Monday, November 30, 2009

Buying a PC: Some Simple Advice

From PC Mag - Simple Advice on Buying A PC by Mike Miller. At this time of year, I am often often asked this question: "Which PC should I buy?" I always respond with the same question: "What are you going to do with it?"

More specifically, here are some questions you should ask if you're buying a PC. The answers can help you find the right PC for you.

Desktop or Laptop? Most consumer PCs these days are laptops or notebook computers, which have the obvious advantage of portability. However, desktop PCs typically give you more performance and more expandability for the money, and often come with larger displays.
I typically recommend desktops to heavy-duty gamers; and to anyone who won't be moving the computer.

But most people, even if they are not planning on taking the computer with them every day, like the flexibility of being able to move their machine around.
Mac or Windows? This sometimes feels like a religious war, but I think it really comes down to which you find more important: simplicity or choice. Macs are simpler, and the iLife suite is better integrated than most of the Windows equivalents for tasks such as working with music, photos, and video. And most Mac users are comfortable without installing antivirus software. But for most classes of machines, Macs are notably more expensive initially.

Windows machines give you many more choices--in machine types, features, price ranges, and vendors. They're the only real choice for PC gamers (you can put Windows on top of a Mac with BootCamp or a third party utility such as Parallels or VMWare Fusion, but you still need to buy Windows separately).

Windows 7 is on almost every consumer PC you'll find now, and it's more elegant and better to work with than its predecessors. I do highly recommend running some security software; at least a free tool like those offered by AVG and Microsoft Security Essentials, or more likely, one of the commercial tools such as Norton Internet Security or 360, McAfee, or Kapersky. But the good news is that these packages are less intrusive these days. (PCMag's security software reviews are a helpful guides.)

Linux is another option, with Ubuntu as the most common desktop distribution these days; but Linux is aimed at technical users who are mostly building their own systems. You're not likely to see a Linux machine if you're looking for a typical consumer PC.

How much performance do you need?: Odds are you fit into one of these categories:
Compute-intensive desktop: This is for people who run high-end content creation applications, from big spreadsheets to content-creation tools such as video-editing and photo-manipulation applications. Here I tend to think you're best off with a high-end Intel processor, typically a quad-core Core i7 or Core i5, paired with a relatively high-end discrete graphics card like the ATI Radeon 4000 series or the Nvidia GT 100 or GT 200 series with 512MB of graphics memory. You'll want at least 4GB of memory, and many of the machines in this category have 6GB or 8GB. You'll also probably want a big hard drive: 1TB drives are easy to come by in this category.

On the Apple side, the Mac Pro is the major entry in this category, though the new quad-core 27-inch iMac is another reasonable choice.

Gaming desktop: For gamers, the graphics card is probably more important than the processor. Look for an ATI Radeon 4000 or 5000 series; or the Nvidia GT200 series, probably with 1GB of graphics memory. On the processor side, I'd go with an AMD Phenom II X4 or an Intel Core i5 or Core i7 processor. Since gamers tend to upgrade more frequently, look at the case design, and make sure it's something with which you'd be comfortable doing an upgrade.
This is mainly a Windows category, though you would could add Windows on top of the quad-core iMac and also come up with a good performer. In this category, you typically find three kinds of vendors for a Windows-based machine--a high-end model from the mainstream vendors, a boutique machine from a company that is focused on gaming desktops such as Alienware or Falcon Northwest, or building it yourself. You'll spend more in the latter two categories, but will often wind up with machines designed for special cooling and overclocking; if you fit this category of gamer, you know it.

Workhorse desktop: This is for t,e mainstream--a machine that does Web browsing, email, basic productivity applications such as word processing, and maybe some light gaming. Typically, this is the province of dual-core processors today; and most current AMD and Intel processors are just fine.

You'll likely see somewhat higher computer performance in the Intel configurations (which tend to cost more and have slightly higher-end other components) and better gaming performance in the AMD configurations. At this point, a 64-bit machine with 4GB of memory is very common; though you can find 32-bit machines with 2GB of memory for very little money.

You'll get better performance with the 4GB machines, especially for things like multitasking.
On the Apple side, your choice here is the iMac, and I'd recommend either the lowest-end 21.5-inch version or the 27-inch version with a better graphics card, if you like a bigger display. I'm not a big fan of the relatively underpowered Mac Mini. If you're buying a desktop, there are two other questions to think about:

Traditional case or all-in-one? A traditional case gives you more options for expandability, because you can easily swap graphics cards, drives, and so o-. I'd probably recommend that to a gamer or to someone doing high-end compute applications, as they are most likely to upgrade. For most mainstream users, the real question comes down to the combination of a small-form-factor PC with an external monitor or an all-in-one computer, where the machine is built into the display.

Small-form-factor machines are less expensive and let you reuse an existing display; all-in-one designs are a bit more elegant, and in the Windows world, you can even choose touch displays. (Apple's only traditional case is on the high-end MacPro, so most buyers will get the all-in-one iMac.)

What size display do you want? This is a crucial question, and one that often gets overlooked. The size of the display impacts a lot of your computing experience. Bigger is often better, but not always: For instance, you really don't want to use a TV as a monitor in most cases, because the resolution is designed for video, not for Web browsing or typing. You want to match the screen resolution with your display size, so you get fonts that are comfortable to read.
In the traditional desktop market, you can attach any size display you want; or a display you already have. If you're buying a separate monitor, today a 23-inch monitor at around $200 may be your best deal if you have the desk space.

No comments: