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Four Tips to Consider to Get Your Value For Money Computer

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I remember in the old days when I wanted to buy a PC for my father I set for the latest tech specs as the notion was the highest the specs were, the 'better' was the PC. So, I picked up the highest processor Pentium IV, 2 GB RAM as far as I remember, 40 GB Hard Disk at 7200 rpm (was really a huge amount of storage at the time), 5.1 surround sound card with 5.1 surround speakers and the new tech 15" LCD monitor that was 5 to 6 times as expensive as a similar LCD monitor existing today. It had cost a fortune! Fortunately, he had a voucher and it covered most of the price.

Reflecting back on those days, and observing that most of the people build their decision on more or less the same notion, was the PC I bought for my father the 'best' PC? My father used it to check his emails and browse the internet. I used it to watch several movies before I lost my interest watching movies on a PC. On the other hand, my brother used it for gaming, some programming and graphics design. Although my brother's usage of the PC made its price to some extent justifiable; however, I have to admit that it was not value for money. I could have bought a PC with lesser specs, at a lower price, but still serving our purpose, thus sparing the voucher for buying something else.

The question here is: what are the factors that will allow us to take decisions leading to a value for money computer? This article outlines four tips to consider when buying your 'best' value for money computer.

1

Price

It is obvious; the budget will set the price range of the computer you will purchase. Though, I have to warn you that many people will be tempted by the higher specs the sales people will try to convince them for to pay more. Buying those additional higher specs in most of the cases might not add any value.

2

Purpose of Usage

Do you require the computer for reading and browsing internet only? Do you require it for presentations, meetings and on missions? Or do you require it for gaming and heavy graphical design? Your requirements will heavily determine the type of computer (PC, laptop or tablet PC) and the hardware configuration.

If you require it only for reading e-books, then you might be well served by the low-priced e-book readers rather than go for a PC. The most well known for this type are Amazon’s Kindle and B&N’s Nook. Both of them stand out from others for the following reasons:

They have a huge library consisting of millions of titles.
Their e-book readers are feature-full and offered at very competitive prices.
They use the e-ink technology which gives you the experience as if you are reading from a real book without straining your eyes.

On the other hand, if your purpose is to have a light-weight, small-factor and easy to carry device used for quick access of emails and internet in addition to providing a convenient way of reading e-books and using ‘fun’ applications then you are actually looking for a tablet PC. The most well-known and competing in the market are iPad from Apple, Galaxy Tab from Samsung, Xoom from Motorola, Tablet S from Sony and ThinkPad Tablet from Lenovo. There are many independent parties popular for providing technical reviews on the latest electronics like PC World and PC Magazine. To help boost your decision on which tablet PC to go for, click here to go to the review of the top 10 tablets by PC World.

But if your purpose is to have a more practical device in terms of heavy usage of advanced applications, accessing external resources (shared files, printers etc…), stock dealing, designing or programming etc… chances are that you would go for a desktop (interchangeably called a PC)* or a laptop. The difference between them is that the latter is mobile while the former’s hardware always provides for more ‘powerful’ computing and is cheaper. The vendors known in the desktop and/or laptop industry are HP, Dell, Toshiba, Acer, Sony, LG, Samsung to mention a few. The hardware checklist below (in combination with the price and quality of service) will help you decide which one to select from.

Processor
Two vendors exist providing for computer processors: Intel and AMD. In general, processors are characterized by their speed measured in GHz (unit of frequency – number of computational cycles per second) and the underlying architecture. To make things simple, the general rule is, the greater the frequency and the more the number of cores in a processor is, the higher the performance would be and of course the higher the price. But, when you compare processors, you compare the frequencies for the same number of cores – a dual core processor at a lesser frequency than a single core processor would in most cases perform better. Usually, Intel processors provide for higher frequencies than their counterparts from AMD and sell at a premium price. However, it is much debatable as to which processors would perform better. But, many are inclined to say that Intel’s processors outperform their counterparts from AMD and many third party benchmarks have been conducted to support this claim.
As Intel controls about 72% of the market share and in order to avoid any complications of comparison with AMD, it would be fair to show you how to pick your Intel processor based on your purpose of usage. If you are interested to have more information on comparison benchmarks click here.

As of this writing, Intel produces 3 main categories of processors for three different personal use categories. Following shows you what to pick depending on your purpose:

Core i3 at 2 cores is ideal for basic computing tasks (word processing and internet browsing) and multimedia applications.

Core i5 at 2 or 4 cores is ideal for intensive multi-tasking applications like programming, less intensive gaming and heavy spreadsheet calculations.

Core i7 at 4 or 6 cores is ideal for graphical design, heavy 3D gaming/programming, virtualization and real time data processing.

Memory (RAM)
RAM (short for Random Access Memory) is characterized by the size in GB (unit measuring the amount of storage) and speed of operation in GHz (frequency or number of clock cycles per second). The storage here is not meant for saving files, music or videos; but is meant for temporarily storing processing queues coming from and going to the processor. Needless to say, the larger the size and frequency are the more the RAM would add to the overall performance.

I will explain how to pick your RAM in a rather non-orthodox way. You can’t separate talking about the RAM from what type of applications you are using and above all the operating system (OS) serving your computing experience. I am sure that most of us heard about 32-bit and 64-bit operating systems, but what does this mean? Simply put, the number of bits characterizing the OS corresponds to the maximum amount of RAM it can address.

Doing the math, a 32-bit OS can address a maximum of 2^32 = 4 GB of RAM. While a 64-bit OS can address a maximum of 2^64 approx. = 18 billion GB!!! This means that even if you add more than 4 GB of RAM in a 32-bit OS, it is not going to see more than 4 GB (an unfortunate waste of resource). There is a way to trick the OS to use more of the RAM; however, it will keep seeing the 4 GB – nonetheless explaining this is out of the scope of this article. As I am a user of Windows OS (indeed most of the people are), I will explain RAM utilization in light of Windows OS.

Windows OS divides the RAM into two parts – the kernel mode and the user mode. The former is directly related to services required by the OS. The latter is the amount of RAM reserved for the user operations. On a 32-bit Windows OS the kernel mode is limited to a maximum of 2 GB of RAM. On the other hand, the kernel mode is not limited to a certain amount on a 64-bit Windows OS. As there is no limitation on the RAM size, a 64-bit Windows OS will automatically allocate more RAM to the kernel when seen available improving the performance of the overall system.

Moreover, Windows OS comes in many different editions to cater for different price ranges and of course for different needs (home or business use). As of this writing the latest personal Windows OS in the market is Windows 7 (Windows 8 beta version is already in the market and set to be released soon in the first quarter of 2012). Windows 7 mainly comes in the following editions (depending on your region of residence and on whether it is available as OEM and/or retail):

1.      Starter Edition (Normal operations that you can carry out)
2.      Home Premium Edition (Adds home network to its list of features)
3.      Professional Edition (In addition to the above it is mainly used for businesses where it can be joined to a domain and have access to network printers and storage/shares)
4.      Ultimate Edition (In addition to the above allows to choose from 35 different languages and provide with ‘BilLocker’ protection against theft)

A branded desktop or laptop would be bundled with OEM OS and therefore you need to be careful to ask for models which contain the edition you require. For a thorough comparison of the different editions click here. For a more comprehensive comparison of all the existing editions click here.

You might be thinking that I have diverted a bit from the topic. I didn’t. You see, the OS edition and type (32-bit or 64-bit) will greatly impact the amount of RAM you will have to choose. Microsoft recommends a minimum of 1 GB of RAM dedicated for a Windows 7 32-bit OS. On the other hand, it recommends a minimum of 2 GB of RAM dedicated for a Windows 7 64-bit OS. And if it happens that you will be using the professional edition or higher and you want the XP mode feature then you will be recommended to have an additional 1 GB of RAM! For more information on the Windows 7 requirements click here.

So how do all of these building blocks go together? These are the steps:

1.      There is no need to limit yourself with a 32-bit OS unless you have legacy applications that will not work properly on 64-bit OS.
2.      Compare the features of the different editions and go for the least price that will suit your purpose.
3.      Go for a minimum of 3 GB of RAM on a 64-bit OS (I would recommend 4 GB) if you need the PC for basic computing and multimedia – while similar or at least 1 GB less RAM for a 32-bit OS.
4.      Go for a minimum of 4 GB of RAM on a 64-bit OS (I would recommend 6 GB) if you intend using it for intensive multi-tasking applications like programming, less intensive gaming and heavy spreadsheet calculations – while go for 4 GB RAM for a 32-bit OS.
5.      Go for a minimum of 6 GB of RAM on a 64-bit OS (I would recommend even 8 GB if budget permits) if you intend using it for graphical design, heavy 3D gaming/programming, virtualization and real time data processing - 4 GB of RAM for a 32-bit OS.

Graphics Card
The two competing vendors producing graphics cards are NVidia with its GeForce product line and ATI (now acquired by AMD) with its Radeon product line. These vendors produce a range of graphics cards from entry level to high-end products with their own dedicated RAM (so that the RAM in your system is spared for the OS and your operation). For a comprehensive list of products, benchmarks and comparisons click here. The entry level cards provide you with a cheap, yet good 2D or less intensive 3D gaming experience. However, the high-end cards will be your answer for intensive 3D gaming and graphics design. An important note: trading dealers should look for cards with dual, quad or more output to cater for multi monitor setup (multi cards can be combined also to provide for a multi monitor experience).

For normal computing tasks you might not even require to purchase a graphics card – the motherboard’s built in graphics will suffice.

Monitors
Almost every vendor in the computer business also manufactures monitors. The old bulky CRT monitors have been replaced by LCD monitors. Lately, the new technology LED monitors have come to surface which outperforms their predecessors in all aspects of clarity, color and experience. Explaining all the technical details is out of scope; however, an important thing to mention here is that there exists another technology called Edge LED monitors. These are actually LCDs with LED backlit display. They are commonly called LED (thus easily confused with the real LED displays). Edge LED are close in their price ranges to LCD displays, while real LED displays are far too expensive.

Bottom-line it all boils down to what you can afford purchasing and what size best suits you – on the technical aspect, I personally believe that all manufacturers have come close to each other on the view angle, contrast ratio and refresh rate etc… and thus I wouldn’t bother much in thinking which is better -  the least priced with the required technical aspects would best suit me.

Hard Disk
Iomega, Western Digital, Seagate are among the many different manufacturers of hard disks. Hard disks are characterized by their size of storage in GB. So how much storage should one get? If you have read the Windows 7 requirements the maximum amount you will need to reserve would be 35 GB if you opt for a 64-bit OS with XP mode feature. The standards available now in the market range from 320 GB to 512+ GB!!! So you have plenty of space.

With the abundance of external hard disks and flash memories you should not really worry that you might run one day out of space. You can at any time move all your personal files, photos, music and videos to an external drive and free up a lot of space.

Summing up, your purpose of usage will greatly dictate what hardware configuration and OS you will require. I have not dug deep into all the technical aspects of the different hardware for two reasons. First, this article is intended to familiarize the layman with the terminologies and help him pick the right computer. Second, it is out of scope – I can write a complete book speaking of all the technical aspects and the different models of hardware.

3

Purchase Season

On an annual basis, high tech events are organized. During these periods vendors compete and sell their products on sales in addition to various the gifts they give away. In the region where I live, the Gitex event is held annually spanning a week where it draws businesses from all over the world – all competing to get the additional customer they can. I would strongly advise to conduct your procurements during these days where you will get really great offers and gifts.

4

Quality of Service

Although all computers would provide for 1+ years of warranty (assembled non-branded computers would have their assembler guarantee); it is of utmost importance to neglect your loyalty to a certain brand/agency and look for a computer provided by an agency known for quality of service in your region. If your computer goes faulty, you don't want to wait for your computer for say two weeks to get fixed because the agency needs to send it to the service center which happens to be hundreds of miles/kilometers away from you! A good quality of service will include knowledgeable and skilled staff, quick response, fast delivery, available service centers in your area and ability to provide for spare parts easily.

________________________________________
* Note that the term desktop is more appropriate than a PC. The term PC only covers a desktop having the Microsoft’s Windows OS installed not Apple’s Mac; while the term desktop refers to the immobile computer that sits on the desk irrespective of the OS installed. The reason for that dates back to the origination of both operating systems when Apple confined its OS to its own hardware while Microsoft was not bound to a specific hardware and could be installed on any vendor’s hardware starting with IBM then NEC and ending with any assembled PC.
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Author:Ayman Bakr
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