What to Look for when Buying a PC

Updated: August 2010

One of the things I get asked quite often is what to look for when buying a new PC. So, here’s a few basic tips, with some figures that I’ll try and keep updated from time to time. If you’re looking to run Windows Vista, check out the section at the bottom.

Hardware

CPU
This is the heart of your computer, basically, the faster the better. Either Intel or AMD, go for a Core 2 Duo, one of the i range (i3, i5, i7), a Phenom or an Athlon (the latter two come in dual (X2), triple (X3) and four (X4) core versions). The Celeron and Sempron chips are low-budget versions and the Atom is a low price/power chip, but these won’t last as long, they’re under-powered and, for the price difference, a bad investment. I’d suggest around 2 Ghz (that’s gigahertz) if choosing a dual (or more) core processor.

RAM
I’d recommend nothing lower than 2GB (gigabytes) there days. RAM is cheap and you can always add more later. Bear in mind that if you use a 32-bit version of an operating system you won’t be able to use more than 3.5GB anyway (which is why so many machines come with 3GB), Windows usually comes with a 64-bit version of you can order a DVD cheaply. If you’re doing things like video editing or large photo manipulation make sure you go 64-bit and I’d recommend 4GB of RAM.

Hard Disk Drive (HDD)
Chances are you’ll get a disk far bigger than you can fill in most systems. HDDs are pretty cheap so don’t be wowed by big storage figures (big is 1+TB (terabyte), anything else is ordinary). Again, these can be added to later if you need to, or you can use an external HDD via USB, Firewire or eSATA, literally just plug them in the back and away you go (if you have the connection).

There’s a new kid on the block since I first wrote this guide: SSD. Solid State Drives use memory like flash cards, which means no moving parts. They have faster read speeds, are completely silent and use less power. They are more expensive though and come in smaller sizes that traditional HDDs. You may also have fun fitting them to your PC as they’re typically 2.5″ (normally used in laptops) rather than the normal 3.5″ of a desktop computer drive. Unless you have a good reason I wouldn’t recommend paying for the privilege of one.

Ports and Connections
USB ports will allow the connection of most peripherals these days and USB hubs can expand the number of ports you have (up to something like 256, so no worries there on one port in your PC, basically attach hub to PC, then keep adding hubs to each hub, using the additional ports for peripherals). Ideally, look for the option of USB ports on the front as well as the back, much easier to access that way. USB ports come in three flavours: 1.1, 2 and 3. Most modern machines will support USB 2, but USB 3 is starting to be introduced (it’s just a faster version and is backwards compatible). Either will do.

Firewire (aka IEEE 1394) ports are useful, especially for video cameras and external storage. Think of them as like USB ports, only they daisy chain (you can plug one device into the back of another one and form a big chain of them). Although technically slower than USB 2, transfers are usually much quicker over firewire, but there are fewer devices supporting it. Again, it comes in different speeds: 400 and 800 and with different types of connector (mini and full-size). I wouldn’t worry if it’s not included, USB has largely won the format war, although USB 3 and possibly eSATA will replace it.

eSATA is the external (that’s what the e stands for) version of the SATA connectors used on most HDD and optical drives internally. It currently offers faster (on paper at least) transfer speeds than USB 2 and Firewire, but it’s an ongoing race with each one leapfrogging the other. USB 3 will be faster than eSATA I for example, but not eSATA II.

Bluetooth is a short range wireless technology, useful if you want to connect your phone to your PC for syncing contacts, calendars etc, and some devices like printers and video cameras use it so you don’t need cables.

Optical Drives
A DVD-ROM (ROM means read-only) drive is a must, a DVD writer (DVD-R+/DVD-R-/DVD-RW) is nice but not essential unless you want to create DVDs or backup huge amounts of data, but for the price these days you may as well have one (most systems will come with one). Most drives these days come with CD writing capability (CD-RW), even on DVD-ROM devices.

Blu-ray (BD) drives are also available, these allow you to read (ROM) and write blu-ray disks. If you want to watch high definition Blu-ray movies then you’ll need one, otherwise I wouldn’t worry.

Graphics Cards
Many systems will come with on-board graphics (built onto the motherboard), which will be fine if you don’t want to do any gaming or graphically intense tasks (video editing, CAD, lots of image manipulation). If you do, then a separate card is a must. PCI-Express is the standard interface, but there are different variations, mainly to do with the size of the slot. The rule is, if the connector is the same size or smaller than the slot it will work (so an x1 card will work in x1, x4 and x16 slots). There are some issues with speed though, but generally shouldn’t be an issue unless you need very high performance. For on-board graphics pretty much anything will work, but dedicated memory is better than shared if you have a choice. For dedicated cards go for one with at least 512MB of memory, ideally 1GB.

Scalable Link Interface (SLI) is another option for top-end cards. This allows you to link two cards together but produce a single output. There are different variations of it and you’ll need to check that both your motherboard and graphics cards support it.

Another thing to think about is output. The old analogue method was a VGA connection (the blue connection). This has largely been superseded by DVI (a white connection) which is digital and offers better quality. Then there’s HDMI, used on most new TVs and some monitors. Lastly is Display Port, used by Macs. Typically you’ll get more than one. If you want to output to your TV HDMI is the best bet, otherwise, check what your monitor supports, usually it will be VGA/DVI/both.

Sound Card
On-board sound is now standard and will be more than adequate for most people, but you can buy separate cards if you want stereo-quality sound or things like surround sound (though many on-board sound cards offer this too). If you’re connecting to things like amps you may want to look for things like S/PDIF outputs for digital audio.

Monitor
Any system will come with an LCD flat screen these days. As most screens have now gone widescreen I’d recommend a minimum of a 20″, also note the resolutions it can handle, 1600×900 (that’s horizontal x vertical pixel counts) is typical.

Laptops Only

Here’s some stuff that affects laptop users only:

Size
Laptops come in a variety of sizes, the average is 15″. That’s about as big as you can go and make it easily portable, the bigger 17″ desktop replacements may be more powerful, but you’ll need a forklift to move them. Smaller notebooks and netbooks (i.e. smaller than 15″) typically sacrifice processing power and drives for portability the smaller you go or rapidly increase in price. 15″ is the sweet spot as it’s the most common size.

Personally, I wouldn’t recommend a netbook unless you only plan to surf and check email and even then the reduced size means using them isn’t easy, especially over long periods. For £100 more you can buy a proper laptop which will do much more and last you much longer.

Optical Drives
These days having an optical drive built-in isn’t essential, you can buy USB ones for £35 which you can hook up as and when you need them (which is increasingly rarely, most applications can either be downloaded or installed from a USB stick). If you’re likely to be watching DVDs, ripping CDs, installing games or are likely to burn things to CD/DVD then it may be something worth the investment.

Expandability
There aren’t many things you can do to a laptop, you can usually increase the RAM and swap the HDDs out, and the process has become easier, but make sure it has plenty of ports (USB mainly) to allow expansion via plugin devices (like DVD writers, HDDs, sound cards, etc).

Software

Operating System
If you’re a Windows person then Windows 7 is for you, forget XP and Vista. First thing to know, there are three main versions: Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate. Unless you need extra features like XP mode or domain support or the ability to remote into your desktop, then stick with Home Premium.

The next question is 32-bit or 64-bit and this mainly depends on your RAM requirements. If you need more than 3.5GB of RAM (because your working with big files or applications) then you need 64-bit, otherwise either version will be fine. Most retail packages of Windows now offer both versions or you can request a DVD of the other version at small expense.

As for the rest, it comes down to personal preference. Although improved, I would stay away from Internet Explorer and recommend either Firefox or Chrome as a web browser. For email, again I would avoid Windows Live Mail (although better than Outlook Express). Personally, I use Thunderbird but the choice is yours. You could even just stick with webmail via your browser. Part of the reason is security.

Anti-virus is a good idea and you should be able to download for free (you can even use Microsoft’s own Security Essentials). Also try and get a free copy of a spyware detector (something like AdAware). Check out the Security Basics post for more info. Microsoft’s included firewall should be fine for the job.