How to Buy a Computer

What's the best computer? Everyone knows that computers are becoming faster and cheaper at an accelerating rate. But what does this mean to someone shopping for a new computer? For one, it means that the terminology has changed and will continue to change. Someone who understood computers a year ago might be lost today. It also means that even if you have modest software needs, you may be forced to upgrade just to be able to run the newer software packages.

Once you've decided to buy a new computer, the following four-step process is one way to ensure you buy the right one:

  1. Determine the type of computer you need
    • How will you use the computer? Is the computer for home, home office, business, or graphics use? The ideal type of computer varies by how it will be used.
  2. Determine the attributes you want on your new computer
    • How long will you keep the computer? - You may be fine with a computer that has a slower CPU if you plan to replace your computer in 2 to 3 years or if you are willing to swap out the motherboard when it becomes obsolete.
    • What are your multimedia requirements?
    • What is your level of computer knowledge / technical interest / patience level? - If you are relatively inexperienced or don't want to spend a lot of time fiddling with the computer, consider those manufacturers with strong ratings in customer support and technical assistance.
  3. Choose a specific make & model (or narrow the list down to 2 or 3)
    • Apply your decisions on the type of computer and attributes to those available for sale.
  4. Find the best retailer and buy your computer
    • Consider both online and offline retailer to get the product and service that best fits your needs.


  1. Home Systems - typically are used to surf the internet, perform word processing, create simple spreadsheet, handle personal finance, run educational software and play basic games.
  2. Home Office Systems - have all the uses of home systems plus require the ability to handle more sophisticated spreadsheet analysis, accounting software, sale management systems, database programs, desktop publishing, and graphics. System configurations would be similar to the Home Systems with faster CPUs.
  3. Business Systems - Business systems typically have faster CPUS, more disk space, more memory, a network card, and business software (e.g. a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and a desktop publishing application).
  4. High-End Graphics Systems - are geared towards users with intensive multimedia needs, such as a sophisticated game user, or those who need to create high-definition digital photos, 3D graphics, video, or audio. These machines are typically the fastest machines available to the public, with lots of memory, large disk drives, DVD players, high end graphics accelerator cards with video memory, and sophisticated audio cards.


  • Central Processing Unit (CPU) - the brain of the computer. Two major determinate of the power of the computer are: type of CPU, and clock speed. Types of CPUs are Pentium, Celeron, Pentium III, Pentium III Coppermine, etc. Manufacturers include Cyrex, AMD, and Intel. The CPU sits on the motherboard.
  • CD/ DVD - a storage device that can read DVD video disks, as well as CD audio and software.
  • Expansion slots - an opening in the motherboard for additional cards PCI, AGP, or ISA connections. Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) is an interface that provides quick communication with the CPU and plug-and-play capability. Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) is a high speed port designed for 3D graphics and has the ability to use main memory for graphics. Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) is a standard interface that is not as fast as PCI or USB.
  • Monitor - the display for the computer.
  • Network interface card (NIC) - an expansion card that allows connection to local networks (LANs). The most common type of protocol is ethernet.
  • Memory - a working storage area for data such as dynamic random access memory (DRAM). Common types of memory include: DIMM, SDRAM, RDRAM, and SGRAM. Dual in-line memory (DIMM) is a type of memory card that support 64-bit and higher buses and has 168 pins. Synchronous dynamic random access memory (SDRAM) is a memory type that is faster than DRAM by timing the memory in synch with the CPU. Rambus dynamic random access memory (RDRAM) is a new type of memory that is faster than conventional memory and is expected to replace SDRAM. Synchronous graphics random access memory (SGRAM) is a special type of DRAM used by graphics accelerators and video adapters.
  • Ports - connectors to external devices. Examples include serial, parallel and USB. USB is expected to replace serial and parallel. Most new computers have 2 USB ports.
  • Sound Card - an expansion card that provides audio capabilities
  • Graphics Accelerator - a video card with its own processor designed to handle high end graphics.
  • Service and Technical Support - the type of support provided by the manufacturer or retailer provide after the sale. Try calling the telephone support number to test how long you are put on hold. Are there higher levels of support that can be purchased? If something goes wrong with the computer, where can it be taken for service?
  • Diskette Drive / Floppy Drives - a once standard storage interface, diskette drives are typically no longer part of standard systems.

Specific make and models

For comparisons of specific models, we recommend visiting your local convenience store or book store. At any given time there are usually two or three magazines with ratings for the top computer systems. With the speed of innovation in processing power anything published becomes out of date within a few months.