You've put off buying that new computer and now, with the holidays around the corner, there are sales everywhere. The trouble is, you may not be very tech-minded, not knowing RAM from a rake. But I'm here to help you. I'll be that voice on your shoulder while you talk to the sales geek.
To begin with, set a budget for yourself. Don't be persuaded into spending an extra $200 on an upgrade you may not need. Pricing is very competitive in this economy. Many stores, as well as online merchants are offering deals. Be a comparative shopper. See what the other guys are offering before you commit.
Figure out what type of computer you'll need. You can get a decent desktop or laptop for $600 to $1,000. Sure, you could still spend $2,500 if you want a screaming honking machine, but do you need one?
On the other end of the spectrum, there are new sub mini-notebooks. Dell, Acer and others now offer a small laptop from $350. They are good, slimmed down and weigh only 3 pounds. The screen is approximately 10 x 7 inches. They won't be great for video editing, but will do well for general computing.
There are a few terms you should be familiar with prior to shopping. You should know RAM, processor, hard drive, Ethernet, optical disc and LCD.
Deep breath — let's begin with the RAM, which is the memory. It is the computer's temporary storage. Three years ago 512 MB was the norm. Two years ago, a gigabyte (GB) was considered plenty. Now, most PCs ship with twice that. If you find a computer with 1 GB RAM and only check e-mail and browse the Web, you'll be fine and might save a few bucks.
The processor is the brains of the computer. It will be something like a Pentium, Athlon or Centrino. You will hear dual core, which relates to the processor. It is one processor, with two cores, making it work twice as fast. They already have quad cores on some models. The clock speed will be a number like 3.2 GHz CPU. That is the central processing unit speed of 3.2 gigahertz. The more cores, higher speed and faster the processor, the more expensive it will be.
The hard drive is the permanent storage. This is where you keep your music, videos and photos. You will see something like 160 GB or 500 GB HDD or hard disk drive. How much storage do you need? To give you an idea, figure using 5 MP (megapixel) images, you could fit about 600 shots per gigabyte. That's 300,000 high quality photos on a 500 GB drive.
The optical drives are the CD, DVD and Blu-ray drives. Each holds more than the last. A CD is good for general storage and file sharing. Each holds about 700 MB of data. (1,000 MB equals 1 GB). A DVD holds about 4.7 GB of data. The Blu-ray holds 25 GB on a single-layer, 50 GB on a double.
Determine which ones are on the computer you are looking at. Be sure to ask if they read and write to disc, or just read.
You will hear about wireless Ethernet on laptops or 802.11 b, g or n. This is your Internet connection. All laptops now come with a wireless connection. All you have to decide is how fast you want it to be.
If you have more than one computer, you'll need a router along with the DSL or cable modem, to split the signal. If you still have dial-up, look at the calendar. It's the 21st century; get a fast connection.
Most computers will probably ship with Vista installed as the operating system. Some may have an XP disc as well, allowing you to choose which you want. Windows 7 will be out by the holidays next year, but for now you'll have to settle on Vista or XP.
If you still have an old cathode ray tube monitor, you might consider upgrading to a thinner LCD (liquid crystal display). They have come way down in price recently. A 19- or even 22-inch could run less than $250.
If you buy a printer, consider the cost of its replacement cartridges. Also, not all printers produce quality photos. Ask for output samples. Wireless printers are much less than you may think and are as handy as a laptop.
Get a USB flash drive. They too, have dropped in price. You'll find them useful in copying and sharing files, especially music and photos. A 1 GB drive costs only $15. Compare that to 10 years ago when we used floppies. They were a buck a piece and held a mere 1.44 MB of data.
Save some money for software. Computers don't come loaded with programs as they used to. This keeps the prices down. Get at least an anti-virus, anti-spyware program. The rest is optional.
As far as extended warranties, I would only get one for a laptop, as they are easier to break and more expensive to fix.
For a desktop, call a tech to take care of it. We have to eat too, you know.
Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician in Gainesville. His column appears biweekly. Arthur welcomes your computer questions and ideas for future columns.