How to Select a PC? – FAQ

FAQs on how to select a IBM compatible personal computer (PC) Version 2.0g

You’ve decided to buy a personal computer now comes the hard part — the biggest question of “Macintosh or PC?”

This is the first question you should have answered by yourself. There has always been and will always be a discussion on this topic. But consider the following general rules, it should give you a better idea.

1. Who will be using the computer? Macintosh was invented later than PCs (IBM compatibles). It still has a great number of loyal users. Why? Because of its graphical user interface (GUI). A Mac is much easier to use than a PC (without Windows). If your future computer is for family entertainment, like a game machine or multimedia center, consider buying a Mac. Normally Macs are easy to use and have better ultimedia capabilities. A Mac is a good starting machine for kids. Check out Apple’s home page for newest models (buyer aware! Do NOT buy a used Mac with the LC040 CPU, like a Mac IIsi, IIci, Quadra 605 etc, they are already obsolete. Get the new PowerMacs instead, like the new Performa 63xx, 64xx or G3). If you are a student in physical science (mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc.), consider buying a PC. It will give you more control of the computing process and learn more about computers. A student in the computer science department should definitely get at least a PC, or probably a Sun workstation. “You can’t learn programming well on a Mac!”, as one of my friend said.

2. What kind of program will be running on this computer? To some people, they are limited to either PC or Mac because they have to use certain programs. One of my friend bought a Pentium PC AND a Mac at home because he uses a program (known as “DNA Strider”, a biogenetic program dealing with DNA sequence) which has only the Mac version, while his son is learning Visual J++ on the PC.

3. What is your budget? Usually a PC is cheaper than a Mac. But this is not the case recently because Apple was trying to get rid of their old inventory of PowerMacs based on the PPC 60X or the G3 CPU. You can get a pretty good deal on these Macs. But as it has always been with Macs, it is almost impossible to upgrade a Mac while upgrading a PC does not take much time or effort. The overall cost of a PC is 0.6-0.8 times of what a comparable equipped Mac is.

OK, now make up your mind and come back here for some suggestions on a PC.

BUY a PC! In time for the holiday season, when many computer purchases are made, here’s a primer for selecting the right PC (you do not have to wait until the holiday season to buy a cheap computer). It is by no means complete; the wise
consumer should research further to make the best choice. And it focuses on IBM-compatible computers, not Macintoshes. But at least it offers an introduction:

The overall philosophy.

In buying a PC, look at not only which uses you have in mind today, but which ones you expect in a year. Translation: Buy the fastest processor, the most disk space and the most RAM (random access memory) that you can afford. Otherwise, you face outgrowing your investment before the ink dries on your check. Computer programmars have a tendency to write programs suitable for the fastest computers only, which will push you into buying a fast computer anyway.

The processor.

The choices are the Pentium chip (never consider a 486), the Pentium MMX chip (Pentium variaiton with multimedia processing abilities), the Pentium II MMX chip, or the Pentium Pro Chip. Complicating the matter are clock speeds, expressed in megahertz (MHz), which determine how fast the computer operates. Middle-of-the-road processors are the Pentium MMX systems, usually available in 166 MHz or 200 MHz speeds. And Pentium IIs come in higher speeds like 266 MHz to 400MHz. Pentium Pro chips can go like 200MHz, but it is mainly used on servers.

Can you tell the difference in speeds? That depends on a number of factors, such as the machine, its configuration and the software program being used. But a good rule of thumb is to reach toward the higher speeds.

A Pentium MMX chip running at 166 MHz should handle complex math operations, desktop publishing and other graphics-intensive programs with ease. But Pentium II MMX systems are about twice as fast as Pentium MMX systems with the same clock speed. And Pentium II MMX prices are rapidly dropping, giving computer users incredible amounts of processing power that will handle all mainstream computing tasks. Pentium II MMX chips offer so many advantages that it’s hard not to choose this option when buying a new computer. The Pentium Pro chip, with its powerful mathematical capabilities, should become a good choice of high-powered users, like programmers and CAD designers.

How Much RAM?

RAM is the memory the computer uses to run software. Not long ago, 4 megabytes (MB) of RAM represented comfortable breathing room for the standard PC. Today, 16 MB is an ideal starting point, and 32 MB is preferred to run the latest graphics-intensive games and other programs. If you want to run Windows 95/98 comfortably, get 32 MB. If you want to run the new upcoming Windows NT 4.0, get at least 64 MB. In a year or two, the requirements may be even bigger. So choose a computer that has sockets available for memory upgrades. In fact, more and more new programs have a lower limit of 32 MB now, especially multimedia programs.

And disk space?

Disk space is the computer’s storage area. The more disk space, the more room to store programs and files. Look at requirements of various programs to get an idea of disk space needs: the new Windows 98 requires about 200 MB for a full installation; a screen saver such as After Dark for Windows takes up 5 MB; and a word processor such as WordPerfect for Windows requires 32 MB for a full installation.

Give yourself room to grow. Think in the 4.0 GB(4000MB) and higher range because the factories are no longer making 1GB or lower hard drivers anymore! Hard-disk space is relatively inexpensive these days. After the recent price cut, 4 GB hard drives have the highest MB/$ ratio. And it is believed that this will stay for a while because the hard drive manufactures do not have any new inventions to increase the capacity of hard drives in the 8 GB, 19 GB range. Also you should remember that the upper limit of an IDE hard drive that a PC can handle is 8 GB (limited by BIOS), which is not limited to SCSI drives.

Another good choice might be a portable drive like IOMEGA’s zip drive, or Syquest’s EZdrive. You can store hundreds MB of data on a single catridge looks like a floppy disk. Personally I prefer the Syquest EZdrive, because they are relatively cheaper and much faster than the zip drive.

If you are looking into portable hard drives or removable hard drives, check out the discussion about PD in the CD-ROM section.

The monitor.

Most computers come packaged with monitors, but in some cases you have the option of choosing your own. Like televisions, monitors are measured diagonally across the screen. The most popular monitors are 14 and 15 inches, and increasingly, 17 inches.

Other variables are sharpness, which is measured by dot pitch (a dot pitch of .28 is nice and crisp, the smaller the better), resolution (800×600 is minimum, while 1280×1024 is on the high end of the scale), interlaced or non-interlaced (the latter flickers less) and the video adapter. Today’s standard video adapters have 4 MB of video RAM, while higher-end ones have 16 MB. If you are a power user want to use more graphics, try the new AGP graphics accelerators. There is a surge in AGP graphics accelerators, wait for a while before you buy because there are not many games which can take advantage of the AGP cards.

Some computers today have a built-in TV card, you can view your favorite TV program in a small windows or full screen. Make sure you get at least a 15 inch monitor if you really want to see something on it.

The printer.

The choices are dot matrix (the least expensive, but the lowest-quality output, which are already gone from the market), ink jet and laser printers. Laser printers are fast and reproduce crisp text and graphics. Ink jet printers can match a laser printer in quality, but are sometimes slower, depending on the model and the computer system. One important consideration: Make sure your ink jet or laser printer has enough memory to reproduce graphics. My home printer, with just 1 MB of memory, goes berserk when I try printing stationery with a logo. Higher-end printers today have 2 MB or more. Sometimes you will encounter something called “GDI printer”, those are printers can only be used under Microsoft Windows (3.1 or 95) or sometimes OS/2 Warp. If you have DOS or other operating systems, they will refuse to work! But they are pretty cheap and give moderate performace under Windows. If you want a color, a color inkjet is the best choice. Lexmark and Epson have cut their prices recently, you can get a nice 360dpi color inkjet printer for only $170, while a GDI laser printer (like NEC SuperScript 610, 660 and Okidata 4W) costs around $279.

Multimedia accessories.

You don’t necessarily need a CD-ROM drive and speakers for personal computing. Then again, four wheels and a board would get you to work. The point is that computing doesn’t really come alive until sound, animation and video come into the picture.

You’ll need a CD-ROM drive, sound card and speakers for multimedia programs. Today’s best CD-ROM drives are 24-speed (the higher the speed, the better, but most of the twelve speeds are just accelerated eight speed). If you want to create your own CD-ROM, you have to buy a CD writer (CD-R). The cost of a CD-R ranges from $299 to $10,000. A cheap one (like Philips CD-2000) will do its job, but slowly, while an expensive one can duplicate several CDs in one hour. If backup data is your purpose, then a CD-R or a PD is your choice. There are a whole variety of PDs on the market now, most of the PDs are able to read normal CD-ROMs and also able to write on special catridges in the 650 MB range. Since each manufacture makes a different catridge, wait several months before you come to a decision.

The sound card should be at least a 16-bit unit (most today are) or a 32-bit (better). Make sure ask the salesman if the card is “duplex”, means you can play and record sound at the same time, which is crucial if you want to “talk” or use the Internet phone on the net. And for speakers, the best judge is your own ears. Listen to them. But make sure the speakers are magnetically shielded to prevent damage to the monitor.

If you have kids, probably you have already bought a joystick. A joystick can cost you from $10 to $300 depending which one you buy. Most of the expensive ones are good enough for flight simulations.

Don’t forget software.

The last major option is software. Many computers come bundled with an assortment of programs, which can save you money.
But look critically at what you really need in software, sometimes bundles seem attractive, but end up gathering dust.

And A Modem or an ISDN Terminal Adapter (TA)!

Internet is coming to everyone’s home now. You need a modem or a TA if you want to connect to the Internet from your home. We usually use “baud rate” to describe the speed of a modem, which is usually 2400, 4800 9600, 14.4k, 28.8k, 33.6k, or 56k. The larger the number, the higher the speed, the better performance on the net. Don’t be fooled by the bundled 14.4k FAX/Modems, they’re old-fashioned and not suitable for today’s use. If you are lucky, you may get a 56k FAX/Voice/Data three-in-one modem, which offers voice mail and/or speaker phone capabilities. But in most of the cases, 33.6k three-in-one modems are more popular because of their cheap prices. Look out for brand names, some brands like U.S. Robitics have very good fame and they deserve that. Sometimes you can get a good deal on OEM modems, like a 33.6k “Winmodem”, which uses the same chipset as the U.S. Robitics.

Regarding the “56K” or “X2” modem – In the real world, all the “56K” modems can only reach 44K maximum because FCC’s regulation on the phone lines. Only buy those that marked with “V.90 standard,” which is the new standard for 56K modems. If you have an old 56K modem, you might be able to upgrade it to the new V.90 standard, just contact the manufacturer for details.

The End 02/12/99

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