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Thinking about buying a new computer?
Buying tips

Larry Grosskopf, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist at the San Antonio State Hospital, with a very strong interest in computers and technology. He and Marta, his wife, are raising two well-loved children, 9 year-old Zoë, and 7 year-old Jackson.

Have you been thinking about or planning on buying a new computer for yourself or someone else this holiday season? Earlier this spring, I considered buying new or upgrading my old computer. My strategy is to buy a computer (or to upgrade my old one) to as close to the leading edge of technology that I can afford. My decision to wait was based on my thinking that the system I want to buy now will be a nice upgrade for me but will cost significantly less if I wait a few months. Of course, the problem with that logic is the longer you wait to purchase, the further away from ďtop of the lineĒ or leading edge technology your planned system gets. If you planned your system three or four months ago, then you may need to reconsider some of your system options. There are really two major aspects to consider here, buying new or building new versus upgrading what you already have. In this article, I will describe as much as I can cover about buying/building a brand new computer. Part Two (Upgrading Your Computer?) will attempt an overview of issues to contemplate before upgrading your current system.

First the basics
First, there should be some basic principles that determine your course of action. Knowledge is power. Gather as much information as you can to help you make a decision that you wonít regret in a few months. Build or buy the best computer you can afford, but donít let the glitter and gloss of fancy new features (which you may not want) beguile you into spending unnecessarily. Spend as much preparatory time as you can to allow you to determine what you desire, without exhausting your resources. Look at all of your options and once you decide what you need and want, make a list of primary features and secondary features that you may want but donít really need. Use a variety of Internet sites, computer magazines, local dealers or computer experts to help you get a better understanding of whatís out there before you make the purchase. Since this is a major purchase, you may want to consider what warranties accompany the system that you decide to buy. Extended warranties are often offered but my personal take on them is to avoid them. The reason for that is that I plan on keeping my computer for 12-18 months before replacing or upgrading it. Under a warranty, if you work on or upgrade your system yourself, in most cases, you have just voided the warranty that you paid good money to purchase. On the other hand, if you plan on keeping your computer for 3-5 years, without upgrading it, then an extended warranty might be worthwhile. 

Once you decide how you want to proceed to obtain your new PC, decide how much you are willing to spend. Make a list of your basic computer needs and then shop wisely. It wonít cost a great deal of time to make price comparisons, but it may save you a great deal of money. Read magazine articles from sources such as PC Magazine, Computer Shopper or PC World to help you make your decision. Online searches using search engines such as Lycos, Google or a new one I have found recently, Fazzle are most informative. Internet sites such as C|Net or ZDNet provide the reader with many reviews and shopping resources. An excellent Web site for comparisons is Pricewatch which will let you compare computer prices from a variety of online shops. Be forewarned that prices for exactly the same product can vary by hundreds of dollars. 

Donít stop there. You can also search Internet stores such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM or Gateway for the best online deals. If you want to purchase online, you should also consider sites such as Half.com and TigerDirect for specials, deals or closeouts.

Once you get an idea of what is available out there and what you want, go to local retail stores or local computer dealers like those who advertise in our magazine. Depending on what you want, you may pay slightly more by purchasing from a local vendor, but you may find it cost-effective in the long run, especially if you eventually decide to upgrade or if you need it serviced for some reason. Many of the larger companies still insist that you send your computer to them and they may take an indefinite time to resolve the problem. In my experience, many of the local vendors offer sweet, bargain deals on new systems that are slightly below cutting edge, but that are upgradeable. In addition, they will custom build the machine exactly to your specifications.

If you want a specific motherboard, more RAM, a faster CPU or a larger hard drive, then you can get the exact configuration that meets your needs. To stay within your budget, you may have to make choices or accept a sacrifice in one area in order to upgrade another, more important area. For example, if you're a gamer, you will most likely want the best and fastest video card that you can afford.  If you are musician, you may want a motherboard that does not have sound integrated onto the board so that you can splurge on a higher-quality sound card.  If you are into editing videos on your computer, you probably want a fast, high-end CPU, lots of RAM, and a high-quality AGP graphics card and possibly a DVD writer. 

Now let us get down to specifics. For the PC user to get his or her ideal PC, they want the machine to meet their exact needs. Donít be surprised that pre-configured or on the shelf models may not offer you what you need or they may be way more than what you require. However, if the price is right, they may be worth a look. What computer will fit you like a well-worn glove? Generally speaking, I want the most processing power (fastest CPU), most memory (RAM) and largest hard drive configuration I can afford, in part, because video editing is one of my hobbies. You may not need that or you may need more, for example, if you are creating or buying for a business PC or you are an avid gamer, your specifications will likely vary. If you have decided what the purpose of your computer is, then you should then proceed with a list of minimum and maximum components you want to include. 

My dream system would include an Intel P4 or AMD Athlon 2.x GHz CPU, 256-512 MB of fast DDR RAM, a 64-128 MB graphics card, an 80-120 GB hard drive built onto a 533 MHz bus speed motherboard that is upgradeable. 

Some things to remember: everything is getting faster and faster, not only CPUís and video cards, but DDR RAM, for example, which has 266, 333 and now 400 MHz speed chips available, versus some of the previous 1600, 2100 or 2700 DDR speed sticks or the older 100 MHz or 133 MHz SDRAM memory sticks that are on the market. Know what motherboard your CPU needs and donít skimp there. Modern motherboards are now operating at 266 MHz front side bus speeds with the newest ones running a 533 MHz bus.

There are USB 2.0 connections which are 40 times faster than USB 1.1, Firewire devices (IEEE 1394) are becoming more commonplace and affordable, and many new computers are shipping with a fast CD-RW or a DVD/CD-RW combo drive.

If you want the latest in DVD writer drives, then you will pay a premium and you will have to run the gamut of what DVD format to pick from. Unfortunately as of this writing, there is no consensus on what DVD writer would be the best choice for most home users. Rather, it depends on what purpose you have for writing to DVD discs. Is making home video's and creating DVD videodiscs your primary purpose? If so, then you'll want to avoid DVD RAM and you can choose from DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R or DVD+RW. Many companies are beginning to offer DVD writers that are combination drives, offering the ability to write to a combination of DVD formats in a single drive. However, you should understand that backward compatibility with DVD players is not guaranteed. As far as whatís new and fancy this year, besides DVD writers, many manufacturers are offering combination DVD (read only) and CD-RW combination drives.

Hard drive size should be at the very least 20 GB on lower-end machines and 40 GB or greater on moderate to higher priced computers.

Power supplies are another important consideration and should be at least in the 300-400 watt or higher range to support the more powerful processors with add-ons and peripherals. Aluminum cases are said to be more cooling friendly and many cases of all types are being offered with multiple fan outlets (sides, back, front or top). Case makers are also offering cases with glass sides with neon lighting inside to improve the aesthetic appeal of your system. If you have one of these you would not want to hide it under your desk, thatís for sure.

Some system makers have tried adding new features which may or may not catch on. Sony has a new Vaio notebook with a mobile Intel P4 2.0 GHz processor and a combo DVD-RW/CD-RW drive. Many notebook makers are building USB 2.0 standards into their machines. Just watch out for notebooks that no longer contain a floppy drive. 

Other computing trends to be careful to ask about are: some system makers moving away from PS2 connectivity, and omitting serial and parallel ports on newer machines. This would be especially disconcerting if you get your new computer only to discover that you could no longer use your printer, scanner or other peripherals with it.

Another new innovation is offered by HP and is called the “Media Center” which lets you plug in just about any type of flash memory for digital cameras in the built-in slots in front of the case. Not only that, but this computer can accept your cable TV coaxial cable and you can then use it as a replay television system. It also comes with Klipsch speakers and a DVD-RW drive and can be operated by remote control just like your VCR. The Sony Vaio notebook and the HP Media Center are just two of the systems I saw that brought some innovation to challenge the competition.

There are many great computers out there, so do your homework, good hunting and hereís hoping you find a great PC that will satisfy your current and future computing needs.

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