A Shopper’s Guide to a New Computer

This article is reproduced with the permission of CAmagazine, published by the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, Toronto.

A Shopper’s Guide to a New Computer

By Stephen Rosenhek

Looking to buy a new computer need not be a pain if you first figure out what you need it for

Purchasing a new computer can be a difficult decision. The computer store or online ads will tout the benefits of a 64-bit processor with a dual-, triple- or quad-core processor and a couple gigabytes (GB) of memory. But what does it all mean and what type of computer should you buy?

In its simplest terms, every computer has three components: a central processing unit (CPU), memory and storage capacity. The CPU is the computer’s brain and has the biggest impact on performance. Memory stores transactions performed by the CPU while the computer is running. The operating system and applications reside on physical storage such as a hard drive or DVD disc. Unlike memory, data stored on a hard drive is not lost when the computer shuts down.

There are two primary CPU manufacturers: Intel and AMD. Intel has better brand recognition so it generally charges a small premium over AMD CPUs. Both companies produce high-quality processors. (I use Intel-based computers running Windows XP at work, and an AMD processor using Windows XP at home.)

The most confusing part of buying a computer is the terminology about the CPU. The two biggest sales pitches for CPUs seem to be 64-bit computing and the benefits of multiple-core (multicore) processors.

A bit is the basic unit of information storage and communication in computers. Until recently, most personal computers used a 32-bit architecture. The problem with 32-bit-based computers was that the maximum possible memory was 2 GB. Current computers may require more than 2 GBs of memory so 64-bit computers were needed. All new CPUs made by Intel and AMD are based on a 64-bit architecture and should be backward compatible with existing 32-bit applications.

A multiple-core CPU has two or more processors that work in tandem (think of it as a computer with multiple CPUs working together). AMD and Intel released dual-core CPUs in 2005 and in 2008 introduced several CPUs including triple- and quad-core offerings. The trend will continue into 2009. Why did they start producing multicore processors? CPUs operate at high speeds and generate much heat. A CPU can be destroyed if it overheats. The best way to reduce heat is to slow down the speed at which a CPU operates. By working together, each core need not be as fast as a single core CPU to achieve increased performance benefits.

While it is important to understand about 64-bit computing and multicore processors, neither is a reason to buy a new computer. Be aware that buying the top of the line quad-core CPU using 64-bit technology does not necessarily mean you are buying the right computer. Make sure the computer meets your needs.

We focus on CPUs for Windows-based computers because of the wide range of options available for a Windows-based operating system. Apple manufactures its own computers and provides limited computer options. There are other options such as Linux operating systems.

The key to buying a computer is identifying what you want it to do. Do you want the portability of a laptop? Is a computer needed for e-mail and Web surfing? Is a high-performance computer needed for the home, office or serious computer-game player in the family?

Laptops offer the benefit of using a computer almost anywhere. However, as a frequent traveler can attest, they will only work as long as the battery lasts. CPUs use a lot of power to run and to keep cool. To maximize battery life, AMD and Intel designed CPU architectures to run on lower power.

If battery life is the priority for a laptop purchase, the AMD Turion or the Intel Core 2 Duo on the Intel Centrino architecture should be considered. Both are 64-bit dual-core processors designed to make batteries last longer by reducing CPU power consumption. For example, the Turion can use as little as 31 watts of power. The AMD Athlon X2 (a higher-performance CPU used in laptop and desktop computers) uses about 65 watts of power. High-performance AMD CPUs can use 125 watts of power.

Reduced power generally means reduced performance. If performance is important, a low-power CPU may not be the best option. Keep in mind that the processor is only one aspect of battery life. For example, a laptop with a 17-in. screen will use the battery faster than a 14.1-in. laptop no matter what CPU is used.

A common mistake is spending a lot of money on the latest computer to do basic computing tasks. If e-mail, Web surfing and word processing are the primary uses for a computer, there’s no need to invest big dollars in a performance computer.

The AMD Sempron and Intel Celeron are budget-based CPUs. Both are 64-bit processors but slower than others mentioned. Laptops also come with Sempron and Celeron CPUs. Again, performance would be less than Turion or Core 2 Duo processors.

Businesses that use a variety of applications at one time (e.g., working paper software, tax software or data analysis tools), plan to use the computer as a database server or to manage a network should consider CPUs more powerful than Sempron or Celeron. If you run a number of applications and need a powerful computer, consider a budget computer only as a low-cost secondary computer. If you use a computer on a limited basis — e.g., for e-mail, Web surfing and downloading pictures from a digital camera — an inexpensive personal computer running on a Sempron or Celeron CPU would be sufficient to run existing applications. Tomorrow’s applications will require more speed and power. This means the life of a budget computer is shorter than one based on a performance CPU.

If you run large applications, databases, networks or want to play the latest graphic-intensive games, a performance computer is for you. Both Intel and AMD make CPUs designed to maximize performance. The Phenom is AMD’s latest and most powerful CPU. The Phenom X3 is a triple-core processor, while the X4 is a quad-core processor. Intel’s newest CPUs are the Core 2 Extreme processor and the Core 2 Quad processor. Both AMD and Intel sell midrange CPUs designed for consumers and business users. This includes the AMD Athlon (FX and X2 models), Intel Pentium and several Intel Core 2 CPUs. All offer excellent performance at a reduced price. Cost is a big option for a purchaser to consider.

Deciding which CPU to buy may be the most important and difficult decision to make; however, without sufficient memory a computer will run slowly. If you are considering Windows Vista, the general rule is more memory is better. Most new computers have at least 2 GB of memory, while performance computers often have 3 GB or 4 GB of memory. Adding memory can be a cost-effective way to maximize the performance of any computer, so consider at least 2 GB for your next computer.

If your computer is a year or two old but is running slower than you would like, chances are it has significantly less than 2 GB of memory. Adding memory might be a low-cost solution to increase performance and extend the life of your existing computer.

New computers have large enough hard drives to meet the average user’s needs. If you plan to store a lot of pictures, music or videos, a secondary or external hard drive is relatively inexpensive. For example, a 500 GB external hard drive sells for $100. An external hard drive is also an excellent backup solution.

Intensive computer graphics such as high-end computer games rely on a video card for optimal performance. For intensive graphics, consider a computer with a dedicated video card with its own processor and memory. This increases performance over video cards that are integrated into the computer motherboard and share computer memory. Video cards can become obsolete more quickly than most other parts of a computer, so a dedicated video card can be upgraded to meet future needs. Serious gamers should choose a system with at least 512 MB of dedicated memory.

Most new computers come with DVD players/recorders. Existing DVDs can store up to 8.5 GB of data. Blu-ray players should replace existing DVD players in the next year. Blu-ray discs are designed to play high-definition movies and can hold up to 50 GB of data. Given the expense of Blu-ray recorders at this time, there are cheaper options for data storage and backups (e.g., external hard drive, flash memory such as SD or Compact Flash cards, or traditional DVD discs). Be wary of spending big dollars on a Blu-ray recorder until the price of the recorder and blank discs drop. This may not happen for at least another year.

A buyer should consider other choices. The type of monitor, keyboard, mouse or trackball is a personal choice. The last thing any buyer should consider is the brand. Dell, HP, Lenovo and Acer are the biggest manufacturers by market share. Other manufacturers produce quality computers. The difference in price, even between similarly configured computers, can be large. The price difference is due to brand name and recognition, how the product is marketed and manufacturing quality. Paying more does not mean the computer is better. Review consumer reports, look at reliability and after-sale customer service. This is especially important for laptop computers, as they tend to be more prone to damage and consumers are generally at the mercy of the manufacturer for parts and service.