Buying Your First Computer

Originally written for a friend that wanted to buy their first computer, but didn't really know where to start, this might just help someone else in a similar position. As simple as it proves to be once you know - for example - what an "operating system" is - it's the damndest thing in the world until someone explains it...This is far from exhaustive - but I hope it may help someone nonetheless. (DB: 2006).

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Ok. First of all, there are two main bits that you'll want - the computer itself (the box that sits on the floor or wherever) and the monitor - they're usually sold separately. Most monitors will work with most computers - but check when you buy it.

Two main types of monitor - the bigger ones (that take up more desk space, but which are cheaper), or the newer flat-screen ones (like my new one) which are more expensive, but look nicer and take up less space. They both do the same thing though - 's'up to you. Usually they come in two sizes (15 inch or 17 inch). Just in case you didn't already guess, then the monitor is thing that you actually look at when you're typing or whatever - ie. the thing that looks a bit like a TV.

If you buy a flat-screen one, then may be a good idea to buy an extended warranty with it, since if a flat-screen breaks then they're often not repairable. (so in that respect an older, bigger monitor is also better, since it can sometimes be repaired, and is also cheaper to replace if it breaks).

The computer itself: there are lots of different ones, but mostly all have a basic set of features, such as a CD drive, a floppy disk drive etc. You do however, want to ensure that it also comes with a modem, and also (preferably) a network card (but not essential just yet). You want to make sure that there is a mouse included - or if not then get one separately. A mouse-mat would also be a good idea. (that's what the mouse sits on - you'll probably find that it's easier to use the mouse when you have a mouse mat).

Anyway, initially you could probably get away with a pretty low-specification model, if you'll not be doing too much heavy-duty stuff on it, but you'd still be wise to get the best that you can afford. They'll probably tell you lots of confusing things about how it does this and that, but your three main things to look for are:

  • how much memory does it have (this is defined in MB (megabytes) or GB (gigabytes)). 1GB = 1024MB. Most modern PC's (computers) will come with at least 128mb of memory (also called RAM). Many come with 256mb or more. 128mb would probably be plenty for you, but get 256mb or more if you can.

  • diskspace: get as much as possible - this will help you get more years usage out of your computer (ie, if you run out of space it will be a pain in the neck) - more space can also be helpful in the computer being faster. Again, diskspace is defined in Mb (megabytes) or GB (gigabytes) - colloquially known as "Meg" or "Gig." If you can, you would be wise to get a PC with at least 20GB - preferably more. Ideally if you can get one with 30 or 40 GB or better, then that would be much better.

  • processor: the processor is what determines how fast the computer does calculations. Since everything a computer does is ultimately a calculation, then it follows that the faster the processor is, the faster everything else will be. Most of the processors in the shops are going to be of at least your minimum requirements. I'm not sure what the latest processors (also called chips) are, and they can very quite considerably, but I'd be pretty confident that most of the new computers available in the shops would be ok for you.

The processor is built into the computer, as is the diskspace and memory - you don't buy it separately - although when you're more advanced you could do.

Modem: These used to come separately with a computer, but they're normally built into the computer itself now. But make sure it does come with one. If not you can still buy one separately. Depending on how you connect to the Internet, then you'll probably need this for exactly that reason.

Printer: PC's (Personal Computers) don't usually come with a printer, though some stores do throw one in for you as part of a special offer sometimes. However, typically, it wont be a high quality one. For my money, I would get the best printer that I could afford - you'll be glad you did later. However, there are many different types, including dot-matrix, ink-jet, laser printers and a few others. The highest quality ones are typically laser printers (but usually quite expensive). The lowest quality ones are generally dot-matrix. I'm guessing that you could probably get a pretty reasonable ink-jet printer for $300 or so (very approximately) - though quite possibly less. I would avoid getting a dot-matrix printer, since you'll be disappointed with the quality. I would also avoid the temptation to get a color printer, despite what they tell you - but entirely up to you. I would be more inclined to get the highest quality black and white printer that you can, rather than a lower quality one which also does color.

Internet: On its own, straight out of the box, your computer will not be able to access the Internet. Even after you've turned it on and got everything else working, you'll still not be able to access the Internet. However, by the time it is all unpacked etc, then it should at least be ready to get set-up for Internet access. For Internet access you require someone to provide you with Internet services (much like gas or electricity) - and for that you'll require an ISP (Internet Service Provider). There are literally hundreds of ISP's around, and they all provide similar services, but do it in different ways - most often affecting the speed of your access. Some provide modem dialup, others provide DSL, and others provide Cable access. Modem dialup is the slowest, DSL and Cable can literally be hundreds of times faster, but are generally up to three times more expensive. You can get a modem-dialup connection from an ISP for anywhere between $12 and $20 (approx) per month. I pay $44 per month for Cable Internet access from AT&T.

So, modem-dialup is slower, less reliable, but cheaper. It also ties up your phone line in the house while you're using the Internet. Cable or DSL are more reliable, faster, always-on access, but more expensive.

AOL is a favorite ISP (for modem-dialup access) of many people, but I loathe and despise them - and they're more expensive than several others. Verizon also do modem-dialup access - they're ok (not sure how much though). Earthlink, I have used, and found to be very good (a couple of years ago) - they're also cheaper than AOL, coming in at around $12 or $15 per month I think.

Also, make sure when you buy the computer, that it comes with telephone cable for the modem. It probably will, but best to check. Also, if you're buying a printer, make sure that you get the cables for that too - they're very fond of not including the cables with a printer. You'll need two cables - one is a power cord, the other is a cable to attach the printer to the computer. The power cord may well be with the printer, but probably not the other one.

The keyboard usually comes with the computer (ie. not with the monitor, but the computer itself), as should the mouse - but check.

Anti-Virus Software: You'll only really need this once you're hooked up to the Internet, but do get it. It will help to protect against some of the nasty things out there on the Web. There are (as with most of this stuff) numerous Anti-Virus software programs - some are definitely better than others. One may come already installed on your computer, but it's likely to be one of the not-so-good ones. (It could well be one called McAffee). McAffee (I think that's how it's spelled), costs about the same off the shelf as Norton Anti-Virus software. However, Norton is by far superior. Again, entirely up to you - but there are things out there that will constantly be trying to attack, or access your computer in some unwanted way - I would want to get the best possible protection.

Other Software: Well, you'll probably need a word processing program at a minimum. Check to see what the computer actually comes with. It will probably come with some free word-processing program, albeit may not be 100% compatible with other people's computer software. One that you may be familiar with from your job is called Microsoft Word - that almost certainly won't be installed on the computer that you buy. It may, however, come with a somewhat similar program called Microsoft Works. Most people prefer the first one, but you do have to pay handsomely for it, since you generally have to buy it as part of some other software. I don't think you'll pick it up for under $200 - quite possibly a fair bit more. If you do want to buy it then be observant - you may see what looks like Mircosoft Word on a shelf for a good price, but it may just be the upgrade version - ie. you have to already have an older version of it in order to use the upgraded version. The full version will probably come with a spreadsheet program (Excel), a database program (Access) and maybe a couple of others.

!!! Some stores offer "Academic versions" of Microsoft products. This means that you can sometimes buy it at less than half the regular price. It is exactly the same software, but you have to prove that you're either a student or faculty. (not sure how you have to prove it though - it probably means giving up at least a modicum of personal information to Microsoft).

Operating System: The operating system is the software that tells the computer what to do. It's the software heart of the computer system. There are lots of different operating systems, some more popular than others. You would probably be best to get one with a Windows operating system. (again, all this comes pre-loaded with your PC). I would guess that the ones in the shop would have either Microsoft XP, or Mircosoft ME on them. Either is ok.

USB Ports, FireWire Ports: The store will maybe try to dazzle you with science, but USB ports and FireWire ports, are just slots that you plug things into on your computer (eg. a printer for example). The more the merrier. USB ports are especially handy.

CD: Many computers now come with the ability not only to read (or play) a CD, but also to write (create) a CD. Ask them about this when you buy it. If it is a CD RW (CD read/write) then maybe a good idea to get a few blank CD's which they recommend for using with that particular computer, since different CD's are suitable for different PC's. They're not too expensive ($20 ?)

Floppy Disks: Floppy disks are not actally floppy, although the original ones were; they're the little square disks, that you've probably seen before (3.5 inches square). Handy always to have a few - very inexpensive. Ask for some pre-formatted ones. (makes life easier for you when you go to use them).

Can't think of too many other things at the moment, but I hope that helps you choose something (ie. a computer preferably).

Please feel free, nay, I encourage you, to use the search box at the top of this document to search for any of the bits and pieces I've mentioned above. You can, quite literally, find practically every item mentioned on this page at UK shoppers will also find plenty of computer bits and pieces at Comet electrical store.

© 2006 - Credit to DB/LC for this document