Tips and Guides on Buying a Computer
I’m thinking about upgrading my computer, as the (un)fortunate nature of being a geek who is into gadget. With my computer science and system administrator background plus personal research, I share some tips and guides if you are in the market of buying a computer.
I can only imagine how confusing it is with all the technical and marketing jargons being thrown around these days.
- Window 7 — First thing first, if you are looking to buy but can afford to wait until October, wait until October for Window 7. There is the upgrade option from Vista if you buy now, but that’s just extra hassle. Though, this is of no concern for Mac people.
- CPU — There are so many models out that make all of us dizzy. May I say confusion tactics?
If you are buying a desktop now, pay for a Core i7, period. If you are buying a laptop, wait for Core i7’s mobile version to come out (rumored to be end of this year). It is both faster and runs cooler (more energy efficient) than the others. Its multi-threading capability is also double by the hyper-threading technology applied to each core. It is a guarantee that the computer will have up-to-par performance for a few more years than if you get Quad Core, Core 2, or AMD.
There are 3 key parameters to watch out for on a CPU.
- Speed — Obviously, the higher the GHz, the better processing power. This affects number crunching, media file compressions, video data processing, etc. This is the speed for “one core” on the current multi-core CPU. It is possible that if you buy a faster Core 2, you get better performance than a slower Quad Core, depends on whether your operating system and the particular software are making use of multi-threads
- L2/L3 Cache — Cache is the “closest” memory, thus fastest, for the CPU to access. L2 being closer to L3. As bigger cache allow more information to be stored when a CPU (aka. the applications that are running) needs it, before reaching to the RAM or hard drive, a bigger cache often improve speed of running application. In other words, it makes it seems like the application is running “smoother” to a user.
- Front Side Bus (FSB) — This one is less known to most people, often measured in MHz. Moreover, it is removed on Core i7 as it is replaced by an improvement with something many times its speed (too technical to explain here). But anyways, FSB affects the speed of communication between the CPU and the RAM (well, the contoller of the RAM). Thus, it also provides “smoother” application running experience. That is, only if you are looking to buy computers without the Core i7. (Don’t do it!)
- RAM or memory — After files are read from harddrive, RAM is where your applications and the files they need sit when running on the computer. If they are not there, they will have to be read from the harddrive (next topic).
Besides the amount of memory, you should pay attention to their speed (measured in MHz). If the CPU is something besides Core i7, get RAM that has speed up to the FSB speed (see above about FSB). If the CPU is Core i7, get RAM that is as fast as you can afford.
In a nutshell, the size of RAM affects how many applications you can run. The speed of RAM affects how smooth your applications run when you are running them.
- Harddrive — Most people overlook the speed of the hard drive when they purchase. Your computer only runs as fast as the slowest component in it. Frequently, that slowest component is the hard drive. It is measured in Revolutions per Minute (RPM).
I see lots of people with laptop that only has harddrive with 5400 RPM when a slight (and cheap) upgrade to 7200 RPM can make things just that much better. For desktop, the conventional speed is 7200 RPM, but you can find ones at 10,000 RPM, though often with much less storage.
Of course, as solid state drives (SSD) slowly become more common (and hopefully cheaper soon). This concern for RPM will soon be out of the window.
Performance of harddrives are measured in terms of sequential/random read speed, and sequential/random write speed. For SSD, different manufacturers produce different quality in terms of those measurement. For all SSD, their weakness is the random write speed. If you care about performance, pay attention to all four but especially the random write speed.
- LCD screen — LCD has been the trend for a long time. That is, the fluorescent backlit LCD. We have the new LED backlit LCD.
In other word, the way they called LED monitor or LED TV are technically wrong. Anyways…
The advantage of LED backlit LCD or monitor is more energy efficient (longer battery life), better color and brightness, and perhaps longer screen life (well, LED last longer than fluorescent light but the LCD panel is another story). Of course, LED will cost you more. This applies to the purchase of a LCD TV too.
On top of all this, there is the difference between White LED vs. RGB LED. In a few words, RGB LED will most likely produce better, more accurate color than WLED because simply because RGB LED produces Red-Green-Blue backlight against the LCD panel while WLED produces only white backlight. WLED costs manufacturers less to produce… aaaah, capitalism.
Last thing about LCD screen, do not forget about choosing the right screen size and its resolution that fit your eyes’ preference.
- Graphic related
- A good graphic card can help your CPU with playing HD video.
- Understand the video output you want — VGA(analog), DVI (basic digital, I think this should be minimum), HDMI (connection to your HD TV), DisplayPort (equiv. and competitor of HDMI)
- Battery — Not much to say except, choose between 6-cell or 9-cell on for laptop purchase.
- Noise and heat level — Powerful CPU produces heat. But Core i7 is tested to be good with being efficient and thus, less heat. That is why I said to wait for Core i7 mobile version of CPU.
Noise could be a problem on laptop and desktop caused by the fan that required to dissipate heat. It also depends on the manufacturers/companies, so check reviews of your desired computer about the noise level.
If you do lots of images and video processing, you NEED a powerful CPU.
That’s all the tips and guides. The truth is, for most people who are only using their computer for word processing, normal video viewing, and internet browsing, just about any computer you buy new now will be enough. Given, if you keep your computer uncluttered, it will smoothly for a long time.
For me, I have decided to wait for Windows 7 and the Core i7 mobile CPU at least. Hopefully, the new SSD and LED LCD have gotten more common and cheaper by then? (in a few months).
The truth is, my current laptop, XPS M1210 — 2GHz Core 2 CPU, 2GB RAM, 7200RPM 250GB Harddrive — is still a mid-range laptop even now, which I bought 2.5+ years ago off Craiglist. I am in no hurry to upgrade. Oh, my trusty XPS M1210… so I tell myself :P