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How To Select A Desktop System

What is a desktop system? A desktop system usually consists of a monitor, a case containing critical system components, a keyboard, and a mouse. If you are looking to buy a computer for your home, you are likely in the market for a desktop system as opposed to a portable or server/workstation. When purchasing the right desktop system, there are a few things you will want to consider.

PC or Apple

This was once a highly debated topic in the 80s and early 90s, but now the answer is clear. Unless you need an Apple computer for a specific purpose, you should purchase a PC. While Macintosh's have a nicer look and a certain appeal about them, PCs offer significantly more software. A computer is simply a software machine; it runs the software you install on it. If software is limited for your computer (which is Apple's biggest shortcoming), then you have a limited computer.

Processor

The processor is often referred to as the CPU. The processor will define limitations of your desktop system and is arguably the most critical component of the desktop system. If you choose to buy an Apple computer, your only concern is the speed of the processor since Apple computers only come with Apple CPUs. If you choose a PC, you will have 2 choices -- AMD or Intel. What is the difference between the two? AMD processors are generally less expensive than their Intel counterparts. Some people feel that Intel CPUs are more stable. There are definitely groups that believe that AMD's recent innovations and attractive price make it the only way to go. Our advice would be to not focus too much on the brand name of the processor for a ready-made desktop system. Generally, stability is not an issue in these systems, so focus more on speed and price.

Clock speed (note that we did not say "processor speed") consist of a number and are suffixed with "Mhz" or "Ghz" such as 750 Mhz or 1.2 Ghz. You may have heard from your computer guru friend that the processor speed of a Pentium 4 1.3 Ghz is not the same speed as an Athlon 1.3 Ghz. This is true; in theory, a 100 Mhz processor can be faster 2.9 Ghz processor. This is why we differentiate between clock speed and processor speed. To read more about this phenomenon, click here. The picky consumer will have to look at benchmark tests to gauge processor speed. The more casual consumer can accept the clocks speeds as reasonable indicators of processor speed.

RAM

RAM stands for Random Access Memory. Data can be quickly accessed from the RAM, so the computer will store critical information like the operating system and application(s) being run in the RAM. There are 2 different types of RAM being sold today with one of them being phased out. You can choose DDR or PC133. DDR stands for Double Data Rate. For the most part, newer desktop systems sell computers with DDR RAM. RAM is also another fairly important component of the computer. Insufficient RAM can be a hindrance in many applications, particularly gaming. We recommend at least 256 MB of DDR RAM. Increasing RAM is a fairly easy upgrade, so if you find that 256 MB RAM is still not enough, you can purchase more RAM and add it to your desktop (make sure that the upgrade does not void any warranty).

Video Card

The video card is the piece of hardware on your computer responsible for outputting video on to your monitor. To some users like gamers, this will be a critical part of the system. For someone purchasing a computer for the home office, the video card is not of importance. If the desktop system will not be used for gaming or multimedia (or any application that is graphics-intensive), your only concern should be avoiding paying the premium for a high end graphics card since you do not need it. The other users will have 2 main brands to choose from, nVidia or ATI. Generally, nVidia is preferred for gaming applications, while ATI is preferred for multimedia (although, at the time of this writing, that is starting to change). nVidia makes the GeForce series, while ATI makes the Radeon series. For multimedia applications, we definitely would recommend ATI products such as the All-In-Wonder series. For gaming applications, we would recommend any GeForce3, GeForce4 4200Ti, GeForce4 4400Ti, or GeForce4 4600Ti. The GeForce4 4600Ti is the highest end graphics card being offered by nVidia at the time of this writing. ATI's 8500 and 9000 are acceptable gaming cards, and the 9700 Pro is arguably the best gaming card on the market right now. Keep in mind that many desktop systems have integrated graphics (meaning that it is built into the motherboard), so you will have to ask your dealer specifically about video card options.

Audio

The audio card on your desktop system will determine the sound quality being outputted from your computer. On desktop systems, the selection of audio cards is limited, but nonetheless, the selections are quite good. For PC gaming or multimedia applications, you will probably have to select a sound card from the Creative Labs series. The 2 main sound cards being sold with desktop systems are the Sound Blaster Live 5.1 and the Sound Blaster Audigy. The Audigy is newer than the Live 5.1 and offers 24 bit sound as opposed to 16 bit sound that the Live 5.1 has. You can read more about the Creative Labs cards here. If you are not concerned about sound performance on your desktop system, you can ask your dealer about desktop systems that have integrated sound to avoid paying the extra for sound performance you have no use for.

Connectivity

Want to connect your computer to your TV? How about using the system to edit home videos? These connectivity options are all available on desktop systems. At a minimum, your computer should have Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports. This will allow your computer to connect to keyboards, mice, modems, joysticks, audio players, printers, and scanners to name a few. A newer standard, IEEE 1394 (Firewire) will support devices that require higher data transfer like digital cameras. However, Firewire and USB devices are not cross-compatible. Some users would like to be able to edit videos which would require either composite/S-Video-in connectors or a Firewire port to be used with a video camera that also has Firewire. If you would like to watch TV on your computer, you would need to make sure your computer has a TV tuner. Perhaps you would like to use a TV instead of a monitor for you computer. A quick and easy way to do this is making sure your computer has S-Video output. If you would like to be able to connect to the Internet, your computer would either need a modem (dial-up) or network interface (cable modem/DSL).

Hard Drive Space & Software

The hard drive is where all the software is installed. The larger the hard drive, the more software the user can install. The user who anticipates to have a lot of software installed will need a large hard drive. Hard Drives on desktop systems normally vary from 40 GB - 120 GB at the time of this writing. For most people, we recommend 60-80 GB, which should be plenty of hard drive space. Ask your dealer if future upgrades for hard drives are available if you run out of space. The second thing you will want to consider is software. On the PC, you would need Windows (preferably XP), and on the Macintosh, you would need Mac OS. Consider any other software bundles that come with your computer as a bonus and see how that reflects in price. Remember, you can always purchase software, but often times the software bundles that come with a desktop system are a bargain (because of partnerships the desktop system makers have with software companies).

Media Drives

Media drives are used by the computer to read different types of media. Examples of media are floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, and Smart Media. At a minimum, you need a CD-ROM drive and floppy drive (although floppy drives are slowly becoming outdated). If you would like to watch movies or access programs stored on DVD, you should get a DVD drive instead of a CD-ROM drive (all DVD drives can read CD-ROMs). If you would like to copy/make your own CDs, you would need a CD burner, and if you would like to do the same with DVDs, you would need a DVD burner. CD-ROM drives are typically rated on their speed, measured in kilobytes per second (KB/sec). A 1X CD-ROM drive reads at 150 KB/sec. A 2X CD-ROM drive reads 300 KB/sec (150 * 2). Often times you will see a CD burner labeled as 24x10x40 (as an example). The first number refers to the "write" speed of the CD burner, the second number refers to "rewrite" speed of the burner, and the third number refers to the "read" speed of the burner. This means that the burner can write CDs at a speed of 24x, rewrite at a speed of 10x, and read CDs at a speed of 40x. You may be wondering, "What's the difference between 'write' and 'rewrite?'" There are 2 types of CDs, CD-R and CD-RW. CD-R are CDs that you can only write to once. CR-RW can be written and rewritten numerous times. DVD drives work much the same way. A DVD drive can read at 1352 KB/sec. So a 4x DVD drive reads 5408 KB/sec (1352 * 4). Because DVD burners are uncommon on desktop systems, they will be beyond the scope of this article.

Appearance

Lastly, the user should be concerned with appearance. Will the look of the computer match the surrounding furniture? If you already have a monitor, will the two match? Would you like your computer to be placed on the top of a desktop or somewhere on the ground as a tower? What about the size of the computer? Are the connectors of the computer conveniently located? These are all important factors to consider.

Conclusion

The factors listed above will simplify the daunting task of finding a computer that is right for you. Computers are a rewarding investment when they satisfy your needs. If you still need assistance in choosing a computer, feel free to ask us for our advice.