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Purchasing Computer Equipment
Updated 9-3-08

So you want to buy a new computer. The old one is too slow or you want a second one. What to buy? Should I buy all new or upgrade? These are questions to resolve. The ads can be pretty confusing. Lets do a little analysis. See my hate HP page before choosing a brand.

First, you can buy a pretty decent computer with a monitor for under $500 today. All desktops offer a flat screen LCD. And you have choices now between desktops, All In Ones, tablets and laptops. For $600 to $900, you can get a lot of computer and include a printer and scanner and maybe a camera. So it does not make sense to spend more than $200 on an old one. Even $100 can be wasteful and better applied toward a new purchase. These all have advantages and disadvantages.

Next comes the question of how much computer do I need? I'll list the important features that should be considered.


This is the guts of the computer and does the actual work of computing. The correct term is CPU for Central Processing Unit, but most people refer to the CPU as the case that hold the motherboard and all the parts. Manufacturers & types vary. For most work, there is not much difference. If you are into high end graphics you will be concerned, but then again the serious computer users are not asking my advice. They know what they want. For the rest of us, there are only 2 levels of users.

Level 1 are folks who are doing e-mail, a few letters, keeping financial records, surfing the web, maybe some genealogy and minor jobs like this. For these text based jobs, the cheapest computer you can buy new will do. In many cases a used one (no more than 3 years old) will suffice. If someone gives you one, fine, but don't spend money on a used computer. Even look for "refurbished" for a better price.

Level 2 are folks into pictures and graphics on an amateur level. Family photos scanned from pictures or taken with a digital camera or downloaded off the web. Pictures and graphics are slow on the lowest level computer. A mid level computer will be more enjoyable. Although even the slowest processors in today's computers (2016) are fast enough for any graphic work a beginner will do.

Processor manufacturers are Intel, AMD and VIA. Intel makes the Pentium and Celeron. AMD makes a Duron and Athalon. Both keep adding new models. Via bought the Cyrix name and apparently has not made them since the 433Mhz. Via now makes a Via C3, but I haven't seen it in any machines. 2016 update- check out Via. They now appear to be for industial use only. All seem to be designing new names frequently. For the level 1 and 2 users described above, it really does not matter which brand you buy. Intel has been the top brand to most people for some time, but AMD has jockeyed with them for the top position for a few years. The only people it matters to are the ones who play video games.

Processor speeds vary all over the place with prices that go accordingly. Again for the level 1 and 2 buyer, you probably will never notice the difference, so the slowest one will function just fine. I was running older computers for a long time. I just added lots of RAM and bigger hard drives and would have been better off with a new machine for what I spent. I finally bit the bullet and replaced all my machines with better ones. I just recently upgraded my main business machines to SSD drives providing screaming performance.


This stands for Random Access Memory, but what it really represents is workspace. The bigger it is, the more work you can do. Most entry level computers come with at least 4GB of RAM, but I would recommend 4to 8 GB. You might not need it now, but as your computer needs change, you will find it helpful and right now, it is cheap. If you get a new machine now, it will have Windows 10 and it needs 4 GB to run decently and 8 GB to run well. I run a minimum of 4 GB on all my machines and 8 GB on our business machines.

Hard Drive

The hard drive is where your programs and files are stored. We have always said, "This is so big, I'll never fill it up" as sizes grew from very small to the huge ones we have today. There is a saying that we fill the available space. Sizes today vary from around 500 GB to 6000 GB. (1000 GB = 1 Terrabyte or TB) For most users in levels 1 and 2, 500 is adequate, so shop price. If you want to store photos, go up to 1 TB minimum. Look for the least expensive model. Prices are affected by volume sold, not necessarily by size.

These are mostly being replaced by Jump Drives in 2016.

CD = Compact Disk (player only)
CD-R = Compact Disk recordable (one time permanent)
CD-RW = Compact Disk recordable and re-recordable
DVD = Digital Versatile Disk
or Digital Video Disk (player only)
DVD±RW recorders are available and prices are dropping fast. As of Aug 2008, there are still multiple formats. Be sure to study this factor carefully. You may spend a couple of hundred and not get a DVD writer that can make DVD's that will play on your TV system.
Combo drives can be confusing. Be sure to read the fine print. You may think you have a drive that does 2 or more features until you check carefully. Look for terms like writer/reader & format type.

Always buy from a store that allows returns if you don't like what you get. Many stores will not accept open boxes or may charge a restocking fee. Don't ASSUME anything. Costco is the best for unquestioned returns. Best Buy has a different policy for returning computer equipment than for other products. I now buy any item I can from Walmart. They allow returns for any reason.

Price follows as features increase, but the variance is small. New machines now have DVD wrtiters.
If you can get 2 DVDs it is easier to make copies. The DVDs will read & make both CDs & DVDs.

Other Drives

Other drives may be available; most common is the Iomega Zip drive. Iomega just added a new Zip drive to the market that holds 750 MB which competes with a CD-R nicely. These perform like a second hard drive for copying and backing up files. Iomega (maker of Zip drives) has some new products, so look at the stores or ads. 2008 - this is history.
Another drive which has not gained wide popularity is the Super Disk. It works like a floppy and will read regular floppies, but will also accept a Super Floppy that holds 120 MB or the equal of about 83 floppies. I have one computer with it and just got a Panasonic digital camera that uses the Super Disks. I can put about 1500 photos in low resolution on one disk. At the highest resolution, I can still get almost 500 shots and I carry a dozen disks in the case. I haven't even filled the first disk yet. I checked recently & they have stopped manufacturing them due to poor sales. Maybe they will become museum pieces soon. 2008 also history

A recent addition to drive storage is the USB Flashdrive. Click here to see a description. We are also seeing a lot of external USB and Firewire hard drives and external CD writers and DVD writers that make a new world of backup. Bluetooth wireless is another coming format. USB Flash drives & USB external hard drives are becoming the inexpensive way to do copying & backup as of 2008.

Miscellaneous parts

All systems today come with the following parts:

Video card: There are very cheap ones designed into the motherboard and you can spend up to $400 or more for special cards with tons of independent memory, but again not important to the casual user. (I just saw one at almost $1000!)

Sound card & speakers: All sound cards sound good to all but the very picky. Most are integrated on the motherboard and work well for most applications. The speakers do make a difference so buy a good set. A cheap set is $5, a good set can run from $40 to $400, so the less expensive ones do not add much to the cost of a system. Have a music CD played on the system you are considering and listen to the quality. You can add a higher quality set later. Just buy them and plug it in. If surround sound interests you, there are 4 and 5 speaker systems available. These surround sound systems do require a different sound card, so have a shop install it. Disabling the on-board sound card can be tricky. Be sure you have the original manual for instructions.

Keyboard and mouse: Any kind will do. Lots of gimmicks out there. The nicest ones now are cordless and optical, and may have ergonomic shapes and connect with USB, but any kind works. Many of my clients and students have keyboards with Internet keys on them and very few even use them.

Optional parts:

Telephone Modem: All are 56K, the largest size available. Brands vary but not really important to the casual user. New computers do not have them anymore. If you plan to use your computer for faxing, you must have a 56K telephone modem which is not the same as a broadband modem. You can add a USB external for under $20. 2019 update. You can fax for free on the web. Just Google free fax.

Cable/DSL Modem: With the increase of Internet connections with broadband, this is a necessary item. You can buy it or rent it from the ISP or have it included when you buy a system. I have seen a few systems with them built in. We may see some integrated into the motherboard soon. As of 2008, most providers now supply the modem as a part of your service.

Network card (NIC): Used for cable modem and DSL high speed Internet access and connecting 2 or more computers together. Included on almost all new computers today. Don't leave the store without it. If you don't want it today, you will soon.

Monitor: Opt for a large LCD if possible. Only adds a few bucks to the purchase and worth the cost. Glass CRTs are really history in 2008. They still work but the cost of LCDs is so low and such space savers it is the only way to go. I now have 22 inch LCDs at home and at work.

Printer: My personal preference is any HP model. I have owned many brands and compared all the brands owned by my clients and the HP has them all beat. The cartridges last longer, don't dry up and their printers are workhorses. The color quality is better also. ( I Don't care what Canon says. I ran the same photo on multiple printer brands and the HP beat them all) Just don't expect service from any of them- it stinks!

2008 update. I now have Brother printers at home and work & very happy with them. They have individual color cartidges. I was having trouble with the USB connection on my older HP. The brother's work fine. But they have had a few issues that our HPs never have. BTW DO NOT USE OFF BRAND OR REFILL CARTRIDGES. Besides voiding the warranty, they can & do mess up the printer.

You can get a USB connection or wireless. USB is more relaible. All new computers have USB. Some new technology now involves Firewire and Bluetooth for even faster and/or wireless connections. Look for these innovations as time passes. Most printers today have network connections and can be used on any computer in your network.

All-In-One: I USED to say: "This group of machines combine a fax, printer, scanner and copier all in one machine.

BTW our Brother scanners lose the 1/4 inch at the edges.
HPs scan to the edge.

Scanner: You can get a scanner as part of an all in one as noted above or get a stand alone flatbed if you have space for it. New ones have nice features for scanning to PDF and scanning negatives, etc.

Cameras: There are 2 basic types of digital cameras today. A small one that sits on your monitor for video chat and the portable camera that you take photos with and transfer the photos into your computer. For the monitor type, any kind will do. For the portable ones, I have a lot of comments. The advantage of all digital cameras is the ability to view the shots immediately and delete undesirable ones and reshoot them if possible. See the comments above on my Panasonic under Other Drives. Most laptops, tablets and smart phones now have cameras built in.

Most cameras today use a memory card to store pictures. Shop price to get the features you need.

If you have any questions, feel free to E-Mail me using the link below.


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