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WHY GET ONE?   Before investing in a computer, it’s a good idea to think about why you are considering purchasing one.  If it’s a requirement for business or school, you’ve already got that issue settled.  If you’re getting it because relatives are bugging you about your lack of computer savvy, or you feel pressured into learning computers simply because everyone else seems to have one, you should at least consider what a computer actually does and whether it will make your life easier or more difficult.  Maybe you don’t really need one.  Or, if you’re just getting e-mail with the occasional web search, a good smart phone or phablet phone may do the trick.  (For more, see HERE.)

Remember, too, that if you don’t know how to type, it’ll make learning that much more difficult for you, as the main computer interface is through a keyboard. And those dictation-type interfaces (discussed at FAQ #47), which may look easy, have their own issues. 

WHAT DOES A COMPUTER ACTUALLY DO? Essentially, a computer serves two major purposes: (1)  It can store, retrieve and generate data (text, music, photos), and (2)  it is also a communication device.  [For a detailed technical explanation, you can click HERE.]

The data function is useful because, once you have created text, math formulas, accounting spreadsheets, sound or video data, you can manipulate it, edit it and distribute it endlessly without  “reinventing the wheel”. 

The communication function is, in turn, two basic processes:  (1) E-Mail and (2) WebE-Mail is the personal communication between you and one or more other people in the form of a computerized text message, which can have various image, video or other enclosures (think photos of grandchildren or pets or vacation) attached.  It is personal (“dynamic”) communication between two or more users and is identifiable by the format joeuser@anyweb.com.  It doesn’t have to be the same between every user.  Web, on the other hand, is always “static” (or the same between everyone) each time no matter which users are viewing the site, and is much like an electronic catalog or library. You can find web sites for virtually anything: Toys, medical information, bridge, pornography, classic videos, auctions, etc.  Web sites are identifiable by the format: www.anywebsite.com or the like.  So, if neither of the above uses (which account for some 80% of the web) interests you, and you have no data to crunch or extensive text typing to do, you might not be a good candidate for a computer. 

The point is that you should think about what benefit you expect to derive from computer ownership before spending the time and money on one.  A computer can be a portal which can take you to information and images right from your home that might be virtually impossible to access any other way, and it can allow you to communicate, both with audio and video, with others, even from thousands of miles away, in “real time” at no cost.  For example, if you are disabled or cannot travel far, you can use Google Earth to view places on earth that you might never be able to see (like the Vatican) or you can talk with relatives or children that are overseas (military service, distant locations) using Skype.  Or it can be a really expensive paperweight.  For the three things that you should do when you purchase your new computer, click HERE.

HOW TO PURCHASE A COMPUTER - IS THERE REALLY A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN COMPUTERS, OR IS IT ALL JUST BRANDING AND PRICING? The old adage “you only get what you pay for” applies to computers as well.  Just as you can buy a car with a 6 cylinder engine for $5,000 or $50,000, you know that there’s a big difference between a Mercedes and a Yugo (do they still make these?), even though both may have the same number of cylinders in the same size engine.  Similarly, computer components are manufactured in varying degrees of quality for what may appear to customers to be the same size, speed or capacity (e.g. 120Gb hard drives, 512Mb RAM, 32-bit video or sound cards): However, tolerances, quality, materials, speeds, designs and warranties come in various levels and costs.  (See, for example the Backblaze test results for hard drives at the hard drive page of this site.)  Moreover, many (less expensive) computers offer all of the components of the system on a single printed circuit board.  This means not only that the sound, video, ethernet and modem may be “built-in” on the main board, making some repairs difficult or impossible, but that they are also using the computer’s random access memory (“RAM”) for their own use, effectively reducing the amount of leftover RAM that will be available to you for running your programs.  (Computer insiders sometimes call this type of entry-level computer a “VCR computer,” meaning that if something malfunctions, it’s as disposable as a VCR, which is hardly ever worth the expense of repair.)  Computers which have separate boards (called “cards” which plug into the main board) usually use their own RAM (temporary memory) and are more easily upgraded and replaced than the less expensive all-in-one boards.  (For more, see below.)  Also, don’t fall for simple speed comparisons in advertising.  If all you looked at when purchasing a new car is how fast it goes from zero to 60mph it wouldn’t be a valid indicator of its usefulness or value.  Again, see below.)  Same with computers: The processor speed is just one indicator of the usefulness of the computer.  Finally, check the warranty.  Some are less than 90 days now.  A year should be normal.

So, what to buy?  Generally, you can purchase either a custom built or off-the-shelf computer.  These days, there are lots of reputable computer builders to choose from, but you have to know what you want built, so if you’re not an expert, at least speak to a consultant or ask the builder lots of questions: In effect, shop for a computer salesman or consultant before you shop for a computer.  If they speak your language, trust them; their advice may continue to be a valued resource long after the initial purchase. And it’s not just about knowledge, it’s also about communication:  A computer genius may not explain things as well as someone else who is just a knowledgeable but speaks to you at your level.  And personality is important, too.  Find someone who “fits’ with you, is not condescending, but doesn”t spout unintelligible technobabble either.  For more, see below.

Off-the-shelf computers generally come either through “big box” stores (Best Buy, Staples, Office Depot, etc.) or on-line stores (Dell, HP, etc.).  Big box stores generally sell the entire “system” (computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse and printer) at a discount from purchasing each individual component, and may not sell just the computer (“CPU” box) separately.  Generally, these stores sell residential grade computers. But beware: Often they will push a particular brand of computer over others because the store may receive a higher margin or the sales people may get a bonus (called a “spiff” or Special Payment Incentive for Fast Sales) for a particular model, which may not necessarily be the right one for you.  And they usually push the extended warranty, a big money maker for them, maybe unnecessary for you (although I strongly recommend it for laptops if you’re hard on things or have kids or pets or travel a lot with it.)  On line stores do push the systems, but will sell the box (just the CPU) separately if asked.  (If you already have a computer and the printer, mouse, keyboard and monitor are working, all you may need to replace is the CPU.) 

On line stores direct from manufacturers generally sell three grades of computers - residential (sufficient for e-mail, web surfing, word processing, but no heavy lifting), mid-level (business quality components and software, suitable for heavier use over a longer time), and server (a powerhouse computer built to operate a network 24x7x365).   Don’t be confused by the names, all of which sound techno-intergalactic (Optiron, Inspiron, Exceletron...), they’re just names.  My personal opinion is that, while the entry level computers have a lot of flash to appeal to a certain type of buyers, you should skip this level of computer, unless you want to possibly be purchasing a new one in a year or so.  Go for a better quality machine, even at an extra cost.  Of course, you will also have to decide whether you want a full scale desktop computer, a laptop or a netbook.  All of the considerations for purchasing laptops are discussed in the laptops definition.

Your best bet is to first decide what you want to use the computer for (photo editing may, for example, require a superior video card and faster processor or more RAM, while music downloads might dictate a better sound card and speaker system) then compare the cost of a mid-level computer (you only get what you pay for - a cheap computer probably won’t last very long or perform very well, a server computer is probably overkill) from an on-line supplier to that of a locally built computer.  Remember, the local computer can be serviced where you live, while an on-line purchased computer or a laptop may require a little more effort to obtain even local service. 

NOTE FOR SENIORS:  If you’re a senior citizen, there are specific computers that are made for those of you who can’t be bothered with developing an understanding of technology: The Telikin (or WOW!) or the MyGait desktops and the Claris Companion or In-Touch Senior Tablet.  All are easy to use out of the box and some have subscriptions for help and learning.  Also the RealPad, designed for seniors by AARP and Intel.  It’s slightly larger, runs on an Android operating system, can be purchased at WalMart (on line) for $189.  (The AARP one year sign-up fee of $16 is waived the first year.)  The icons are about 20% larger, and built-in video tutorials show users how to connect to a wireless network, send photos, use e-mail and Skype, use the camera and navigate the Internet, plus other simple and common tasks.  (They work off-line as well, as they’re part of the computer O/S.  The 24 hour help line is readily available and specializes in users who may be hard of hearing or technologically novices.)  Also, click HERE for discounted internet service plans available to seniors. And many places have resources that will sell used computers, often for free, but you have to know what you’re getting (many old ones won’t run new programs or are too slow on the Internet and may even be defective) and there will be no one to help you.  And there’s always friends and family with hand-me-downs.

To understand “what makes a computer faster” (not always necessarily better) click HERE.

The intended use for the computer will also dictate it’s form, i.e. desktop, laptop, pad, etc.  For portable computer forms, see the definition at laptops.  See also, tablets. For sizes of desktop cases, see cases.  For monitor types and sizes, see screens.  And for deciding Apple or PC, see FAQ #3, below.  Generally, however, consider the following: While portable computers are lighter and transportable, they’re more expensive and harder to repair.  Desktops are less expensive, although larger, but can be upgraded and repaired more easily and have good large keyboards and mice, features which you may want to add to a portable computer if you’re using it very much. Maybe even an external monitor.  Remember that while speed and power may be important, the proof of use is still in the interface - you’ve got to communicate with your computer using the mouse, keyboard and monitor, so make sure you’re happy.  All of these devices can be significantly smaller on a laptop than on a desktop, and the keyboard is “virtual” (without tactile sensation) on pads.  The mouse may be a built-in “pad” on which you move your finger, not a mouse which you move on a surface.  Certainly, therefore, test before purchasing, as this may be new or uncomfortable to you, even if you’ve used computers before. 

Also, tablets, pads, laplets, netbooks, phablet phones and pads are great, but you can’t really do much productive work on them like spreadsheets, databases and complex word processing or publishing and they’re either smaller than standard computers and/or use touch screens, which might take a little getting used to.  They’re better for reading, e-mail, light internet surfing and the like. And they’re often light on external connector ports for peripheral devices, if they even have any.  Most of the time, they can’t be upgraded from a hardware standpoint, so most of this discussion about computer hardware isn’t relevant to them.

Also, consider this:  Just like when you buy a condo, you must consider the substantial additional carrying costs like upkeep, fees, assessments and utilities, or if you purchase construction equipment, but have pay almost as much as the initial equipment purchase price for the necessary blades, bits and accessories, you also have to consider the additional costs after the purchase of the computer hardware itself.  You may spend quite a bit more for additional hardware (powered external speakers, or a scanner, or a color laser printer), as well as cables, or software (programs for the things you want to do with the computer, from writing, spreadsheets or databases, to home design, to tax preparation, to ancestry searches to paid music or movie downloads).  Unless all you do is surf the Internet and get your e-mail, you can expect to spend more than just the basic cost for the computer.  Maybe quite a bit more, depending.  And beware trialware for things like anti-virus programs, that start free for a brief period but then cost more, sometimes for the same product that you can get for free or are included with your operating system.  (See MDS)

Finally check out the cost of an extended warranty, which we discussed above.  Most of the time it only makes money for the seller.  But, if you are tough on your possessions, or have kids or friends who are, it may be worth it.  Check out FAQ #56, also TIP #28, which discusses available warranties through purchase, law or credit cards.

This next part is a little technical, so if you don’t want to become confused, skip it:

What makes a computer faster?  Faster for what?  A combination of factors, working together, give your computer “speed”:  In terms of overall speed, despite what your computer salesman may tell you, it’s not just about the processor.  That’s like telling you that the size of your car engine will make everything faster.  Of course, that’s not so:  The car won’t corner any faster or stop any faster, may not even accelerate any faster, the heat or a/c won’t get hot or cold any faster, nor will the wipers, horn or radio start or run any faster.  If you’re hauling a trailer, or climbing mountains, however, then it may well make a difference.  Again, faster is only better if you need something faster for what you’re doing.  Same for computers, a faster  “processor,” the “brain” of the computer, can’t be bad, but it may be meaningless to you for your own intended computer usage.  That is, it’s not everything.  Aside from the processor, there are actually several items of hardware that also contribute - together - to a computer’s overall “speed”:  First, there is, in fact, the processor.  However, there are also “extras” to the processors, such as additional math “coprocessors” which make computations faster, more cores, and more built-in “cache,” designated “Level 1” and “Level 2” which is a type of temporary storage which speeds up the computer by making more data readily available.  And the processor plugs into the main board for the computer, and that “motherboard” has its own speed considerations and possibly its own “Level 3” cache as well.  [If you’re interested, click HERE for a graphic about the hardware.  And HERE for more discussion about how these definitions fit together.]  The speed is controlled by what’s known as the “bus”.  Each motherboard has its own programmed bus speed, measured in MHz and Ghz (e.g. 133Mhz, 300Mhz, etc.) which are specifically paired with the power of the processor clamped on the board. The higher the number, of course, the faster the speed.  Bus is like the highway you drive on, you can drive faster because there are more lanes and less congestion, so you can up your speed. The less lanes, the more likely that the traffic will slow and that you’ll experience “bottlenecks” of delay.  So, your car may be able to drive at 120mph, but if it’s cruising on a two-lane with a limit of 55mph, that’s as fast as you’ll be able to go.  Add to this the amount of RAM, which is often more important than the processor and bus itself (because it controls the number of things you can work on at the same time) and the speed at which your hard disk drive spins (yes, drives come in speeds, part of which is determined not only by the type (standard or high speed) and model of the drive itself but also by its connection to the main board, e.g. IDE, SATA, SSD) and you have another speed factor.  Then, there are the separate chips and memory both on the motherboard and special additional cards called “riser cards” for things like video and audio, which can make your computer faster for specific purposes, like movies or music, because they contain their own memory chips (in addition to RAM and cache) as well as other technology.  Finally, there’s the software, which can also increase the speed with which various tasks are accomplished:  The operating system itself (e.g. Windows, Mac, Linux in either 32-bit or 64-bit versions), all of which control the speed of the computer, its peripherals (printers, scanners, etc.) and its specific programs.  Click HERE for more information about the speeds of various boards, ports, cables, etc. available on computers. Whew!  Do you really have to know all of this?  No.  I’m just being informative and complete.  Actually, as I said above, you should do two things:  First, figure out WHAT you want to use your computer for:  Web surfing and e-mail, almost any current off-the-shelf machine will do.  If video and graphics are your thing, then a excellent video card and lots of RAM are required.  Audio, say for dictation, will require an upgraded sound card, a quality microphone or headset and lots of RAM as well; concert quality music will require powered speakers and probably a sub-woofer.  Storage of video, movies, graphics and the like, a large (1Tb or more) high-speed drive are a necessity.  Second, shop around until you find someone who you TRUST to give you unbiased advice (whether or not you purchase the computer from them), then stick with them if you can (if only for service and education).

 

If confused or in doubt - call us - we’ll build or service any computer, no matter where or when it’s been purchased!  See, SALES. For discussion about whether the cost of computers has actually decreased, click HERE. About whether to get a PC or a Mac, continue on to FAQ #3. Looking for ways to save money on computers and systems, click HERE.

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