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 BUYING A COMPUTER

Advice Directory  

Computer Advice


 

What kind of computer do I need?


Top of the Computer Advice page

 

The computer you need depends upon the tasks you expect to use it for. This in turn will affect the price you would expect to pay for it. A good way to begin is to list the essential tasks you will want to do on your computer. Is playing the latest 3D action games a priority, or do you only want to type letters and keep your accounts? Your priorities could make a big difference to the type of computer and extra peripherals (printer, scanner, speakers, etc) that you need to buy. As well as your "essential" list, it is also a good idea to make a secondary "possible" list of non-essential - but desirable - computer activities.

 

When you have a good idea of what you want to do with your computer, you will be in a better position to decide what hardware and software you will need for the job. This will also need to be balanced against your available budget. To get the best possible deal, it helps to learn about some of the technicalities yourself rather than to rely solely upon a computer salesman's recommendations.

 

Processor

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is the "brains" of your computer and controls the speed at which it processes information. In terms of computing power, it is the most important element of a computer system. Processing speed is measured in megahertz (MHz) and gigahertz (GHz, or 1,000MHz). The higher the number, the faster the PC.

 

Since 2005, "dual-core" processors have become common, where two physical processors are integrated into a single physical chip so that two "threads" of data can be processed simultaneously for faster multi-tasking. Currently, dual-core processors are being phased out in favour of faster "quad-core" processors.

 

The two main manufacturers of processors are Intel and AMD. Intel processors range from the budget single-core Celeron to the mid-range Core 2 Quad, to the Core i7 Extreme for high performance. AMD processors range from the entry-level Sempron, to the mid-range Athlon 64 X2, to the Phenom II X4 at the top of the range.

 

Memory

The memory (RAM or Random Access Memory) is where your computer stores the information it is currently working on. The more memory in your computer, the faster it will run. RAM was once measured in megabytes (MB) but is increasingly measured in gigabytes (1GB = 1,000MB) as computers become more powerful to meet the demands of modern software.

 

A reasonable starting spec for the Windows XP operating system is 512MB. This is sufficient for office tasks and surfing the internet, but if you intend to use graphics-intensive programs or to play 3D games, you should consider increasing this to 1 or 2GB. Windows Vista users will require a minimum of 2GB and preferably 4GB of RAM.

 

Hard Drive

Your hard drive is where your PC stores your work, files and programs. Hard drive space is measured in gigabytes (GB). When considering a hard drive size, bigger is definitely better. While 80GB is sufficient for office tasks, you will need more capacity if you intend to store large amounts of data, such as digital images and multimedia files, or to install a lot of games. Hard drives of between 200GB and 500GB are now standard and reasonably cheap. High-end systems may offer up to 1TB (1 terabyte or 1,000GB) but at a premium price.

 

Recommended Spec for standard desktop PC:

 

Processor:

Intel Core2 Duo Processor 2.5 GHz or Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 4000+

Memory:

2GB DDR2

Hard Disk:

300 GB

Optical Drive:

16X Max DVD+/-RW Combination Drive with double layer write capability

Graphics:

256MB or integrated graphics card

Sound:

Inter grated soundcard and stereo speakers

Monitor:

19" TFT/LCD monitor with DVI and VGA inputs

Connectors:

Built in ethernet, at least 4 USB2 ports

Operating System:

Windows XP Home or Vista Home if XP is not an option.


Refurbished or entry-level budget PCs can be purchased for under £200. The standard specifications to run everyday, multimedia software or for playing DVD movies and surfing the internet will currently cost around £500. For a system capable of running the latest 3D games, graphics rendering, video editing etc, you will need a higher spec system with a faster processor and/or more RAM, 512MB graphics card and a larger hard drive.


Desirable extras might include a TV card, which allows you to watch TV on your monitor, to record programs to your hard drive and to capture analogue video from a camcorder.

Where to Buy?


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When you have a fair idea of the specification you require, your next hurdle is to decide which retail outlet is best for you. The three main sellers of computer equipment are: the big stores like PCWorld, Currys, Dixons, etc (and even the larger supermarkets now come into this category); specialist privately-owned computer shops; mail order suppliers like Gateway and Simply Computers. (Other outlets, such as auctions and the second-hand market, are not recommended unless you really know what you're doing!)

 

High Street computer stores

The advantages of buying from a store like PCWorld or Dixons include being able to try out various computers and see them in action before parting with your money. If you get your purchase home and decide that you don't like it after all, you can usually take it back for a full refund (but do read the small print first). Store-bought computers usually come complete with operating system, some bundled software and setup guides; various easy payment terms should also be available.

 

Against this, you should be aware that buying from a store is probably going to be more expensive than buying a similar system from a mail order outlet. You may not be able to personalise your computer to your exact requirements. You should also be aware that computer store staff are unlikely to give you the best advice or information. Telephone helplines for these stores are sometimes on premium rate numbers, so after- sales support could work out very expensive.

 

From your local private computer shop

Here you are likely to get a more personal service, and a computer built to your exact specifications. You can expect to get better advice than from the big outlets and usually a chance to speak with the person who is building your computer and raise any questions you have. Should you need to take your computer back for whatever reason, a local shop is obviously a lot more convenient.

 

Disadvantages of the local shop are that you are unlikely to get a very competitive price and are unlikely to get deferred payment options. Although you can expect to get warranty guarantees, these will be lost if the shop should unfortunately close. Quality of components may also be an issue that you want to look at closely - in the long run, it is often worth paying a little more for a better quality essential component. Finally you are are unlikely to get all the setup guides and software bundles that you could expect from the big stores or from mail order outlets.

 

Online & Mail order

Buying mail order is usually the way to get the most competitive prices and payments can usually be spread. You can usually have your system built to your exact specification and staff are likely to be better at answering technical questions than in the big stores. You can also expect your system to come complete with an operating system, some bundled software and setup guides.

 

It is also worth noting that mail order companies change their prices and specifications regularly, so prices may fluctuate from week to week. It's a complex pricing policy and they have experts working out just how much the market will be willing to pay for a specific model. Wrongfoot them and you could get yourself a better deal than the average customer.

 

On the other hand, mail order delivery may take a while and you will certainly need to have a clear understanding of what after-sales support you are untitled to. Telephone helplines may be on a premium rate phone number so that even a simple query could set you back £20-30. Warranties may be Return to Base, which means that you may have to pay carriage costs if your computer has to be returned for repairs. You might want to check that you have the option of an "On-site" warranty rather than RTB. Contrary to popular belief, if you don't like your computer you can't just return it for a full refund.

 

Buying a PC - the pitfalls


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Some computers have "proprietary" parts, which means that some or all of its components (motherboard, hard drive, memory, etc) are specifically made for that model or brand of computer. If a proprietary component needs replacing or upgrading later on, it will only be possible to buy from the company which made the original part. This is sure to be far more expensive than the equivalent non-proprietory component. So make sure that none of the parts in your computer are proprietory or specific to one particular company.

 

Always make sure you are clear on the exact terms of warranties and the after-sales support you can expect. Be aware of the difference between a "return-to-base" warranty, where you will be expected to pay the costs of returning your computer to the factory for repairs, and an "onsite" warranty, where an engineer will carry out repairs on your premises.

 

A PC cannot run without an operating system. This is usually a version of Windows. Despite what advertisements may claim, your operating system is unlikely to come "free" with your new computer. The cost will be factored into the overall price. You should also insist that you receive a complete Windows installation CD rather than a "restore" CD that only allows you to reset your computer to the original factory settings rather than giving you a fully licensed copy of Windows. You will have to pay for the full operating system, but it is an important long-term investment.

 

The "free printer", or "free scanner" offered with your computer will almost certainly be costed into the overall price you pay. If you don't want these items, or would prefer to look for an alternative model later on, don't pay for them. "Free" software bundles are also frequently offered as inducements. At first glance these may appear to be good value. On closer inspection, you may find that you are not getting the full games or programs offered, but demos or "lite" versions which require that you pay extra to receive the full version. Your "free software bundle" is also likely to contain titles that are commercial failures sold cheaply to the computer vendor to "give away" as an inducement with the PC.


If you are buying with a credit agreement be sure to know when repayments are due and how much interest you have to pay. Be careful of "zero interest" and "pay later" deals - failure to pay may incur higher interest charges.


What if things go wrong?


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If goods do not arrive or are faulty, start with a complaint to your supplier. If it isn't resolved promptly write to the company's customer service department detailing to whom you have spoken. Keep a record of all correspondence and conversations with the supplier until the matter is resolved. If you do not reach a satisfactory conclusion with the company then write a follow up letter stating your rights under consumer law. You can find out more information about your rights here: OFT/Complaints-Advice

 

 

Resources


Top of the Computer Advice page

 

UKorbit Computers page

 

Here are some websites to help you with technical information:

http://computer.howstuffworks.com/

 

http://compreviews.about.com/cs/pchardwarebasics/

 

http://www.pctechguide.com/

 

http://www.techweb.com/encyclopedia/

 

http://whatis.techtarget.com/


 

Visit UKOrbit's Consumer & Advice Centre for further help and information.

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