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Glossary

I want to buy a new computerů

Not sure what everything means… Can you help?

When buying a computer it is helpful to know what you are buying, hope this helps.

Components

Component name: Processor aka CPU

What it does: The processor or CPU is the heart of every computer. It performs the actual work, and its speed determines how fast your computer will run.

What you need to know before you buy: The two popular processor manufacturers are Intel and AMD. Intel produces the Pentium line of processors, as well as the Celeron budget line. The Intel Pentium is the flagship processor and has been dominating the market for quite some time. Combined with the right components, the Pentium is the fastest processor out there. It is also the most expensive processor.

The Intel Celeron line is not quite as fast as the Pentium, and not quite as expensive. Consider it an affordable, scaled down baby Pentium.

Nipping at Intel’s heels is AMD with its Athlon line of processors. The Athlon CPU is competing directly with the Intel Pentium. When you go shopping, understand what brand and model processor the computer has.

When it comes to processor speed, you have to know that it is measured in MegaHertz (short MHz) or GigaHertz (short GHz, equals 1000 MHz). One MHz means one million cycles per second. A 2.6 GHz (equals 2600 MHz) processor executes 2,600,000,000 cycles per second. Write down this speed.

When you look at AMD Athlon based computers, you will see a speed rating, e.g. 2600+ while the processor actually runs only at 2133 MHz. Don’t let this confuse you, write down the speed rating. All this means is that even though the processor executes less cycles per second than the Pentium, it performs as well as a Pentium at 2600 MHz due to its architecture.

Component name: Motherboard aka Mainboard

What it does: The motherboard is where everything comes together. It holds the CPU, the memory, all expansion cards, the drive controllers, and more.

What you need to know before you buy: Find out whether the motherboard is a proprietary model, or a standard model from a third-party manufacturer. If it’s proprietary, it can be a budget-level item with integrated components. If it has to be replaced, you can only go through the manufacturer. It also pretty much eliminates any upgrade paths later. A third-party motherboard usually means better quality and the possibility of upgrading down the road.

Find out how many open PCI slots are on the motherboard to plug in any expansion cards, find out whether it has an AGP slot for a graphics card, find out how many free memory slots it has.

Component name: Memory aka RAM

What it does: This is where data and programs are stored while in use. The more memory the computer has, the better and faster it works. Never skimp on memory, always get as much as possible.

What you need to know before you buy: Find out what type of memory is in the computer. Is it SDRAM (cheap, decent performance), DDR RAM (affordable, good performance), or RDRAM (expensive, high performance)? The most important question to ask is how many memory slots are on the motherboard, and how many of them are filled with memory modules? If there are 3 or 4 slots and only one memory module is installed, you can add memory anytime by filling the free slots. This is the preferred way to go. If there are only 2 slots and both are filled, you’ll have to replace the existing memory modules, which is more expensive and you’re more limited as to how much memory you can have.

Component name: Video / Graphics Card / Adapter

What it does: The video card processes graphics and sends images to your monitor. It is responsible for how fast how much data can be displayed on your screen.

What you need to know before you buy: The more memory the video card has and the faster it operates, the better image you’ll see on your monitor. Find out how much video memory (this is different than the memory mentioned above) the card has. The more, the better, especially if you plan to do graphics-intensive work such as CAD or photo editing.

In regular 2D mode will display your normal programs like email, web browsing, word processing, etc. Here it is important what resolution the card can offer, especially if you have a big monitor. It should at least offer 1280×1024. It is also important that the card offers a decent refresh rate of at least 75Hz, meaning it can redraw the screen fast enough that you do not see any flicker. Find out whether the card can do at least 1280×1024 @ 75Hz. Anything higher is good, but do not go for less.

In 3D gaming mode is where video card performance is really important, e.g. for games like Quake, Unreal Tournament or Half-life. It has to be powerful enough to render enough frames per second to ensure smooth images. A high-performance gaming graphics card is essential.

If you have additional requirements like video capturing or connecting a LCD monitor, make sure you get a video card that has all the correct in- and outputs.

Very important: Find out whether the graphics card is a true expansion card, or whether it’s integrated into the motherboard. If it’s a true expansion card, chances are it’s a better quality/performance card. If it’s integrated, it’ll be cheap and while ok for 2D mode, underpowered for most games. In addition, if it is integrated, you’ll have to replace the entire motherboard should it ever break.

Component name: Hard Drive
What it does: The hard drive stores the operating system files, programs, and data.

What you need to know before you buy: Hard drive storage space is pretty cheap these days. Get plenty, especially if you plan to store a lot of multimedia files such as pictures, audio, or video files. Disk space is measured in Gigabytes aka GB. Find out how many Gigs the hard drive holds, as well as the specs of the hard drive. The drive should have at least a 2MB buffer, and the platter should spin at 7200 revolutions per minute (RPM). Drives with less than 2MB buffer that spin only at 5400 RPM are slow and outdated.

Component name: CD/DVD Drives

What it does: CD and DVD drives read data, audio, and video from CDs and DVDs, allowing you to install programs, transfer data, play back music and movies.

What you need to know before you buy: Find out what type of drive(s) are in the computer. CD-ROM means CD Read Only, DVD-ROM means DVD Read Only. A CD-ROM drive will play back only CDs. A DVD-ROM drive will play back CDs and DVDs. If you want to be able to write/burn CDs or even DVDs, see if the computer includes a CD or DVD burner, they are not necessarily standard equipment.

Component name: Sound card aka Audio

What it does: The sound card processes audio signals and feeds the speakers.

What you need to know before you buy: If you don’t have any special requirements and plan to hook up only a pair of cheap speakers, you probably don’t care much about this option. However, if you plan to hook up a 4.1 or 5.1 speaker system, expect great sound from games, watch movies on the computer, make sure you get a good quality card that has the proper outputs for a surround sound speaker setup.

Find out whether the sound card is a true expansion card, or whether it’s integrated into the motherboard. If it’s a true expansion card, chances are it’s a better quality card. If it’s integrated, it’ll be a budget level card and not as feature-rich. In addition, if it is integrated, you’ll have to replace the entire motherboard should it ever break.

Component name: Network card aka Ethernet Adapter

What it does: A network card allows you to connect the computer to a network. It is also needed to hook up a DSL or cable modem with an Ethernet port (Ethernet ports are most common, though there are DSL and cable modems with USB connectors). Having a built-in network card saves you the trouble of installing a new card yourself or moving your network card from your old into the new computer.

What you need to know before you buy: Find out whether the network card is a true expansion card, or whether it’s integrated into the motherboard. If it’s a true expansion card, chances are it’s a better quality card. If it’s integrated, it’ll be a budget level card. In addition, if it is integrated, you’ll have to replace the entire motherboard should it ever break.

Component name: Case

What it does: It houses the main computer.

What you need to know before you buy: Size does matter. While a tiny case might look cute and tuck away easily out of sight, a big case offers room to work in, better cooling, and has more expansion possibilities.

Find out how many free 3.5 inch drive bays are inside the case (to install additional hard drives), how many free 5.25 inch drive bays (to install additional optical drives like DVD burner), and how many case fans it has.

Component name: Power Supply

What it does: The power supply provides the appropriate power to the motherboard and other components of the computer. It is important that the power supply has enough power and delivers it without fluctuations.

What you need to know before you buy: A lot of pre-built machines come with weak power supplies that are just enough for what’s in the case, but do not leave any room to support additional components or upgrades. Find out how many Watts the power supply has. All of them are woefully underpowered. Most machines come with less than 300 watt supply’s. Also find out how many free additional power connectors are available to connect additional drives later on.

Component name: Modem

What it does: The modem allows you to connect to the Internet via dial-up over a regular telephone line.

What you need to know before you buy: Any modem offered will be a 56K modem. There are no faster speeds available due to the fact that data transfer is limited to 53K per government regulation. The main two modem types out there are software modems and hardware modems. Software modems, also called WinModems, depend on the operating system and CPU to do some of the work. The downsides are that this uses a small amount of resources that could be used for something else, and Winmodems only work in Windows, not in Linux or other operating systems. Hardware modems have their own onboard processor and do not offload work on the CPU.

Find out whether the modem is a true expansion card, or whether it’s integrated into the motherboard. If it’s a true expansion card, chances are it’s a better quality modem. If it’s integrated, it’ll be a budget level modem. In addition, if it is integrated, you’ll have to replace the entire motherboard should it ever break.

Accessories
So far this article covered all the components of the actual computer. Chances are that when you buy a pre-built system, you will also get a certain number of accessories. As a general rule of thumb you can assume that any bundled components are low to medium in quality and amount of features. If you are on a budget or don’t have high expectations, those bundled accessories might work well for you. If you are looking for the best, here are a few things to look out for.

Component name: Monitor

What you need to know before you buy: Find out the maximum resolution and refresh rate for the monitor, just like you did for the video card. 1280×1024 @ 75Hz is a healthy minimum. The sharpness of the image is determined by the space between pixels on the monitor called pitch and is measured in millimeters (mm). In this case, smaller is better. Find out the viewable size of the screen. A traditional CRT monitor viewable size is smaller than the tube size. For example, the viewable area of a 19 inch CRT will be less than 18 inches. On a LCD screen the screen size is identical to the viewable area. If LCD, find out the viewing angle, contrast ratio, and brightness. More is better.

Component name: Printer

What you need to know before you buy: For average home use, a bundled printer will work fine for most people. However, expect slow output and mediocre print resolution. Find out how fast the printer is (measured in pages per minute or ppm), and what resolution it supports (dots per inch or dpi). The higher, the better.

Component name: Speakers

What you need to know before you buy: Speaker quality varies greatly anywhere from a pair of tinny-sounding, plasticky $10 speakers to a $500 THX certified 5.1 surround sound setup. Performance is measured in Watts, and the sound quality usually improves with the number of speakers.

Component name: Mouse

What you need to know before you buy: Traditional mice usually found with bundled setups use a PS/2 port connector and operate with the somewhat outdated rolling ball mechanism. Optical mice with a USB connector are now very common and affordable, as well as rechargeable or wireless mice, or a combination thereof.

Component name: Ports

What you need to know before you buy: USB and Firewire are popular standards to connect peripherals and transfer data. If you are planning to hook up devices such as a digital camera or video camera, USB and Firewire ports are a must. Find out the number of USB and Firewire ports.

Other deciding factors

There is more to a computer purchase. You want software to run on your computer. Every machine should come with the latest version of Windows installed. There should also be a productivity suite installed such as Microsoft Office. Additional bonuses are graphics software, antivirus protection, and entertainment packs.

Find out how long the warranty is to see how long your investment will be covered against defects. Check out what tech support options you get, whether the manufacturer offers 24×7 phone support, email support, online knowledge base, driver downloads, etc.

Finally, you might have some specific requirements yourself. Do you want to be able to watch TV? You’ll need a TV tuner card. Do you want to convert photos to digital pictures? You’ll need a scanner. Do you want to be able to transport large amounts of data? You might need a removable hard drive rack. Do you want to be able to back up large amounts of data? You might need a tape drive. Think about these things before you go shopping and put them on your list so they don’t get overlooked.

Summary

Armed with this knowledge, you are now much better prepared to face the mass of available computers out on the shelves and translate convoluted computer ads into plain English. Print out the handy Computer Shopping Checklist, take it with you, and fill in the information for each computer you’re considering. Once you have documented all the features, making a decision will be an easy and logical process.

Here are some links to major computer stores:

Dell Computers

Hewlett Packard\Compaq Computers

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