The good thing about buying a computer today is that no matter what you buy, you will wind up with something that will be able to perform the basic tasks that will enable you to function in the electronic world. The problem in buying one lies in the amazing number of choices available. It is easier than ever for you to custom tailor a computer to fit your needs. There have always been choices in what kind of computer you can buy, but the available choices and the things you can do with them have never been more plentiful. Being an educated shopper can pay off handsomely in user satisfaction down the road. You only need to know what you need (and want) to do, and select the computer features that will get it for you.

Know what you want
As Joe Jackson once sang, "You can't get what you want, 'till you know what you want." The number one problem when shopping for a computer (or anything else, for that matter) is getting misdirected. Maybe there's a sale on a computer that almost meets your needs. Sometimes the salesperson has a quota or an incentive program going, and tries to talk you into the model they want you to buy. Maybe your kids are getting whiny, or the store is crowded, or you're just plain tired and you just want to buy something so you can go home. It's better to leave and come back later than leave with something that doesn't meet your needs.

Before you even leave your house, sit down with a piece of paper and write down what you want to do with your computer. Email? Gaming? Online chat? Writing? Publishing? Web Design? Even if this article were only to focus on things you can do with a computer, there still wouldn't be room to list them all. But all you need to do is write down what you want to do with it.

Want something for just web surfing and email? Then a basic computer system will do. Are you into gaming? Then you're going to need something with a fast processor and a decent amount of video memory. Are you a budding digital movie producer? Then you are going to need to add to that a ton of RAM and as big a hard drive as you can cram into the machine's case.

Small, Fast, or Cheap - Pick Two
When it comes to the CPU, the computer's brain, there are several things to remember. The faster the processor, the bigger it is and the more it will cost. The size isn't only due to a bigger chip; it also has to do with the amount of cooling it needs when running.

A computer chip is basically a tiny collection of transistors processing multiple streams of electrons as fast as possible. This means that a lot of electrical current is running through the chip at all times, and all that energy coursing through the chip generates a lot of heat.

The heat is handled by a bunch of metal fins attached to the chip called a heat sink. They carry the heat away from the chip surface, and are usually paired with a fan that blows cooling air through them to increase their efficiency. That's one of the main reasons why the most powerful chips need big boxes, to provide space for the heat sink and fans needed. The other is to provide space for future expansion.

Most basic computers will have processors with clock speeds over 1 GHz, and you don't really need anything faster than 2 GHz unless you are into fast-paced applications like gaming. Even then, the heavy lifting is performed by a graphics card, which contains a dedicated video processor chip and video memory. Graphics cards are usually rated by their processor's computing power, measured in the amount of data it can handle, usually in MegaBytes (MB). The more memory, the better the card operates, taking the load off of the CPU. The biggest buzz is over the new 64-bit CPU chips. These processors have a data bus twice as large as the present generation of devices. They are significantly faster, but the primary benefit is in memory access. A 32-bit processor can address up to 4 GB of memory, but a 64-bit chip can address roughly 16 million terabytes of memory. This massive capability hasn't yet been addressed by the software world (and won't be except for huge servers), so it is more for bragging rights than anything else.

Memory - not just for storage
As mentioned above, memory falls under two general types, temporary and permanent. A computer needs to temporarily store the data it is using while the software is running, and it needs to store data over the long term.

Random-access memory (RAM) is the memory the computer's CPU uses while operating. There has to be enough to hold the operating system, the open software programs, and the computations performed to run them. Today's software and operating systems require at least 256 MB to run well, and the number goes up from there.

The hard disk is where the computer stores the data it will need again in the future, keeping them safe even when the computer is turned off. The least you should go with is 40 to 80 GB, and for anything involving lots of graphics, 120 GB or more is even better.

There are other ways to store permanent or semi-permanent data. Sadly, for anything but simple text files, the floppy disk is useless. Today, one needs a CD-ROM burner (a DVD burner is even better) that can create data CDs for backup storage or sending data like images, presentations, or web site material to others (an added advantage to a CD/DVD drive is that you can use it to watch movies.) One can also get a flash-memory card reader so they can put the memory cards from digital cameras, PDAs, and other devices directly into the computer. Having the capability to deal with memory cards directly allows you to transfer data without having to worry about having the right cable for the device in question.

Cables and connections
Speaking of cables, what types are you going to be dealing with? If all you are doing is connecting to the web for email and surfing, all you need is a phone jack. For a faster connection via a cable modem, you need what is called an Ethernet or Cat 5 cable connection. An extra USB connection or three is also important if you have any external devices that you want to connect, like a digital camera, MP-3 player, or CD burner. Your computer will usually have a couple, but they are usually occupied by basic devices like the keyboard and mouse.

The important thing to remember about a USB connection is that it can also provide power to the device connected to it. That means if your computer doesn't have enough, you can't just rely on plugging in a USB expander in the future to increase the number of connections, unless the expander has its own power supply. For example, if you are running a keyboard with a couple of USB jacks in it, and you plug a flash memory "thumbdrive" into one and a device like the HP 4x6-in. photo scanner into the other (it runs from USB power) you can overtax the power bus in the USB jack the keyboard is plugged into. That's why most USB expanders allow you to plug in an additional power supply, to provide additional power to all the add-on jacks.

If you have a digital camcorder or other device with a high data density, it probably has a FireWire, or IEEE 1394 cable connection. This cable can also be used to connect external peripherals like a CD or DVD burner and hard drive. If you really like your music, a sound card is another device you can't do without. It will let you plug a set of powered speakers into your computer, and/or hook it up to your stereo system, useful if you are also going to use its DVD drive to play movies as well as burn disks for data storage.

Notebook or Desktop?
Deciding between a notebook and a desktop computer isn't as much about making tradeoffs between performance and convenience any more. Now, with better processors and LCD monitors, unless you need the fastest and most powerful available, notebooks now provide performance comparable to a desktop's, even for demanding applications like gaming and video editing.

The primary advantage of a notebook is portability. However, buying the smallest notebooks still involve making tough decisions about performance and features. Many people choose what is referred to as a "desktop replacement", a notebook that contains all of the features of a desktop, but may be too heavy and large to travel with regularly. These are used mainly by people who don't want to dominate a desk with a computer, or those that use their computer on a lap desk in front of the TV, or those that move their computers infrequently.

Chips made especially for notebooks are less powerful than their high-speed desktop counterparts, and don't run as hot. Although they also don't run as fast as the most powerful desktop chips, the fastest notebook chips are fast enough for most applications, including gaming and graphics processing.

One can buy notebooks and laptops with monitor sizes under 10 inches, or as large as 17 inches. In addition, the new "tablet" computers can be used as a writing surface or a laptop, and many are available with cradles to hold the unit when used as a desktop computer. The primary area where laptops lag behind desktops is in expansion, as they lack the room to add multiple drives, additional cards, or peripheral devices. You can add to a notebook-based system, but only with external devices with their own packaging and power supply.

With a little planning and some research, you can find the right machine for you. Just remember to be careful and know what you want to do with it, before you buy.

A rough breakdown of general system requirements:
Mainstream/basic system - Pentium or Celeron processor running at a speed of up to 2 GHz, 256 to 512 MB of RAM, and a 40-GB HD, and a 32-MB graphics card.

Power User/Gaming - Centrino, Power PC, or Pentium 4 running at up to 3 GHz, 1,024 MB of RAM, an 80- or 120-GB HD, and a 128-MB graphics card.

Video Editing/Graphics - Power PC or Pentium 4 running at up to 4 GHz with Hyper-Threading Technology, 2 GB of RAM, a 200 GB HD, and a 128-MB graphics card.

Computer Ninja - 64-bit Power PC or Athlon processor, from 4 to 8 GB of RAM, and an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro or NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 Ultra graphics card.

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