Buying a computer can be a very confusing experience due to the huge number of different models available, technical heavy descriptions and specifications to get your head around making it increasingly difficult to find the computer that is right for you.
Desktops as the name suggests are personal computers that are small enough to fit on or under a desk. They are not usually that portable unless you choose a small form factor machine and often consist of separate monitor, mouse and keyboard unlike a laptop where everything is built in.
The major advantages of a desktop machine over a similarly priced laptop are the greater upgrade possibilities and an overall higher specification. This enables you to get the most out of PC games, professional applications such as CAD, image manipulation and audio editing.
Obviously the drawbacks to any desktop machine; even a small form factor one, are not being as portable and taking up more space than notebooks, tablets and netbooks.
With the increases in performance laptops have offered in recent years the desktop market has had to adapt to remain competitive. The specifications have increased greatly with quad core and above processors now being common in desktop machines. They offer a higher level of computing power than even the most expensive laptops. Gaming on a desktop is also a vastly superior experience for the same money due to more powerful graphics cards, better cooling enabling faster components and more space to fit complicated graphics cards and other components.
You need to ask yourself what you want to use your computer to do. Computers vary in price according to power and functionality. For example there is little point in spending thousands on the latest gaming computer with the most advanced gaming graphics card if you only use it for internet browsing and word processing, your money would be better spent on dual monitors or a silent computer.
There are broadly four main types of computer user who all require slightly different components to get the best value out of their machine:
- General Use: Best suited to simple tasks like browsing the internet, office tasks such as email, word processing and spread sheets.
- Entertainment: Built with media playback in mind these machines often feature multiple monitor/TV connections, enhanced audio playback, recording functions and gaming capabilities.
- Gaming: All out performance towards gaming, with all components adding to the speed of the machine when running games, these machines are normally quite expensive but offer some of the fastest performance of any desktops available.
- Professional: These desktops are similar to gaming machines in offering extreme performance but instead of being tuned for gaming they are geared for photo editing, video editing, audio studio work and 3D modelling.
Almost all users will find themselves falling under the General Use category, sometimes with the wish to play games and use entertainment functions. Thanks to the development of computers almost all machines can be used for any use. For example a small form factor machine designed to sit in the living room under your television will excel at video and audio playback, but will also be suitable for light office tasks, internet browsing and even some simple games. The advice is buying the PC for your primary use and it will be able to run many other applications.
Often the most confusing part of buying a computer is deciphering the technical jargon that often fills up a computers description. The major categories you will often find in a description are the following:
- Processor or CPU
- Motherboard or Mainboard
- Memory or RAM
- Hard Drive
- Graphics or Graphics Card
- Optical Drive
- Power Supply
- Sound Card
- Operating System
They all have an equal importance in the overall system performance, especially if you intend to use your PC mainly for one activity. For example if you are planning on using your computer to listen to music then the most important aspects you will look for in a machine are a high quality sound card and low operating noise.
The processor or CPU speed is often viewed as the only component which affects the performance of the computer, while it is a key component for most users PC experience the amount of RAM, number of processor cores or graphics card are much more important choices to the overall computer experience. It is easy to get caught in the trap of paying a premium for a higher rated processor when the rest of the computer will struggle to keep up.
Deciphering the jargon often listed in a PC specification can be confusing but as long as you work out what you need from the computer it can actually be quite simple, here is a list of all of the components that make up a computer and what they actually mean to normal computer buyers:
Processor: The processor is one of the most important components in a modern computer. The term processor, CPU, ‘brain’ and chip generally refer to the central processing unit. Every action and command your PC does depends on interaction with the CPU so its performance is crucial to the overall computer experience.
There are thousands of different processors available so it is understandable to not be certain about how the different models compare in performance and which one is right for you.
Not all that long ago comparing CPUs was very easy. A higher rated megahertz processor would make a faster PC, for example a 733MHz processor would make a faster PC than a 600MHz processor. As processor speeds have increased into the gigahertz (1000MHz is equivalent to 1GHz) range manufacturers have had to introduce confusing naming schemes. It is often harder to understand the naming scheme that Intel and AMD use than the technologies behind the processor!
Today comparing processors is no longer about finding the highest speed processor possible in MHz or GHz. To get the best performance you need to take into account the whole specification of the processor with the number of cores featured on the CPU of particular importance to how the computer will respond with multiple programs open.
It is best to look for processors which are dual core as a minimum for all round use. Look at how many cores a processor has always before its GHz rating. A dual core 1.3GHz+ computer will be more than up to general internet browsing and light office tasks while many 2.00GHz+ dual core processors will be capable in gaming and entertainment uses.
Motherboard: A motherboard is considered by many to be the most important component in a system. It will determine the overall performance of the computer and what future upgrades are possible; it is not possible to attempt to future proof your computer without the right motherboard!
The motherboard is the largest component in a computer after the case and consists of many ports, slots and connectors that allow you to connect the processor, memory, hard drives, optical drive, graphics cards, USB devices and many more to the machine. Today’s high end motherboards will support connections allowing millions of components to be used in your dream computer.
If you are looking to upgrade your computer in the future be sure to check if there are any free memory slots, vacant PCI and PCI Express slots to allow upgrade cards to be fitted and that there are free SATA ports on the motherboard to allow you to connect additional hard drives in the future. If you are unsure it is always best to ask CCL and we will be happy to help.
RAM: The more memory your computer has the higher overall performance the computer will have. As a general rule by adding more memory it will enable the computer to perform tasks quicker and handle more open programs.
The easiest way to work out how much memory you need is to look at the operating system and programs you want to run. Each will list a minimum and recommended amount of memory they need to run. As a general rule the following applies to most systems:
- To get the program to run you need the minimum amount of memory
- To get the program to run without frustration and good speed you need the recommended amount of memory
- To get the program to run without frustration and at a good speed while multi-tasking with other programs and windows you need double the amount of recommended memory.
Many computers also use integrated graphics chips which use a portion of the general system ram for the graphics. This can reduce the amount of available system ram from 64mb to as much as 1024mb (1GB) depending on the graphics controller. If you are using an integrated graphics chip it is worth getting a little more memory to compensate for this.
On a modern desktop machine the bare minimum you should look for is 2GB of DDR3 RAM for basic internet browsing and light office work, ideally you want to look at 4GB to allow for more intensive office work and a much more responsive system overall. If you are gaming or plan on doing professional video or photo editing then a system with 4GB of RAM should be considered at the very minimum.
Hard Drive: A hard drive is one of the key components of a modern computer. The hard drive is where all of your programs and files are stored.
The larger the capacity of your hard drives the more you can store. For basic light use most users would struggle to fill an 80GB hard drive, yet if you plan to store videos and photos the requirement will soon mount up. An average modern game can take up as much as 25GB to install
It is recommend most users look for a drive with a minimum capacity of 160GB with 500GB and above being preferable on gaming, professional and entertainment PCs.
Solid state hard drives (SSDs) are now fairly common in higher performance systems. They offer outstanding performance making the whole PC feel more snappy with programs opening quicker, games taking less time to load and Windows taking seconds to start up rather than minutes. There really are no conventional hard drives that can get close to the speed an SSD offered. You pay more per GB of storage on a SSD compared to a conventional drive due to the flash technology SSD drives use. We would always recommend 120GB and above SSDs as striking the ideal balance between storage space and cost.
Graphics Card: A graphics card is responsible for displaying the image you seen on screen. The images are made up by thousands of tiny dots called pixels, on a high resolution screen the graphics card can be displaying millions of pixels.
Originally at the start of the PC revolution the graphics card’s purpose was only to display the image on the screen. The amount of memory present on a graphics card was very small and was not needed to a great extent where the modern cards can have several gigabytes of memory on-board. The modern graphics card is capable of powering breath-taking games, displaying 3D perspectives that show characters leaping out of the screen, running 1080P Full HD video in all its glory and can accelerate non-3D applications using their amazing processing power.
Graphics cards come in two distinct packages. There are integrated solutions such as on board the motherboard and discreet cards such as those made by Nvidia and AMD ATI. Even the lowest models in the range of add-in cards can outperform on board solutions often by a magnitude of several times.
Onboard graphics will be fine if you are planning to use your machine for basic office tasks and internet browsing. If you however are planning to watch HD video from a Blu-Ray drive, edit home movies, play the latest games or run multiple monitors it may be wise to purchase a system with a graphics card from Nvidia or ATI.
Optical Drive: An optical drive is a generic term used for DVD, CD & Blu-Ray drives. There are other drives available for legacy standards such as HD-DVD and karaoke disks although it is not recommended to invest in these standards unless you already have a large collection of media.
Each of the major standards of optical drive also has a writable version available. The drives that allow re-writer functions are usually more expensive than their reader counterparts. It is recommended that you look at a DVD-RW drive as a minimum for a modern multi-purpose machine.
When looking at a description of an optical drive you need to know what you are looking at so you can make an informed buying decision. You need to consider the speed of the drive for reading and writing the media you will be using (higher is better).
Case: The most important feature to look for in a case is one that you like the look of and that will fit in with the room you are putting it in. The manufacturer will have already ensured all case options are suitable so this is a choice that comes down to personal preference. The only consideration is the size of case; larger cases will often give you more space to add additional hard drives, larger more advanced graphics cards and be easier to work inside.
Power Supply: Any power supply in a desktop computer will be adequate for the computer, you only need to consider the power supply if you are planning upgrades. If you are considering upgrading your components its worth checking with CCL when buying to what the upgrade limitations might be with the standard power supply.
Sound Card: A sound card is the component within your computer that processes audio files in order to provide sound through the computer speakers. Speakers plug directly into the soundcard at the rear of the computer. The soundcard can be an individual PCI or PCI-E card or installed on the motherboard. (Integrated or Onboard Audio)
Almost all modern computers come with some basic form of audio integrated into the motherboard. Audio processors have been widespread on motherboards since the middle of the 1990s and are easily the most common way people experience audio on their PC. Integrated controllers are readily used due to their inexpensive nature, good sound quality for less-discerning users and ease of use.
Integrated solutions offer good sound quality but it is lagging behind what is available on dedicated sound cards. On paper the onboard soundcards offer impressive sound qualities. However due to the audio processors and associated wiring being built into the motherboard interference can be common. This is due to motherboards featuring tens of thousands of wires packed very closely together and the current flowing down one wire will affect the current flowing down another. This means at higher volumes especially lots of background noise can manifest itself in bangs, pops and buzzing sounds.
A soundcard can offer advanced audio effects and standards that integrated audio cannot offer. At higher volumes a quality soundcard will deliver a much higher standard of audio than that of an integrated audio device. A soundcard will offer more options for connecting speakers, external devices and breakout boxes.
Operating System: The operating system is the heart of the way you interact with your computer; it provides the bridge between the physical components in your computer and the programs you use to complete tasks on your computer. The operating system allows all software compatible with it to interface and uses the components in the computer.
Without an operating system you would not be able to use your computer as no programs, applications, games or utilities would be able to be installed and run, your PC would just display a blank screen waiting for an operating system to be applied.
There are three major operating systems currently available for mainstream computers. These are Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OSX and Linux. Other operating systems are available however they usually have specific uses such as medical research.
Microsoft Windows: Currently the most popular operating system with around 90% of the market share. Most programs are written for Microsoft Windows and it is the premier format for PC gaming.
Mac OSX: Designed and marketed by Apple Inc and pre-loaded onto all Macintosh computers. A very easy to use operating system with a lot of built in functionality. You can’t buy Mac OSX for anything but an Apple Mac computer.
Linux: Linux is a generic name for a family of open source (free) operating systems. Because its components are open source, anyone can read and modify the code that makes it up. Due to this it has been modified into a huge variety of versions. It is only used on around 0.5% of personal computers due to its historical nature of being a more complicated operating system to use when compared to Microsoft Windows and Mac OSX.
I/O Ports: These are the ports on the back of the computer that determine what you can connect. The most common ports you will come across are PS2 for connection of mice and keyboards, USB, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 for the connection of a multitude of peripherals. Audio outputs for connection of speakers and monitor connections are provided by VGA, DVI, HDMI or DisplayPort. It is always advisable to get as many ports on the front and back of your computer as possible. If you already own printers or other peripherals make sure when purchasing the computer it has the right connections.