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The ultimate guide to buying a new computer

Being a computer technician, there one question that I seem to get asked more than any other "I am looking for a new computer, what do you recommend?". I then spend several minutes (sometimes hours) discussing the various computer configurations. So here is a list of things to look for when buying a new computer.

When it comes to computers, you can get them in hundreds of different configurations. Should you get a laptop or a desktop? Or maybe an all-in-one? These are some of the questions you have to ask yourself when you are looking a getting a new computer.

So I thought I would take the time and share with you what I usually tell my customers. So grab something to drink and a pen and paper to take notes. This might be a long article.

Computer: Should I get a laptop, desktop, or all-in-one?

This question is quickly answered with the Form Follows Function principle. If you need to use your computer in different locations, you will need to get a laptop. If you are going to use your computer in just one place, then a desktop or all-in-one should fill the bill.

Laptops

If you are thinking about getting a laptop computer, there are a few things to keep in mind. If you take a few precautions with your laptop, it can last a long time. I have a netbook that is over ten (10) years old and still looks and runs like its brand new.

Since laptops are portable, they tend to get damaged more often than a desktop or all-in-one computer. The most common damage I see is liquid spills. Once liquid gets into a laptop, it will run where ever gravity will take it.

And no matter how well you dry it out, there will eventually be some damage that appears. And I am just talking about water here as other liquids, such as wine or juice, contain sugars and acids.

I once had a laptop that had wine spilled on it. When I started to disassemble it, I noticed that the flat cables used to connect the different components inside of the laptop had started to deteriorate. The wires were dissolving from the acidity in the wine.

Desktops

Desktop computers have been the mainstay of the computer form for decades, and they are the preferred style of a computer for business use. With external connections for USB devices, monitors, wired networking, and audio, the configurations are kind of endless.

But desktop computers come in different forms, and they are not all created equal. For example, standard ATX, Mini-ATX, and ITX (motherboard form factor) based desktop computers use IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) form standard for computer components.

What this means is that internal components such as power supplies, hard drives, graphic cards, and memory modules are all the same for each of these styles of the desktop computer.

And then there is the SSF (Small Form Factor) desktop computer. These use the same style of memory modules as standard desktop systems but use low-profile expansion cards, like graphics cards.

SSF systems also use smaller, and lower output power supplies, usually explicitly made to the specifications of the manufacturer of the computer. And the lower output power supplies can be an issue when upgrading components.

For example, a customer wanted to upgrade the memory and graphics card in an SSF computer, but it only had a 250-watt power supply. Since everything inside of a computer takes wattage, including memory, I ended up having to find a low-profile graphics card that used under 30 watts of power.

But some desktop computers do have a downside, and that is the size of the case. Gaming computers usually have huge cases so that they can accommodate cooling fans and liquid CPU coolers. High power systems generate a relatively large amount of heat.

And of course, if you are going to have multiple monitors, those will take up a good amount of space too. I built a system for a customer that had six (6) monitors, two rows of three. With the desktop computer, keyboard, and mouse, the whole system ended up being almost eight (8) feet wide.

All-in-one

This style of computer is excellent for people that do not have the room for separate components (a computer and monitor). You can get a pretty good size screen and all of the connections (USB ports, wired network port, and sometimes an external monitor port).

Now all-in-one computers come with and without touch screen function. When it comes to touch screens, you have to remember that you will be extending your arm out to use it.

This can make your shoulder hurt after an extended amount of time using it. You have to ask yourself if it is worth the additional cost to get the touch screen feature.

There is also a little known secret about all-in-one computers that nobody tells you about; they are hybrid systems. Quite simply, they are a combination of laptop and desktop components.

I have worked on quite a few all-in-one computers and have found some will use laptop-style memory & drives, and some will use desktop-style memory and drives and some a combination of both.

And heaven forbid you have to replace the screen in an all-in-one computer. Most of the time, you have to completely disassemble them to get the exact model number of the display.

The last all-in-one computer that I worked on had six (6) different possible model numbers for the replacement display. It depended on what company had supplied the screen for the system when it was built.

Drive(s): HDD, SSHD, or SSD?

When you are shopping for a new computer, a lot of times, the description you get from the seller lacks some specific details. Sure they will tell you how much storage the machine has, but do they tell you what kind of drive the storage is?

For low priced computers, sellers will usually just say something like 'XXXGB's of storage can hold a gazillion photos'. It is only when you get into the mid to upper price range do sellers start to tell you what kind of storage a computer has (HDD, SSD, etc.). So the first thing I want to do is explain the different types of drives.

HDD (Hard Disk Drive)

HDD's offer larger capacity at a lower cost, but have a slower read/write speed. HDD's are perfect for the average computer user that just wants to surf the web, check e-mail, and store some photos from their phone. They come in two (2) different forms, 2.5" and 3.5", and connect to the computer using a SATA (Serial AT Attachment) interface, which determines the input/output speed. The upside to HDD's is that when they start to fail, you usually get some type of warning and have time to transfer/recover data from them.

SSHD (Solid State Hybrid Drive)

SSHD's offer the capacity of HDD's with faster read / write speed. As the name implies, these drives are hybrid, which means they are a combination of spinning disk(s) and flash memory. The memory acts as a cache for the data stored on the disk(s). As you use these drives, they learn where the most frequently used data is stored and can access it more quickly than a standard HDD. SSHD's also come in two (2) different forms, 2.5" and 3.5", and connect to the computer using a SATA interface. The down-side of SSHD's is that when they fail, it is usually the memory portion of the drive that dies. This makes transferring/recovering the data stored on it a little harder, but not impossible.

SSD (Solid State Drive)

SSD's offer extremely fast read/write speeds but can be on the expensive side for larger capacities. SSD's are a collection of flash memory chips and make no noise when running. They are also more resistant to shock and are a better choice for laptop computers. SSD's also come in multiple different forms and interfaces. When it comes to SSD's, the most important thing to look for is the interface it uses. It is the interface that determines the read/write speed. SATA interfaces can have a transfer rate of 6GB per second. M.2 interfaces can have a transfer rate of 32GB per second. The down-side of SSD's is when they fail; it is tough to recover the data stored on them. So if the computer you are looking at buying has an SSD, perform a regular backup of it.

A good rule of thumb for when trying to determine what type of drive a computer might have is to remember that if the size is under 500GB, it probably is an SSD. Drive manufacturers no longer make HDD's or SSHD's smaller than 500GB. Now that we have covered the types of drives let us take a quick look at how they can be used and configured.

Single drive computers - All-in-one computers and low priced desktop and laptops usually have only one drive. Also. Ultra-thin laptops will often have either one thin profile HDD, SSHD (7MM SATA), or SSD (7MM SATA or M.2) drive.

Multiple drive computers - Mid to high priced desktop and laptops computers can come with numerous drives. You usually see gaming computers with multiple drives that have a smaller, 500GB to 1TB SSD (usually an M.2) for the operating system/programs and a larger HDD, 2TB or larger, for data storage.

I have seen some gaming computers that have had two (2) SSD's set up in a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) 0/1 configuration. But these are kind of rare, but they are on the market. So keep your eye out for them.

While we are on the subject of multiple drive configurations, we need to talk about Intel Optane. You may see Intel Optane listed as part of the storage specification on a new computer.

Now Intel Optane is similar to the flash memory inside of SSHD drives. It can cache the most frequently used files and programs on a drive that it is paired with and speed up reading and writing to that drive. Intel Optane uses an M.2 interface and works best when paired up with a drive, either an HDD or SSD, that uses a SATA interface.

Intel Optane will not improve the performance of drives that use an M.2 interface. I had a customer that had me set up an Intel Optane device paired with an M.2 SSD. Believe it or not, but the read and write performance went down. Definitely not a good choice.

Processor: What brand and type should I get?

There are two main CPU (Central Processing Unit) manufacturers out there, AMD and Intel, and both have their pros and cons. Intel CPU's usually are a little bit more expensive, and AMD CPU's are infamous for being able to be over-clocked.

All modern CPUs have multiple processing units called cores. The more cores a CPU has, the more data it can process at one time. Then you have the frequency (speed) that the CPU processes the data.

But since most CPU's run at a frequency between 3 GHz and 5 GHz, the amount of time you gain using a 5 GHz CPU over a 3 GHz CPU is kind of irrelevant. So it comes down to how many cores do you need.

Using Intel CPU's as an example, the basic Intel i3 processor has two cores and works well for running one program at a time, like e-mail, writing documents and surfing the Internet. But it does not work very well when you try multi-tasking with Adobe Photoshop and Autodesk Revit.

On the other end of the Intel CPU's, you have the Intel i9 processor line, which can have up to 10 cores. These processors can handle running multiple programs at one time and are the preferred CPU for doing 3D rendering. But remember, the more cores a processor has, the more money it costs.

Memory: How much should I get?

When it comes to the amount of memory you should get in a new computer, it just comes down to the question, "What are you going to use your computer for?".

The first thing you have to take into consideration is the operating system. Every computer nowadays has a 64-bit processor, and the operating system uses a portion of the memory just for itself.

For example, a 64-bit version of Windows 10 requires 2 Gigabytes of memory just for itself. That doesn't include any other programs. If your computer does not have a separate GPU (Graphic Processor Unit), then the onboard IGPU (Integrated Graphics Processing Unit) would also use some of the system memory.

The bare minimum amount of memory I recommend is 8 Gigabytes, but 16 or 32 Gigabytes is more of a standard amount. 64 gigabytes and higher is nice, but it will add more to the cost of the computer.

Video/graphics card: What should I look for?

Here again, it is all about what you are going to use your computer for. Each type of computer (laptop. desktop and all-in-one) has its pros and cons when it comes to graphics.

All-in-one systems are meant for everyday computing, spreadsheets, e-mail, and surfing the Internet. They usually just have an onboard IGPU that uses the system memory.

Laptop and desktop computers usually come standard with an on-board IGPU and can also include a separate GPU that has its own separate memory. If you are looking for a computer for gaming or 3D rendering, you will want a separate GPU.

Now features available for separate GPU's will differ from laptop to desktop computers. You will find that you get a better selection of GPU's with desktop computers than laptops. The reason is desktops use PCI-e expansion slots for adding in separate GPUs.

For more about expansion cards, check out the following article.

How to add an expansion card to your desktop computer

Either way, if you are looking for a computer with a high-performance GPU, check the requirements of the software you want to run. That will give you the guidance for what GPU features you need.

On a side note, I have had to troubleshoot display issues with laptops that have an IGPU and GPU. With these types of laptops, the IGPU and the GPU run simultaneously and switch between the two depending on the demands of the programs running.

Sometimes these types of laptops will experience crashing when switching between intense graphic programs like games and standard applications like web browsers. The easy fix is to set the GPU as the default graphic processor for all programs.

Monitor: Single or multiple?

I usually tell customers to get the largest size that space will allow. With the display resolutions always increasing, having a monitor that can handle them is essential. You will more than likely own this monitor for over a decade, so you might as well look towards any future use.

When shopping for a monitor, you have to keep in mind how it is going to connect to your computer. You will need to check the available video connections on your computer and get the same type on the monitor. Here is a link to an article with images of the most popular video connectors.

The most common computer video display connectors

Now two types of video connectors also include audio, HDMI, and DisplayPort. So if you plan on using one of these video types to connect your new monitor, make sure that the monitor you purchase has built-in speakers.

If you are going to use an HDMI connection, you can also look at using a television as a monitor. The resolution may not be as high as a regular monitor, but you could use it as a television too. I built a computer with an HDMI graphics card just for my home entertainment system.

Keep in mind that any monitor you buy may not come with the correct video cable to connect it to your computer. Getting a cable at the same time you buy the monitor could save you a lot of frustration when it comes to setting up the new computer.

And keep the receipt for any cables handy, just in case the new monitor does include the correct one. I would rather have to return a cable at my leisure than have to run out to get one to finish the setup. As the old saying goes, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure'.

What if the computer you are looking at buying can support more than one monitor? If you are going to go with multiple monitors, I recommend getting the same make and model for each one and, if possible, buy them at the same time. That way, you get monitors that were manufactured around the same time as each other.

Once you get your new computer setup, there are a few things you should do first. Here is an article that discusses those things in detail.

Five things you should do first when you get a new computer

How to create a shortcut in Windows 10

Shortcuts are links to various types of objects on your computer like a program, file, folder or another computer and it can be placed on your Desktop, Taskbar or Start menu. Here's how to create a shortcut in Windows 10.

To create a shortcut in Windows 10, you just need to know where the object is located on your computer. Open File Explorer (left-click the File Explorer icon on the Taskbar or left-click on the Start Menu and select File Explorer) and navigate the the object you want to create a shortcut to. If you want to create a Desktop shortcut, make sure File Explorer is not in full screen mode.

  • For a shortcut on the Start menu, right-click on the object and select Pin to Start
  • For a shortcut on the Taskbar, right-click on the object and select Pin to Taskbar
  • For a shortcut on the Desktop, press and hold the right mouse button on the object and drag it to the Desktop. From the context menu that appears select Create shortcuts here.

How to list everything inside of the Windows 10 Control Panel in one folder

When it comes to finding something in the Control Panel in Windows 10, you really have to know where to look. You could spend hours going through all of the categories. But what if you could see everything that was inside of the Control Panel in just one window. Here's how to list everything inside of the Windows 10 Control Panel.

How to list everything inside of the Windows 10 Control Panel in one folder

This shortcut was originally nicknamed 'God Mode' when it was first discovered inside of Windows Vista. It basically is a registry key that when rendered inside of the File Explorer displays the complete contains of the Control Panel. No searching through categories and subcategories, everything is right there in one folder.

How to create a an expanded Control Panel folder

Windows 10 expanded Control Panel code
1. Highlight the following code, right-click on it and select Copy.

Control Panel Expanded.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}

Note:
For this article I am going to use the name Control Panel Expanded. You can use whatever name you like, just keep the GUID (Global Unique Identifier) extension (.{ED7BA470-8E54-465E-825C-99712043E01C}) at the end.

Create a new Desktop folder in Windows 10
2. Right-click on the Desktop background and select New > Folder.

Paste Windows 10 expanded Control Panel code into folder name
3. Right-click on the new folder name and select Paste.

New expanded Control Panel icon on Desktop
4. You now have a folder on your Desktop that has a Control Panel icon. Just double-click to open it.

Inside the Windows 10 Technical Preview

Coming on the heels of the Windows 8.1 Update, Microsoft recently released the Windows 10 Technical Preview. With this new version of Windows, Microsoft is combining elements from Windows 7 and Windows 8 / 8.1 to better enhance the keyboard / mouse user experience. Let's take a look at what's new in the Windows 10 Technical Preview.

The Start menu returns in the Windows 10 Technical Preview
The Start menu returns in the Windows 10 Technical Preview

With this version of Windows, we are seeing a shift in the focus from touch-based devices to keyboard / mouse systems. The biggest change by far is the return of the Start menu. And it is kind of a hybrid now, with elements from Windows 7 (Start menu (left-side)) and Windows 8 / 8.1 (Start screen Tiles (right-side)). But if you like using the Start screen, it's still there too. It's just a check box and restart away.

You can switch in between the Start menu and the Start screen in the Windows 10 Technical Preview
You can switch in between the Start menu and the Start screen in the Windows 10 Technical Preview

But let's be honest, the Start screen concept might work on a tablet or phone, but it fails miserably on a laptop or desktop computer without a touch screen. I have even been told by customers that they have returned brand new Windows 8 systems because they could not stand the Start screen.

Using multiple instances of the Desktop with Task view inside the Windows 10 Technical Preview
Using multiple instances of the Desktop with Task view inside the Windows 10 Technical Preview

Along with the return of the Start menu, Microsoft has also built-in the ability to run multiple instances of the Desktop called Task view. With Task view, you can have different sets of programs running in separate desktops. This feature is kind of cool if you're using a single display.

The Windows RT / Metro apps from Windows 8 / 8.1 have also under gone some changes. Thier name has been changed to Universal apps and they now run in completely re-sizable windows. You still need to use the Store to install universal apps and can still sync them across multiple devices using a Microsoft account.

There is also small change here and there too. One change is with the way you copy and paste with the Command Prompt. You can now use the Windows keyboard short-cuts (Ctrl + C for copy, Ctrl + V for paste) for these tasks.

The Windows 10 Technical Preview is available for anyone who wants to give it a try. Remember; do not install the Windows 10 Technical Preview on a production system. Use only a system that can be reformatted after the preview expires (4/15/15). For this article, I used an Oracle VirtualBox virtual machine.

For more information on the Windows 10 Technical Preview, check out the links below.

Windows Technical Preview
Windows Technical Preview FAQ's

How to create the Windows 8.1 user group of tiles on the Start screen

With the release of the Windows 8.1 Update, all new users have a new group of tiles on the Start screen: This PC (My Computer), PC Settings, Documents (My Documents) and Pictures (My Pictures). If you're a Windows 8.1 existing user or still running Windows 8, you will not see these added to your established Start screen, only new profiles get these. Windows RT users only get the PC Settings tile. Here's how to create the Windows 8.1 user group of tiles on the Start screen.

  1. On the Start screen, left-click on Desktop.
  2. Left-click on File Explorer on the Taskbar.
    Pinning This PC to the Windows 8 Start screen
  3. Right-click on This PC and left-click on Pin to Start in the context menu.
  4. Right-click on Documents and left-click on Pin to Start in the context menu.
  5. Right-click on Pictures and left-click on Pin to Start in the context menu.
  6. Left-click on the Start button or press the Windows Logo key Windows logo key to bring up the Start screen.
    Pinning PC Settings to the Windows 8 Start screen
  7. Bring up the search charm: Windows 8 - Press the Windows Logo key Windows logo key + F or bring up the Charms bar and select Search. Windows 8.1 - Left-click on the Search button.
  8. In the Search box type PC Settings. In the search results, right-click on PC Settings and select Pin to Start.

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Bring your computer to us and save

We base our in-shop computer repair service  on the time we work on your computer, not the time it takes your computer to work!

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Phoenix, Arizona 85008
(602) 795-1111

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Geeks in Phoenix is an IT consulting company that specializes in servicing all brands of desktop and laptop computers. Since 2008, our expert and knowledgeable technicians have provided excellent computer repair, virus removal, data recovery, photo manipulation, and website support to the greater Phoenix metro area.

We here at Geeks in Phoenix have the most outstanding computer consultants that provide the highest exceptional service in Phoenix, Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and Tempe, Arizona. We offer in-shop, on-site, and remote (with stable Internet connection) computer support and services.

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