Thinking about spending some of your Holiday money for a new computer but don't know what's worth buying and what isn't? Here's a tip or two about getting the most for your money.
Question #1 - should I consider upgrading my old machine, instead of buying a new one?
Generally, the answer is no, an upgrade is not the way to go. The reason is this. Your old machine is built on an older design of motherboard. The new faster processors actually might plug into the older board but will often be unable to use the new features because the older board wasn't designed to use the new features. The same goes for the peripherals from your older machine. You can end up spending almost as much to upgrade as you would have to buy new, only to find the result is little better than what you had before. Believe me, I'm only skimming the surface of the possible issues here. New PCs are very inexpensive now. If it's time to move up, think new.
Main Processor Speed -
The central processor units (CPUs), the main computer chips, have gotten faster and faster. They are now available in the 3 gigahertz (3 GHz) speed range. Just three years ago, a 500 megahertz (500 MHz) machine was typical. In theory, the new machines should run 6 times faster. They don't. In fact, the central processor is no longer the component which most dictates the speed of your computer. I can tell you that you will have a very difficult time distinguishing between a 2.3 GHz machine and a 3.0 GHz machine, all other things being equal. The tip here is, don't pay the premium for the latest-and-greatest (fastest) computer chip. You will pay several hundred dollars premium to buy it but you won't get a measurable benefit. The smart money buys chips that are two or three steps slower, but at much better prices.
Main Memory -
This one is harder to evaluate. Your best guideline is to read what you can from the Internet, to see what others report for your operating system and the software you use. If you primarily use email and Microsoft Office products, then the smallest allowable memory is probably fine for you. For Windows 9x (including Win Me), 32 MB (megabytes) will work just fine in most cases. For Windows XP, 128 MB is the minimum required. If you do think upgrading the memory makes sense, then the most benefit you can get will come from the first upgrade (going from 32 MB to 64 MB on a 9x machine, or going from 128 MB to 256 MB on an XP machine). There are cases where more memory makes a difference. One example is, if you process photographs. By that I mean actually modifying the colors in pictures and making sophisticated alterations to the images. In that case, you will benefit from more memory. Consider upgrades to 1 GB or more. The same goes for game players. If, on the other hand, the most sophisticated thing you ever do on photo processing is to crop an image, then don't waste money on memory upgrades.
Hard Disks -
There are two factors to consider here.
Disk drives have become very cheap. The lowest priced systems now include 40 GB disks, and upgraded models double or triple that capacity. Do you need more than that? In the vast majority of cases, the answer is no. If the upgrades are free or very inexpensive, then by all means go for the larger size. If it costs $100 to upgrade, I wouldn't. If you are one of the exceptions to this advice, then I expect you already know that you need more. This group would include people who shoot and store hundreds of photographs or high resolution photographs, people who shoot video and capture long-running scenes. Music storage isn't going to be a big space hog unless you store it in original format, just as it comes off the CD. If you use any of the compression formats such as MP3 or WMA, you will be able to store a thousand songs in 3 GB of space. Just to give you a frame of reference, it would take you a week of 24 hour days to play back a thousand songs. So, in terms of disk size, get what you can get for cheap and don't pay a premium price for more.
Now here we have a feature worth considering. The standard disk rotates at 5400 RPM (revolutions per minute). Premium disks rotate at 7200 RPM, or 1/3 faster. The two things that take time when reading or writing a disk are: 1) how long it takes to position the read head over the correct track and 2) how fast the data is transferred from that track. The rotation speed determines the latter. The faster the data is passed under the read head, the faster it is being read. You get the idea. So, the faster the rotation speed the quicker your disk will operate. This speed difference is noticeable and is worth paying for. In fact, when upgrades are offered and one disk is smaller but 7200 RPM and the other is larger but 5400 RPM, I would take the faster one!
CD Burners -
All I can say about this is, they are becoming a standard inclusion in system being sold today. They should be. The utility they offer makes them very useful. Blank CDs are very inexpensive and careful shoppers who watch the weekend papers can often find them for free, after rebates. You get them for the price of the sales tax.
The related question is, should I get a second CD drive of the read-only type? Yes, you should. Copying a CD becomes a trivial task when the source disk is in the CD-ROM drive and the destination disk is in the CD-Burner drive. And, if you ever plan to watch DVD movies on your PC, then by all means make that CD-ROM drive a DVD ROM type. This is by no means a critical feature on your PC, but movies can be quite spectacular when viewed on the smaller PC screen.
DVD Burners -
Closely related to CD burners is the DVD burner. Here it is important to know what they will do and what they will NOT do. They will NOT allow you to copy DVD commercial movies. This technology is being carefully guarded by the movie industry so don't think you can rent a DVD and burn a copy of it for your use. You can't. What DVD will do is give you vastly greater recording capacity for backup. A regular CD will hold up to 700 MB of data. A DVD will hold up to 4 GB, or about four time that capacity. Now, that's a lot of data but it's still not enough to backup a lot of systems. I still prefer and recommend an external hard disk for backup purposes. Backup to hard disk can be run unattended where backup to any other medium requires you to enter the second, third, and fourth disks when needed. It also complicates restoring a file, should you need to do that. DVD burners would have been a great improvement over floppy disks, but they aren't a great improvement over CD burners. I vote no on this one.
Floppy Disk -
I still recommend including a floppy disk drive with your system. They are seldom used anymore, but when you need them, there is no substitute. They don't add much to the purchase price.
You used to be concerned about how many serial ports and how many parallel ports came with a new PC. No longer. The question now is, how many USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports are included? I don't think you can even buy a machine without USB these days. You should verify that the USB you are getting is the newer version 2.0, but they will probably all be that. Still, ask to be sure. 2.0 is 40 (yes, forty) times faster than the original USB (version 1.1). If you only have a single USB port, that's enough. Most machines come with several and they should be on the front of the PC as well as the back.
Since you can connect up to 254 devices to a single USB port, you might wonder why they would give you 4 or 6 of these ports on a new machine. Here's why. In order to connect multiple devices off of one USB port, you have to add what is known as a "hub". The hub will plug into the original USB port and will have 4 or 8 or 16 ports on it. Additional peripherals plug into the ports on the hub, until all it's ports are taken. Then, another hub is plugged into that one, and the capacity is further increased. By daisy-chaining hubs, up to 254 devices can be connected to that one original USB port. The thing is though, most of us won't need more than 3 or 4 USB connections. Why have to mess with hubs when the manufacturer can just throw in 4 or 6 ports and be done with it. And, that's exactly what they do.
So, look for machines with 2.0 USB technology, 4 or more rear ports and 1 or 2 front ports. Oh, the front ports are so that plugging in your digital camera is convenient. I know, you knew that!
Firewire (also known as IEEE 1394) -
Before USB got faster, Firewire had a real speed advantage. Sony pushed it as their way to connect video cameras to the computer. With the advent of USB 2.0 however, that technology has lost its edge. It is disappearing from the market now and will not survive. Only if you already own a camera with Firewire should you have any interest in this type of port.
The world of printers is way too complicated for this short bulletin. Just a couple of interesting notes. Printers are inexpensive because the money is not in the printer. Rather, it is in the ink you will buy once you own the printer. I wish I could tell you how to determine which ones use less ink, but I can't. It's a secret, from the consumer at least. Here's one tip though. Printers which advertise a "duty cycle" are likely to be more sturdy than the lower end printers (which don't). Duty Cycle is a statement of how much printing a particular model is designed for. I own a printer which has a duty cycle of 5000 pages per month, and is aimed at light duty commercial applications.
Here's a second tip. Go out on Google and select the "Groups" tab. Type in the model of printer you are considering buying and search on it. Read what comes up, looking for whether people like them or don't like them, and what their reasons are. For example, if you find a lot of people writing in about paper jams with this model, you might be well advised to avoid it. If people are saying that they get a lot of pages from the ink cartridges, you might thank that's a real plus. Just see what you find as you read the various posts.
And one final tip. Don't order/buy a printer without asking about the printer cable. These days, to make the printer price seem even cheaper, cables are not included in most new printer purchases. Plan on an additional $20 to $25 to buy the cable. Be sure it is long enough too. That price buys a 10 foot cable.
I've written previously about monitors, so I'm not going to repeat it here. One thing to know though is that if your old monitor is working acceptably, there is no need to buy a new one. The old one should work just fine. Also, if you do find that you need a new one, they can be purchased used at several local stores. Ask what color your new computer is going to be. If it's a Dell, for example, it's likely to be black. You might not like having a white monitor sitting next to your brand new black computer (as I am doing now).
That's about it. I hope this helps in your shopping.