computer_shopping Let me give you some updated generalizations that may help you get started when you’re shopping for a new computer.

Generalizations are dangerous things. Not everyone ought to make the same choices. You’ll be driven by your budget, your level of tech knowledge, any specific goals or desires that drive you, considerations of style or size or weight, and many other things. The term “computer” is fragmenting into devices that range from classic big towers under a desk down to two pound netbooks. Take this advice and modify it to meet your needs!

  • PROCESSOR  Intel’s lineup is a blur but in general, get Intel Core 2 Duo processors or better, not a low end Celeron or an older “Pentium Dual Core” processor. The clock speeds are impossible to compare; instead look for a step up from a smaller L2 cache to a 4Mb or 6Mb L2 cache, a bit of technical wizardry that’s worth a hundred dollars or so to speed things up. That being said, all of the processors on the market will serve you well – processor speed is no longer the defining point of a computer.
  • MEMORY  I strongly suggest 4Gb of RAM for a new computer. That’s the most memory that a 32-bit operating system can address. If you’re getting a 64-bit operating system (see below), think about getting 8Gb or more. Nobody ever regrets buying extra memory.
  • VIDEO  It is essential to look for a video card with 256Mb of RAM! There are many more differences between video cards than that but you’ll get what you need if you just focus on that single number. If your new computer doesn’t have a 256Mb video card, you’ll be disappointed in ways large and small – perhaps you might just not be able to turn on Vista’s eye candy, but at worst the computer’s entire performance will be compromised. On a notebook, get the best video card available. On a netbook, wait until it’s possible to get Nvidia’s graphics technology later this year.
  • HARD DRIVE  You’ll get lots of storage space with any new computer, but the speed of the hard drive is a new and important consideration. The speed is measured in RPM; you want a speed of 7200RPM or above. If you see 5400RPM, avoid it – the whole system will be slow regardless of the other specs. (You’ll run into this problem more often on notebooks.)
  • OPERATING SYSTEM  Vista Business is the best choice for most people; get Vista Home Premium if you’re interested in one of its specific features, but be aware of what you’re missing.
    • 32-BIT vs. 64-BIT OPERATING SYSTEM  There are two different versions of Vista on the market. Any new computer can run either a 32-bit or 64-bit version of Vista; one meaningful difference is that the 64-bit version can address more than 4Gb of RAM. We will all become comfortable with this idea in the next couple of years but at the moment it’s causing some confusion – for example, Costco has been selling cheap HP desktop PCs without calling attention to the “64-bit” reference.

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    • The 64-bit operating system needs different drivers for devices hooked up to it, and some programs will need special attention before they run properly. Drivers are becoming easier to find but there are still no guarantees that any particular printer or scanner or program will work with 64-bit Vista. If you are technically proficient, this is not a big deal. If you’re not, then each device and each program will be a little adventure in discovering how to make it work, with no guarantee of success. Buy carefully!
  • OPTICAL DRIVE  Make sure you get a drive that can read DVDs – software is being distributed on DVDs now. Almost every computer includes this routinely now.
  • SOFTWARE  If you’re ordering from Dell, you can get Microsoft Office preinstalled at an attractive price. Other manufacturers almost never include MS Office. Make sure your budget is ready for the $150 Home and Student Edition of Office if the computer will be used at home (which does not include Outlook), or $300 and up for the standard versions.

When you buy your new computer, think about buying these accessories at the same time:

  • SECURITY  Your first job with a new computer is installing a security program. Remove any preinstalled software from Norton or McAfee. If a 2009 version of software from a reputable company came with the computer, activate it and bring it up to date. If not, follow this advice.
  • BACKUPS  Buy a 750Gb-1Tb USB external hard drive. Read about backups and come up with a plan.
    • If you want to trust me instead of reading all those words, buy the Western Digital Elements 1Tb drive.
    • If you got Vista Business, use Complete PC Backup to create an image of the hard drive as soon as Windows is up to date and you’ve installed your basic programs. Make a note on your calendar to update that image once a month, and set up Vista’s basic backup program to do backups daily or weekly.
    • Or, for even more effective backups, buy ShadowProtect Desktop Edition.
  • UPS  Replace your old surge protectors with an APC UPS for better protection against electricity glitches.

Happy shopping!

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