Face it, the majority of computer users probably fall into the category of average or below-avera...
Face it, the majority of computer users probably fall into the category of average or below-average when it comes to knowledge about the machine they are actually operating. It exists and does what they need it to do, but they dare not monkey around with it too much or the local computer repair service will gladly charge them to fix things. When that's the case, upgrading their systems likely won't lead them down the path where they hand-pick all the latest and greatest components, go home and start building things themselves. For most people out there, buying a desktop computer is made a lot simpler by walking into your local electronics store and seeing what the current name-brand offerings are on the demo wall. This gives you a great all-in-one package that's preloaded and ready to go while saving you the hassle of doing it yourself. Now let's take a look at just what you should be considering before you go shopping.
Price Range and System Intentions
The first thing you'll want to know when going out to buy a new computer is how much you're willing to spend and what your needs will be with the system. You won't need an expensive system if all you plan on doing is browsing the internet and doing a bit of e-mailing. However, if you plan on playing the latest and greatest games then the opposite is true. Make sure you budget and shop according to your needs - don't just go for whatever the best priced bundle is at the time! The more you aim to get a system to cover your current needs and those in the near future, then the less often you'll have to upgrade components and the longer time you'll own the system overall.
Once you know generally what you're looking for, the next step is to make sure all the components in the system will build the perfect puzzle to fit all your requirements.
CPU - The CPU, or processor, is what determines the overall performance of the system. CPU's are rated in terms of their overall speed and the number of cores they have on each chip. Speeds generally range from 1.6ghz up to 3.0+ghz. One thing you'll want to realize is that your old Pentium 4 2.8ghz will not be faster than a brand new Core2Duo 2.0ghz despite the 800mhz difference in speed. There are many more technical factors that affect a CPU's overall speed and performance. so older computer speeds can not be directly compared to the speeds of brand new systems. Shopping for a new system right now will likely leave you in the dual-core or better range of processors since almost no new desktop computers are using single core processors anymore. What this means is that there are actually two processors under the die of one physical chip inside the computer. If you're willing to spend a little bit more you can even get tri and quad core computer systems as well which use three or four processors in one! All of the processors operate at the same speed, or gigahertz, but the computer can dynamically control what applications are using which processor. Essentially what this means is that every running application can harness MORE processor power because all the applications are being spread out over processors and not bogging down just one processor.
Memory - Memory is where currently running processes and programs are stored for faster access and operation within the operating system. For new computers I recommend nothing under 2 gig of RAM Memory which is what the majority of systems are coming with unless you're specifically shopping for a very cheap and budget model. Any new computer that uses 4 gig or over will come preloaded with a 64-bit version of Windows because 32-bit versions can only address up to 3 gig of Ram Memory maximum. When you have a 64-bit operating system you need to make sure that ALL hardware you plan on running on the system has 64-bit drivers available (manufacturers are generally pretty good at this now). To sum it up very simply, make sure you have a decent amount of RAM memory in the system you're looking for, and it doesn't hurt to buy a system with as much as you can afford because you can only benefit from the added speed later.
Hard Drive - The hard drive is a fairly self explanatory computer component; it's where your files, programs and anything else on your computer is stored. The more room the better, especially since software and games are getting larger and larger with every new version coming out. If you find you run out of hard drive space in the future it's easy to add an external hard drive to your system later for even more storage space, or if you're tech savvy enough you can install a secondary drive inside the computer. Hard drive sizes on new systems will vary from around 200 gig to several terabytes (1,000 gig = 1 terabyte) if the manufacturer is using more than one drive.
Graphics - Unless you specifically buy a "gaming" system then you will most likely be using an integrated graphics solution that is built onto the computer's motherboard. For day to day users these are not bad at all and can usually even handle light gaming in addition to the graphics requirements from the operating system itself. If you want to play serious games then I suggest either buying a system with a standalone video card already in it or make sure you're buying a system that allows you to add your own later (it would need a PCI-Express graphics slot for that).
Optical Drive - I'm not going to touch on this much because most new computers are shipping with at least a dual-layer DVD/CD burner. If you plan on using Lightscribe to laser-etch labels on supporting discs, then check for this feature because it isn't something that's standard on every computer at this time. Blu-Ray is also becoming an option on new computers but you can expect to still pay a couple hundred more for this until it becomes more mainstream.
Connectors - Chances are that you'll have many components of your own to connect into your new computer. These will be things like MP3 players, iPods, gaming devices, printers, scanners, speakers, etc. Make sure you check what connections are available on the system you plan to buy. Make sure you can connect all your vital components and as many USB accessories as possible. The nice thing with USB is that if you don't have enough ports you can buy a hub to provide some more. Do you require additional plugs such as HDMI to DVI to interface with a high-definition television? Make sure you check for these connections now because the only way to add them later is with a costly new video card! Also be aware that some of the connections that older devices use are no longer available on newer computers, such as a parallel port for older printers, serial ports if you connect to your satellite box for programming, and even a PS2 mouse connection.
Preloaded Software and Recovery
In addition to looking at the hardware being offered by the system you plan to buy, it isn't a bad idea to inquire about any preloaded software and the system recovery process. Any pre-boxed system will ship with an operating system; usually the Microsoft Windows operating system. On top of that, manufacturers are throwing on all kinds of other software - some trials and some full versions. Make sure you find out if you get a trial version of anti-virus software or if it's the full thing because this is something you don't want to be left without for too long! Consider most of the other software to be "goodies" and nuisances. Some of it you'll use but chances are you will probably uninstall a lot of it as well because it will dramatically slow down your system (you do know how to properly un-install software right?). Also, find out how the system recovery works because chances are if you own the computer long enough you will want to recover it back to new to either speed things up for fix a problem such as spyware, a virus, or an operating system failure. Some manufacturers will have a portion of your hard drive set aside that you can recover from (initiated during boot), others will require you to burn a CD or DVD recovery media set, and others will use both methods. If you're given the chance to burn recovery media, DO IT! There's nothing like having a hard drive die and having your only source of recovery to be on that dead drive! Keep in mind that recovery will bring the system back to the state it was when purchased, it will not save your files! I could spend all the time in the world telling you how important it is to backup your files but sadly most people don't learn until they've lost something really important, and please keep in mind that eventually ALL computers will fail in some manner.
Lastly, if you're looking to a new system from scratch and don't plan to reuse any old hardware or are buying for someone without a previous computer, then check out what packages are being offered at stores. It's not uncommon that you can buy a computer + monitor, computer + printer, or computer + monitor + printer package and save yourself some good money from doing it that way. Figure out everything you need before going into the store and see what sort of sales and deals are currently being offered. Like I said early though, don't buy just because of the package! Make sure the system included in the package actually has the performance and the options to do what you want and that you are not buying it simply because of "free this" or "cheap that".