often the printer) to keep the price down. There is no reason not to pick your own printer, and for that matter, your own monitor. Any monitor will work with a given brand of computer; you donít need one from the same manufacturer that made the computer, which is frequently more expensive.

Deal with reputable vendors. This should be obvious, but I often hear of folks buying at a swap meet from an out-of-town vendor, or on an auction site like eBay. The latter can produce dramatically low prices, but youíre on your own if the actual merchandise doesnít meet expectations. As an eBay aficionado, I have found most sellers to be honest and eager to make things right if youíre not satisfied, but there are a few bad apples.

Donít be afraid of direct-to-customer sales from the big companies like Dell, Gateway, and Micron. Or even from Compaq and IBM. They have a reputation for helping users that is far superior to the help youíd expect from a big computer/appliance store. Many are open 24 hours a day, and offer on-site service in your home for part of the warranty period. Review the reliability ratings above before placing an order. Also find out about return policies; do you get a 30-day no-questions-asked return privilege? Or is there a restocking fee?

Consider the online outlet stores run by the big direct-to-customer companies. These may produce greater savings by selling returned or repaired computers, which have the same warranties as new units.

Buying from a local computer builder, like the ones that advertise in PC Alamode, lets you order precisely the parts and configuration you want. You donít have to pay for features you donít care about, or even worse, throw away substandard parts to replace them with the high-performance parts you really need. For example, if burning CD-ROMs is important to you, youíll want a really fast drive, like the Plextor I mentioned earlier. Iím currently planning a specialized PC to use to create audio CDs. Iíll need a fast processor, a large hard drive, and a really capable CD-RW drive. But most importantly, Iíll need a specialized audio card, something much better than even the best SoundBlaster. You just donít find such a machine in Best Buy, or even on one of the better Web order pages; so I expect to visit local vendors to build my computer.

Local vendors also provide local service. Thereís nothing easier than being able to carry a malfunctioning computer back to the builder to get it serviced. Be sure you are clear on their warranty service when you buy, however. In writing.

Finally: shop, shop, shop! Like any other commodity, knowing what constitutes a good value is essential to getting a good deal. Fortunately, this year, getting a good value is easier than ever.

See also: Vade's Peripheral Considerations

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