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Buying a New Computer

Someone recently asked me "I teach senior citizens in a community based free computer lab. They often ask what to look for when buying a computer, what software they need for email, basic Internet usage, word processing, etc. Many are on a limited budget. What would you suggest they need as a minimum?"

Recommendations For a New Computer

The good news is that computer prices have dropped a lot over the past few years, and the computing power you get for your money is going up! I don't recommend used computers for anyone, because the rate of change of computer technology will render most systems nearly obsolete within three years. If you're a computer novice, wondering what kind of computer, monitor, hard drive, memory, and operating system to get... here's some advice to get you rolling.

Windows or Mac?

You may have friends, relatives or neighbors trying to pull you into the "Windows vs. Mac" holy wars. In my opinion, the choice of operating system really doesn't matter. From a beginner's perspective, each has point & click interfaces that are pretty easy to use. Both will take you to the same Internet, and enable you to send and receive email. Both offer word processing, and the documents they create are interchangeable. Because Windows-based computers make up 90% of the market, they are cheaper. It's the law of supply and demand in operation. And in some areas, it may be hard to find technical or repair support for Apple Macintosh computers. So if you're budget-minded, and you don't have any friends willing to help you with Mac issues, I suggest you go with a Windows-based PC.

A good entry-level computer with monitor can be purchased for under $400, and sometimes you even get a printer in the deal. So what should a newbie look for in terms of speed, monitor, memory and hard drive specs? It doesn't have to be all that confusing...

What about Horsepower?

The CPU (central processing unit, or "processor" for short) is the brain of your computer. In general, the faster the better. Processor speeds are measured in gigahertz (GHz) and as of this writing, the fastest models available operate at about 4 GHz. Entry-level machines start at about 1.5 GHz and are more than adequate for web surfing, email and word processing. If you see a computer with a processor that has a speed specified in megahertz (MHz), steer clear -- these are older models.

Thanks for the Memory

The next decision you have to make is how much RAM memory you need. Don't confuse RAM with hard drive (file storage) space. RAM is the temporary working memory that your computer uses to perform calculations and manipulate files. When you open a document, it is copied from the hard drive into RAM. As you and your word processor work on the file, the modified copy exists only in RAM. When you save the file, it is copied from RAM back to the hard drive, or permanent storage. And as with CPU power, the more RAM you have, the better your computer will perform. I recommend you have a minimum 256 megabytes (MB) of RAM, but with 512 MB you'll notice better performance.

Hard (Drive) Decisions

The hard drive is your permanent file storage. All of your personal files, such as word processor documents, photos, music, and emails are stored here, in addition to software packages and the operating system. Most new PC's come with a hard drive that's 40 gigabytes (GB) or larger. I recommend you start with a hard drive of 80 GB or more, if you plan to keep lots of photos or music on your computer.

Go For a Large Monitor

Here's the formula: Larger Monitor = Less Eyestrain and Less Scrolling. I recommend a 17-inch monitor, or even a 19-inch if you don't mind spending a bit more. Don't worry about brand names here, they're all pretty much the same. Stay away from 14 or 15-inch monitors, they're just too small to be practical.

What About Software?

Most of the software you need will come pre-installed on your new PC. Windows comes with Internet Explorer (for web browsing) and Outlook Express (for email). Many PC systems include a word processor, such as Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, or OpenOffice. If your computer doesn't come with any of these, I suggest you purchase Microsoft Works, which will give you MS Word, a spreadsheet similar to MS Excel, and other useful programs.

Look for a computer that comes with anti-virus software pre-installed. If yours doesn't come with any anti-virus package, check with your Internet service provider to see if they offer anything for free. Failing that, you can download the free AVG package.

Summary

So in a nutshell, here are my recommendations:

  • Look for a Windows XP-based PC with monitor for around $400
  • Processor: 1.5 GHz or better
  • RAM memory: 256 MB or better
  • Hard Drive: 80 GB or better
  • Monitor: 17-inch or larger
  • Software: Microsoft Works and AVG anti-virus
Where to Buy?

Look at your local computer store first, they may have some good deals and offer local support. Office supply and electronics stores such as Staples, Office Depot, and Best Buy are good options to explore too. If you're comfortable buying online, check out the Dell.com or Gateway.com offerings.

BOB RANKIN ...is a tech writer and computer programmer who enjoys exploring the Internet and sharing the fruit of his experience with others. His work has appeared in ComputerWorld, NetGuide, and NY Newsday. Bob is publisher of the Internet TOURBUS newsletter, author of several computer books, and creator of the LowfatLinux.com website. For more helpful articles and free tech support, visit http://www.AskBobRankin.com

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