(updated 11/19/2012)

Buying a computer - how to decide...

The computer world is in constant flux, continually advancing and improving. Some things about them remain unchanged for a while, but may radically change in a flurry. Below are comments on a computer you might be buying soon, with the caveat that the comments made here are relevant, or were relevant, and may actually remain relevant for a time - expect change.

For many people, buying a computer can be an intimidating task. There are so many choices - for home or business, notebook or desktop, name brand or clone, new or used, standard or full-featured, MAC or PC, payment in cash, credit or lease - these are but some of the questions that come to mind. To make the purchase of a computer simpler, here is a methodology that should guide you to making a good choice.

Note : while much of what is written here applies to the purchase of a MAC, this information is really geared toward the purchase of a PC. Generally speaking, MACs are considered more reliable than PCs by their users. MACs are also more expensive than an equivalent PC, and subsequent purchases of software and peripherals will also be more expensive than their PC counterparts. MACs have a narrow range of models to choose from, and supporting products are also fewer in number. MACs are the choice of those who work in the computer graphics and art industries, and of some schools, although PCs are making gains in both these areas. A person who uses a MAC at work or school will want a MAC at home - but may choose a PC because of price, because of product selection, or because they will be sharing the computer with non-MAC users.

For a peek ahead at a particular topic or computer component, click on one of these subjects...

5 stepscomponent computersnotebook computers : tablet PCsname brand or clonereliability and speedwhere to shop :

: keyboards : pointing devices : monitors : computer casesmotherboardsCPUsRAM memoryvideo cards :

: operating systemsfloppy driveZIP drivehard driveoptical drives : audio : modemsnetworks :

: USB : external data drivesprinters and scannerscamerascomputer environmentpower surge protection :

: supplies : hardware driversnew, versus refurbished or used :

First, what will you want to do with your new computer?

This is the most important question you can ask yourself. Knowing what you'll want the computer to do virtually describes the computer you will need. If you don't know the answer, visit your friends that have computers, and see what they are doing with theirs. Popular uses include :

Accessing the Internet...

Playing games (off-line)...

Simulations (all entertaining and educational)...

Word processing...

Bookkeeping (for yourself or others)...

Working with graphic images...

Time and resource management - organizing yourself by...

If nothing here strikes you as interesting, forget the whole thing and take a southern vacation instead.

If everything here interests you, buy a high-end computer with lots of storage and processing capacity, buy a CD writer and DVD player with it, buy all the software you will need to run everything on it, and buy the numerous peripherals you will need for it to input your data and output your work (printer, scanner, camera, game adaptors, headset microphone, etc.). Designate a large room in your house and have it ergonomically outfitted with its own electrical circuitry, proper lighting, multiple phone jacks and cable outlets, audio and video equipment, desks, tables, shelving, comfortable chairs, and a coffee maker. Quit your job, as you will need to give this your full time attention for the next five years to learn what there is to learn. Say goodbye to your family and friends. And lastly, be prepared to re-buy most of the computer equipment you just bought on a six-month cycle - as technology doesn't stand still, and whatever you buy now has already been redesigned and improved upon, and will no longer be in the marketplace in half a year.

If, as with the most of us, only certain things here interest you - and you have no desire to let a computer take over your life...

Step 1) Write a list of the things you would like to use a computer for. Include things that you may already know how to do, and things that you would like to learn how to do. Put the list in order - most important thing first. Talk each item over with someone knowledgable who is currently doing this with their computer. Jot down what they think are the minimum and optimum software and hardware requirements to accomplish the task, then, if you have an opinion, jot down what you think you'd need to accomplish similar tasks yourself. Sum up the requirements to see which software and computer components you need, and how good each program and component has to be.

Step 2) Look at all your software and hardware options. Do not get stuck on brand name software or hardware. Alternatives can cost a great deal less than the mainstream products, and often work just as well. Software should be settled upon before hardware - it is the software programs that call for the hardware to do the work. Hardware facilitates the work, making it interactive and viewable.

Take a look here to see just how much software you can get for an extremely reasonable amount of money...

Step 3) Think in terms of how much per year the computer is going to cost you (as you should when purchasing a car or other large item). Base your calculation on these anticipated truths : that a new computer in this day and age will probably last five years, that you will need to upgrade the software once, perhaps twice, to remain current during this time, and that you will probably need repairs or upgrades in the amount of 25% of the value of the computer during this time. A decent refurbished computer will have perhaps three years of life, with the same chance of needed repairs or upgrades.

If you want the Internet, it's going to cost you an additional $25 per month for high speed lite, and as much as $65 a month for high-speed plus.

Step 4) Consider warranties and support services. Minimum warranties for new machines or new components should be : 1 year for printers, hard drives, removable media data drives, keyboards and mice; 1 year for cases, processors, motherboards, expansion cards and memory modules; 3 years for monitors. Used computers that are running well when you get them will probably run well for a long time after that. Computer troubles seem to plague newly assembled (new or used) components rather than those that have been together for a while. Computers are not cars - keep in mind that 95% of computer problems are related to software - not hardware, and no software ever comes with a warranty or performance guarantee. A car in tip-top mechanical shape will run beautifully, while a computer in tip-top mechanical shape might not even start.

Support services really don't come into play for experienced users, and may be too much trouble to access for users who have experienced users nearby that they can call on. Waiting times and long distance charges can make "service" uneconomical and difficult to get at the best of times. Support via the Internet, whether it be found at an original manufacturer's site or any other tech support site, is often the quickest way to solve a problem (outside of problems with accessing the Internet).

Step 5) Knowing something about what you are shopping for can only help. Below are some explanations and guidelines to consider when comparing different computers while deciding what to buy...

The same PC shown with optional orientation

"Component" computers are typically openable, user-friendly machines that contain easily repaired hardware and cabling. Component computers offer great flexibility - in power and function - at an economical price. There are a variety of "form factors" (shapes and sizes) to choose from (colours, too), and including any internal component or connecting to any external peripheral is usually easy and straight forward. No matter what kind of component computer you get, you will need a keyboard, a pointing device, and a monitor to go with it - the keyboard and pointing device for input, and a monitor for output. (Keep in mind that what you buy you will have to live with for a while, so take time and care when selecting these three particular components.)

Modern Toshiba laptop

"Notebook" computers are all-in-one units that contain compact versions of what you would get in a component computer, along with an integrated monitor, keyboard and pointing device. Notebooks are small, but generally aren't in any way less powerful than their full-size counterparts, and can effectively be quite a bit more expensive in the long run. Internal components are often unique to a given machine, so upgrades and service can cost more. Notebook keyboards, pointing devices and screens are not particularly ergonomic, although options can be purchased (external versions of any of these components) to improve the situation. While notebooks are helpfully portable, they do tend to get stolen and broken. Notebooks come with all the usual ports, so external peripherals are in no way specialized.

Tablet PCs...

(Thoughts to come.)

Name brands and clones... Name brand computers like Dell, Compaq and Hewlett Packard have a lot going for them, but clones (generic computers assembled from name brand components) can be a better choice. The arguments are similar to those comparing MACs to PCs - cost of replacement parts, flexibility, availability of service - these are areas where clones make for a better choice. Reliability does not come into play if the clone you purchase comes from a reputable builder. Reputable clone dealers also offer warranties and, if you buy locally, your service is typically performed locally.

Reliability and speed... Computers are made up of a variety of components that are intended to, but may not always or ever, work happily together. A computer can be no more reliable than its least reliable component. If one component is failing or not working correctly the whole system suffers - often to the point that nothing works at all. Hopefully the computer you get will have had some qualified attention paid to it during assembly.

As to speed, a computer can accomplish no task faster than the components involved can handle it. Let's examine this statement for a moment or two.

Let's say that you have the absolute best consumer computer in the marketplace today - but your task is to format a floppy disk. Will this overpowered computer running the latest version of Windows do it faster than a forgotten 10-year-old 286-AT running good old DOS 3.3? Actually, no it won't - it can't... (and if you did it from a powered down start, the AT would be done in half the time!)

Want a more realistic example or three? Will an isolated event in a computer game that takes three seconds of real time to occur - like the countdown of a clock or timer - will this event go faster on a modern computer than on an older one? It can't, really... Will the download of a 2 GB file from the Internet on an older computer with a DSL connection go faster on a modern computer with the same DSL connection? Not really, not noticably... Will the writing of a DVD in a 24X DVD burner in an older computer go faster on a modern computer with the same DVD burner? Not really, not noticably...

The point illustrated here is that input and output operations in a computer dictate the overall performance, while not typically making full use of a computer's processing capacity or speed. You don't need an extremely fast computer to do average tasks. Programs for which you should pay for extra processing power and faster internal devices include : highly visual game software, number-crunching drawing and calculating software, and audio- and video-editing software. If it is not your intention to get into any of these program types, you can reduce your overall computer requirements and save some serious money.

Software plays a part in both reliability and speed. If the operating system (software) or a driver (software) for a given device misuses or under-utilizes a given device, overall performance suffers. If an executed program is old or is poorly written, it will under-utilize the system, and overall performance suffers. Unfortunately, you can expect these two instances to be the norm, rather than the exceptions.

Ready to shop? Where do you go? Let me offer some opinions... Wal-Mart sells computers - like they sell vacuum cleaners, but they'll have good prices. Radio Shack sells computers - but they aren't cheap. Future Shop sells computers - that they bought months ago in large volumes for today's sale. How about the neighbourhood computer whiz? - he builds them in his parent's basement, cash only, but he's off to college in the fall. Staples - not a bad choice at all. Let your fingers do the walking with Dell - another good choice. A reputable clone dealer that's been around for a while - a third good option.

Keep all this in mind as you look over the comments and descriptions of the components below...

Keyboard with ergonomic curve and extra functiion keys

The keyboard should be of decent manufacture so it lasts two or more years. Sometimes described as an enhanced 101-type, the keyboard should have a numeric keypad, a dozen or more function keys, and a Windows Start button. The keyboard is typically wired to the computer, but you can choose a wireless type. Ergonomic keyboards that have been designed to reduce strain for those who type a great deal, are also very good for those who only type on occasion. "Internet" keyboards have programmed buttons that turn multi-input requests into single-key functions (i.e. a button that "gets" your email) which some users find helpful.

Wired mouseWireless USB mouseTrackball

The pointing device has become an important tool in handling computer input. While virtually everything can be done with the keyboard, this device is sometimes the better tool to tell the computer what you want to do. Typically a "mouse", these devices control a moveable cursor on screen that can be positioned over graphical hot spots to execute computer functions. Once in the correct cursor position, the user can ask to have a function performed by simply clicking the buttons on it, in correct combinations.

Mice originally had a motion mechanism (a ball that is moved by the friction created when dragging the mouse over a flat surface) and two or three buttons. Optical mice have no ball - they register motion by bouncing light off whatever surface the mouse is moved across (with some surfaces being better than others). Mice can also have "scroll wheels" - useful for scrolling through long documents. Scrolling can be bi-directional. Mice can be wired or wireless, and ergonomic mice of a great many designs exist also. An alternative mouse design, a trackball, comes with a movable ball on its top - these are convenient for those who do not like moving the mouse all over their desks - they simply roll the ball with their thumb or fingers to move the cursor accordingly, while keeping the mouse in one place. All mice should be tested for comfort and suitability.

Front view and side view of an LCD montitor

The monitor is often the least considered component in the purchase of a computer, while ultimately being the most regarded component by the user. Features to consider include : overall physical size, viewable screen size, image quality, warranty, service and price.

When comparing component PCs to laptops and to tablet PCs, the monitor can actually be the deciding factor in what kind of computer an individual buys. If you like big, or if you need big, buy big.

The typical monitor today is LCD (liquid crystal display). LCDs have arrays of crystals that can be made to glow in red, green or blue when electrified by controlling circuitry. A backlight pushing light through the crystals produces the image we see. The images are typically sharp, the screens are typically flat, and the shape of the image is typically distortion-free compared to older cathode ray tube monitors (CRTs). LCD monitors may only be two to four inches deep.

LCDs became cheaper as the technology used in their manufacture was perfected, and more were sold. One current issue with LCDs is the "pixel policy" - the number of pixels that may be misbehaving that the manufacturer will allow within any square inch of the array. Misbehaving pixels can be stuck on or off, or may have any of their component colours (the red, green or blue element) stuck on or off as well. Misbehaving pixels show up as annoying glowing lights on otherwise dark-coloured screens, or as dark spots on what should be light-coloured screens. While only one bad pixel may be quite noticable, the pixel policy of a given manufacturer may allow as many as 20 bad pixels per square inch, so look out - a manufacturer with such a policy will not repair or replace an LCD screen within the "acceptable" limits. The drop in price of LCD screens from 1999 to 2001 occured mostly from the manufacturers retrieving these bad screens from the reject pile and selling them full bore along with their good product.

LED (light emitting diode) monitors are almost indistinguishable from LCD monitors at first glance. The difference is mainly how the light is generated behind the array. LCDs have a flourescent tube and reflector to wash light across the screen area, while LED monitors have arrays of LEDs along the edges or behind all of the screen area. LED monitors can have better black levels and contrast, and can be thinner than LCDs.

LCD monitors are presently slightly less expensive than LEDs and suffer less from "burn-in" (ghostly images that can be seen on screen if an area of the screen is lit for a long time with a fixed pattern). LEd monitors are more energy efficient and are quicker to display an image, making motion less blurry and picture lag less noticeable.

A decent monitor size for a desktop computer today is 24" (measured diagonally). The native resolution for this size of monitor would be 1920 x 1280 pixels - pictures will be sharp and clear, webpages will be more viewable and documents can be displayed almost inch for inch vertically. This resolution may make some screen objects appear too small for some users, but there are things you can do to change what you see without decreasing the resolution and altering the good part of having a 24". In Internet Explorer, look for the magnifier to increase the size of a webpage you need to make larger by any percentage you choose. In programs like Microsoft Word, look for the magnified view. With screen objects like desktop icons look for the settings that increase their size without reducing resolution.

A typical monitor has a three-year warranty. It pays to find out where you may have to return your monitor for service, and what you might expect to pay for repairs.

Monitors, keyboards and mice can connect to laptop computers in the same manner as a desktop. This can give the best of both worlds - the ergonomics of a desktop with the portability of a laptop. Devices for laptops called "docks" can help with the wiring, but a USB hub may be all hat is needed to make this work.

The computer itself, sometimes (mistakenly) referred to as the CPU, or the box, or some other such name, is the true body and brain of your computer system. It is made up of the following components, more or less in the order of their assembly into a complete computer :

Mid-tower case for more componentryCompact desktop PC in horizontal orientation

The computer case... Dimensional concerns and convenience of access can be addressed in your choice of case type. What goes on inside your computer really isn't limited by case type, but what goes on outside your computer really is (i.e. access to floppies, tapes, CDs, DVDs, ZIP disks, cable ports, etc.). A "tower" is the kind of case that sits upright. A "desktop" usually refers to the kind of case that sits flat - under the monitor or on some other area of the computer desk. Towers can be "mini" - with typically two 5 1/4" device spaces (for CDROMs, tape drives, etc.), "midi" - with three device spaces, or full - with four or more device spaces. Towers of any of these types may have one or two 3 1/2" device spaces (floppy drives, ZIP drives). The larger the tower, the more likely it is to have multiple cooling fans. Towers can be placed on the desktop or on the floor below a desk (where it will be harder to get at, should the need arise). Desktop cases are usually far more limited in what they offer in internal space, but they can also be conveniently small overall - occupying no additional desk space when placed under your monitor.

Cases are typically made of stamped steel, with plastic front plates. The sides are removable for access to the interior. Most, if not all, of the ports will be at the rear. Removable front slot covers permit the installation of the outwardly-accessible devices. High-end cases made of polished aluminum offer better cooling through the metal - since heat is the known enemy of the internal electronic components, in both their longevity and their soundness of performance.

Power supply

The power supply is usually considered to be part of the case, and often accounts for most of its value. Bad or low-quality power supplies can account for all kinds of performance troubles in a PC - from the accuracy of processor calculations to the precise mechanical movements of hard drives and other devices. Power supplies come with a variety of power adapter plugs to suit the necessary plug-ins on motherboards and on other components like hard drives and cooling fans. Power supplies are replaceable and upgradable. Some elaborate power supplies come with detachable leads - this can make for a cleaner case interior, since unnecessary plugs can be removed and set aside, retained for future use.

The connectors available on power supplies have matched the historical period of their manufacture - there was a time when the only connectors on a power supply were a 20-pin ATX, a couple of 4-pins for 3.5" floppy drives, and perhaps four of the 4-pin peripheral connectors for 5.25" floppies, hard drives and optical drives. ZIP drives might require either. 20-pin ATX became 24-pin, and a supplemental 4-pin connector was needed to power the newer boards with USB, and SATA connectors replaced any of the peripheral connectors. For PCs with high-end video cards, power supplies had to have 6- and 8-pin connectors to feed these directly.

Power output ranges from 250W for an elderly PC to 1350W for a heavily-laden modern PC. PCs with limited features, compact PCs and "green" PCs may require 200W or less. The power output has two aspects - what it takes to start the compter and what it takes to keep it running. The output has to be able to handle the initial demand when a computer is started, then the ongoing demand once it is running.

Mini-ITX motherboard about 1/4 the size of an AT styleStandard AT motherboard with many expansion slots, ports and jacks

The motherboard... is a circuit board - the main circuitboard - through which all that takes place in a computer passes. Plug-like "sockets" accomodate all the different device connections and cable ends. The quality of the motherboard components (transistors, integrated circuits, crystals, etc.) have a lot to do with the overall performance of a PC. In particular, there is a "chip set" through which the operation of all computer parts are managed. Intel is a leading maker of such a chip set, but there are others producing their own high-quality chip sets. A second important feature on a motherboard is the BIOS (basic input/output system). The BIOS resides on a programmable chip and works in harmony with the chip set. An externally programmable read only memory chip (EPROM) was used in an older computer while a modern PC would have a flash-programmable BIOS chip - programmable while the computer is running.

A modern, reliable motherboard with a sturdy chip set and BIOS is desirable when buying a computer. Its reliablility will handle performance concerns, while its modernity will handle connectivity, compatibility and longevity concerns.

Years ago peripheral cards were needed to add the basics and supplemental features to a computer. Card types included drive controllers, video, serial port, parallel port, audio, fax/modem, USB, and SCSI. Today, motherboards come with most devices and ports integrated in their circuitry. With the exception of SCSI, circuitry for this entire list is usually included. One advantage of integrated circuitry is compatability - integrated devices seldom conflict. They have been designed to work together, and they have been tested at work together. Other advantages can be physical size and price. Integrated motherboards can be made smaller than component arrangements and can often be cheaper than components bought separately. The primary disadvantage is service - failure of a single component may mean replacement of all. A secondary disadvantage is flexibility - you can't always get the type or quality of each component that you might want in the variations offered in a given motherboard.

Motherboards have two principal descriptors - the socket type and the form factor. The socket type dictates what kind of CPU can be put on the board, while the form factor relates more to the board's physical size and shape. Form factors today and in the past include: Pico-ITX, Nano-ITX, Mini-ITX, Micro-ATX, ATX, AT and XT. Memory slots on a motherboard generally reflect the time the board was manufactured. Typically there is only one type of memory slot on a board, but occasionally you might find a choice. Peripheral slots allow motherboards to be upgraded or supplemented. Expansion card slots, some dating back to the mid-80's, include: 8-bit ISA, 16-bit ISA, 32-bit VLB, AGP, 32-bit PCI, and 64-bit PCI-E. The higher the bit rate, the more data can be passed to and from the card per transaction. (For example, the letter "A" requires 8 bits to transfer, while the letters "ABCDEFGH" together would require 64 bits.) With more and more being incorporated into the chips in a motherboard design, the need for peripheral slots has greatly declined. Today, the only slot on some boards is a PCI-E slot for a video card.

Intel i3 CPU

The CPU (or central processing unit)... The CPU is the brain of the computer (not the computer itself). It is not very big - perhaps an inch and a quarter square. It is mounted on a special ZIF (zero insertion force) socket on the motherboard reserved for it alone. Its job is to handle the activity between components of the PC as fast as it can, so the work can proceed. Its value to you stems from its accuracy and its speed - you'll pay for both.

Here is a bit of history on the naming of CPUs. A well-known processor in the late 70's was Intel's 8086. IBM used these in their XT's. In its next incarnation, this chip became known as an 80286, and it was used in IBM AT's. The "286" was followed by the (80)386. The 386 was followed by the 486. The 486 was followed by the 586, which took on the market-friendly name of Pentium. Pentium II's followed Pentiums, "P-III"s followed P-II's, and P-IV's followed P-III's. Each level of these processors had increasing frequencies that they could run at - speeds at which they could think - and other performance enhancing features, so you may have heard of a 486 DX2/66, or a Pentium 233 MMX, or a P-III 866 Mz processor, or a P IV Celeron D - all of these names designate abilities and differences in the CPU's architecture.

As CPUs have evolved, the significant comparison factor is how fast data can be moved into and out of a CPU. This mainly has to do with two factors - how "wide" the CPU is (how many bits can pass through at one time) and how frequently bits can be passed through (the operating frequency of a CPU).

CPUs of different eras have fit into different sockets or slots - from the 8086 through the CPUs of today, each CPU fits only one socket type. Popular CPU socket names over many years have been: DIP (for XT), PLCC (for AT through 386), Sockets 1 through 8 (for 486 through Pentium MMX), Slots 1 and 2 (for Pentium II), Sockets 370 and 481 (for Pentium 4), LGA775 (for Core 2 Duo and Xeon), LGA1156 (for i3), and LGA1366 (for i7). There will be continued progression as technologies change.

A typical desktop PC that PCN makes has about $120 worth of Intel CPU in it. Whatever time it was built, the processor Intel had that was in that price range wound up in that PC. $100 more bought the next significant level of CPU, and another $100 would be a significant step up again. At the time of this writing, (updated 11/19/2012), an Intel i3-3220 CPU makes it into the desktops PCn build today.

In a subjective comparison, Intel's processors would perhaps be the best choice for the average consumer, with AMD a successful competitive brand. Intel also makes motherboards, and peripheral cards, while AMD is well known for its subsidiary ATI (video cards). Matching a CPU with a branded motherboard and branded peripheral cards reduces the chance of incompatibility, although most name brand products are likely to be compatible with each other whatever the brand. Common motherboard brand names of motherboards for custom-built Pcs in 2012 are ASRock, Asus, Gigabyte, Intel and MSI.

Heat is the enemy, so CPU's have their own cooling fans. With no CPU cooling, a modern computer will stop working almost immediately to protect itself. Keep in mind that the CPU is the single most expensive component of a computer, representing perhaps 20% of its overall hardware value.


RAM memory... Random access memory chips are an important part of any computer. Information that the CPU uses is collected (input) from data drives and device ports and is stored here, while it is being manipulated and converted, until it is ready to be sent out (as output) to the same, or other, devices or ports. RAM memory is like the scratch pad of a computer. When the computer is on, information can be stored here. When the computer is turned off, this information is lost. As components go, RAM memory is quite fast so the more RAM you have, the faster your computer can go (within limits). The faster the RAM type is, the faster your computer can go (within limits).

RAM has evolved, too. Years ago we would buy SIMMs (single inline memory modules). EDO SIMMs (Extended Data Out) were considered prime in their time. These were followed by DIMMs (dual inline memory modules). RIMMs (Rambus modules) were made for a faster bus, but they were pricier chips and did not make a lasting consumer impact.

Popular SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic Random-Access Memory), running at 100 MHz or 133 MHz, took many years to reach full acceptance. DDR-RAM (Double Data Rate RAM) ran at 266 Mhz, 333 Mhz and 400 Mhz, or more than twice the speed. DDR2-RAM has followed DDR, and DDR3 has followed DDR2. As of this writing, DDR4 is just around the corner and will supplant DDR3 as the memory chip of choice in 2013.

PCI-E video card with SVGA,HDMI and DVI-D portsSVGA, DVI-D and HDMI ports on a motherboard

The video card... The quality of what you see on the screen is dependant on both the quality of the monitor and that of the video card in the computer. The video card produces the image, while the monitor displays it as best it can. How many colours you can see on screen, how refined the image is, how detailed the image can be, and how quickly the image can change are all functions of the video card's quality.

To accomplish its task, the video card has a processor and memory chips on it. The better the processor, the faster it can process instructions from the CPU, the better the result. The more memory, and the faster the memory can be run, the better the result. The video card can take a lot of the burden off of a CPU, making the entire computer run faster because of it. A video card over video chips on a motherboard will also improve video output. Onboard video may be incapable for handling some of the 3D manipulations called for in computer gaming, so gamers will almost always require a video card.

Once a video image has been prepared, or rendered, by the video component of a computer, it is sent to the monitor for display. The faster this can be done, the better, and some of this burden falls back on the monitor and a statistic known as the refresh rate. For the average user, most onboard video will work well enough, but intense, graphical, three-dimensional games may require the output from a proper video card. The video card need not be too expensive to do a good job, so don't overbuy.

If you have need of inputting a video signal from outside the computer, or if you have need of outputting the video signal to any device other than your computer's monitor, you will need to look into a more elaborate video card design. Video cards do come with cable TV and other input ports, as well as cable TV and other output ports. Adequate software for manipulation of video signals typically comes with these cards. While the video card manufacturer may tout their product as being all you'll need to edit home videos, etc., beware - videos take up immense storage space and cannot be processed on your typical home PC in the way you are probably imagining. The problem often lies in speed of the CPU and hard drive - the computer simply cannot keep up with the generation and storage of frames as they come and go, at rates and resolutions that make them pleasingly viewable. HD video makes this statement all the more important.

The operating system... Correctly assembled to this point, with power, keyboard and monitor plugged in, a computer can effectively be turned on. The BIOS will be activated, and the computer will look itself over. It will happily proceed until it realizes that you have no operating system on any readable device, then it will stop there asking you to insert something with an operating system on it. The operating system you will be looking at when buying a PC in November of 2012 will be Windows 7 or Windows 8. (Windows 3.1, Windows 95 and 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP and Vista have all had their day. Some form of DOS (a disk operating system) is still with us, it underlies everything. Windows is a GUI (graphical user interface).

A minimal operating system can come on one floppy disk. You could run DOS (disk operating system) from a "floppy disk" and, in fact, you may need to some day. Windows 7 or 8 though, have so much more to them. The installation programs alone for them come on a DVD, and the operating system gets expanded when installed on the fixed media in a computer (the hard drive) and may occupy up to 20GB of space when fully updated. Having the operating system media is always desired, so if you are buying a computer that does not come with it, ask for it. Legal computers will come with properly packaged software, with a license key. The minimum you should receive is the holographic sticker with your key printed on it affixed to the computer, and either the OEM optical disk or a set of recovery disks to go with it.

The operating system will be installed upon, then reside on, a hard drive in most computers. Storage media - floppy disks, ZIP disks, hard drives, optical drives and flash drives - may take a part in installation.

After the operating system is installed, peripherals may be added (modem and ethernet connections, and externally connected speakers, microphone, printer, scanner, camera, flash drives, media players, GPS devices, etc.) to complete the computer.

Floppy drive

The floppy drive... The floppy drive (typically the "A" drive) was first used to replace tape decks as the main storage device of the earliest cpmputers. Later, it was used for backing up data or transferring data from one computer to another computer. This old technology was not fast, and floppy disks did not hold much, but they were quite useful in their day for copying small amounts of data to and from a computer - letters, address books, small graphics, etc. - and there was no limit as to how many floppy disks you could have around.

Many early computers had a second floppy drive, designated with the drive letter "B". Copies of files could be made from one floppy to another, assisting with file transfers and backups. The letters A and B became reserved for floppies, and the first hard drives became known as the "C" drive. The optical drive followed, and it was usually designated the "D" drive. If a C drive was to be partitioned, the optical drive might get bumped down the alphabet to whatever letter came after the designator for the last partition.

Floppy drives are now a thing of the past for all but the technician who needs to restore an older computer to working order.

ZIP drive

The ZIP drive... A ZIP disk is a version of a floppy disk that can hold many times the amount of data that a floppy disk can. Each floppy disk can hold 1.44 megabytes (MB) of data at best, while ZIP disks can hold 100 or 250 MB each. They are useful for copying files off a computer that are greater in size than the 1.44 MB a floppy can hold. Having an internal ZIP drive is a good idea if you are creating sizable files of your own. They are easy to use, and the process is quick and simple (compared to putting data onto optical media). Common in the late 90's and very early in this century, ZIP drives are seldom found in computers today. An external version allowed data to be transferred about and the ZIP drive used for more than one computer, but it, too, is seldom seen today.

SATA drive without its cover SSD drive

The hard drive... Virtually every computer today has a hard drive as its main storage device. The hard drive you choose will depend on two things really - how much data you expect to accumulate, and how fast you will want to be able to retrieve it. With a typical Windows installation occupying about 20GB of space on a hard drive, the remainder can be used for data storage. Most people will not get over the 50GB threshold, but those that do often exceed this amount greatly.

Hard drives have gone through many changes since becoming commonplace in the mid-80's. They have gained in both usable storage capacity and read-write speeds. Their connectivity has also changed - the most memorable techniques being IDE and SATA. The two main physical sizes have been 3.5" for desktop computers and 2.5" for laptop computers. Capacities have gone from megabyte to gigabyte to terrabyte and beyond.

Over the last 10 years, the hard drive has accounted for about 1/6 of the price of a computer. It has generally been the slowest component used on a constant basis, with the optical drive being slower but called upon less frequently. Failed hard drives have also been the cause of most data loss (if we don't blame the human interface). This has changed in four ways today, with the advent of the SSD (solid state drive). The price of the smaller SSDs still command about 1/6 of the price of a typical PC, but would cost much more if SSDs were bought with the capacities of common SATA drives. Without moving parts, SSD drives are expected to last, and experience less data loss. The new SSDs are incredibly fast - on the order of 5 times and more. And, they also draw less power and create less heat - both beneficial points for laptop users especially. SSD drives come in the same shape and size as 2.5" drives for convenience really, since they could be made differently if desired.

Drive speed is determined by how the drive is internally connected to the computer, how fast the drive platters spin, and how much buffering (storing data in memory) the drive can do when passing data to the CPU. IDE (integrated drive electronics) and SCSI were the most common ports in a computer for connecting hard drives of the same names. Both port types have become integrated on motherboards, although years ago extension boards were an accepted addition. SCSI drives was the faster and more reliable of the two, and understandably more expensive. Serial ATA drives pretty much took over from both of these types and are the most commonly sold today. IDE drives are referred to these days as PATA (paralle ATA) in case you happen to hear this term being used.

Drives are commonly 3.5" or 2.5" wide, with the smaller a little bit more expensive and generally used for laptops. 4,500 RPM, 5,400 RPM and 7,200 RPM IDE are common platter speeds. 10,000 RPM and 15,000 RPM are desirable but pricey and uncommon. Buffering is a harder factor to weigh in. Look to the Internet for drive comparisons and consumer testing.

Keep in mind that, the larger the hard drive capacity, the greater the data loss should the unit fail. Consider having two drives if you intend to house a lot of data on a given PC, and consider offloading as much as possible to CDs or DVDs.

Blu-Ray optical drive with media exposed

The optical drive... Having a computer these days without an internal optical drive is almost unthinkable. I can recall a time when the reverse was true - optical drives for computers have only been around since about 1990 and I beleive my first CDROM cost over $200. It had a dedicated expansion card to connect it, and it might also have been external.

Optical media is commonly used in the commercial software industry today and is also used widely for creating personal media (music CDs and movie DVDs) and data backups.

CD-ROMs... (compact disc read only memory) CDROMs are the earliest disks computer users came to know. Buying software was so much easier whe it came on CD than when it came on a sesies of floppy disks. Installations were quicker, and the disks were harder to damage than the floppies. Software vendors probably liked the fact the consumers had no way to copy (pirate) the disks - they had gone to so much trouble to make floppies "undupeable" a short time before. Software on CD drove users to buy the CDROM readers. Games also moved users to buy the readers. Games required the CD to be present for the game to play, the option to install a game onto a hard drive wasn't available.

CD-RWs... CDRW drives are CDROM drives with the additional feature that they can write to special CDs as well as simply read from all CDs. CDRWs have a similar history to CDROMs, in that they began at 1X, quickly rose to 8X,and eventually achieved speeds of 52X. A CDRW will have a multiple rating for comparison. Since it can perform three functions - all at different speeds - each function is rated separately. A CDRW that could write to CDR media at 8X or more, and CDRW media at 4X or more, and read CDRs at 32X or more was described as 8W/4RW/32R in literature.

DVD-ROMs... A DVD is like an over-capacity CD, which requires a drive capable of seeing the finer data stored on it. A DVD holds roughly 7 times the amount of data that a CD can hold. DVD drives don't look any different than CDROMs and can, in fact, read CDs just as well.

DVD-RWs... Anyone with lots of data though should keep DVD-RW technology in mind - imagine a single disk containing almost 100,000 documents averaging 50Kb in size. Watching a movie on your computer may not appeal to some, and any other use for a DVD player may not come readily to mind, but software coming in DVD format has caused the DVD writer to become the norm. A DVD-RW adds about $20 to the price of a PC at the end of 2012.

Blu-Ray... the latest optical disk format has earned its place in a PC for media playback and recording moreso than data storage. The 25GB capacity per side of a dual-sided disk means that image quality of a movie is vastly improvable over DVD format. If the data area is not taken up improving quality, more data can simply be put on these disks than DVDs, making the resultant media product worth more. Blu-Ray players were the initial computer offering, but the writers now are already taking their place in PCs for people creating their own HD movies. From a comparative price point, a $60 Blu-Ray burner is a lot more for a little more for those who desire it. Blu-Ray drives can rad DVDs and CDs, there is no requirement for multiple drives unless copying from disk to disk is a requirement.

Speakers for a desktop PC or a laptopHeadset with mic

Audio components...

Sound on a computer comes in two basic ways - combinations of digital and analog sound reproduction, and synthesized sound. (To read more about this, please see article on PC audio.) Audio hardware handles the generation and conversion of audio signals within a computer. Sound hardware can either be integrated on the motherboard or can come separately on its own expansion card.

Most typical 16-bit audio hardware brands are comparatively equal and this quality level was quite adequate for the typical computer user of time past. Sound quality - what your ear perceives - has more to do with the quality of your speakers than with the quality of the audio hardware itself. If you feel you have an exceptional ear, you may wish to move up a notch to a sound expansion card versus the integrated sound component on a motherboard. Analog sound has become digital, and recreating and anipulating sound files has become easier. Modern computers come with the typical mic in, line in and speaker out jacks as a minimum. It is quite common now to find 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound jacks on the rear of a PC and a stereo speaker jack and a microphone jack on the front as well.

Audio ports on a B75M-ITX motherboard

These are the ports on the back of an ASRock B75M-ITX motherboard. Pink - mic, blue - line in, green - speakers, with all colour-coded for 7.1 audio if desired. (The odd one out is SPDIF.)

Audio jacks, and USB jacks, on the front of a BP655 case

On the right are the typical audio jacks found on many computer cases, here from an Inwin BP655 case - mic on the left, speaker on the right, USB between.

Basic computer-style powered stereo speakers will do for the average computer user. Getting a speaker set with a third component - a sub woofer for more base - is a good idea if you plan on listening to music files or if you intend to use the computer for full-throated games. There are levels of quality, so you may wish to test the speakers in an environment similar to where you intend to use them.

Monitors that have speakers built into their cabinets are quite neat, for those who dislike all the wires and desk clutter.

In situations when having sound reaching anyone but the computer user is a problem, headphones of many different qualities are available. Headphones with mics, or headsets, are useful for programs like Skype and for online gaming.

You'll need a microphone if you want to create voice recordings or if you want to chat in voice mode on the Internet. Some monitor cabinets come with microphones built-in, or you can get one that clips onto a monitor or stands on its own beside it. Many people like the headset style, with earphones - so conversations remain inobtrusive and private. Laptops typically have stereo mics up beside the webcam. If you need stereo for a desktop PC, don't buy a mono mic.

Audio software provided with your sound hardware will primarily be for playback, and you may be able to create your own sound files. You will need third-party software for full-functioning sound file editing and file-type manipulation.

Having a computer without sound is really not an option.

56K modem for PCI slot


A modem is required for any of these three uses : communicating by dial-up connection with a remote computer or service, sending or receiving faxes, or connecting to the Internet in dial-up fashion. The first use mentioned here is not something people very often do with their computers these days. In fact, you may never use your computer this ability ever. The second use - faxing - is common and practical, with the one exception that faxes generated at your end can only come from document files you create on the computer. If you wish to fax an existing external document, you must first have it scanned and converted into a computer file. (Having a scanning device of your own or having a friendly neighbour with one can make scanning external documents practical.) The third use is extremely common, and is something that almost every computer user will at some time do.

Faxing requires a modem that can transmit data at a rate of 9,600 baud or greater. Data connections are minimally user-friendly when they achieve rates of 28,800 baud (28.8K) and more. Modems have a limit of 56K, which only a super-clean phone line connection can make use of. By comparison, the DSL and cable modems we use today have hugely better data rates, as much as 300 times faster (at 15MB), so dial-up connections are relegated to obscure locales now. A good dial-up connection will be in the 44K-52K range - email will be possible but only the barest of webpages will view easily. In buying a modem, you are looking for a 56K with V.90 communication protocol. A modem bought today woudl either be 32-bit PCI or USB.

Some modems come with an audio component to give the user the option of using their computer as a full-featured telephone answering machine. While these modems and their accompanying software work quite well, this ability has never really caught on with most computer users, hence modems with this feature are seldom used this way.

Modems have RJ11 jacks, one for line in and one for phone out, for convenience. RJ11 are similar in appeareance but not as wide as an RJ45 Ethernet jack.

Ethernet card for PCI slot Ethernet port on a motherboard


Having more than one computer in a household introduces the possibility of connecting them together, or networking them, so data can be transferred from one to the other, and the unique resources on each can be shared (i.e. printers, scanners, etc.). Networking computers is extremely common in the world at large. Networking computers at home is becoming popular, too. There are three data transfer rates for RJ45-type wired connections : 10, 100 and 1,000 megabits per second. 10Mbps was common years ago, it was superceded by the 100 Mbps rate, and the new standard is 1,000 Mbps. Network cabling is typically CAT5E or CAT6E, depending on how far the

Wiring two networkable devices together can be accomplished with a single cable of the "crossover" type. Wiring three or more networkable devices together requires a "hub" or "switch" - essentially a common connection point. "Wireless" networks can save the trouble of having and running wires - their data transfer rates are now comparable. Secure networks require passwords, or keys, to connect, and data moving about on a secure network is encrypted. The most common types of home networks use WEP or WPA protocols.

It should be kept in mind that many networks are simply a PC and the Internet, with the Internet only running at perhaps 5 Mbps at this time, and any home network with more than this will require an "IT"-minded person for installations and problem solving.

USB ports on a motherboard, USB 3.0 are blue


USB, or universal serial bus, refers to a connection type whereby external devices can be connected to a bus in a computer - an inline, multi-noded connection - rather than to a single unsplittable port.

The original USB standard was known as 1.1. Most USB devices are compatible with USB 1.1. The subsequent USB "high speed" standard is known as 2.0. USB 1.1 performs at a maximum data transfer rate of 12 Mbps, while the maximum data transfer rate of USB 2.0 is 480 Mbps. This becomes relevant for external devices that need high transfer rates to perform well, like scanners and external hard drives. It is less relevant for devices like SB mice, keyboards and printers.

USB ports can be expanded upon with the addition of a USB hub. One port can become more, and on, and on. New PCs come with multiple USB ports, perhaps up to eight. USB ports can now often be found conveniently on the front of computers as well (rear usually for mice, keyboards, speakers, printers and scanners, while the front is for cameras and data drives).

USB 1.1 carries only 100ma of power, while USB 2.0 carries 400ma. The increase in power was needed for newer devices, especially external drives. If a device requires more than the available power in a connection, it will work intermittently, if at all. Often the message received will be "device not recognized".

When a device is recognized as being a USB 2.0 but it is found on a USB 1.1 port, the message received will be "this device can perform faster". Look for a USB 2.0 port at another location of the same PC - the one you are in might be 1.1.

The newest USB standard is 3.0, also known as "Super Speed" USB. It has a maximum data rate of 5 GB/s, close to SATA's best transfer rate, and roughly ten times faster than USB 2.0. This difference makes a huge difference when transferring large amounts of data. Of course, both the device and the port must be 3.0 to get the maximum transfer rate. The power available in a 3.0 port is maximum 900 mA.

USB ports have a blue insertion guide, while USB 2.0 and 1.1 had black, sometimes white, insertion guides.

A USB 1.1 will work in all three port types. USB 2.0 devices will work in 2.0 or 3.0, and may work in 1.1. USB 3.0 devices will likely only work in 3.0 or 2.0 depending on their power requirements, but I have yet to test this.

Some USB devices can utilize a dual cable - one side for data and power and the other side for more power.

Pocket-size external hard drive enclosure

External data drives...

An external data drive is not exactly a part of a new computer, but is often connected to one. Flash memory drives and USB drives can be used for backing up data and for transferring data. USB 2.0 is the most common connection type, with the better options of E-SATA and USB 3.0 greatly enhancing the data transfer rates. 2.5" drives make for a pocketsize enclosure, with SSD drives being tougher than SATA.

Epson AIO - all-in-one NX330 printer


While not necessary, it is hard to imagine a computer setup without a printer. There are three main types of printers to decide between : laserjet, inkjet, and impact.

Laserjets use "toner" - a powdered ink that is fused with heat onto the printed page in a manner that makes it completely resistant to smudging and running. Inkjets use a sprayable ink that may smudge until completely dry, and will sometimes run if made wet. Impact printers use a ribbon similarly to a typewriter, with a transferrable ink that is resistant to change.

Laserjets and inkjets print with about the same high levels of resolution these days, while impact printers have very low comparative resolutions. Laserjet print is sharp - lines are straight and edges are smooth. Inkjet output can be very good, but lines and edges may show slight wavering, and ink may flow irregularly on rougher papers. Impact printers print with a head comprised of a rectangular pattern of round or square "hammers" - lines can be straight, but curves will show the dot composition when examined with the naked eye.

Laserjets are relatively quick to produce a page, while inkjet printers are slower, and impact printers impossibly so, if the printing amounts to anything more than a dozen or so lines of text. Laserjet printers must warm up first, then will pump out successive pages of text at consumer rates up to 16 pages per minute. Inkjet printers warm up, too, and will print a typical colour page in perhaps 20-30 seconds. Impact printers start almost immediately, but their slowness means that they cannot be used practically to print anything but medium-quality text. Their main use in the world today is printing multi-layer forms - many who need this feature have moved on to printing multiple pages of the same document to speed up the process.

Laserjets are very quiet when running, with only roller and faint gear noise audible. Inkjet printers make a lot of mechanical noise when the heads are moving across the page as it prints. Impact printers make a ratchety, screaming sound when printing.

All three printer types can print in monochrome or in four-colour process colour (cyan, magenta, yellow, black or "key"). Some inkjet printers today use six colours, or an alternative set of four colours, to improve the printing of flesh tones.

As a guideline... if you need colour output, you will likely wind up with an inkjet printer. If you need crisp black business-like printing, look at laserjet printers. If you need to print on multi-layered forms, you are looking for an impact printer. If you need something more than any one of the printer types can do, you may need a second (or third) printer. A PC can be made to handle up to three different parallel-type printers, and any practical number of USB printers, or some combination of printer types, if necessary.

There is a printer type that combines the features of a printer, photo copier, scanner and fax machine. These can be quite useful in a small business or home environment, when only good quality output is all that's desired. (Any machine that is doing more than one task may not be doing the best that can be done at any of the tasks.) These all-in-one's (AIO's) come in laserjet or inkjet types, in monochrome or colour. Most AIO's today have card readers in them and menu display screens that permit the user to make prints of photos without actually using the computer at all.


To get original images into a computer - for viewing, printing, or e-mailing - someone either has to "draw" them with computer software designed for that purpose, or "scan" them in. Consumer scanners come in two formats - hand-held or flatbed. Both work by bouncing light off an image and recording what portion of the light comes back to the sensors in the scanner. Hand-held models need to be smoothly rolled over an image to accomplish this (this can be hard to do). Similar to the front end process of a photocopier, flatbed scanners have a flat glass surface on which you can position your original for scanning by an automatic mechanism that passes along smoothly below. Hand-held models are only several inches wide, while flatbed scanners come in 8.5 x 11 and 8.5 x 14 inch sizes. Having a scanner only really makes sense if it can scan in reasonably high resolutions, in colour.

In choosing a scanner, you want to look at a couple of things. First - how will it connect to the computer, and second - what software comes with it to let me manipulate the image once I have the image scanned? Scanners today are USB. Software to enhance the images you scan will primarily depend on what brand the scanner is, and how much you spend on it. Assuming you do not already have a graphics software package, a very good software package to get with a scanner is Adobe's Photoshop (LE, if not the full version, 5.0 if not 6.0). Look to spend enough on the printer to get a software package like this.

Perhaps the best way to get a scanner into your system is to get an all-in-one printer, which will have a scanner built into it. Standalone scanners take up real estate on your desk and increase the overall learning curve.

One of numerous Kodak digital cameras

PC- and digital cameras... A popular addition to the home computer is the digital camera. Photos and short videos can be taken and downloaded onto a computer quite easily, then viewed, printed and sent to friends and family. For convenience and ease of use, these cameras are typically connected to the USB port of a computer.

Hardware drivers... Be sure to get any drivers (programs) needed to make all the hardware work correctly and in harmony with all the other components in the computer. Products may sit on shelves for long periods of time, and compatability issues may arise. While Microsoft's plug-and-play operating system may purport to know how to handle a given device, you may preferentially want to have the drivers installed that come with a particular component, or you may not - take a look at which is newer. Problems do not always manifest themselves in the immediate vicinity - an apparent problem with a modem or video card, for example, may be caused by some other hardware altogether, and the reverse may also be true.

Having said this, drivers become outdated quickly and the Internet is theplace to get updates. It is not worth the effort to seek out new drivers for components that are working correctly, so look for drivers only when you have a problem. Microsoft Update is now a great place to get hardware updates, so watch for them when your are managing those. Many companies are giving over these latest drivers to Microsoft for distribution it seems, but Microsoft comes out ahead with this arrangement since hardware issues affect software, and software issues always get blamed on Microsoft anyway.

The computer environment... Get yourself a large enough desk or table to accomodate all the computer equipment you will have. Get yourself a cabinet or shelving to hold all the supplies you will need. Set yourself up in a well-lighted room with good ventilation.

A power circuit reserved for the computer equipment alone would be ideal. If you intend to have an Internet connection, you will need a phone line for either a dial-up or high-speed DSL account. If you go with high-speed cable, you'll need a cable outlet in the room.

Have a working phone near the computer, so you can see the screen when you request help with it (a wireless phone from another room is fine).

Surge protection power bar with RJ11 and coax

Surge protection... Your computer can be damaged by incoming surges on any wire connected directly, or indirectly, to it. Get yourself a power bar with surge protection that also has input and output jacks for the phone line and the cable. If you have additional wiring like audio connections from a stereo unit, or video connections from a TV or VCR, get surge protectors for these devices also. If you have problems in your area with brownouts or blackout, consider getting a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) which will give you steady power at an optimum rate and a battery unit that will keep your computer running for a number of minutes after the power goes out so you can shut down your system properly.

Supplies... Generally speaking, stay within the parameters set out by the different manufacturers of the computer components when buying supplies. Use the recommended paper types, label types, blank CD types, floppy disk types, etc., but know that you can probably use generic brands of all of these supplies without causing any trouble or voiding any warranties.

Refurbished or used, versus new...

In favour - with understanding refurbished products, it is helpful to consider that many solid state electronics last many years. Few moving parts, regular use, and suitability to the task at hand helps devices like radios, stereos, televisions and similar appliances continue to work into their tenth year and beyond.

With refurbished computers, the electronics inside them can continue to work similarly long and well. Computers are more often discarded after they can no longer meet the user's needs due to speed, software or connectability issues, not because they have worn down or burned out. If a computer is purchased with suitability to the task at hand as being the primary consideration, a capable older computer may well satisfy all demands of it, and save its buyer some serious money, too.

Most people use their computers for very basic needs - email, Internet access, file viewing and common file creation. a two or three year old computer can often handle most of what people use their computers for.

Of course, faster computers with larger capacities in all areas may be desirable, but may not actually necessary. The newest computers have far more speed and capacity than many users have reason to buy. Now, when budgets permit, it is always nice to own something brand new. But there are times when we can rationally consider purchasing a good pre-owned product to meet our needs. A car or boat, furniture or an appliance, a cottage or home can all be bought as pre-owned when conditions are right. Why not a computer?

Against - warranties on new product will almost always be longer than on refurbished product. Used product - product being given up or sold off by someone - is being given up for a reason. When compared to a new computer, the price of a refurbished or used computer should fully reflect any reduced functionality or loss of original warranty that the product may have, the price should not be set with any regard to what the product was sold for originally. Modern features may totally outweigh any decision to purchase an older PC. If a computer can't run what you want to run, or do what you want to do, you should not have any interest in it.

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