Choosing a desktop computer: The overlooked questions

by Jason Davies on December 26, 2010

New Computer

When looking for a new desktop computer, it is easy to become overwhelmed with the variety of choices. However, using a simple guideline and knowing what to look for prior to going to a big box store can save you money and more importantly, frustration.  This article will help you learn what questions you need to ask when you shop for that new personal computer.

When looking for a new computer, I want you to be sure that brand name is not first on your list.  Too often, people buy a certain computer brand because their friend did and they had good results.  The problem with selecting based on popularity is that it might not work for you.

Things to consider:

  • Does your friend play a lot of games on his or her computer? 
  • Do you play a lot of games on your computer, or do you use it for work only?

There are so many different things that affect outcome of a computer for a particular job. Brand name is only a minor part of the bigger picture.  Where brand does matter is the type of service you get after the sale. This is important if you are looking for support after the sale.

Now that we have established brand is not that important, let’s talk about what is important. I will break it down into my list of the 3 P’s.

  • Power Conditioning
  • Power Supply
  • Processor

When you purchase a new computer and bring it home for the first time, you need it to work without interruption. The term power conditioning is what I refer to as a device called an UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply).  The goal of the UPS is to make sure the power that goes into your computer is safe, and pure. It helps to ensure your computer components are safe from lightening strikes, power outages, and power dips. Any combination of these problems can shorten the life of your computer dramatically.

What should I look for?

  • Does the UPS manufacturer provide a protection against lightening guarantee? This little guarantee can save you hundreds if nature should strike.
  • How efficient is the UPS? Efficiency just means the ability of the device to pass corrected power through itself. For example, an 80% efficient power correction factor means 20% of the power passing through turns into a waste product called heat.
  • Can the device shut my computer off if the power goes out?  A UPS is designed to protect your computer against bad power. It should be able to power down your computer if the power stays off for too long.

 

The next important part of a computer is the power supply.  The power supply is where the power from your home meets the computer.  The power supply’s ability to give good solid power to the other parts in the computer determines how well the computer will hold up. If it is too small for the processor, it can cause unwanted problems.  

What should I look for in a power supply?

  • I like to recommend a minimum of a 400 Watt power supply (whenever possible) that is at least 80% efficient. Efficiency is the ability of the power supply to convert utility power into power the computer uses. The remainder is lost as heat. Keeping efficiency high will help minimize the utility bill.
  • One that is standard size.  With smaller computers this is difficult. The reason is that the stranger the shape the more it costs to replace.
  • A voltage selector switch. Being able to switch from 110Volts to 220Volts can help protect your investment should you move out of the country. 

Now let’s do a take at processors. I am going to touch on the two most popular processor companies, Intel and AMD. Intel is the normally regarded as the world’s largest chip maker and AMD a close second. Here are some reasons behind each.

  • AMD processors use power less efficiently
  • Intel processors cost more
  • Intel processors run cooler
  • AMD makes more economical processors

My personal opinion on this one is that computers with AMD processors will typically be less expensive than Intel based systems. The idea behind Intel is they are designed to run longer and cooler and be more power efficient. AMD is designed to meet certain price points, and do a similar job.

The bottom line that you will find in most big box stores is that AMD is the lower cost system.  However, if you simply browse the internet and check your email once and awhile, either processor will do just a fine job.  The only comment I have here is that if you get AMD, make sure the power supply is substantial enough to properly power it. This means a minimum of a 350-400 watt power supply.

After you successfully sifted through the 3P’s, I want to congratulate you on getting through the first part of the journey.  Aren’t you glad you didn’t select a computer just based on brand?  Feel free to take notes with you so that you are prepared to ask questions when you walk into your local computer store.

 Now, I need to make you aware of one last thing that many manufactures seem to skip to make certain price points. This important thing is called RAM or Random Access Memory. This memory is used when your computer is running to perform tasks and store data while the power is on. Once the power goes off, information stored in RAM is gone.

How Much Do I need?

  • Choose a computer with a minimum of 2GB (gigabytes)
  • More is better, but only to a point – a 32Bit based system generally supports a max of 3.5GB
  • Going over 3.5GB is tossing money out the window.
  • If the system is a 64Bit system, you can benefit from 3.5GB OR more.

 

As you just learned in how to select a computer, there are some limitations you may run into by selecting a big box store.  Most stores have specific system designs and it may be quite difficult to find the right system meeting the requirements listed. If you can’t find what you are looking for, don’t rush into a decision.

There is another type of system on the market called custom built. Sometimes, these are referred to as “white box” meaning, they are a custom system.  You need to use caution when choosing a white-box. There are large manufacturers of white-boxes, but there is the hobbyist who sells white boxes too. A quality white-box shouldn’t cost an astronomical amount more than a regular branded computer.  

What should I look for in a white box?

  • 3 year warranty on parts; any reputable computer store will use components that offer a minimum hardware warranty
  • Legitimate licensing; be sure the system builder you choose follows proper software licensing. Make sure if you get a pc preloaded with windows that it has a certificate of authenticity.
  • Make sure all components in the system are new and not refurbished. When you buy a white-box, expect all new components. Anything less is a red flag for the buyer.
  • A sales team that is able to answer any questions you have before you commit to purchasing a computer system. Too often, people believe you get what you pay for. The truth is you do, but make sure the vendor earns it.

Final thoughts

No matter what type of computer you select you need to know what you are looking for. I wrote this article for the average computer shopper and omitted certain components such as video cards. The reason for this was intentional, but I’ll give you a hint. If you need a high end graphics card for gaming, you would know it.  Most games that require these types of devices will make mention of it. You can always equipment to a computer after the purchase.

The most important rule when choosing a new computer is to follow the 3P’s and read the system requirements of any software product you want to run before you make the investment. This can save you both time and money, not to mention frustration. I welcome your thoughts and experiences in your last computer purchase. 

If you are seeking additional help on the purchase of a new computer, you can find out more by contacting me, Jason Davies with TechRx, Inc. Or, you can call me at 920.884.1195.  I hope you find this information useful, and please share it with your friends!  Be sure to subscribe to our blog to stay up to date on technology!  

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