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Some thoughts on buying a PC


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Buying a PC (see Disclaimer Notice)

First of all - do I get a PC or an Apple Mac?
I am a PC person but Macs are traditionally used by designers. I prefer PCs because they are cheaper, there is so much more software available (and loads of free stuff too), there are more places that fix PCs at a reasonable price, they are easier when it comes to changing the configuration and they use a mouse with more than 1 button.

Do I need a fast computer?
The overall speed of a PC is determined by the speed of the processor and the speed of the hard drive. Any PC you buy these days will be plenty fast and big enough for normal home use. You will get a Pentium (or equivalent) processor running at 2.5GHz or higher. The processor does all the work inside the PC such as running the software, saving files, picking up e-mail and creating information to display on the screen. You can go for a higher speed than the lowest available but you won't notice the difference (getting a 2.8Ghz instead of a 2.5Ghz only gives you a 12% increase for which you could pay an extra £50).

The smallest hard drive available (probably around 40 - 60Gb) will also be plenty large enough without upgrading. The hard drive stores all the software, e-mails, downloads, photos etc. so that when you switch off it is saved ready for when you switch back on.

What size memory?
Memory is used to store programs and data while the processor is working on them. Once the computer is switched off the memory dies but any saved files are still available on the hard drive. A memory capacity of 256Mb will be adequate for home use, 512Mb is better if it is not too much more to upgrade (256Mb is standard now). If you intend doing any intensive graphics work or want to run several applications at the same time then 512Mb would be a minimum.

What about the graphics cards?
The graphics card is the link between the computer and the display. It generates the graphics on the monitor. For normal use the standard graphics card supplied with the computer is fine. If you want to play intensive games then you will probably want to go for a better and faster graphics card with 3D capability and more memory.

What type of display?
You generally have 2 choices - the normal CRT (cathode ray tube) display or the newer LCD (flat panel) display. It comes down to cost - the LCD displays are more expensive but they produce a clearer picture and take up less room. Displays are categorised by the size of the viewable area. This measure is taken diagonally across the screen. Now, there is a problem with the measurement of a CRT display because the figure quoted relates to the total size of the tube, some of which may be hidden behind the case. So, generally speaking, the viewable area of a CRT screen will in fact be between 0.5" to 1.5" less than quoted. This is not the case with an LCD screen which does match its dimension. As a result a 15" LCD can be almost equivalent to a 17" CRT and a 17" LCD almost equivalent to a 19" CRT. So, bear this in mind when deciding what size you want. A 15" LCD or a 17" CRT are fairly standard now giving a good screen area for most uses. Going up to a 17" LCD or a 19" CRT will produce a larger screen area which is useful for designers and those using large spreadsheets etc.

CD and DVD Rewriters

CD rewriter are the standard fitting now days and come with the ability to read DVDs as well. This will allow you to create CDs of you own for backup etc. Upgrading to a DVD rewriter allows for the creation of DVDs which have nearly 10 ten times the capacity of CDs. The choice is dependant on cost and what your need.

Do I need a modem?
If you want Internet access in Gorefield then you will need a dial up modem (until around February 2005 when BT claims we will have Broadband available!). Even after Feb 2005 you will need a modem if you are not going to use Broadband and you may want one just in case your Broadband connection fails at any time. The modem supplied will be the fastest available, there has been little advance in modems lately. Modems are also useful for sending faxes from the PC. If you create a document you can use Windows own Fax software to send it directly from the PC (print it to the fax) and it arrives at the other end much more legible than if it had been sent through a fax machine.

Where do I buy a PC?
I can only mention one supplier here because I have only dealt with one supplier over the last 4 years. Dell is the largest PC manufacturer and I have purchased around 50 PCs from them and had no problems at all. This is not to say that other people haven't had problems with Dell or that other PC manufacturers don't provide an excellent service - I can only speak from experience. When comparing prices try to get the same specification, the same software and the same support. Some suppliers provide lots of software which may look like a good deal, check to see that you need it all. An important part of any purchase is the support you are going to get either by phone or when things stop working.

If the hardware fails then you have 2 options. A 'return to base' warranty means you will have to send the PC back to the supplier (some will collect) for repair and wait for it to be returned. An 'on site' warranty means that an engineer will call (usually the next day) to fix the PC wherever it is. A good warranty usually costs extra (typically about £120 for 3 years 'on site') but gives peace of mind as the PC is not going to be out of action for too long. For businesses it is usually essential to have a good warranty. Telephone support varies but you should get support if the PC is playing up and they should help you to put things right. Most companies do not support Windows as such but do support any software or hardware that is purchased with the computer.

What other hardware do I need?
If you want to print anything, like letters, e-mails or photos, then you will need a printer. You can get good printers these days for less than £100 and for a little more you can get a photo quality printer. For general use almost anything will do but for business or frequent use you will need to pay a little more for something more suitable. You don't necessarily need to purchase a printer from the PC supplier, you may get a better deal elsewhere. If you have a problem printing, though, and you bought it from your PC supplier the they are bound to sort it out, if you bought it separately then both suppliers could end up blaming each other for the problem!

If you want to copy anything onto your computer then you may want to buy a scanner. It works like a photocopier except that it stores the copy electronically so you can insert it into letters or attach it to an e-mail or, if you have the software, you can convert the text from a graphic to text that can be edited in a letter or e-mail. You can sometimes get a scanner with the PC as a special offer or you can buy it separately.

Games controllers and joysticks can be fitted to PCs and there is a vast variety to choose from dependant on what you want to do.

If you want to use a digital camera then they attach to the PC easily these days and Windows XP will recognise it without having to install any extra software.

Just remember - in general, the more reputable the supplier - the better the service and the better the chance of getting good after sales and support. Cheapest isn't always the best.
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