The terminology used below is the same for PCs and Macs and for desktops and laptops. If you have any doubts about the machine you are buying – don’t buy it! Go and do some research online to see if you can do better. We actually have a couple of desktop and laptop recommendations, check then out if you’re in doubt.
When you are looking to buy a computer you will hear basic computer terms like the following:
This is the brain of your computer. It can also be referred to as the CPU. Processors come in many different varieties. Processor speed is measured in gigahertz or GHZ. The larger the number of GHZ the faster the computer.
I am now using a 3.2 GHZ Pentium Dual Core. Processors can also have dual or quad cores. This is essentially two or four processors in one respectively. The more cores the better but they will also be more expensive. We will also see terms like Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, i3, i5, and i7. It is important to know the differences between these options.
The Core Duo consists of two cores on one die but the Core 2 Duo is a more modern processor that is found in a lot of new PCs. the Core 2 Duo has two dies. Then the i3 processor is a recent release by Intel for new low end machines. Then the i5 and i7 are used with quad core processors and higher end machines. The i7 is the top of this line and obviously the most expensive.
There are different brands of processors like Intel or AMD and different levels of processors like the Pentium 4 or the Atom. The Atom processor is a much slower processor used in netbooks. Also when looking for a system you will see terms like front side bus . This is not a big yellow bus but it is the speed that data can flow from the processor to the motherboard. The higher the FSB the faster the processor can communicate with your machine. Something in the area of 266 MHz-333 MHz is fine and some faster processors sport up to 400 MHz FSB.
The RAM or memory is what your computer uses to store information while you are using the computer. This can also be referred to as Random Access Memory. I personally would not buy a computer with less than 2 GB of RAM. Your RAM Bus speed will need to be identical to your FSB speed as to not create bottlenecks. In a pre-built system this is not something you need to worry about but if you are building your own system then you will want to get memory that matches the FSB speed divided by the number of cores that you have. For example if your system has a total FSB of 1600 and you have 4 cores (quad) then your RAM Bus speed should be 400 MHz.
The optical drive in your computer should be able to read and write CDs and DVDs. If you have not purchased a computer in a while some of the newer options might seem strange to you. You can have any one of these or a combination of these formats: DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-+R, DVD-/+RW, DVD-RAM, Blu-ray, HD-DVD. A CD holds 700 MB. A CD-R can read and write to a CD. A CDRW can read write and rewrite to a CD.
If you are getting a DVD burner you should try and get a drive that writes in all formats such as +R or -R. They will all play in your computer but some other hardware might require one of these formats. A DVD can hold About 4 GB of data. A DVD burner that allows you to burn a DL or dual layer will allow for double the capacity and can fit about 8 GB of data on it. A dual layer drive is required as well as dual layered media.
Then we see the newer formats like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD that allow you to burn and watch high definition videos or store even more data. A Blu-Ray disk can hold a whopping 25 GB in a single layer and 50 GB if the disk is dual layered. HD-DVD disks can hold up to 15 GB of data but I really do not see many systems or people using this format.
Wireless Network Card
If your computer has a wireless card you will be able to access the Internet without a wire connecting you to a router/modem. Wireless cards are rated by their speed.
The lowest speed starts from A and goes up through N. You will want to buy a computer with a 802.11G or 802.11N wireless connection. 802.11g can see speeds of up to 54 Mbit/s. And with 802.11n the newest iteration of wireless we can achieve 600 Mbit/s. I am using a 802.11n router personally but most of my equipment and peripherals use 802.11g. I find this to be fine for streaming video or audio and transferring files over my home network. But if you are constantly transferring huge files or folders you might want to jump right into the 802.11n game.
Your computer should have an Ethernet port on it. This port will allow you to physically connect to the internet or your internal network by plugging it into your router / modem.
Normally any machine you will buy now has a Gigabit connection. Gigabit is represented as 100/1000 and there are also 10/100 connections. That number is how many megabits you can transfer per second.
This is the software that makes your computer go. You can buy a computer with the Mac OS X operating system or Windows 7 or any flavor of Ubuntu Linux as well.
You can also buy a computer without an operating system to install it yourself. This is the key part of your system as well as normally the most expensive. But, if you choose Ubuntu or another flavor of Linux then your operating system is free.
This is where you will store all your files whether it be music, movies or word documents. You will need a hard drive to store them on.
Hard drives are rated by size and speed. A typical new computer will come with a 7200 RPM SATA 100GB drive. This will hold approximately 28,560 digital photos or up to 25,000 songs (MP3).
If you need more space you should get a bigger drive or you can buy a portable USB hard drive to attach to your computer.
This is the part of your computer that allows you to show what you are doing. Without a video card you would not be able to see what you are doing on your monitor.
Different video cards have different abilities like the option to use multiple monitors, have a HDMI output or even the ability to watch HD movies on your computer. This has never been important to me and I always take whatever is available. Some examples of good video card brands are MSI, XFX, Asus, Gigabyte (thanks JLT!).
Your video card does have to connect to your monitor so make sure they have a VGA, DVI or HDMI port in common.
There are also computer components like the monitor, keyboard and mouse but we’re pretty sure that you’re familiar with those basic computer terms.
Now, you have a basic knowledge of what you are looking for start shopping around. The best deals are found online and it is a fact that a PC is much cheaper than a Mac unless you are building a Hackintosh! You could also build your own PC if you are feeling confident enough.
** UPDATE 01 July 2010 ** Based on reader comments, we have updated and reworded some of the article.