Working from home - Choosing a PC part 1

We have now moved into a fantastic point in time! A few years ago the PC was still developing at a fast rate, no sooner had you bought a PC than it was out of date. Things have changed over the last ten years, when I bought my first PC on leaving University it had a 500MB hard drive and 16MB of RAM. This was powerful enough to run Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, Word and listen to CDs - but not necessarily all at the same time.

This little Dell PC was a DX-4 100 - this means it was pre-Pentium, yes, even before the good old Pentium II chips. It processed information at 100MHz, in comparison an average PC will have a 2.XGHz processor, or up to 3GHz if your budget will stretch that far - an increase of 30 times.

To put this in comparison 16MB is not really encountered in anything anymore! Even the little cards that you pop into your mobile phone, PDA or digital camera come in at 256MB at the least (unless you are buying ‘antiques' from Ebay) and the 500MB hard drive that held my Operating System plus all my files is probably smaller than most of the USB flash drives that are given away free with practically any purchase these days.

If the above three paragraphs have made your eyes glaze over then let's start at the beginning and explain the various terms that you are likely to encounter when choosing a new PC…

1 - Processor Speed

The processor is the heart of your PC. This is the ‘chip' that completes all the calculations, changing all those 0s and 1s (which is what computers basically understand) into the meaningful information you see before you on your monitor.

This means that the faster your processor the more applications (programs) you will be able to run at once and the faster your machine will react when you are using applications.

When choosing a PC you will be presented with several options on which processor to opt for, you will hear words like AMD, Intel Pentium, Celeron, and more. Over the last couple of years understanding the relative speeds of each type of processor has got more confusing with the introduction of dual core/hyper-threading chips and mobile chips all using different naming conventions for new models, so here is a very brief run down.

There are two main processor manufacturers, AMD and Intel. Intel held the lion's share of the processor market until quite recently but with AMD signing a deal with Dell and, more recent speculation on a deal with IBM, it looks as though Intel could be toppled.

Whether you choose to buy a PC with an AMD or an Intel processor will not make any difference to the way the computer reacts or the software or hardware you can use with it. The only difference you will notice is when you look at processor speeds.

If you look at the following link you will see a recent comparison of the main processors on the market, the processors at the top of the list are the fastest performers and get slower as you make your way down the list. I have used the processors in this list to come up with the suggestions below:
CPU Guide from Tom's Hardware

Suggestions - If you are looking for a computer simply for email, web browsing and word processing then you will not need a fast processor and should consider a low speed Pentium (P4 2.0-2.8GHz or a Celeron) or an AMD Sempron or Athlon 3200-3500. If you are considering using your PC for editing graphics or video files, ripping CDs to MP3 or using large datasets in spreadsheets or databases then you should consider a faster Pentium processor (P4 3.0GHz and upwards or the newer D series dual core processors) or an AMD 3500 upwards or X2 dual core processor.

2 - RAM

RAM stands for Random Access Memory - it is the temporary storage space used by programs and your operating system while the computer is turned on. If you run lots of programs at once or use large files such as graphics or video files then you will need a larger amount of RAM.

Suggestions - If you are simply going to use your PC for email, web browsing and word processing then you might get away with as little as 256MB of RAM although most PCs now ship with a minimum of 512MB. For a faster machine then 1GB is nice but 2GB is better!

3 - Hard Drive

Your hard drive contains all the files that are present on your computer, from the files that make up the Operating System (Windows, Linux or Mac), the programs installed on the Operating System and any individual files you make or add to the computer (letters, spreadsheets, images, music files etc).

Usually you can expect the operating system and any installed programs to take up between 2 and 10 GB (Gigabytes) depending on whether you have a trimmed down version of Linux with few programs to a more bloated Operating System like Windows with many applications and games (these often take up the most space!)

To give you an idea of how much space you might need on your PC:
You might be able to remember the days of the small floppy disks - these held 1.44MB.
A CD holds 800MB.
A DVD holds just over 4GB (4,000MB).

A medium level digital camera takes photos that are around 3MB in size.
A two page Word document is usually around 40k (0.04MB).
A 5 minute MP3 file at a decent sound quality is around 5MB.
5 minutes of raw video from a home digital camcorder can be around 1GB.

Hard drive technology is changing rapidly and larger hard drives are being developed all the time. The largest drives are currently around 300-500GB. With a 300GB hard drive costing around £70 adding more storage to your PC should not prove to be expensive.

Suggestions - if all you plan to do is keep a few emails and word processor files or spreadsheets then this will be far too much for you and a 40GB hard drive (you may struggle to find one smaller these days) should suffice. If you are planning on editing video files and transferring your CD collection to MP3 then you would want to get as big a drive as possible. Most desktop PCs will allow further hard drives to be added to the basic setup but if you think you may grow out of the initial storage space then it would be wise to check that more drives can be added before purchasing a new PC.

The above are the main components that make up any computer, either a desktop or a laptop. Understanding the above will help you choose a PC that is suitable for your needs regarding speed of use and the number of applications / type of applications you plan to use. In the next article we will cover add-ons and peripherals to help you make the best choice when buying a PC.

Hedley Thomas


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