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July 26, 2008

Tech, G.P.: Memory, power tops in picking PC

Is a new computer part of your future? Wondering what to get?

Maybe I can help. It's been more than two years since I last wrote about buying a personal computer, and things have changed some since then.

First off, keep in mind that different types of computer users will be suited by different types of machines. One size doesn't fit all. That's why there are so many different ways to configure a PC.

Second, let's clear up one of the most confusing things for a lot of people, the difference between RAM and storage space. Both these components are usually described using the same measurement units, bytes (actually, megabytes and gigabytes), and I suspect that's why people get them mixed up. They are, however, completely different ideas.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, a person working in an office. The person has various tasks to do. Instructions for these tasks are written in booklets that are stored in a file cabinet in the office. Also stored in the file cabinet are papers on which the person records the result of the tasks that are completed.

Now, if we draw a parallel between this office scenario and a computer, we can compare the storage space of the computer with the file cabinet in the office. In a computer, this is usually what's known as a hard-disk drive. Sizes today typically range from 100 to 300 gigabytes.

Similarly, we can compare the memory in the person's mind, where the thoughts required to complete the tasks take place, with the RAM in the computer. After all, RAM stands for Random Access Memory, which is pretty much what you have in your mind. In today's PCs, the size ranges from one to eight gigabytes. In humans, it varies widely.

One difference, it should be noted, between the memory in a human and the memory in a computer, is that in a person, the memory, we hope, persists. In a computer, when the power is turned off, the RAM goes blank. Aren't you glad you're not a computer?

Anyway, both memory and storage are measured in bytes, but now you know the difference.

So, let's get back to buying a computer.

If you are an individual, and not buying a machine for a business, you are probably going to get one with Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system installed on it.

I'm not going to get involved in the Windows-Macintosh-Linux debate here. That can be for another column. If you want a column about that, e-mail me. If there is enough interest, it could happen.

First rule: Get two gigabytes of RAM, or more. Vista is a memory hog. Microsoft will tell you that the minimum requirement is less than that, but take my word for it, you need a lot of RAM for Vista to be happy. I have no vested interests in either memory manufacturers or Microsoft's marketing, so you can trust me on this.

With the RAM issue taken care of, and if you are going to use the computer for surfing the Web, sending e-mail and nothing else, you have it easy. Almost any computer you buy new today will do that sufficiently well.

If you're in this situation, your decision can be made simply by picking out a manufacturer or dealer that you decide you can trust.

You're done.

If you are going to be doing more than that, you have to scale your computer's power in relation to the work that you do.

If you are going to be doing tasks using graphically oriented programs for such things as photo editing, using complex drawings or laying out complex pages to be printed, you will want more power than you typically get in the low-end machines. Pick a dual-core processing chip, such as the Intel Core2Duo or an AMD chip with "X2" in its name. You may also want even more than two gigabytes of RAM.

If you are a "gamer," playing the complex online games, you can never have too much power.

These guys get the dual-processor machines, each with multi-core chips, and video cards that cost as much as someone else's whole computer. The people who use these computers already pretty much know who they are, and what they want. They are limited only by the size of their wallet and their imagination.

So, about the only consideration left is the desktop-notebook issue. I'll give my usual notebook sermon now.

Some people need a notebook computer. Others think they need a notebook, but probably really don't.

If you're considering a notebook, keep in mind the drawbacks of a portable machine, as well as the advantages.

Notebooks are more expensive than a comparable power desktop. They get stolen more often. They get dropped and suffer damage more often.

It's more of a pain to get them repaired, especially after the warranty runs out.

In short, they're a higher-risk proposition.

Don't get me wrong, for some people they are just the thing. I use one myself on occasion for my job, but if you just want a notebook for the "cool" factor, take all these things into consideration.

If you're planning to buy a new PC, I hope I've helped in some small way. Keep in mind that these recommendations are intended for individuals.

If you want to get a machine for a business, it can get much more complicated, especially in the operating system area. There is not enough space here to get into that scenario. That could be a topic for a future column, if there is interest in it.

E-mail me at the address below if you have comments or suggestions for future columns.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at