Mini-article – Buying a new PC – (What do all the numbers mean)?

By | November 1, 2008
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I’ve been gob-smacked by how many people have ordered the videos I mentioned last time – the ones showing how to use your PC and the Internet. And yesterday we had the first phone call from someone who had got them and watched them. She said she was ‘over the moon’ with them.

I was a bit disappointed, though – here’s why: We normally try to get any orders out in the post straight away – the same day if we can or the next day if we get a phone order late in the afternoon. But so many people wanted sets of these videos that we simply couldn’t – and then it turned out they wouldn’t all fit in the Royal Mail’s van anyway!

But we all got stuck in and we’ve caught up. So if you’ve already ordered, your set of videos will go out today at the latest and you should get it early to mid next week (depending on the post). If you haven’t ordered yet, the special offer for you as a reader of this newsletter runs out next Wednesday at 5pm. You can read more detail here:
If you’re even slightly considering whether see exactly what to do on your PC might help you, have a read now, and decide before next Wednesday – or you’ll miss out.

Mini-article – Buying a new PC – (What do all the numbers mean)?

I recently had to buy a new computer when one I had in the office cooked itself. I could have had it repaired but it was getting on a bit anyway, so I thought it was better to cut my losses and get a new one.

What an experience. I went to PCWorld and picked out what I wanted. The assistant I spoke to was surly and unhelpful and refused to sell the me the one I wanted without their £8 a month technical help package, just because they only had the display model left. I told him ‘No, thank you very much, I won’t take up your kind offer’, or words to more or less that effect. And I went to Comet instead. The assistant there was more helpful but I’m not sure how much help he’d have been if I didn’t already know about computers and know what I want.

And my Mum and Dad recently bought a new PC and had a devil of a problem working out which model they wanted (unfortunately I live the other side of the country, so although I could help with some phone calls, I couldn’t come to the shop with them).

So I though it’d be helpful to put together some tips for buying a new PC – in particular what all the jargon means.

First, work out what you want to do with it.
You can spend £300 on a new PC or you can spend £1500. And if all you want to do is surf the web and read emails, the £1500 will just be a waste of money. If you work out what you want to do with your PC first, you can make sure you’re getting the right level. I’d divide it into three ‘levels’ of PC:

The budget PC:
About £300-£500. This is fine for surfing the web, reading emails, editing photos and playing the occasional game, as long as it’s not a fast action 3-d graphics game. If you want to store lots of photos on it, make sure you have a decent size hard drive – or you could just put old photos onto CD instead of keeping them on the PC. You’ll be able to do photo editing but it might be a bit slow – OK if you only occasionally want to remove red-eye, not so good if you spend a lot of time doing detailed touch-up on photos. Editing videos is possible but will be slow.

The mid-level PC:
From £500-£700 – this is a good general home PC. It’ll do everything a budget one will do, plus play games better, cope with lots of programs running at once (for example if you use it for work and need to be typing a letter whilst looking up something in a spreadsheet…) and will be faster at any photo editing. You’ll be able to edit videos without having to make lots of cups of tea while it catches up and it’s also better for watching TV or DVDs on the PC. You’ll often find mid-level PCs are either aimed mainly at office work or as ‘media PCs’ – ideal for home. Office PCs will have an integrated graphics card (see below) and possibly no speakers. Media PCs will have big glossy screens and good quality speakers.

The top-notch PC:
£700-£1500. These are more specialised machines and I wouldn’t really recommend them unless you know you need all that power for a specific purpose. For example if you edit lots and lots of home video (in which case look for a good processor, lots of memory and a massive hard drive) or you spend a lot of time playing fast action 3-d games (look for a fast processor most importantly a great graphics card and monitor).

So what do all the numbers mean – what should I look for?

  • Memory. Don’t confuse memory and the hard drive – memory is where it can store information for quick access (like some people’s memory, but not mine, which takes at least five minutes to cough up what I’m trying to remember). The hard drive is for longer term information – like jotting something down in a notepad. Now that Windows Vista is around, 1024MB (megabytes) is a typical amount of memory. That’s the same as 1GB (gigabyte). 2048MB (=2GB) or more is especially good for running lots of programs at once, doing photo editing or Desktop publishing. By the way, adding more memory is about the easiest way to upgrade your PC later on.
  • Processor. The brain of the PC. Look for the number with GHz (GigaHertz) after it. That tells you how many thousand million things the processor can do in one second. The bigger that number, the faster. Getting a dual core processor (see word to the wise below) also improves the speed, but most PCs have them now. You’ll also see ‘cache’ (pronounced cash) listed. That’s memory on the chip itself, so the processor doesn’t have to go all the way over to the main memory. Again, the bigger the number the faster. A typical budget, but reasonable, processor now would be a dual core 3GHz with 6MB cache. By the way, Intel and AMD are just two companies who make them. page after page has been written about who’s better – and I’ve never had any complaints about either so I wouldn’t worry about which you get.
  • Hard drive. This is where the PC stores all your files and all your programs. 300GB is now considered a bit small – but unless you have a LOT of photos or use a lot of programs or edit video, it’ll be fine for you. (The PC I’m typing this on has 90GB and after 5 years it’s only just getting towards being a bit full – and I use it a lot).
  • Graphics card. This does all the thinking about how to display the screen for the PC. There are two types: integrated (ie built-in) and separate (ie plug-in). You can’t tell the difference from the outside, but if you were to open the case (with it all turned OFF), a plug in one would be a separate card plugged in to the main circuit board. An integrated one is sat on the main circuit board. Plug-in ones are much faster but I’d only recommend them if you’re going to play fast action games (or watch a lot of TV on your PC). Otherwise you don’t really need the power. If you do want one, look for the number with MB after it – this is the memory the video card has to work with. The bigger the faster and smoother fast movement will be.
  • Monitor. Nearly all monitors are flat, thin screens nowadays. You can choose between widescreen (ideal for watching films) or normal, which is a better shape for normal use in my opinion – up to you though. You can also get a glossy finish, which gives great colour and looks fantastic for watching films – but can have show reflections from light elsewhere. Or you can have a matt finish, which is better for ordinary use as it avoids the reflections. It’s worth having a look at the different monitors in the shop as colours on some are better than others and you can’t tell that just from the numbers.
  • The body. Some PCs come in big cases, some in small. If you ever want to upgrade it later on, a big case is better as it gives you room to put extra disk drives or whatever. If you have space on your desk, I’d recommend a big case anyway as it makes it easier for the PC to cool itself and overheating can eventually cause it to cook itself. Of course if you have a laptop, it’ll be a small case anyway!
  • Operating System. That’s the version of Windows the PC comes with. It’s almost certainly going to be Vista. Microsoft recently announced the next version, called Windows 7 (which is the eighth mainstream version of Windows, but I suppose 7 is a lucky number). They say it’ll be out in a year and a half, so I’d say we’ve got 3 years yet, based on how long Vista took. But there are different versions even of Vista. Most PCs are coming with Home Premium, which is probably the best choice for normal use. Home basic is not as good for watching TV and the like – but ok for surfing the web, reading emails, typing the odd letter and so on. And the business edition is similar to home basic, but with a few features added that are good for connecting lots of PCs together. There are also other companies selling rivals to Windows (mainly versions of Linux) but I wouldn’t recommend them unless you really know what you’re doing.

I was going to tell you a bit more, including what I think of the different makes and one or two other tips… but I’ve ended up with a long article as it is, so I’ll have to continue this next time.

Download of the month – OpenOffice 3.0
I’ve mentioned OpenOffice before. It’s a program including a word processor, spreadsheet and several other bits and pieces – a bit like Microsoft Office. The big difference is you can download it for free. It doesn’t have some of the really fancy features of Microsoft Office but for most people, it has all the features you need.

They’ve just brought out a new version which you can download at It is a big file so it’ll take a while to download, even on broadband. Or you can order a CDROM, which you do have to pay for – usually around £10, MUCH less than Microsoft Office costs.

Reader’s Tip
One of my readers wrote in with a great tip if you don’t have broadband – if you use dial-up to connect to the internet. Some programs will assume you do have broadband and try to connect to the internet. If you’re just typing a letter, for example, you don’t need to be connected to the internet.

So if your computer does connect you it’s hogging your phone line and possibly costing you money. I’ve mentioned before you can safely just unplug the phone cable from the computer. But often, that means grubbing around at the back to find it each time.

Alternatively, you can just check whether the computer has connected by lifting the phone and listening. You should get a dialling tone, just like normal. But if the computer has connected you’ll get a series of electronic beeps. Then you can right click on the little picture of two computer screens in the bottom right hand corner of the screen and select ‘disconnect’ to stop it hogging the phone line.

Word to the Wise – dual core / core 2 duo
Dual core means the processor (the brain of the PC) is effectively two processors put together. That means that when you have two programs running (or even one program doing two things), each program can have one processor to itself – which makes it run much faster.

A lot of PCs nowadays are dual core, and some are even quad core, with four processors. You might also see core 2 duo or core 2 quad. That’s just a brand name – Intel’s particular system for putting the two or four processors into one.
If you’re after a fast PC, dual core is a good idea.

Right – I’d planned to make it a short newsletter this month, what with rushing around getting the sets of videos all posted. But it was a nice sunny, crisp morning, I got up early and I’ve got carried away! I’d better stop now, though!

Don’t forget, if you are interested in the videos, you can read more here and the offer runs out on Wednesday 5th at 5 pm.

Bye for now,

Tim Wakeling

All the above © Tim Wakeling 2008

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