The Workhorse: Desktop PCs
- — 17 January, 2011 22:00
These days owning a home computer is considered a necessity of life, but buying one isn’t nearly as easy as it should be. Different people need different things from their computers, from web browsing and emails to rendering images and playing video games. Whether you just like to check Facebook once in a while or you’re a hardcore gamer with money to burn, there is a computer out there to suit your needs.
Buying a PC can seem like acronym gymnastics, with CPU, RAM and NVIDIAs to consider. Should you go for an all-in-one or source a massive monitor? Read on and all will be revealed.
KEY COMPONENTS TO CONSIDER
The central processing unit (CPU) is the ‘brain’ of your PC. It tells the different parts of your computer what they should be doing, and when. These days if you’re buying new it’s hard to get a ‘bad’ processor. Dual core processors, which have one silicon chip with two processors working at once, will suit the vast majority of PC owners just fine.
Memory is your PC’s thinking space. It’s also known as Random Access Memory (RAM) and it’s where active processes are kept. Think of memory this way-there’s only so much space in your brain for thought processes, and if you’re trying to focus on too many things at once you get frazzled. So does your computer, and when it’s overworked, it runs at the speed of a tortoise with its legs cut off. Fortunately, while you can’t expand your brain’s memory without some serious training, you can easily increase the amount of memory space you have to make your PC faster. It’s quick and economical, too-we’ve found that increasing RAM is the cheapest and most efficient way of speeding up your computer. Most computers running Windows these days need at least 2GB of RAM to efficiently run the operating system and any other programs you have open. Fortunately most computers on the market now come with 2GB at a minimum. If you’re going to be regularly rendering images or playing games, you may need 4GB or more.
There are two different types of graphics cards-integrated or dedicated. Most low-end desktops come with integrated graphics cards physically soldered to the motherboard, which are fine for everyday tasks like web browsing, email and word processing. If you want something with a little more grunt for your gaming and multimedia needs, you will want to buy a computer that has a dedicated, removable graphics card. Alternatively you can buy a low-end computer and install a new card yourself (or pay someone to do it for you, if you’re not sure how). A decent graphics card will set you back $200-$300, but prices are dropping all the time. You can pay up to $1,000 for a really high-end card, but even for people who demand a lot out of their PC it’s often not necessary.
The hard drive is where all of the data you create and use is stored. Your operating system, web browser, videos, pictures-all of them take up space on your hard drive. Fortunately, the minimum size of a new hard drive is 320GB, which is more than any average user will ever need. Hard drive space is rewritable, so you can delete files to free up space. However if you need to store a lot of multimedia you might still need to go bigger or buy an external hard drive.
With TV and the internet converging more and more, you might soon find that your 17-inch CRT Trade Me special isn’t good enough to watch all the videos you’re going to download. We recommend at least a 22-inch widescreen LCD monitor, with high definition. If you want your monitor to still have relevance in a few years, big and shiny is the way to go.
All new PCs come with an optical drive – usually a DVD-ROM at the bare minimum – and for a few dollars more you can add a rewritable drive so you can back up your data to a disc. There are a lot of other external storage systems out there. Check out page 36 for more information.
All-in-one desktops combine the computer and monitor into one inseparable device, and sit somewhere between a desktop and a notebook computer. Even if you’re content with your notebook’s screen size, things become awkward if you want to use an external keyboard and mouse. You either have to use some kind of notebook stand to keep the built-in keyboard out of the way, or just accept that your screen will be farther back from your head than you might like.
Performance figures run much the same range as notebooks, so you’ve nothing to gain or lose there. The only possible exceptions are high-end gaming notebooks: we haven’t tested an all-in-one with comparable specs yet, though they do exist. Until we’ve put a couple through the test centre, we’re hesitant to offer gamers any serious all-in-one advice.
As with a netbook or notebook, an all-in-one ties you to a specific screen (its own). With the above caveats, it’s a great option for the average home PC. Unless you need ultra-performance or plan to upgrade components over time, a full-sized desktop just seems so square.
The E-Machine comes with a dual core processor, 2GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. It’s perfect for the casual user as it can run all of the basic programmes you use. This computer will only really do you wrong if you run a game with intense graphics on it as it has an integrated graphics card. Because it’s not an all-in-one, you can always update the graphics card yourself.
More info: emachines.com
This all-in-one PC is new to the market and a good halfway point between a PC and a notebook. It has a huge 23.6-inch multi-touch screen, so you can surf the internet without needing a mouse. It also has a dedicated graphics card, 4GB of RAM and a speedy processor, so you can play most recent games on medium settings. It also has a Blu-ray drive, so doubles as a Blu-ray player if you don’t already have one. It won’t compete with a high-end gaming machine, but it will happily replace the average home PC.
More info: asus.co.nz
Who needs $8,000 anyway? If you’ve recently won the lottery and want an extreme performance PC (and we mean extreme) then check out this bad boy. It has an overclocked six-core Intel processor, 12GB of RAM, 120GB of lightning-fast storage on a solid-state drive, a terabyte of slower hard drive storage – that’s 1024GB - and dual graphics cards. It also has a water-cooling system which keeps it at manageable temperatures, even with the mad level of overclocking. It also looks extremely cool, and surprisingly wireless inside, which is important because you can see straight inside it through its transparent side panel.
More info: compulink.co.nz
1. What kind of computer user are you? If you are only interested in checking emails, surfing the internet, and watching the occasional video on YouTube, don’t be suckered into buying something you don’t need. If you’re paying much more than $1,200 for a desktop, you’re getting ripped off. However if you want a performance PC for gaming or multimedia, you’re going to have to pay for it or build it yourself.
2. Do you need portability? Desktops are generally more powerful than notebooks, but if you need something you can cart around, they’re not exactly ideal. All-in-ones are a nice in-between, but even they aren’t anywhere close to as portable as a notebook. Fortunately, laptops come in a range of performance levels so you can find a high-end laptop that will run as well as most desktops, bar the best performance PCs. See page 31 for notebook buying tips.
3. Listen to your friends. Certain brands of PC might run very well, but have a tendency to break after a very short period of time. Desktops are generally more resilient than notebooks, but they aren’t immune to breakdowns. Check with your friends and see what kind of computers they have at home, and how long they’ve had them. If they’ve been going a few years and they’re still running well, the brand is probably well-made and will last longer.
4. You can build or upgrade. If you’re into DIY then you can build your own PC. You can put together a performance PC for around the same price as buying a low-end PC new, or you can buy a low-end PC with a good processor and upgrade its RAM and graphics card. Just make sure the parts you buy are compatible, and make sure to be careful about static electricity-it can fry your brand new computer parts and render them useless.