Computer Buying Guide

Computer Buying Guide

This guide is intended to help those purchasing a PC. If you follow the guidelines presented here, you should end up with a reasonably priced PC that will easily run today's demanding software.

Desktop PC Recommendation

The system specification outlined here is intended to be a general purpose PC suitable for word processing, home office, Web browsing, programming, games, etc. A system following these guidelines should cost between $800-$1200. For desktop publishing, graphic design, or CAD work, an additional 256MB of memory at a cost of around $50 would be helpful. Upgrades in monitor size and video card might also be considered for these graphics intensive tasks.

All components have a short explanation available by clicking on them. This may be helpful in choosing a system that doesn't match these specifications.

If you are buying your computer from a major PC manufacturer, it may be very difficult to find the specifications for each component. If this is the case, just compare what you can find to the list below and then try to find reviews of the specific models in which you're interested in PC related magazines or web sites.


USB 2.0 Connectors. Firewire (IEEE 1394) port optional.


Intel Pentium IV, AMD Athlon 2.4 GHz equivalent or faster




Mid tower layout

Hard Drive

60GB or larger

Removable Storage

CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive. Optional DVD-RW if you want to burn DVD discs.

Optical Drive


5x or faster DVD ROM (optional if DVDRW already included)

Video Card

Integrated, AGP or PCI-E video with 32MB or more memory


101 Keyboard layout. Consider an ergonomic keyboard if you do a lot of typing.

Sound Card

Built-in or PCI. Digital outputs are nice when matched with digital speakers or digital stereo equipment. 3D positional effects are desirable for games.


Listen before you buy if possible. 3 piece systems with subwoofer are usually better for music/multimedia. 5.1 systems are nice for home theater setups. Speakers built in to the monitor are great for reducing desk clutter.


Microsoft mouse compatible with scroll wheel

Operating System

Windows XP Home or Windows XP Professional Monitor


15" or greater LCD flat panel monitor. Strongly recommend DVI connection if supported by your video card

Ethernet Card*

Integrated or PCI 10/100/1000 Ethernet card


V.92 external or internal. Not needed for DSL or Cable Modem connections.


1 year or longer


This is the board through which all the other components of the PC connect. A motherboard with cache memory will increase system speed by 10-20%.   However, most laptop CPUs come with their own cache and do not require it from the motherboard.


Input/Output ports. This includes serial, parallel, external video and other connectors. The more types of ports you have, the more choices your computer has for communicating with other devices and computers.


The CPU is the brain of your computer. Most of the time, your CPU is idle, so a faster CPU does not necessarily make a faster computer. However, tasks involving multimedia presentations can require a great deal of CPU power.


Also known as RAM. This is where the computer's CPU works on problems. Having more RAM can give the largest increase in system speed, unless you already have enough, in which case adding more can be useless. How much is enough? Good question. Here are some guidelines for Windows XP:

Light word processing, infrequent Web browsing, email, 1-2 open applications at a time


Complex word processing, Web browsing, spreadsheet, business graphics, more than 3 open applications at a time


Page layout, illustration/graphics, complex spreadsheet, statistical applications, light CAD/Modeling


Photo/Video editing, complex CAD/Modeling



This can be the single biggest problem with a laptop. Sure, it runs great, but if it hurts your hands to use it, you’ll probably be very unhappy. If possible, try out any proposed purchase first, or at least a very similar setup. Most people are uncomfortable with keyboards that have the space bar too close to the front of the case. See Pointing Device.

Hard Drive

Also known as storage. This is where the computer puts programs and information for permanent storage. Always buy as much as possible. The trend in software has been toward larger and larger application suites, so a good rule of thumb would be to think of the largest amount of storage you will need, then double that.

CD-ROM Drive

This is necessary for loading many new software titles, and can usually be used as an audio CD player as well. The x rating (e.g. 12x) is a measure of how fast the CD spins compared to an audio CD player. New CD-ROM drives are starting to use constant angular velocity mechanisms (audio and older computer mechanisms are constant linear velocity). Therefore the data can be read faster at the edges of the disk as compared to the inner tracks. These newer drives will give either give a speed rating at the inner and outer tracks (e.g. 12-24x) or will give the outer track speed only (e.g. 20x Max). However, there is no standards body for CD-ROM drive naming, and several manufacturers add a few to the x rating. Access time and transfer rate are the most important aspects of CD-ROM drive. Lower is better for access time, higher is better for transfer rate.

DVD-ROM and DVD-RAM are new technologies in removable storage. All DVD drives can read CD-ROM disks, so you can get one of these instead of a CD-ROM. DVD drives are more expensive than their CD-ROM counterparts, but a DVD-ROM disk can hold the equivalent about 12 CD-ROMs (6 per side). This is enough storage to hold a full-length movie. Current DVD-RAM disks have slightly less capacity (about 8 CD-ROMs) and the DVD-RAM drives are quite expensive, but you can use them as a convenient backup device as well.

Floppy Drive

3.5" 1.44MB is standard. Floppy disks are used for backups, transfers between computers, and software distribution. They should never be used as primary storage as they have failure rates hundreds of times higher than hard drives.


This is your primary feedback from the computer. Larger screens are easier to read, and higher resolution screens give you more places to put your multiple windows.

There are two main types of laptop screens available now: Dual Scan (DSTN) and Active Matrix (TFT). Both are based on backlit LCD shutters. The difference is that TFT screens update faster and can be viewed from wider angles. Objects moving rapidly on DSTN screens tend to blur because of the slow response time of the screen. There have been improvements to the DSTN technology to increase screen response time. These improved DSTN screens are usually called something like "Fast Scan" or "High Performance Addressing" screens. They fall between regular DSTN and TFT screens in both price and performance.

Video Card

Most laptops can drive their own display adequately, but they frequently don’t look very good on external monitors. It’s a good idea to look for one that will drive an external monitor at the resolutions listed on the recommendation chart. A video card with 3D application support would be a good buy.


This, like case and pointing device, is a matter of personal preference. Most people prefer a keyboard with around 19mm key spacing. Most laptop keyboard keys do not depress as far as a typical desktop keyboard. Look for one that has at least 3/4 throw. If possible, try out any proposed purchase first, or at least a very similar setup.

Sound Card

If the laptop you like does not come with built-in sound, you can get PC cards that will provide this function. However, the speakers will not be built-in and can be unwieldy.


Built-in stereo speakers are convenient, but for presentations or music enjoyment, external speakers will probably have to be purchased. For external speaker recommendations, see the desktop section.

Pointing Device

Also known as mouse. This, like case and keyboard, are a matter of personal preference. If possible, try out any proposed purchase first, or at least a very similar setup.

Operating System

Windows Me will give you the most options when purchasing application software. It is much easier to set up and maintain than previous versions of MS Windows.

PC Card Slots

Also called PCMCIA. These are your laptop’s expansion slots. Modems, sound cards, Ethernet cards, and other add-ons can go here. More is better.

Ethernet Card

If you connect through an Ethernet port, this is a must have item.


This provides network connectivity over the phone. 53/33.6 thousand bits per second (v.90 download/upload) is the fastest currently available speed.

Many modem alternatives are emerging. These include ISDN, xDSL, and cable modems. These new technologies are all faster and generally more expensive than a traditional modem. You can contact your local phone company or cable provider to see if they are offered in your area.


The battery is what your laptop runs on when it's not plugged in. Look for battery life of 2 hours or more. An option to put in a second battery in place of the diskette or CD drive is a plus for long trips. There are several types of batteries to choose from:

Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd) are cheap and can last many years, but NiCds have "memory" and thus require regular discharging to remain viable. If not discharged and charged every 30 days or so, the battery will permanently lose some capacity. If NiCds are well cared for, they can have life spans of 2000 cycles or more.

Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) can hold about 30% more charge than NiCds, and are less affected by memory problems.  NiMHs have shorter life spans than well cared for NiCds. (Approx. 500 cycles)

Lithium-Ion (Li-Ion) batteries have some of the best characteristics of NiCd and NiMH batteries. They also have nearly twice the capacity of a NiCd. They do not suffer from memory problems. They are also rated at around 500 cycles.


One year is standard, though many newer laptops are coming with three year warranties. More is better.