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Desktop Computer Buying Guide

A comprehensive desktop computer guide that will give you all the information you need on how to buy a new desktop computer.

Getting Started

Computers are a necessary part of everyday life for most people. Choosing the right desktop for your needs can be overwhelming. Aside from meeting the right price point, you will have to consider size, performance, operating system, and what seems like endless options each computer may have. To make it easier for you to decide which computer will work for you, first decide what type of desktop user you are.

Size

Small Form Factor (SFF) Computer Case
Desktop and laptop computer processors can have the same name, but there are differences. Laptop processors consume less power and desktop processors are slightly stronger. They are not interchangeable—you can not put a laptop processor into a PC or vise versa, expecting them to run optimally.
One-Piece Computer Case

A central processing unit (CPU) is the lifeblood of any computer. It is in charge of running the entire machine. Performance is dependant on the clock-speed, cache, and how many cores are in the processor. 

Temporarily storing data in the Cache is a factor in how fast your computer performs. The cache stores data and retrieves it when the computer runs a program or visits a website it's been to before. That makes the computing faster because the computer already downloaded information about the program or website.

Clock speed is another factor in how quickly your computer will perform tasks. In the most simple of terms, it is like the horsepower of the processor.

There are two main manufacturers of processor chips, AMD and Intel. Currently, Intel is manufacturing a line of processor chips that are resetting the standard for computers. Intel's Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad are the processors that you will want in your new computer. Single core processors are going the way of the dinosaur. You will want a dual or quad core processor. Having anything over a single core will enable your computer to run and process data faster.

Home Theater or Media Center Computer Case

Memory is essential for computer performance. To run programs, you will need to use a specific amount of memory. For instance, if you are planning to use Windows Vista or Windows 7, you will need no less than 2 GB of RAM.

RAM is computer data storage. Stored data can be accessed and returned in a constant time.

There are two types of memory, the DDR2 and DDR3. The DDR3 is the faster of the two and has higher bandwidth.

Mid-Size Desktop Computer Case
Casing for a CPU doesn't have to be the same size it was 10 years ago. You can get a mid-size computer case that will be sufficient. It's safe to say that most people have the mid-size and not the traditional CPU at work and in many homes. There is enough space to contain the right sized processor, hard drive, and RAM along with all the extra drives you could ask for.
Full-Size Desktop Computer Case
There is one primary reason to get a full-size computer case—if you plan on adding on big hard drive or super-powerful graphics card. A full-size computer case is ideal for a graphics designer or hard-core gamer.

What Type Of User Are You?

Day-to-Day All-Purpose User

Desktop computers can cost anywhere from $500 and up depending on the tasks you would like your computer to perform. The less expensive desktops come with fewer features and less memory—which will work for many users. If you are planning to just use the computer to email and do a little word processing, maybe look at a few photos, you should be fine with a lesser expensive model. One caution, you should make sure that you have enough memory to run the operating system of choice. If you have at least 1-2GB of memory, you should be able to run Windows 7 with no problem.

If you plan on playing a lot of games, downloading photos and mp3s, or running programs that require a lot of memory—you may want to consider a desktop with a larger hard drive.

If you are considering a Mac versus a PC ask yourself what will be compatible with the computer and programs you will be running. For instance, if you are using an older printer—it may not work with Windows 7 or Snow Leopard because it requires updates and there may not be a driver.

Power Computer User

The more features that you get on a desktop, the pricier the computer will be. For a power computer, plan on spending from $2,000.00-$3,300.00. You should look for a computer with a Quad Core Processor or i7, and at least 2-4 GB of memory (RAM). For a power user, you will need to get a bigger and faster than average hard drive. For people wanting a high-quality graphics-oriented computer, Apple computers might be the way to go. Gamers, on the other hand would benefit from a PC.

Aside from figuring out how you will use your computer, you need to determine the different kinds of drives you will want. If you have a lot of important files stored on your computer, consider an external hard drive. 

If you watch a lot of DVDs or Blu-ray discs, a DVD or Blu-ray burner would be a great option. A DVD or Blu-ray burner will give you the option of recording onto DVDs or Blu-ray discs instead of only having the ability to watch them. Recording onto a DVD or Blu-ray disc is also a great way to store or back-up files.

Day-to-Day All-Purpose User Power Computer User
Intel Core 2 Duo Processor Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad, or the new i7
4 GB of Memory (RAM) 6GB to 12GB of Memory (RAM)
250-500 GB Hard Drive 500GB to 1TB Hard Drive
128 MB Graphics Card or Better 500 MB Graphics Card or Better
DVD or Blu-Ray Burner or Player DVD or Blu-Ray Burner or Player
17" LCD Screen or Larger 19" or Larger Screen"
Speakers* Speakers*
Windows 7 or Apple Snow Leopard Windows 7 or Apple Snow Leopard
*Desktops come with built-in speakers, if you would like to upgrade to better speakers look at a 2.1 audio system or better

Home Entertainment & Home Theater Enthusiast

Once you determine that you need a computer solely for entertainment purposes, you will need to make another choice. Are you going to have one computer that will be capable of both home entertainment needs and daily computing needs or one for each?

Computers devoted to home entertainment media may be harder to use for daily computing, due to screen size and location. If your media computer is in a living room for instance, you will likely have it hooked up to a large screen which may be difficult for most people to use when emailing or word processing. That’s when considering a computer for daily needs might become necessary.

Media center computers can come with two different kinds of graphics cards—either dedicated or integrated. Dedicated graphics cards are soldered onto the mother board. Dedicated graphics cards are a higher quality than integrated or removable graphics cards. If you plan on connecting a media center to an HDTV, you should make sure that the graphics card that you are using is dedicated. Integrated graphics cards are ok The major benefit to the integrated graphics card is that you are able to make an upgrade.

Media center computers are capable of sending signals across a network to a media center extender, enabling multiple TVs to view the media files. The extender will be able to view programming previously recorded onto the media center, listen to music, or view pictures on the hard drive. The media center extender won’t perform exactly like a media center computer; it won’t work as a word processor or web browser.

I Work From Home

When you work from home you have different needs from a person looking for a day-to- day computer. On a day-to day computer, you will want to have the ability to perform tasks that you don’t need to on a work computer, like managing mp3s, photos, or DVDs.

Saving money on a graphics card will enable you to get better software, a larger screen, and a good warranty. On the other hand if you are in the graphic design business you will want a dedicated graphics card.

Something to consider, you will want to get a DVD burner or external hard drive to back up valuable information.

Home Entertainment & Home Theater Enthusiast Work From Home
Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad, or the new i7 Intel Core 2 Duo, Core 2 Quad, or Quad Core
4GB to 8GB of Memory (RAM) 2GB to 4GB of Memory (RAM)
500GB to 1TB Hard Drive 500GB Hard Drive or Better
Receiver and Home Theater Speakers DVD or Blu-ray Burner or Player
21" or Larger Screen- Usually a TV screen 21" or Larger Screen
Wireless keyboard, mouse, and Media Center remote Wireless keyboard, mouse, and Media Center remote
Windows 7 or Apple Snow Leopard Windows 7 or Apple OS X
*Desktops come with built-in speakers, if you would like to upgrade to better speakers look at a 2.1 audio system or better

Features

Connection - How do I connect devices to my PC?

If you’ve ever seen the back of a PC you know how confusing they look. Really, it’s not so intimidating with the right information. Each input on the back of the CPU serves a purpose. All you need to know is what to plug in and where.

USB connections are the most common way to connect peripherals to your computer. A USB can connect computer peripherals such as mice, keyboards, digitals cameras, printers, personal media players, flash drives, and external hard drives. You would benefit from having no less than four USB ports. Decide how many you will need and make sure that your computer will accommodate your needs. For instance, if you need a USB connection for a mouse, keyboard, printer, portable media, external hard drive, and game controller, you will need more than four USB ports.

Firewire (aka IEEE 1394) or iLink (Sony) is another kind of port that would be good to have. Firewire is typically used to connect external hard drives and digital video camcorders to a desktop. Only one Firewire port is necessary.

Graphics cards have built-in ports (HDMI, VGA, or Display Port). They will connect things like your monitor or LCD TV to the computer.

An input is the connection that the computer uses to interface with the monitor.  Computer monitors can have multiple types of inputs.  An analog input is a 15PIN VGA which is standard on all computer monitors.  There are three different types of digital inputs: DVI, HDMI, and the newest input by Apple called a Display Port.  The Display Port supports a higher bandwidth than the DVI and HDMI input.  All three support hi-definition.

For connecting to the internet using dial-up, a modem port (RJ-11) is essential. This will be available on some motherboards or you can get an expansion card. Broadband users will require either an Ethernet port or wireless router. If your desktop doesn’t come wirelessly enabled, you will need a USB wireless access point.

RAM
Desktop Processors and Memory (RAM)
Desktop and laptop computer processors can have the same name, but there are differences. Laptop processors consume less power and desktop processors are slightly stronger. They are not interchangeable—you can not put a laptop processor into a PC or vise versa, expecting them to run optimally.
What Should I Know About Computer Processors?

A central processing unit (CPU) is the lifeblood of any computer. It is in charge of running the entire machine. Performance is dependant on the clock-speed, cache, and how many cores are in the processor. 

Temporarily storing data in the Cache is a factor in how fast your computer performs. The cache stores data and retrieves it when the computer runs a program or visits a website it’s been to before. That makes the computing faster because the computer already downloaded information about the program or website.

Clock speed is another factor in how quickly your computer will perform tasks. In the most simple of terms, it is like the horsepower of the processor.

There are two main manufacturers of processor chips, AMD and Intel. Currently, Intel is manufacturing a line of processor chips that are resetting the standard for computers. Intel’s Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad are the processors that you will want in your new computer. Single core processors are going the way of the dinosaur. You will want a dual or quad core processor. Having anything over a single core will enable your computer to run and process data faster.

Memory

Memory is essential for computer performance. To run programs, you will need to use a specific amount of memory. For instance, if you are planning to use Windows Vista or Windows 7, you will need no less than 2 GB of RAM.

RAM is computer data storage. Stored data can be accessed and returned in a constant time.

There are two types of memory, the DDR2 and DDR3. The DDR3 is the faster of the two and has higher bandwidth.

Desktop Graphics

A graphics card is an expansion card that will produce images and send them to the computer's screen. Depending on the graphics card, some are able to produce 3D, stream video from your camcorder to your PC, can have a TV tuner-adaptor, or convert video files into a readable format for viewing (MPEG-2, MPEG-4). Other functions necessitated by a graphics card are connecting a FireWire port to a cable and gaming. FireWire cable allows images to appear on a monitor. If you need two monitors, then you will also need a good graphics card because you will need to have two separate connections from the computer to the monitor. Desktop computers are capable of running two different types of graphics cards. Either a dedicated card which would need to be soldered to the motherboard or an integrated graphics card that is removable. The dedicated graphics card is more powerful than the integrated.

To break it down simply, if you have specific needs, for instance if you are a serious gamer or have home theater hooked up to your computer, you will need to have a high-quality card like the NVIDIA GeForce.

What drives will I need for my desktop?

Depending on the tasks you would like to perform, you may need different types of drives for your computer. First determine how big you need your hard drive to be. Then, decide what extras you will want. For example, if you watch a lot of DVDs or would like to copy your home movies onto a DVD; chances are that you will want a DVD burner.

Hard Drive
A hard drive is probably the most important drive in your computer. It is a magnetic disc that enables the computer to save files for as long as you need them—for the life of the drive, if necessary. The general rule-of-thumb for hard drive capacity is the more you store, the more GB you will need. Most computers are customizable—they come with anywhere from 500-750GB of hard drive. That is enough for most users. If you need more then you have the option to add more as long as you don’t have a fixed hard drive. The speed at which the hard disk spins will also affect the performance of the computer. If you have a hard disc that rotates at 5,400 rpm, your computer will be slower than if you had a hard disc rotating at over 7,000rpm.
CD, DVD, and Blu-ray Drives - Optical Drives
Most computers have a CD, DVD, or Blu-ray drive. Having the CD, DVD, or Blu-ray drive on the computer is more than a great way to enjoy music or movies. If your drive is a burner as well, you can save information onto discs, freeing up space on your computer. Determining the type of drive you need should be based on the amount of information that you will be storing, possibly the types of discs you play most frequently.  Combination drives also exist; combining Blu-ray burners and HD DVD burners.
Permanent or Inter-Changeable Drive
Some computers come with fixed drives and some with inter-changeable drives. There are benefits and detriments to either option. The beauty of inter-changeable discs is their ability to be upgraded or repaired with ease. Unfortunately, fixed drives are not removable and therefore not able to be swapped out. Inter-changeable drives are the way to go as long as you can afford them. The only downfall of an inter-changeable drive is they are usually pricier than a permanent drive.
External Drive
External drives are a helpful option for people that don’t have a CD, DVD or Blu-ray player/burner on their computer. Backing-up information on a large scale (using an external hard drive) or the smaller scale (using a thumb drive) is easy. Having a back-up of important information is a good idea. Having an external hard drive makes backing up information easy. Simply save the data to the drive, like you would the internal hard drive—and you have saved your information in a place independent of your computer. This means, if anything happens to your computer, or you need to transport the information, now you can. If you only have a small amount of information that you would like to transport or save—a thumbdrive is the way to go.

Peripherals
Desktop computers usually come with everything that you need to enjoy them right out of the box. However, there are some enhancements that could make your computing experience all that much better. A computer monitor, keyboard, mouse, and printer are all capable of changing your computing experience. Most monitors have a built in speaker system, providing a more compact solution for those looking to save space. All Asus monitors have hidden stereo speakers for multimedia enjoyment. Some monitors also have a built in camera for video chatting or for taking photos.
Resolution Ratio
The rule of thumb when considering a computer’s resolution ratio is the higher the resolution, the better the picture. Resolution is the number of pixels displayed in a horizontal row times the number of pixels displayed in a vertical column. The higher the resolution, the better the quality and sharpness of the picture. The larger your monitor, the more windows you can open at once and bigger the picture that you can display.
Contrast Ratio
The contrast ratio is the ratio of white to black in a display system.  When considering a computer’s contrast ratio, look for a higher number. A higher ratio will display a deeper black and make all other colors look more brilliant. 
The lower the response time, the less lag time in image motion you will experience.  Response time is the amount of time a pixel in an LCD monitor takes to go from black to white and back to black again. The response time is especially important for gamers.  A lower response time will provide a fluid motion which makes for a better gaming experience.
Speakers
Speakers will undoubtedly improve on your multi-media experience when enhancing a computer. Most computers or their corresponding monitors will have a basic speaker system built-in. If you opt for add-on speakers, you will definitely have better sound than the factory installed speakers before purchase. Two-piece sets are an inexpensive way to improve sound quality; to achieve the best sound you will want a multi-channel speaker set. If you plan on watching a lot of DVDs, Blu-ray discs, or mp3s—go for no less than a 5.1 (or better) speaker set.
Keyboard and Mouse
Keyboard and Mouse: Now that wireless keyboards and mice are growing in popularity, consider them for your desktop. Fewer wires equal less clutter and greater mobility.
Printers
When deciding on which printer suits your needs, determine what you plan to print. If you print many pictures—a photo printer is a good idea. Do you print a large volume at once and require speed? Consider a laser printer. If you need to fax and print, go for a multi-function printer.
Protection

Every computer needs protection. On average, the manufacturers warranty for a computer lasts no more than a couple of years—if you are lucky. So, unless you feel like shelling out a hefty wad of cash for another computer, you should protect your investment. Depending on the warranty, a repair person will either come to you or you will need to take your computer to an authorized service center. There are a few companies that require you to ship the computer to a service center. Save your computer's original packaging because there is a possibility you will have to ship the computer to be serviced.

You should be able to purchase a three year extended warranty through the manufacturer or from the company where you purchase the computer. Computer repairs can be costly. You should consider the "it's better to be safe than sorry" motto in the case of computers.

Frequently, troubleshooting a computer can be done over the phone and many times fixed. Some warranties even include tech support.

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