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.
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.
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 PC911 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.
– Alex –