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Computer Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

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Man typing on a netbook computer

Even with all the technical jargon surrounding electronics, it's easy to shop for a computer. You really just need to know the type of activities you want to do with your laptop or desktop, and then find a computer with the speed and memory that will enable you to do those tasks. Our computer buying guide will help you sort it all out, so you can shop for computers with confidence.

Buying a Computer:

  1. Software requirements: Different computer users will need varying amounts of speed, memory and power for their computer systems, depending on the type of software the computer needs to run. You can use the system requirements of software you'd like to run as a guide for choosing computer features.

  2. Memory and speed measurements: You'll see the following measurements of memory and component speed in descriptions of desktops, laptops and netbooks:

  3. Kilobytes, megabytes and gigabytes: Memory is measured in bytes according to the metric system. A kilobyte (KB) is about 1000 bytes. A megabyte (MB) is 1000 kilobytes. A gigabyte (GB) is 1000 megabytes, and so on.

  4. Hertz: Processor speed for CPUs and video cards is measured in hertz, or cycles per second. The same metric prefixes (kilo-, mega-, giga-) are used to measure these speeds.

  5. Processor: A computer is run by its central processing unit (CPU), a computer chip which gives commands and performs calculations for all the software run by your machine.

  6. Multi-core: Processors can have multiple "cores" that each act like an individual processor. A dual-core processor is basically two processors combined into a single chip. Multiple cores work together to process information faster.

  7. Speed: Personal computer processor speeds are usually measured in gigahertz (GHz). A GHz rating on a multi-core processor describes the speed of each individual core.

  8. System memory: A computer needs system memory to run any program. This is called random access memory (RAM) and is measured in bytes. Most desktop PCs and notebook computers will have at least a few gigabytes (GB) of RAM installed, and computer descriptions will often tell you how much room there is for additional RAM if you'd like to install it. The more RAM your computer has, the more tasks it can perform at once. Adding RAM may help boost your computer's performance.

  9. Hard drive: The hard disk drive is used as storage for software and other files on your computer. Any pictures or documents you save are stored on the internal hard drive. Hard drives generally have a large capacity that is measured in gigabytes (GB). Depending on how many photos, videos and music files you plan on storing on the hard drive, you may need a drive with 100 GB or as much as a terabyte (1000 GB) or more.

  10. External drives: External hard drives connect to your computer via a cable connection. You can use these drives to back up all your files or transfer large amounts of data from your desktop to your laptop computer.

  11. SSD: Solid state drives (SSD) use flash memory instead of a spinning hard disk to store data. You'll increasingly find SSDs in netbooks, notebooks and other computers.

  12. Optical drive: The optical drive is your computer's CD or DVD drive. Most optical drives display a number and an "x" indicating the drive's speed. For example, some programs or games will require a DVD-ROM with a 16x speed rating. ROM stands for "read only memory," and a CD- or DVD-ROM can only read a disc. Most laptop and desktop PCs are now equipped with drives that are also CD burners or DVD burners. These can write data onto blank or rewritable discs as well as play discs. The tag "RW" will indicate if your drive can rewrite discs.

  13. External ports: A computer's external ports allow you to connect to other devices. Most modern devices such as printers and digital cameras connect to a computer through a USB connection, and most desktop and laptop computers will have several USB ports. Check your existing devices to see what type of connections they use. You may discover that you'd like a computer with a Firewire, HDMI, Ethernet and other connections.

  14. Network interface: The network interface controller (NIC) allows a computer to connect through a router to a local area network (LAN) or high-speed Internet. Most laptops and notebooks have both Ethernet and wireless capabilities.

  15. Signal types: Wireless signals are classified as 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n. Wireless g and n laptops and routers are faster and more common.

  16. Wireless hardware:Wireless routers allow you to set up a wireless network in your home for your wireless laptop and other devices to share an Internet connection or exchange files.

Ideas from Overstock.com:

  1. Factory reconditioned computers are perfect if you want to save on your next computer. Refurbished computers have seen little use and are restored to like-new condition before being tested and resold. You can also find laptops, netbooks and desktop computers with extra features for less when you shop for refurbished models.

  2. Certain computer accessories can really enhance your experience with your computer. Add wireless keyboards and mice, a laptop bag or a webcam for video chat to your system. There are a lot of devices to help you unlock the potential in your computer and let you take advantage of all its features.

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