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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

Run Android OS on your netbook, laptop or personal computer with Android-x86

With all of the talk nowadays about moving from personal computers to smartphones and tablets, I was wondering if I could have the best of both worlds. I wanted to know is if I could run a version of the Android OS on my netbook. Having setup both multi-boot computers and virtual machines, I thought that it might be possible. And with the Android-x86 Project, it is.

Android-x86 opening screen running inside of a Oracle VirtualBox
Android-x86 opening screen running inside of a Oracle VirtualBox

The Android-x86 Project is an Apache open source project working to port the Android operating system to the x86 hardware architecture. It's the same hardware architecture that is in almost all netbooks / laptops and personal computers. They have several different builds for different types of systems (ASUS, HP, Lenovo, etc.), mainly netbooks, laptops and tablets.

Android-x86 main screen running inside of a Oracle VirtualBox
Android-x86 main screen running inside of a Oracle VirtualBox

Android-x86 can be run from a cd, installed into a virtual machine like Oracle's VirtualBox, a USB drive or your computer's hard drive as the primary operating system. You can even set it up to multi-boot with Windows. Here's a quote from the Android-x86 website:

This is a project to port Android open source project to x86 platform, formerly known as "patch hosting for android x86 support". The original plan is to host different patches for android x86 support from open source community. A few months after we created the project, we found out that we could do much more than just hosting patches. So we decide to create our code base to provide support on different x86 platforms, and set up a git server to host it.

For more information on the Android-x86 Project, just follow the links below:

Android-x86 Project - Run Android on Your PC

Quickly adjust the settings on your Windows 7 laptop / netbook with Windows Mobility Center

Have you ever needed to change a setting on your Windows 7 laptop / netbook quickly? Maybe change the screen brightness or turn on/off your wi-fi? You can do just that and more with Windows Mobility Center inside of Windows 7.

Windows Mobility Center in Windows 7
Windows Mobility Center inside of Windows 7

Windows Mobility Center displays the most commonly used laptop / netbook settings, such as brightness, volume, battery status, and wireless network status. Different tiles are displayed depending on your system, and some tiles are added by your laptop / netbook manufacturer.

Here are some of the settings you might find in the Windows Mobility Center. Remember, not all settings are available on all laptops.

  • Brightness. Move the slider to temporarily adjust the brightness of your display. To adjust the display brightness settings for your power plan, click the icon to open Power Options.
  • Volume. Move the slider to adjust the speaker volume of your laptop, or select the Mute check box.
  • Battery Status. View how much charge remains on your battery or select a power plan from the list.
  • Wireless Network. View the status of your wireless network connection or turn your wireless network adapter on or off.
  • Screen Rotation. Change the orientation of your Tablet PC screen from portrait to landscape, or vice versa.
  • External Display. Connect an additional monitor to your laptop, or customize the display settings.
  • Sync Center. View the status of an in-progress file sync, start a new sync, set up a sync partnership, or change your settings in Sync Center.

How to access Windows Mobility Manager on a Windows 7 based laptop or netbook

  • Click on the Start button, then All Programs, then Accessories, then Windows Mobility Manager.
  • Or
  • Click Start, and then type mobility center in the Start Search box.

Geek Tips:

    Windows Mobility Center on the Taskbar in Windows 7
  • Pin the Windows Mobility Manager to the Taskbar for even quickier access to it.
  • Click an icon to quickly open options for that setting. For example, click the Battery Status icon to open Power Options, and from there select a power plan.

Notes:

If the Turn wireless on button is unavailable, you might need to use the hardware switch on your computer to turn on the wireless network adapter. For more information about turning the adapter on and off, check the documentation that came with your computer.

If a setting doesn't appear, it might be because the required hardware (such as a wireless network adapter) or drivers are missing. For example, if the Turn wireless on button is unavailable, you might need to use the hardware switch on your computer to turn on the wireless adapter.

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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.

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