Choosing the right computer

Choosing the right computer

Technology David Rowlands

No doubt, no matter how old you are, the computer world has been slowly creeping up (when I say slowly, I mean blisteringly fast) as one of the most dominate forms of communication, office work or entertainment of the 21st century. Any age of person these days likely has a computer, and those who don’t tend to use one at some time or another. It’s just a fact of life these days.

Unfortunately, computers are more complex than, say, a toaster. Buy a toaster and all you have to worry about is how much bread you can cram into one, and how it looks. Buying a computer is peppered with buzzwords and intricate components and facets to those components that affect every single function of a computer.

For most people, a computer will be fast enough to run anything they need. I have bought and built computers for a variety of people, and the most common thing I hear is, “As long as I can surf the internet, email and use Microsoft Office.”

Now because of the complexity of computers, and the lack of general understanding about their components, people end up paying over a thousand dollars for a desktop, and more for a laptop. Computer salesmen are like car salesmen, they can use the complex machinery inside their product to dupe the customer into buying unnecessary parts. One of my biggest pet hates in this regard is “RAM”. RAM, until the advent of the iX series of Intel Processors, was a huge buzzword. I watched in horror as people paid thousands of dollars for computers with 8 gigabytes of RAM while I, as a gamer, would spend $50 on 2gb and need no more. As always, the capacity will go up, but again it’s not only the capacity that counts. RAM does too much in a computer to be counted by the number of gigabytes it can utilize. The computer world is full of things like this, to draw you in with false truths.

You Spent How Much?!

I mentioned before that I was a gamer. Apart from perhaps some very intensive software development, gaming is something that will push the limits of a computer, and requires the most bleeding edge hardware. I’m not one to go out and grab the latest and greatest, I’m sensible about it. I would spend no more than a thousand dollars on a computer alone, and it would be able to play any game I want it to. Granted, this is a custom built machine, put together myself, but as something designed to run the most sophisticated software on the planet it’s pretty a modest price.

People I know will go out and spend twice that on a desktop that is less than a quarter of the power. Laptops again are another fallacy, in that retailers charge copious amounts for the fact that it is more portable, regardless of the fact that the components are less reliable and cheaper to produce than their desktop counterparts.

Some Advice Might Help

I suppose all the horror stories and money wasted aside, the best thing to give here is advice. A little knowledge can go a long way, and any salesman worth his salt will see that if you know your stuff, his chance of sales goes down to zero if he tries lying, or “embellishing the truth.” This section is going to be a bit long winded, and MAY get technical, but will be well worth the time spent, so bear with me.

Normally someone will go into a store, like Dick Smith or Harvey Norman, and wander around the computer section until someone helps. The type of salesman you get does vary by store, but the general rules are the same. Here are some pointers to remember:

Bigger isn’t always better!

Protip: Don’t spend more than $800 – $1,000 on a prebuilt computer or laptop. $1,200 at the extreme (for laptops). Of course, for specialised use, this number is flexible, and seek advice if you are unsure.

Having “8gb of RAM” or a “3.8ghz hyper-threaded quad core i7” is all very well and good, but it will never be used. It’s like buying a Ferrari super-car and driving it everywhere 10km under the speed limit.

For a general rule of thumb, try and aim for under the $800 for desktops (with a monitor) and laptops. The specifications will vary by brand and model and age, but if you buy something for over $500 and it doesn’t run what you need (for everyday use that is), then bring it back and try another brand.

Graphics Cards Aren’t Just for Gamers

Protip: Graphics cards are always a plus, but unless you are a gamer don’t go out of your way.

Graphics cards are perhaps the single most powerful piece of equipment in a computer. They have their own RAM, processor, fans, power supply and bits and pieces that make the most beautiful images come to life, rendered in real-time.

Regardless of this point, however, when a computer doesn’t have a graphics card, anything that the card itself would handle is passed down to the processor. These days, “onboard graphics” as we call this normally aren’t too bad. Applications that use “Hardware Accelerated Graphics”, such as image processors (like photoshop), movie editing software, games, even the windows interface will break off and run through the graphics card, giving more space for the processor to focus on other tasks.

Because they are essentially a computer on their own, a graphics card is essential for those users who go a bit further with their computing; design things, watch High Definition movies and other activities. Don’t go overboard, however, as even the most basic graphics card will take a hefty load off the processor. If you can get a good deal with it, go for it, but don’t spend $200 extra for one, generally speaking.

Hard Drives are Big These Days

Protip: Don’t get held up on the capacity of the Hard Drive. It’s easily expandable later on.

I have a friend who goes through hard drives like hotcakes. The other year he spent $80 on a new 750gb hard drive, and filled it up in a few weeks with games and movies and applications galore. This is an extreme example, I know, but in terms of a computer, any vendor will charge overmuch for the capacity of the hard drive in proportion to how much space will be used. Today a terra-byte is the standard sold size, but most users will barely use a quarter of that space, counting the fact that most people don’t clean their computers regularly. Even so, backups can be made with a wide range of options, such as external hard drives, DVDs, and even hard drives themselves can be easily expanded in both PCs and Laptops.

The point is here, really, really don’t worry about hard drive space. There’s no point in this day and age. A few years ago (circa 2004), the standard 80gb drive barely held everything people needed, but since then the size has exploded to well over ten or twenty times that much.

The Processor is… well… complicated

Protip: Buy a computer this very hour, and you will need no more than an i3, of any sort. Perhaps an i5 at the extreme. Try not to be swayed by a marginally better clock speed, computers will barely push on 3ghz  and three threads when playing a hardware intensive games.

The computer’s central processing unit is the most sophisticated and compact piece of machinery inside of a computer. While the graphics card is a grunt powerhouse and can do a great many things, everything is done through the processor, and it is a finesse that is unmatched by any other piece of technology on the entire planet.

That being said, it is abused the same way RAM is, but to a greater degree.  To put it simply, a processor has three parts in a normal everyday to be concerned about: The clock speed, the cache and the number of cores. What you hear most of is the clock speed and number of cores. “i5 3.2ghz Quad Core” crops up too often as a selling point, but the cache always seems to be left out. While the model number is there, most people won’t go off and research the exact specs, let alone understand them.

No matter how fast, or how many cores the processor has, if it does not have an ample cache size to back it up, it will do poorly.  A processor can only process if there is data flowing through it, and the cache manages that flow. The larger and faster that cache, the more that can be processed at once in any given core, or “thread”.  I’m being overly simplistic here, but it is useful enough to know at least this much, which brings me to my next point;

Hard Drives Actually Have Speeds Too

Protip: Try and go for 7200RPM with a 32-64mb cache. This isn’t something to skimp on, if possible. Avoid Solid State for the time being, as the technology is expensive to produce and still relatively imprecise and unstable with relatively low capacity.

While hard drives do just store data, to get that data off the typical magnetic hard drive (there are both magnetic and solid state hard drives on offer), the data has to be temporarily copied from the hard drive into the RAM, so it can be used by the computer.

Obviously, the due to the disproportionate sizes between RAM and Hard Drive, RAM is carefully managed by the software to only use a given amount when it is needed; which is why overdosing on RAM isn’t necessarily a good thing. This means that the hard drive has to do a lot of work getting the data off its storage disks and using it.

There is a complicated process to it, but basically a hard drive will spin up, pull the data off, put it through a cache which then is emptied into the RAM. This means there is an evident two factors to take into account. A magnetic hard drive will traditionally come in two speeds (or thereabouts). 5400Rpm is something more common on laptops, and 7200Rpm. The higher speeds are always better, but are – marginally – more prone to wear and tear.

As for the cache, 64mb is the ideal size, but 32mb still hangs around as a contender. If the cache is below these two, avoid it. It will likely be too slow for the size of files that are being handled in modern operating systems.

Avoid Brand Name Hardware

Protip: Unless you have oodles of money, or like something for it’s system (ie: Apple Computers), avoid being drawn in by brand names.

Beats by Dr. Dre swept the world recently, becoming an icon in sound. With a price tag like $800 for a over-ear headphone system, it has to be good, right? Right?!

Recently I bought myself a set of Shure SRH440 headphones. At $100, they are exceptional value with native surround sound, high volume threshold and little to no distortion. Beats Audio, on the other hand, does not support surround sound, and offer little in the way of any real music experience, in any form. It is a “swag” thing, people buy it because it is brand name and looks good on Instagram photos or something.

While it is a general rule, there are exceptions. However, the price of things does vary wildly depending on who built your computer. Apple, Alienware, things with Beats Audio, Dell, Razer, they all overcharge for the service of owning a computer and its accessories. While Apple is different in that it supports Mac OSX, I find it more value to buy second hand – since hardware upgrades between generations are minimal.

The best way to find out about being overcharged by brand is research. This is even prevalent in custom built computers, as each component brand name sometimes will try and claim to be a ’boutique’ product. Nevertheless, the real value in buying with brand is that if you feel you have gotten a good deal, and that money spent was well spent, then it was the best thing for you.

Make Technical Friends

Protip: You might not know what they are talking about, but if you know someone who can build you a computer, don’t hesitate to ask their advice.

I have had a lot of people I know asking me to solve their computer problems. There is a fine line not to cross when dealing with people like me, because in the nature of computers, it is very easy to piss off the person who is fixing or buying your computer by showing ignorance. Too often I’ve had people who’s “computer just broke”. I’ve been left to figure out that they were clearly watching porn, or doing something equally as stupid and clicked on something they shouldn’t have.

On the other side of the coin, if someone came to me and said “Look, Jacob, I don’t know anything here, can you please give me advice on a new computer, ” and they go on to tell me what they will like. It takes ten minutes for me to find out, due to my already established knowledge, and I usually will write down what to get, and what price they should be.

Often technical people will be happy to help, but it’s easy to annoy them; just remember, they won’t get paid to help you out; just because a neighbour mows your lawn, doesn’t mean they will clean your gutters on your royal whim!

No human can know everything there is to know about everything, so if you find yourself lacking in the computer department, don’t hesitate to find someone who isn’t, and can willingly help you.

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About the Author - David Rowlands

Hello, I'm the owner of Digital Developments web design based in Melbourne. As a web designer I have extensive background experience designing and building websites for the real estate, building and the construction industries.

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