Victoria Computers: Tips on buying a computer

Here are some tips on BUYING a computer (check other parts of this site for detailed tips on computer components and peripherals).

  1. Choose a reputable dealer, ideally one who has been around for a long time and will most likely be there if you run into problems. Find a dealer who makes computers a big part of his business, not a sideline. With good dealers, you'll find good salespeople who will try to find a system that best meets your needs. If you are buying from an electronics chain (who sell more stereos and TVs than computers), ask if the computer is "grey market" equipment, which may have warranty and repair issues: warranty coverage applies only in the US, and repairs must either be sent there (at your expense) or done locally, also at the computer owner's expense.

  2. Tell the salesperson about your computer needs: Is it for work, school, or fun? What is your prior experience with computers, and what kind of software do you plan to use.

  3. Ask lots of questions...the only DUMB ones are the ones you don't get answered! And don't let anyone talk "over your head"; if a person's using buzzwords, they probably don't know any more than you! Be careful with your use of technical computer jargon, since salespeople assume you already understand, and will deal with you on a more technical level. A computer is a large investment, and you have every right to ask for all possible information. Surf the web for vendor sites to get more product details.

  4. You'll be safer with "brand name" companies, like Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Gateway, Apple or IBM. These companies offer leading edge technology and back it on a global level, whereas "clone" equipment is assembled in a dealer's back room and only has local support. If you are planning to move to another city, it's worthwhile if your warranty and support is portable. These days most computer hardware is branded anyway, using the same chips, motherboards, drives, and components that the big brands use. You CAN save significant money, if local support is all you need.

  5. Review the warranties offered for each of the computer system's components. Often, the length and terms of a warranty are different between manufacturers, and also between components. Just because a computer has a two year warranty, doesn't mean the drivers, monitor or printer have the same warranty. Sometimes the manufacturer's warranty covers only components as part of the original factory order, and not items installed at the dealer. Find out if the warranty covers parts, labor, shipping, on-site service, or what combination and for how long. Inquire about extended warranties and what they cover as well, but keep in mind in two years, you may want to replace the computer anyway, regardless of warranty coverage.

  6. Buy as much technology as you can afford. If there are four things you want to spend money on (all other things being equal): RAM memory, hard drive space, processor speed, and monitor size. This will save you money and effort in needing to upgrade in the future.

  7. Here are some tips for a good system (as of December 2008)...


    This is the brain of the computer. Currently, the standard for computers is the Pentium processor, which is available in several speeds: The higher the number, the faster the computer will run. Don't get less than 3 GigaHerz.


    This is short for Random Access Memory. Think of this as your desktop. The bigger your desktop, the more things you can do at once, and the faster you can do them. Most machines are coming standard with 2 gigabytes of RAM, but this is fast changing to 4 gigabytes. Windows alone uses about a 1 gigabyte today ... so if you are using some larger programs for games or video editing, you'll need lots!

    Hard Drive

    This is the storage capacity of your computer. Think of it as an electronic filing cabinet. Digital video and digital audio (MP3) files take up a lot of space! Most computers have at least a 100 gigabyte hard drive, and some have one or more terrabytes (each 1000 gigabytes)! If you are downloading music or doing any digital video or photography, anything over a hundred gigabytes is suitable for home or small office use.


    It looks just like a music CD, but a CD-ROM can hold up to 650 megabytes of information! New drives can play DVDs on your computer (with several gigs of data, and even record CD-ROMs or DVDs. CDs are now used by software manufacturers to make software installs easy, so don't even think of not getting one. Just like processors, they are available in different speeds: 24X, 32X, 64X.


    This is what determines how information gets sent from the computer to the monitor, how fast it will get there, and how many colors will be involved. Most machines come standard with several megabytes, which is more than enough for the average user.

    Some users prefer their computer to have more than one monitor, which is handy if you are working with a number of office as well as online applications at the same time. You can have the application you are copying data from open on one screen, and the program you are copying to open in the other screen. Some computers' motherboard can handle more than one monitor, but with others you may need a second graphics card installed, so you have enough video plugs in the back to plug into, and have the processing power to create the graphics for two screens at once.


    This is the unit that allows you to communicate with the world. Most modems let you surf the Internet, send and receive faxes, talk on the phone, and have a personal voice-mail answering service. Most desktop systems have modems for cable or ADSL high-speed access, though today wireless modems can connect you to a wireless office network or to "hotspots" in airports and cafes when traveling. These are often bundled by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), not your computer dealer, so check around. Mobile computers (Palm-tops) have slower modems, and are typically suitable only for email or "texting", though big performance improvements are due shortly. The numbers tell you how many thousands of characters per second you can send or receive.


    Get as BIG and as high resolution a monitor as you can afford. Remember, you are going to be looking at the screen for a long time. The most common quality measurement of monitors is what is called dot pitch. When you look closely at a screen, you can see it has rows of dots called pixels, and each pixel has a red, blue, and green light.

    In the past few years Cathode Ray Tube ("CRT") have been pretty well replaced by thin screens that are less fragile and take up less space. Flat-screen displays come in either Liquid Crystal (LCD) or Plasma versions.

    Consider the monitor size. Its not about the inches, but about the pixel count. Monitor sizes are measured in the diagonal distance between opposite corners of the screen, typically measured in inches (1 inch = 2.54 cm). Larger pixels counts give you better image resolution and the option of squeezing more info onto a given screen size. A 15" monitor with 1024 x 800 screen resolution is a minimum, though today a 17" with 1920 x 1080 (or higher) -- you can always set it for a lower resolution is pretty "average". Most netbooks are about 1024 x 800 pixels though many have a compact scrren size of 8- 12 inches (which also uses less power, extending better life).


    For the printer consider either inkjet or laser. Inkjet printers are much faster and quieter, and work by spraying ink onto paper, often in color, a huge plus for those who work with graphics or have kids (but be prepared for a supplies cost that can run you up to $1 per page). Laser printers are best for quality, speed, and low operating cost, though the affordable ones only print in black. Supplies costs for black & white laser printers can be in the 3-10 cents a page range. Only if you are generating multi-part forms do you need an impact printer, since they're loud and slow.

    USB Ports

    Universal Serial Bus o r"USB" plugs are fast becoming the standard plug-in for many system components. The USB port not only supports "plug & play" where you can add and remove devices without rebooting your computer, but can also provide power to the devices (including cool things like coffee heaters and small fans). This is fast replacing serial cable and parallel cables (from printers) and even specialized plugs for everything from mouse & keyboard to microphones and headsets. It seems you can never have enough USB ports on your computer or laptop. Desktop PCs often have 2-4 USB plugs in the back for various peripherals and 2 USB plugs in the front for copying camera chips, USB flash drives, and for plugging in iPods. If you need more USB ports than come with the computer, get a USB card which can add 4 ports (and looks built in ona desktop computer, but may extend the 3 plus outside the laptop body).

    NOTE: If you are buying a used computer, find out if they are USB 1.0 or USB 2.0, which is about 20 times faster. With gigabyte camera chips and MP3 players, the difference is significant.

  8. Consider a manufacturer's or a retailer's "bundled" package. Many include not only a variety of peripherals, but also bundle some office productivity or recreational software. If a bundle has MOST of the items on your checklist, you might be able to add to, upgrade, or substitute for a good price. If there's something omitted in the package, buy it right away to ensure you have full and satisfactory use of the computer system you've bought.

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