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Jan's Computer Basics:

On Your Own: Hardware

You have carefully considered what tasks you want your computer system to handle and what software you'll need for these tasks. You've thought about the total cost of computer ownership and have a good idea of what you can spend. Now you are ready to decide on what hardware to buy. Your first decision is whether you need a desktop computer or will a mobile device like a tablet or smart phone handle the tasks you will need it to perform.

Priorities listSo you won't forget something important, make a list of all the things you require of your new system and set priorities. (We can rarely afford all we want or even need!) Use one color for characteristics that are absolutely required and a different one for things that are just highly desirable.

Best Guess Recommendations: Desktop PC

Not knowing what you actually need your computer to do, I can only make my Best Guess. Below is a table of my current recommendations for purchasing a PC for home use, for what it's worth. (I don't have much experience with Apple products, so I can't judge how useful this list might be for purchasing a Mac.) Use this to evaluate a computer system package. You can get some real bargains if your needs can be satisfied with a system that meets just the minimums.
Please remember that these recommendations may not suit your circumstances well at all. Most home computers are used for word processing, games, and accessing the Internet. Games stretch the capacity of a computer more than anything else! So keeping well in mind what you expect to use your computer for, choose a system and components that should be much, much more than necessary. In a year or so you will probably find that you need all the capacity you've got and are wishing for more.
Don't forget the other considerations, like availability and cost of replacement parts and repair arrangements. A great price for a system that meets your criteria perfectly won't make you happy if you can't get something fixed or replaced.
In some browsers you can print just the table: drag through the table to select it all and then in the Print dialog choose Print selection.

Best Guess Recommendations  (Home Use) - Feb. 2018
Buying a Computer
What Thoughts about choices

Desktop or Laptop or Tablet

It depends on how you plan to use the computer. Do you actually NEED to take it with you? Would a tablet do enough instead? How about a 2-in-1 device like Surface Pro or Lenovo Yoga?

A laptop will cost more for the same features than a desktop. A laptop is not easy to upgrade with updated parts. A tablet's hardware is not designed to be upgraded at all.

If you decide a laptop is what you need, get as much capacity and battery life as you can but be careful about the weight. You will not enjoy hauling around a laptop that strains your back!

A tablet or smart phone usually does not have a keyboard. Will you be typing a lot? Will an on-screen keyboard be comfortable enough? Can you afford to buy a case for a tablet that includes a keyboard? Will the extra weight be a problem?

The lighter and thinner the device, the higher the cost for the same speed or storage capacity!

Processor minimum: Pentium 5 (desktop or laptop)
Clock speed minimum: 1 GHz (GHz = gigahertz = 1000 MHz)
better: 2+ GHz
RAM (memory) minimum: 2 GB (GB = gigabytes= 1000 megabytes)
better: 4 GB
great: 8 GB
Slots and Bays

Desktop: minimum= 3 open slots and 1 open bay

Other computer sizes: does not apply

Storage disk: size

minimum: 250 GB
better: 500 GB
great: 1 TB ( TB = terabyte = 1000 gigabytes)

A tablet may not need this much storage!

Storage disk: type

Hard Disk Drive or Solid State Drive (SSD)

Standard hard disks use spinning metal platters to record data magnetically.
New solid state drives use flash drive technology to store data electronically.

Solid state drive (SSD): No moving parts to break! Faster access to data.
   But... No warning before drive failure. Limited (but large) number of writes to the drive.
Hard disk drive (HDD): Usually shows symptoms of upcoming drive failure. No limit on number of writes to the disk.
   But... Mechanical parts will wear out. Slower data access. Data can (rarely) corrupt from magnetic interference.

Monitor size minimum: 15" , able to display 1024 x 768 resolution in 16-bit color.
better: 17"
great: 19" to 27", if you have the room on the desk! Price is really down. Get a flat panel monitor. The old CRT type (like an old TV screen) are way out of date.
Video card minimum: video integrated with the motherboard
better: PCI card with 64 MB
3D card with 64+ MB onboard memory
Operating System Win10, pre-installed

Be aware that old software may not run on new operating systems. There are some awkward ways around this if it is really important.

Older Windows versions are no longer going to get security updates. WinXP reached its end-of-life date of April 2014. Windows 7 is now on extended support (only security updates) until Jan. 14, 2020.

Software minimum: anti-virus, word processing, Chrome browser
better: major anti-virus program, an office suite like Microsoft Office or access to an online suite that includes word processing, spreadsheet, database, etc.
pre-loaded with the system - the software you need specifically, with install disks provided.(Installation disks are getting rare.)

Be aware that low end computers may come with a trial version of Microsoft Office installed, which will expire.


highly recommended: drive that reads DVDs since nearly all software is now installed from a DVD or by download.
best: DVD-RW drive (writes as well as reads), but there are various formats available that are not compatible with each other. DVD disks hold more but cost more than CDs. Getting to be standard on new computers.

If you need to save data for the long haul, get a drive that can write M-discs.

Laptops may not have a DVD drive. Tablets don't have DVD drives.

Sound card Sound Blaster or compatible; may be part of DVD-ROM package along with speakers
Printer minimum: color ink jet, at least 20 pages per minute, one cartridge with 3 colors in it
better: black and white laser for best print quality; color ink jet with separate ink cartridges for each color.
best: Color laser- Prices are not so bad now but toner is expensive. Toner cartridge does not dry out as fast as ink cartridges for an ink jet printer.
Removable disks

Two or more USB flash drives of at least 1 GB for normal file transfers and small backups. At least 32 GB for backups or creating a restore copy of your operating system.

A new computer will have at least 2 USB ports on the back and 2 on the front. USB 3.0 is the current, fastest type but a new computer may have a mix of 3.0 and 2.0 ports. Know which ones are which!

UPS minimum: surge protection strip or console with phone jack
better: UPS with phone jack and 5 - 10 minute backup power
best= includes software to auto-close and shut down and longer backup run time
Modem minimum: 56.6 Kbps speed (Don't settle for this!)
better: ISDN, or ADSL (also called just DSL)
fastest: cable modem

600 dpi or better; 24-bit color or better; full page scanner; single-pass

An All-In-One printer usually will print, copy, and scan. Some do not so be careful.

Where to Buy?

One major consideration about what computer system to buy is where to buy it. There are a number of sources, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Chain computer store

Big computer store

Advantages: Knowledgeable staff can advise you
Easy to exchange
Repair what they sell
Large stock on hand
Prices usually OK.
National brands
Help with installation/configuration problems close at hand
Disadvantages: Repair shops vary in quality
Staff may not be well-trained if turnover is high
High minimum charge to work on your computer
May charge for any configuration assistance

Small computer shop

Small computer shop

Advantages: Knowledgeable about their own stock
More personal
More flexible about pricing
Clones - computers put together from off-the-shelf parts, making replacement parts and repairs easier.
Help with installation/configuration close at hand
Disadvantages: Little stock on hand. Must order and put it together.
Pricing tends to be somewhat higher


Direct from factory

Advantages: Prices may be lower
Can order non-standard components
Warranty comes from manufacturer and not store
Disadvantages: Must order and wait
Exchanges for broken parts difficult
Harder to get help for installation/configuration problems
Parts may be more expensive than for a clone.



Advantages: Lower prices!
Most accept returns for any reason
Disadvantages: Must order and wait.
Must ship to return broken or unsatisfactory order
No assistance for installation/configuration

Deciding where to buy a system:

  1. Best price: Order from a catalog, if you are knowledgeable about what you want and can tolerate the shipping waits.
  2. Exactly right hardware: Buy from a local computer shop to put together just the right system from components.
  3. Local help: If you are new to computers, buy from a local store where you can get assistance and advice and can return unsatisfactory merchandise. A helpful, local shop is more important than a somewhat lower price.

Don't forget to think carefully about:

  1. Price: Be sure you are not comparing apples to oranges.
  2. Possible expenses: Shipping returns and technical assistance.