Sunday, April 30, 2006

Advice on buying an inexpensive computer

People keep ask me about their pending computer purchases. Should they buy the cheapest machine they can or pay a little more to get something faster? Should they go with a name brand? Should they build it themselves? Should they switch to a Mac? How much memory? How much disk? Media center? What about Linux?

Q: Should I switch? Some questions are easier to answer than others. First off don't switch to a different operating system unless at the very least the person trying to get you to make the switch offers you free 24/7 support. Don't expect switching to solve all your computer problems. Switching from Windows to Mac is a bit like changing from a Model T Ford to an Austin 7. There are significant differences between the machines but both are pretty primitive contraptions. Any benefit that might be had changing from one to the other is likely to be lost in having to re-learn what you used to know. A: Not unless you are already married to the person proposing the switch

Q: Should I switch to Linux? If Windows is a Model T Ford, Linux is a DIY kit car. Suggestions to the effect that Linux is ready for use by non-computer litterate seniors is pure anorakism. If you want to become a programmer or systems manager then getting experience of using UNIX is worthwhile. If you want to do anything else you will find it quicker, easier and better to use a commercial O/S. A: If you have to ask the answer is definitely no.

Q: Should I build the machine from parts? A few years ago I used to do this, or rather I would buy from a shop that would put together the parts I selected for a small fee. At the time the name brand manufacturers charged a hefty premium for server class machines. Some name brands still do but there are plenty that do not. Building your own system may still make sense if you are building a very high spec machine with the very latest spec parts. But doing so is much harder than it was a couple of years back. Modern CPUs run really HOT. Unless you live in Antarctica or you are prepared to spend quite a bit of time working on getting the cooling right you are likely to end up with a machine that has a habbit of unexpected freezes. A: Definitely not something to consider unless you plan to spend a minimum of $1,500 on the system.

Q: Laptop or Desktop? Laptops have obvious portability benefits but they also have drawbacks. First they cost quite a bit more and they wear out much faster. Getting more than three years out of a laptop used daily is very good going. Plan on replacement in two unless you don't use the machine very much or don't travel very often. Laptops are the one exception I make to the golden rule of never buying extended warranties. Ultra compact machines are particularly fragile. Another drawback to laptops is your upgrade options are limited. If you plan on playing video games you may find that many games simply don't run on your laptop. A: Laptops are great but consider the drawbacks.

Q: What CPU should I get? At this point it really does not matter unless you are planning to play seriously cutting edge games or do a lot of video editing. Video editing is the one mainstream application that remains seriously CPU challenged. This is likely to remain the case for several years. High definition and new compression algorithms are both CPU hungry. A: Don't be too worried unless you plan to do professional video editing in which case consider getting extra machines rather than a bigger processor for your one machine.

Q: What memory should I get? All modern operating systems are memory hungry. All will perform much better with 1Gb of memory than 256Mb. I would not consider paying for a processor upgrade until I had at least 1Gb. If you are buying a desktop the cost of a memory upgrade may drop in the future. For laptops this tends to be hit and miss. You may be able to get a cheap upgrade but only if there is a current model that shares the same SIMM format. A: Try for at least 512Mb on a laptop, 1Gb on a desktop. 2Gb is not unreasonable.

Q: How much disk? Buying hard drive space is all a matter of getting the lowest price per Gb. That usually means buying one or two sizes smaller than the current maximum capacity. Today you can get a 500Gb disk for a premium price, a 250Gb drive costs much less than half the price. But there isn't much difference in price between 100Gb, 150Gb, 200Gb or 250Gb. The prices don't really ramp up until you go past 300Gb. What is much more important than disk capacity is reliability. RAID disk mirroring is cheap and a life saver. With RAID 1 you have two disk drives running in parallel. Both have a full copy of all your data. If one dies your data is still safe on the other. A: Go for the cheapest cost per Gb. Don't be too worried though because adding extra disk is pretty inexpensive.

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