Desktop computers were the first computing devices available for the office/home since the late 1970's. With the advent of common operating systems like CP/M and MS-DOS, sales of the PC mushroomed in the 1980's and haven't slowed down since.
This buying guide will look at the key components of a desktop system and will not go into great detail with computer peripherals. Purchasing tips for Peripherals can be found in our Tech Buying Guide publication.
Desktop technology has made great strides in the past 20 years - from the first IBM PC (with a 1Mhz processor, 16K of RAM and 160K floppy disk storage) to today's powerhouse (3.0+GHz processor, 2+GB RAM and 120+GB hard drive).
Form factor refers to the shape and design of the computer chassis. Common examples include desktop (horizontal), mini-tower (vertical), Small form factor (compact footprint), Ultra-Slim (very thin). The size of the form factor will determine the upgrade and expansion capabilities of the desktop.
The motherboard is the main board of the computer that houses several functions including the processor, chipset instructions, memory slots and expansion slots. Some motherboards have integrated functions that can include video, audio, graphics and communications.
CPU or Central Processing Unit is the brain of the computer and
is the base measurement of performance when comparing computer specifications.
There are a number of computer processor manufacturers in the market
place with Intel (Celeron/Pentium), AMD (Duron/Athalon), Cyrix and
IBM (PowerPC) being the predominant players. CPU performance is also
measured by clock speed , where today's
systems will fall into the 1.0 to 3.0Ghz range.
Memory in a computer is essentially used for the short-term storage of instructions and data. There have been various types of memory technology used in computers over the years with SDRAM being the main choice of users today. Most desktops will allow for installation of between 128MB and 2GB of memory.
Drive bays are holders for the various storage devices such as floppy, hard disk, CD-ROM, or Zip drives. The more drive bays that the desktop contains, the more flexibility and expandability you will have.
Expansion slots allow additional cards to be plugged in your computer that can include video, sound, communications, gaming and other specialized functions. Currently, PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect) and AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) are the common slot types being used.
The majority of desktops
sold today will come standard with a floppy drive, a hard drive and
a CD-ROM drive. Depending on the number of drive bays allowed in the
form factor, additional drives can be added.
Floppy drives have been the primary method of exchanging information between computers since the early 1970's. However, the 1.44MB storage capacity has become very limiting and other methods of file transfer are preferred.
Most graphics chips are integrated on the motherboard with video RAM ranging from 4MB to 32MB. Higher end graphic capability is possible through an external AGP slot with video RAM specifications up to 128MB. Some graphics cards can also support TV and DVD connections as well as have special graphics processors for games.
Audio capability is often integrated on the motherboard and can either support an internal speaker or external speakers. More advanced sound cards, which provide capabilities such as MIDI interfaces and multi-speaker environments, can be installed in one of the PCI slots in your computer.
Most PCs today will have an integrated 10/100 Megabit per second (Mbps) network connection on the motherboard. Depending on communication requirements, additional 10/100 Mbps ports or fax/modem ports can be added through the PCI slots or USB ports.
USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports are becoming the connection of choice. USB allows you to connect almost anything to your desktop including printers, scanners, digital cameras, disk drives, keyboards, and mice. USB supports both Plug-and-Play and hot plugging (which allows you to connect/disconnect a peripheral without having to reboot the operating system). There are currently two standards in the market: USB 1.1 that has a transfer rate of 12 Mbps and USB 2.0 that has a transfer rate of 480 Mbps. Many computers will have USB ports both at the front and the rear of the computer chassis for easy access.
PS/2 ports are similar to the serial port (see below), which uses a smaller plug with only 6 pins. Most desktop computers will have two PS/2 ports, one dedicated to the mouse, and the other to the keyboard.
FireWire ports have a very high data transfer rate - 400Mbps in version 1394a and 800Mbps in version 1394b of the IEEE standard. Originally developed by Apple, it has gained acceptance with the multimedia industry as the choice method of downloading data from video devices. FireWire, like USB, also supports Plug-and-Play and hot plugging.
There are two methods of purchasing a preassembled desktop
Off-the-Shelf desktops refer to a computer that you can readily pickup at a retail outlet, take it home, plug it in and have it up and running within minutes. These are prepackaged systems that usually include a monitor and a printer. Brand names like Emachines, IBM and HP/Compaq are some examples.
Purchasing a custom-configured computer gives you the option of selecting certain components and peripherals to suit your needs. These systems need to be ordered in advance and may take from several days to several weeks to have it built and delivered to your home or office. Brand names such as Dell and Gateway are examples of companies that specialize in building custom-configured systems.
There are a number of categories for computer manufactures and are usually referred to as Tier 1, Tier 2 and so forth. Typically, a higher Tier number indicates the manufacturer spends more money on research and development, resulting in higher quality components and/or innovative technology (and usually a higher purchase price). This basically boils down to major brand names vs. clone brands. Which brand of computer should you buy? It depends on your budget, what features you need and your comfort level with the brand reliability and the support that they offer.
Many manufacturers will have two product lines catering to the desktop market - a Home/Consumer line and a Commercial/Business line. Home models are very price conscious and will have convenience features that will appeal to the novice user. Commercial models are designed for the professional user and will typically have better specifications and warranties than the consumer models.
It is important to question a vendor about their warranty policy. How long is the standard warranty (typically one year)? What does the warranty cover (both parts and labor)? Can an extended warranty be purchased (2,3 or 4 years)? How is the warranty executed (on-site service or depot service)? As with most consumer purchases, you get what you pay for. As you will be investing several hundreds of dollars on a computer, you will want to make sure that the manufacturer stands behind their product with a strong warranty.
Depending on where you purchase your computer, you may not be dealing with the actual manufacturer themselves but with a dealer or retail merchant. If you need a lot of advice on purchasing your computer, you may want to research a store that can provide a high level of customer service.
What if you need a computer and have a limited budget? Another option today is buying a refurbished computer. Refurbished computers are pre-owned computers that have been serviced by either the manufacturer or a dealer and can be purchased for a fraction of the cost of a new unit. Is this an option you should consider? It may be, as long as the model fits your needs and the technology is not too old. Don't expect to receive any warranty with these units.
When you purchase a pre-built desktop, you get a predefined model with little flexibility in changing some of the options. What if you want to upgrade the motherboard or the graphics card to a better spec? Building your own desktop gives you full control of customizing your requirements.
Perhaps the first question you should ask is - Who is going to assemble my computer? Can I do it myself or do I need a professional? Unless you have some expertise in electronics, it best not to try to assemble your own machine. Your best bet is to find a computer dealer or Tier 3 manufacturer that produces clone computers to assemble your computer for you.
Now that you are building your own computer, you will have to research at least 15 different types of component manufacturers to include: chassis/case, motherboard, microprocessor, RAM, power supply, floppy drive, hard drive, CD/DVD drive, graphics, audio, communications, keyboard, mouse, monitor and operating system.
Another good question is where to source all the various components, as you may have to use a variety of vendors. A good place to start is a computer dealer or white label manufacturer as they buy components in volume and can offer you lower prices than most retail venues.
Again, life gets a little more complicated. If you have any service issues with your component, you may have to deal with 15 or more vendors, each having different warranty policies. If you can purchase all your components from one dealer, generally that dealer will do all the grunt work for you. Better still, get the dealer to assemble your computer and they may give you a blanket warranty on the entire system including labor.
Operating software is a special set of programs that interfaces between the hardware and the application software. Popular operating software versions that are being used today for the IBM compatible desktops include:
The main advantages of ultraportables are that they are super light and compact - features that appeal to business travelers. Because of its size, performance generally will not be as robust as a notebook.
Notebooks are larger and heavier than ultraportables with fuller sized keyboards and room for additional performance components. The notebook market is geared for the price conscious consumer as well as the power user.
Speed has always an issue with laptops. However, today's laptops have improved and are performance machines compared to even the desktops of a year ago. Common processors found in today's units include mobile versions of Intel (Celeron and Pentium 3 or 4), AMD (Duron and Athlon) and Transmeta (Crusoe). Clock speeds will range from 700MHz to 2.66Ghz range.
Because of the laptops' limitation of size, they only have 2 memory slots available. Memory chips are available in 128MB, 256MB, and 512MB increments allowing memory expansion on most units to range from 128MB to 1GB.
All laptops today use active matrix technology, which provides a brighter screen and can be viewed easily at different angles. Sizes of the screen will depend on whether it is a notebook or ultraportable and will range from 10.4 to 17 inches with resolutions up to 1600 x 1200.
Expansion solutions for your laptop can take place both internally and externally. Twin internal PCMCIA slots allow for two Type II cards or a single Type III 32-bit card. As well, some laptops support CompactFlash or Memory Stick slots for sharing images with your digital cameras.
External port replicators allow you to plug in an external keyboard, mouse and monitor. Docking stations provide you all the functionality of a port replicator plus allow for additional PCMCIA cards, hard drives, optical drives and a 10/100 Mbps network adapter.
Drive configurations in a laptop can either come in fixed or swappable modes. Fixed mode systems will usually have a floppy, hard drive and a CD-ROM unit that is not removable. Swappable mode systems have a multi-bay concept where you can swap a floppy drive unit with a CD-ROM unit or add a second hard drive.
Laptops have a built-in pointing device that acts as a mouse pointer when you don't have an external mouse connected to it. There are two types available: pointstick and touchpad. Before you buy a laptop, be sure to try both methods, you may have a strong dislike of one style. Some brands of laptops even have both styles.
Most laptops today will have an integrated 56K V.92 modem and 10/100 Mbps network connections and some will have integrated wireless adapters (WiFi 802.11b) to allow truly mobile communication. External docking stations can be used for additional communications capability for those laptops that don't have the integrated gear.
Most laptops will have a PS2, monitor, parallel, serial and USB port. In addition, some models will have the new USB 2.0 port and FireWire (IEEE 1394) ports. Multimedia models will have ports for S-Video out and RCA Video in.
Battery life in a laptop can be one of the most crucial factors in purchasing a laptop. For longer periods between charges, you should ensure that your laptop has a Lithium-ion battery and not a Nickel-Cadmium. Most batteries will last from 90 minutes to about 5 hours. If you are mobile user constantly on the go, you should invest in a second battery pack to have along with you.
The majority of laptops come standard with a 1-year warranty with options for 2, 3, 4 and 5-year warranties. It is strongly recommended to get the maximum warranty for the laptop you decide to purchase, as laptops tend to take more punishment than a desktop.
Digital ink is a new concept for collaboration where a user can physically handwrite text or draw diagrams on the Tablet's screen using a digital pen. The digitized handwriting can either be converted to regular text through the operating system's handwriting recognition engine or stored as a digital ink object.
The handwriting recognition software can also recognize handwriting in seven different languages. For example, you can use digital ink to highlight text/numbers in an Excel sheet, save your handwritten comments and email your notes to your peers in English and Spanish.
Another benefit of the Tablet PC is that it is highly mobile; you can use it as you would a pad of paper. This can be useful for meetings where typing on a keyboard is not practical or appropriate. However Tablet PCs can also be used with a keyboard and allow you to communicate with your LAN through wired and wireless means.
Pure tablet PCs are also known as slates (just like the old chalkboards that your grandparents used to use). They are designed for the truly mobile individual who prefers to handwrite their correspondence rather than using the keyboard. However, options like an attachable keyboard, wireless communications and a docking station can quickly bring you in touch with the rest of your office environment.
There are some special considerations to keep in mind when choosing a pure tablet . One is the viewing angle of the screen when you use it on your lap or on a table. Some vendors may or may not have a folding stand that can support the tablet. As a result, you may not have the same convenience that you would expect from a laptop or convertible tablet. Another scenario is protecting the screen when not in use. Since the screen is not sandwiched by the case like on a laptop, special care needs to be taken to cover the screen so that scratches and breakage do not occur.
Convertible tablets are really an ultraportable laptop with the benefit of handwriting recognition technology. It has a built-in keyboard and folds like a normal laptop and does not require a docking station to be functional. The screen can swivel and fold back just like a writing pad. Some considerations to keep in mind with convertibles are the durability of the hinges. With constant use, it is possible for the hinges to wear out over a long period of time, so special care should be taken.
Again, with the operating system being a subset of Windows XP, Tablet PCs will run any software that Windows XP supports. Although rating application programs is beyond the scope of this Buying Guide, here are some current applications that can really take advantage of the Tablet PC's special functionality:
With a Smart Display, you can access your Windows XP powered PC from almost anywhere inside your home (or outdoor patio) using built-in WiFi technology. It allows you to surf the Web, access home files or play your favorite music.
Using a stylus and the integrated touch-sensitive screen, you can leave your mouse and keyboard behind and access your PC's programs. The Smart Display features an on-screen customizable keyboard as well as provides handwriting recognition technology similar to the Tablet PC. Of course, you can also use an external mouse and keyboard with your Smart Display if you so desire. At the present time, only one Smart Display unit can be used at a time with a PC host.
Most units include an integrated USB port, which allows easy attachment of a mouse and keyboard. Some units also support CompactFlash and SecureDigital memory cards. Optional docking stations can provide support for additional USB, VGA and PCMCIA connections.
Personal Digital Assistants, also known as handhelds , have been with us since early 1996 when Palm introduced their Pilot 1000 model. The main attraction of the PDA was to have the functionality of your personal computer in a package that could fit in your shirt pocket. As the demand for PDAs increased, more manufacturers and software developers got on board and offered even more choices for the consumer.
For the purpose of this buying guide, we will be focusing on the traditional PDA unit and not the cell phone hybrid. Much like the desktop computer market where there have been two schools of thought - the Microsoft world and the Mac world, a similar parallel exists in the PDA spectrum with the Palm world and the Microsoft world.
Manufacturers have generally chosen ranks as to which operating system they support. Two of the common Palm operating system versions used today are Palm OS 4.1.1 and Palm OS 5. Some of the manufactures that support the Palm OS include:
Research in Motion is a company that specializes in wireless email solutions and markets the Blackberry series of handhelds. Each PDA runs on their own proprietary Blackberry operating system and productivity application software.
Symbian is a private independent company specializing in wireless communication software licensing and is owned by Ericsson, Nokia, Panasonic, Motorola, Psion, Samsung Electronics, Siemens and Sony Ericsson. Many mobile phone manufacturers use their operating system. The new Sony Ericsson P800 cell phone/PDA uses version 7 of the Symbian OS.
There is a mixture of older technology like the Motorola Dragonball and Intel StrongARM processors (144 to 200 MHz ranges) and leading edge technology like the Intel Xscale PXA250 processors (300 to 400MHz).
As all PDAs have a touch screen that can be activated by a stylus, there are some models with alternate input devices. Graffiti pads are still popular with the Palm devices as well as mini-keyboards that can be activated by finger touch or stylus. Pocket PC devices will typically have a 5-button navigation pad.
As was earlier mentioned, the overlap between PDAs and other electronic devices is getting closer every year. Many PDAs like the Handspring Treo and Palm Tungsten W can be used as a cell phone. PDAs like the Sony NX70V allow you to take pictures with 640x480 resolution. Other devices like the AlphaSmart Dana have a laptop-sized keyboard and 560x160 screen, which make it an ideal word processor. The HP iPAQ 5450 has a built-in fingerprint scanner that allows you to enable biometric security.
Vendors provide general productivity software with their PDA. This can include a calculator, memo pad, to-do list, date book, and address book. Pocket PC PDAs can also run Pocket PC versions of Microsoft software applications like Outlook, Word and Excel.
A network is simply a group of two computing systems linked together. The purpose of a network is to share information and resources. This can include sharing data files, programs, the Internet and printers.
A network of this type has a dedicated server that governs the sharing of network resources to other computers. Client/server architecture is used primarily in business environments of LANs and WANs where network performance is mission critical.
This is a network where each workstation has equal network responsibility for sharing resources. Peer-to-peer is a popular architecture for small business offices and home offices (SOHO) as the expense of purchasing a dedicated server is not required.
WiFi (Wireless Fidelity) is a wireless network protocol based on the 802.11 specification. The current standard is 802.11b that operates in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz spectrum. It is very popular as it supports an 11-Mbps bandwidth and is relatively inexpensive to adopt.
WiFi has a range between 50 to 150 feet (depending on environments) that allows you to network computers and printers without having to string cables. This is especially useful in the home environment where you have computers, in multiple rooms or on different floors, sharing the Web. The benefit is ease of connectivity and use.
Bluetooth is a new wireless specification that also operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum worldwide. Bluetooth uses FHSS (frequency hopping spread spectrum) to divide the 2.4GHz band into 79 different channels at 1 MHz intervals. Data is transmitted between devices in the Bluetooth network and hops between the 79 different frequencies at 1,600 hops per second.
Bluetooth has a range of 30 feet that allows your devices to interact at the office, at home or anywhere in the world that supports the 2.4 GHz radio spectrum. Some of the functions Bluetooth can support include:
For wireless scenarios, wireless PC cards can be installed in laptops while desktops use wireless PCI cards. Another option is a wireless USB unit, which allows desktops and laptops to be connected via their USB ports.
A firewall is a way of preventing unauthorized access into your LAN or HAN from the outside world. Firewalls can take the form of either a hardware device or software program. Many routers have built-in firewalls. Software solutions for personal firewalls can be used as stand-alone solutions or to supplement existing hardware firewalls for maximum protection.
Electronic chain stores such as Office Depot or CompUSA usually offer a good in-store selection of desktops, laptops and computer peripherals at a competitive price. Department stores like JC Penney, Sears or Target may sell selected items as they don't specialize in electronics but are a multi-product store. Chain and department stores are convenient and a relatively good source if you know what you want and don't need a lot of advice or assistance. Generally, the sales personnel will have limited knowledge on the products and how to use them.
Specialty stores are usually independent computer shops that specialize in their particular field. The sales personnel at these stores are typically experts in their chosen profession and will give you better advice on how to use your product. You will generally pay a little more for your purchase but the after sale service that you should receive will more than make up for it.
Most manufactures will have an on-line store where you can purchase a product directly from them without going through the regular retail distribution channel. You can usually order via the web or the telephone.
There are several specialty websites that provide unique services. For example, eBay.com is a website where you can sell or purchase new or used items. This may be a good source if you are looking for a unique item. Some websites such as CNET.com will provide reviews on electronics products that will give unbiased opinions on products.