Computer shopping 101

Just the other day I was perusing some of the new computers on display at one of Springfield’s big technology chains, and I overheard a distressing conversation between a shopper and one of the store’s resident techies. The conversation was distressing because of the sheer lack of information being handed out by the store employee. I had a very difficult time listening and not interfering. Basically, the discussion covered the customer’s need to purchase a computer. She wanted advice on what to buy.

A pretty reasonable request, right? Unfortunately, the answers she was getting simply didn’t come anywhere near the truth.

So, if you’re in the market for a new computer right now, what should you buy? The answer isn’t all that obvious. In fact, with the number of options currently available, it’s downright confusing. But, there are a few things to keep in mind that should make your decision a little easier. For the next few months, this column will focus upon what you should be considering when purchasing a computer.

All computers, be they OSX (Mac), Windows, Linux or any other operating system you fancy, have some key components you should pay attention to before completing the purchase. To put it in simple terms – computers have hardware and software. So, for now, don’t get hung up on the software; namely the operating system. Let’s talk about what you should look for in hardware.

First, there’s the processor. Think of this central processing unit or CPU as the “brains” of the computer. I use this term loosely. In fact, today’s CPUs are actually several processing units put together on a single chip. We call these multi-core processors. That means you are now getting many more “brains” in your computer than just a few years ago when you bought a single CPU. But, even within these new types of processors there are many categories, and in fact, two major brands – AMD and Intel. Let’s focus on Intel for now because most of what you will find out there in the market today will be Intel-based.

So, which Intel processor do you want to buy?

For most home users, the choice comes down to how much you have to spend to get more cores. If you’re looking at a newer Intel-based computer then most likely you will see it touting a 3rd generation i3, i5 or i7 processor. It’s pretty easy to deduce that i7 is better than i5, and i5 is better than i3, but why is that? Generally speaking, it comes down to the number of cores.

Core i3 processors are dual-core processors, while core i5s are quad core processors. Core i7 processors come in two different flavors – 4 cores and 6 cores. There are some other technologies at work here as well, but if you just keep in mind that the more cores the better, then the rest of the technology will fall into place. But, what do you really need?

For most home users, the core i3 processor will work just fine. It’s only when you start playing games that you may find it lacking in performance. In that case, you probably want to plan on at least a core i5, and make sure you ask for the 3rd generation version with Turbo Boost. And, of course, if you can afford one then definitely purchase a 3rd generation i7 processor with Hyper Threading and Turbo Boost. These are the “best-of-the-best” when it comes to processors right now. Keep in mind though, technology moves quickly. So, what you are shopping for today may not be the most powerful tomorrow. So buy smart. Think about your use of the computer and then purchase accordingly.

Next month, I will talk about hard drives, but if you’re purchasing a computer in the meantime, remember it’s not about brand, it’s about what’s inside the box!