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Dave's Guide to Buying a Home Computer

© 1989-2012 , D D P Systems Ltd

Table of Contents:
Things to Consider Before Buying a Computer
In the initial stages of determining what sort of computer you need to get, at some point you need to ask yourself, what am I going to be using the computer for? Whether you intend to write papers for class, surf the World Wide Web, or just play computer games, you need to have an idea of what the minimum requirements the computer needs to have. If all you intend to do is just write letters using a DOS based word processing program, a 386 or 486 system with a couple megabytes of memory is more than adequate. If you want to use a Windows version of some word processing program, then your requirements go up a bit, particularly on the amount of RAM memory and hard disk space. If you want to be able to surf the Web and play some of the multimedia virtual reality games, then you need a higher-end system, with more memory, more disk space, and a modem.

Once you determine what you need the computer for, the next question that you need to ask yourself is how much money I can afford to spend. If you are looking for a Pentium IV based system, expect to pay around $1200 for a good quality system including software and a monitor. You will no doubt see several systems advertised for less (sub-$1,000 computers), but there is a good reason why these systems are cheaper and we will discuss this a little later in this document.

Buy as much PC as you can afford. Don't cut corners on the main system unit (monitor, processor, memory, disk space, etc.). If you are short on cash, hold off on the printer or a software application or two that you really don't need right away. Remember, this system is going to last you at least 2 or 3 years or more and you don't want to start running out of disk space or memory in the first week that you have it because you trimmed down the amount of memory or got a smaller hard drive so that you could afford to buy 18 different versions of a screen saver program!

Remember, you get what you pay for. If the price is cheap, most likely the components are cheap. For example, a good brand name 40 GB (Gigabyte) hard drive currently sells for $95 to $105. If a salesman talks you into their in-house brand for $50, make sure you have them throw in an extra set of rubber bands! Or a good quality 17 inch color SVGA monitor will typically go for somewhere in the range of $149 to $169. If the local computer store is selling a high-end model SVGA monitor for only $130, check to see if there is a crank on the side!

Finally, give yourself some room to work. Shoot for a dollar amount but be willing to spend a couple hundred more to get exactly what you want and something that you'll be happy with. If you say I want the best computer graphics workstation made, but I don't want to spend more than $500, I say go buy yourself a 64-pack of Crayolas with some colored paper, because that's all you can afford. Be realistic!

What is the Main Purpose of the Computer
If you have made the decision to buy a computer, there must be a reason or need that you have to get one, other than I have $2000 burning a hole in my pocket and I need to get rid of it! A good reason for buying a computer would be something like writing papers for a class or keeping track of your finances or business. A bad reason for buying a computer would be something like your best friend has one or everyone else you know has one, because you're probably never going to use it and you end up with a $2000 paper weight.

Computer Terminology
Before we get into our discussion of computers and components, there are a few terms that I should define first for those that are shopping for a computer for the first time: bits, bytes, and megahertz. These are the most common terms that are used to describe a computer's ability to store information and the speed in which it can process data.

Bits & Bytes Defined
Computers only work with binary numbers. A binary number, or bit for short, is the smallest unit of information that is used by a computer and consists of one of two different characters, a 0 (zero) or a 1 (one). A 0 would refer to off or false or no, while a 1 would refer to on or true or yes. A simplified example of the use of a bit would be when the computer is booted up, it sends out a signal to the printer connected to the computer to see if it is ready to accept documents. Assuming that the printer is turned on and isn't ready yet, it would respond by sending back a 0 indicating no, I'm not ready. If the printer is ready, it would respond by sending back a 1 indicating yes, I am ready. When you see the speed rating of a communications device, such as a serial port or a modem, the speed will be listed in bps or bits per second. A modem that has a rating of 56K bps (since K refers to thousand, that is 56,000 bps) would have the capability to sending or receiving 56,000 0s and/or 1s in one second.

Since sending out information 1 bit at a time can be rather time consuming for the computer, information is sent as a package of data or instructions called a byte. A byte is made up of 8 bits of information, such as 00000000 or 10101010. Most of a computer's specifications are represented in terms of bytes, such as the computer's memory capacity or the size of a disk drive.

The following table lists the various terms and their associated values:

TermSymbol Value
bitb 0 or 1
byteB 8 bits
kilobitKb    1,024 bits
kilobyteKB    1,024 bytes
megabitMb    1,048,576 bits
megabyteMB    1,048,576 bytes
gigabitGb    1,073,741,824 bits
gigabyteGB    1,073,741,824 bytes
terabitTb    1,099,511,627,776 bits
terabyteTB    1,099,511,627,776 bytes

Note in the above table that when referring to computers, the K (thousand) actually refers to 1,024 and not 1,000. Therefore, a document stored on the computer's hard drive that is listed as being 10 KB in size is actually 10,240 bytes (10 times 1,024) and not 10,000 bytes. If a computer contains 32 MB of memory, it actually contains 33,554,432 bytes (32 times 1,048,576) and not 32,000,000.

Megahertz Defined
The speed of a computer depends on the amount of data its processor can manipulate in a given period of time and the processor's clock speed. The clock speed of a processor is measured by the number of electronic pulses it can produce in a second. Clock speed is built into the processor and is measured in megahertz (MHz). Since mega means million and hertz means times (cycles) per second, 500 MHz is 500 million times per second. The electronic pulses affect the speed with which program instructions are executed because instructions are executed at predetermined intervals, which are timed by the electronic pulses. For example, if we had a computer than contained a processor that was running at 500 MHz and it executed an instruction every 100 pulses, it would process 5,000,000 instructions per second (500 million divided by 100). If the computer had a 300 MHz processor and executed an instruction every 100 pulses, it would process 3,000,000 instructions per second.

The amount of data that the processor can handle is called the word size and refers to the number of bits of information that can be processed at a time. An Intel Pentium processor can handle 64-bit words or 64 bits (0s and 1s) of information at a time. The older 486 computers contained 32-bit processors and could only handle 32 bits of information at a time. Before you jump to conclusions, a 64-bit processor is not necessarily twice as fast as a 32-bit processor. The 64-bit processor may be more than twice as fast in performing some tasks, but less than twice as fast in performing others. Generally speaking though, a 64-bit processor is faster than a 32-bit processor, which in turn is faster than a 16-bit processor.

We will discuss processing speed in more detail under the Processor Paranoia section below.

Operating Systems and Software Applications
The software applications that you get for your computer must be compatible. Once you determine which operating system you are going to run on your new computer (assuming that you have a choice), Windows 95, 98, NT, Me, 2000, OS/2, or Linux, you can then select which software applications to get. Most software applications are available in each of these flavors, so the application does not necessarily determine which operating system you have to use. If you buy a complete computer system from D D P Systems as opposed to purchasing each of the components separately from different outlets, the complete system will most likely come with an operating system preinstalled, such as Microsoft Windows XP or a operating system of your choice. i.e. Windows 98SE,ME or 2000.

Windows 95
A 32-bit, semi-preemptive multitasking operating system, in definition anyway. In reality, it is a hybrid version of Windows 3.x (in that it still contains some of the same 16-bit code) and Windows NT (a true 32-bit operating system). Due to the 16-bit code which is still part of the operating system, Windows 95 will actually run faster on a computer with a Pentium processor that is not optimized for a 32-bit operating system and slower on computers with processors that are fully optimized for a 32-bit operating system (Pentium Pro and Pentium II). It was designed as more or less a transition operating system to move users from the older, slower 16-bit software applications to the newer, more powerful 32-bit software application. Therefore, it still runs most of the older 16-bit applications such as Microsoft Office 4.x, DOS versions of word processing and spreadsheet applications, as well as most DOS based computer games. While maintaining this backward compatibility, Microsoft also included some 32-bit code to allow it to take advantage of the faster and more powerful 32-bit software applications that are now available, such as Microsoft Office 97 and Corel WordPerfect Office Suite 8. Problems associated with Windows 95 are generally due to the backward compatibility issue with 16-bit software written for DOS and Windows 3.x. These problems will generally appear as Windows GPF (General Protection Fault) errors, which were common with Windows 3.x (although not quite as bad in Windows 95). One way to avoid the GPF errors is to stick with device drivers that were written specifically for Windows 95. Also, Windows 95 supports Plug & Play which makes the installation of components a snap.
Windows 98
32-bit operating system like Windows 95 and although it is marketed as a new operating system, in reality it is more or less a bug-fix for Windows 95 with a few new bells and whistles thrown in. The major differences between Windows 95 and Windows 98 are that Windows 98 integrates Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser into the operating system - creating a single interface for browsing the web and the PC, better help and troubleshooting wizards, enhanced support for DVD and USB (defined below), support for multiple display monitors (I can barely afford one monitor, let alone two), WebTV support, and a feature called Windows Update that automatically checks Microsoft's software update site for newer versions and updates your computer for you (assuming that your computer is connected to a network or you have a modem). If you already have a PC with Windows 95 and it is working fine, I wouldn't recommend upgrading to Windows 98 due to the cost and disk space overhead (195 MB). However, if you are buying a new computer, Windows 98 is definitely better than Windows 95 due to the enhanced support and cleaner interface.
Windows Me
Another 32-bit operating system like Windows 95 and Windows 98. Me is targetted at the home user and includes improvements to the reliability and ease of use of Windows 98. There are also some enhanced features including Internet Explorer 5.5, Windows Media Player 7, System Restore which restores deleted files, Auto Update that automatically checks Microsoft's software update site for newer versions and updates your computer for you, Windows Image Acquisition the simplifies downloading and saving of images from digital cameras, Windows Movie Maker for editing digital video, and the Home Networking Wizard that is designed to help users setup a home network. Most new computers will come with Windows Me installed.
Windows NT
A true multitasking, multithreaded 32-bit operating system. Although the interface of Windows 95 and Windows NT appear the same, Windows NT does not contain any 16-bit code and is therefore not backward compatible with older 16-bit software applications. Since it has been around for several years, it is considered a mature operating system and it has a built in crash protection scheme that usually prevents one software application from crashing everything else, although it can still happen on occasion. Windows NT still has its share of bugs, but they are related more to hardware compatibility issues rather than the operating system itself. As long as you stick to hardware components that are certified to work with Windows NT, you shouldn't have any problems. If you want security and increased power and stability, Windows NT is the operating system for you, but note that it is not quite as user friendly as Windows 95 is and it also does not support Plug & Play.
Windows 2000
A true multitasking, multithreaded, 32-bit operating system. It combines the best features of Windows 98 with the security, manageability and reliability of Windows NT. Some of the new features include safeguards that prevent important files and device drivers from being overwritten during a software installation, eliminates the need to reboot the computer after installing software applications, can run more applications and perform more tasks at the same time than Windows 95 or Windows 98, provides support for multiple processors and several hundred languages, faster data transfers with Universal Serial Bus (USB) and IEEE 1394 (discussed below), and it is rumored to be 25% faster than previous versions of Windows. There is also a tool that allows you to view a small thumbnail image of a multimedia or graphic file before you open it, a feature called Hibernate that will automatically turn your computer and monitor off at a set time, off-line viewing for files and folders, and Internet Connection Sharing that allows you to connect your Windows 2000 computer to the Internet (via dial-up or other method) and then give network access to other computers in your home.
Windows XP
A multitasking, multithreaded, operating system that is available in both 32-bit and 64-bit formats. There will be two 32-bit versions of Windows XP. Windows XP Home Edition and Windows XP Professional. Both versions have the new Windows XP interface, advanced support for laptops, wireless connections, faster bootup and application startup times, advanced power management, a builtin Internet firewall, and support Internet Explorer 6.0 Privacy. Windows XP Professional has all of the above plus support for remote desktops, offline files and folders, multiprocessors, file encryption, enhanced administrative functions (like Windows 2000), and a multi-lingual user interface. Windows XP 64-Bit Edition is Microsoft's first 64-bit client operating system and is targeted at technical users working with high-end multimedia, engineering, and scientific applications. It contains all of the enhancements for the 32-bit versions of WIndows XP plus it is optimized to run on the Intel Itanium processor and will initially support 16GB of RAM memory and up to 16TB (terabytes) of virtual memory.
Windows Vista
A multitasking, multithreaded, operating system that is available in four flavors and is just Windows XP with some multimedia enhancements and requires more processor and memory power than any other previous Windows version.
Windows 7
A multitasking, multithreaded, operating system that has support for more memory and hardware.
Windows 8
A multitasking, multithreaded, operating system that has support for more memory and hardware.
OS/2 Warp
Similar to Windows NT in that it is also a true multitasking, multithreaded 32-bit operating system. At one time this IBM operating system was considered to be the next step for all personal computers, but over the past few years, support for OS/2 appears to have all but faded away. Software applications written specifically for OS/2 seem to be lagging behind those written for Windows NT or completely non-existent. For example, when Adobe Photoshop 4.0 came out, this was listed in its specifications, "Adobe Photoshop 4.0 is not designed (nor was it tested) to be run under the IBM OS/2 Warp operating system." IBM itself has even been shipping Windows NT on some of their lower-end systems, so I'm not sure what lies in the future for OS/2.
Free, 32-bit, multitasking, Unix-based operating system. Unlike the other operating systems listed here, Linux will run on a wide variety of platforms, from the old Intel 386 to a Sun Sparc. Although there are many sites that will allow you to download a Linux for free, I strongly suggest that you purchase an installation CD from a company like Redhat, it will make the installation a lot easier.
Productivity Software
Besides the operating system, you need to choose which software applications that you are going to need on your new computer. Most computer systems now come bundled with a suite of software applications, such as Microsoft Works,Microsoft Office, WordPerfect Office, or Lotus SmartSuite. These suites of applications typically contain all the programs that you would need to run a small business. Microsoft Office comes with Word (word processor), Excel (spreadsheet), Schedule+ (calendar), PowerPoint (presentation graphics), and Access (database) in the professional version. Novel WordPerfect Suite comes with WordPerfect (word processor), Quattro Pro (spreadsheet), CorelCENTRAL (calendar), Presentations (presentation graphics), Envoy (Internet publisher), and Paradox (database) in the profession version. Lotus SmartSuite comes with Lotus 1-2-3 (spreadsheet), Word Pro (word processing), Freelance Graphic (presentation graphics), Approach (database), Screencam (multimedia), and Organizer (time management software). Sun StarOffice comes with Writer (word processor), Calc (calculation and analysis), Impress (presentation graphics), Draw (graphics), Base (database), Schedule (time management software), Mail (E-mail program), and Discussion (news reader). Each package has its merits and I can't recommend one over the other. Other than a personal preference for the layout of one application over another, all of these are fine programs.

In addition to the operating system and the business software applications, there are many other categories of software that you may or may not want to use on your computer. Software to access the Internet such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Communicator, graphics applications such as Adobe Photoshop or Paint Shop Pro, multimedia editing software such as Adobe Premier or RealProducer Pro, and games should also be taken into consideration before making your computer purchase.

There are literally hundreds of manufacturers for computers, monitors, printers, and other components. Our advice to a first time buyer is to purchase from a company D D P Systems willing to help you after the sale with technical issues free of charge. Getting that first computer can be very exciting, but the excitement can quickly dwindle to sheer terror and frustration if there are compatibility problems between the components and the software.

The basic components of a computer system are the motherboard (containing the processor and memory), keyboard, mouse, monitor, diskette drive, CD-ROM drive, and hard drive. In addition to these, there are several other types of devices that you may or may not want to include in your computer purchase, such as a trackball, joy stick, modem, tape drive, zip drive, printer, plotter, scanner, sound card and speakers, TV card, video capture card, power supply backup, and surge protector. Whether you need any of these other devices or not will depend on which software applications that you intend to use. Also, if you are short on money when you buy your computer or decide that you need one or more of these items later on, you shouldn't have any problem installing these after the original purchase has been made, just make sure you buy components that are compatible with your system.

Processor Paranoia
If you've already done some shopping around, you've discovered that you not only have to figure out which brand of computer to buy, but also what's inside. This is analogous to that first car you ever bought. You wanted that Corvette with the souped up 8-cylinder engine, but settled on the Ford Escort with the 4-cylinder engine. The processor is the "engine" that drives the computer, the bigger and faster the processor, the better the performance.

The overall speed of a computer is affected by several things, but most notably the clock speed of the processor and the speed and size of the instruction/data bus. The clock speed is the rate at which the processor processes information and this is measured in millions of cycles per second (MHz). The way that this information gets to the processor is via the instruction/data bus. The instruction/data bus is the pathway for data communications between the computer's processor and the various components in the computer and is analogous to the buses that run in the city. The bigger the bus, the more people that it can carry. The faster the bus travels, the faster you get to where you want to go. Similarly, the computer's bus has a certain size or width called the data path which is measured in bits. The speed of the bus is also measured in MHz just like the processor. The larger the bus width and/or the faster the bus speed, the more data that can travel on it in a given amount of time.

In addition, there is a thing called the cache that affects the speed of a computer. Before we go into detail on how the cache affects processor performance, lets see how a cache speeds up a web browser.

The web browser that you are using right now to view this page also uses a cache to store the text and graphics that you see displayed. This information is stored temporarily in a folder on your hard drive. When you return to this page, rather than downloading the text and graphics again from this site, the browser just loads the information stored in the cache folder. This process speeds up access to web pages and graphics and also reduces traffic over the Internet.

The cache in a computer is similar to the browser's cache in that it is used to store information temporarily so that the computer doesn't have to search around for it the next time that it is needed. There are two basic types of caches that speed up the computers overall performance, disk cache and memory cache.

The disk cache is used to store the most recently accessed information and also information adjacent to this that is likely to be accessed. This reduces the time that it takes to read and/or write information to the hard drive.

The speed at which a processor executes instructions depends on the cache memory. This cache memory simply remembers instructions and information that the processor has executed or accessed previously. There are two levels of cache memory and these are referred to by their location and degree of accessibility to the processor. The Level 1 cache (referred to as L1 or primary cache) is located on the same chip as the processor. This close proximity to the processor makes the L1 cache very fast. The Level 2 cache (referred to as L2 or secondary cache) is a separate chip on the computer's motherboard. Although it takes longer for the processor to retrieve information from the L2 cache than the L1 cache, the L2 cache is much faster than the computer's main (RAM) memory. The next time the processor needs to execute an instruction or load information that it has previously used, the memory cache supplies the data. If the information is not found in the L2 cache, the processor moves on to the computer's RAM memory.

Besides the processors that are offered by AMD and Cyrix (which I have no experience with), there are several models from Intel that are available. From slowest to the fastest there is the Pentium, Pentium with MMX technology, Pentium Pro, Pentium II, Pentium III, and the Pentium 4. If we compared the speed of the Pentium through Pentium III processors, assuming that they all had the same clock speed, it would go something like this. The 200 MHz Pentium processor with MMX is about 28% faster than the 200 MHz Pentium, the 200 MHz Pentium Pro is about 20% faster than the 200 MHz Pentium with MMX, and the 233 MHz Pentium II is about 20% faster than the 200 MHz Pentium Pro (based on Intel's data). The 350 MHz Pentium II, based on the 100 MHz bus, is 20% faster than a 333 MHz Pentium II. A 1.5 GHz Pentium 4 is over 50% faster than a 1.0 GHz Pentium III.

What is MMX Technology? MMX, or MultiMedia eXtensions is a chip level enhancement to speed up any application that uses multimedia, such as slide presentations, games, etc. Based on a technique called Single Instruction, Multiple Data, (SIMD), MMX allows a processor to receive 8 bytes of data, one at a time, and then process each byte individually. Basically what this does is speeds up multimedia and communication software applications such as audio, graphics, video, and data communications.
I have an Intel Celeron 1.0GB in our office. If I were only using the computer for word processing, creating simple spreadsheets, or E-mail, I wouldn't really notice CPU speed. However, if I were using the computer to manipulate some graphic images, edit sound files, run a statistical analysis package, or compile some programming code written in Visual C++, then I would notice a big difference. So, if you only intend to use the computer for word processing, E-mail, and maybe an occasional spreadsheet or two, then the type and speed of the processor that you get doesn't really matter.

Until recently, we only needed to decide on the type and speed of the processor that we wanted in our new computer, since most of the Pentium based computers had a data bus with a maximum speed of 66 MHz. With the release of the Intel 100 MHz bus architecture (440BX AGPset chipset), this changed. The Pentium II, Pentium III, and Pentium 4 processors use this new bus standard instead of the older 66 MHz bus. Needless to say, this increased the communication speed between the processor and components in the computer. In the case of the Pentium 4 processor, Intel uses a quad pumping and buffering scheme to increase the bus speed from 100 MHz to 400 MHz. And AMD uses Quantispeed architecture to run at a 266 FSB

Pentium II
The following chart compares the Pentium II processors:

Pentium II Bus    L1 Cache       L2 Cache    Socket
Processor  Speed   Size   Speed   Size   Speed   Voltage    Type  
233 MHz 66 MHz 32K 233 MHz 512K 117 MHz 2.8V Slot 1
266 MHz 66 MHz 32K 266 MHz 512K 133 MHz 2.8V Slot 1
300 MHz 66 MHz 32K 300 MHz 512K 150 MHz 2.8V Slot 1
333 MHz 66 MHz 32K 333 MHz 512K 166 MHz 2.0V Slot 1
350 MHz 100 MHz 32K 350 MHz 512K 175 MHz 2.0V Slot 1
400 MHz 100 MHz 32K 400 MHz 512K 200 MHz 2.0V Slot 1
450 MHz 100 MHz 32K 450 MHz 512K 200 MHz 2.0V Slot 1

The Celeron is a lower-end processor for the sub-$1,000 PC market. It has some of the characteristics of the higher-end Pentium II processors, but there are two big differences. First, the Celeron uses the 100 MHz data bus. Secondly, the first two Celeron processors (266 MHz and 300 MHz) do not contain any secondary or Level 2 cache (L2 cache). The 333 MHz Celeron and later versions contain a 128K L2 cache. Since the Celeron uses a 100 MHz data bus and has eliminated the L2 cache, it is cheaper to produce and thus cheaper for computer manufacturers to incorporate in their low-end, sub-$1,000 computers. Also, since the L2 cache is not present in the Celeron, it uses the computer's main RAM memory exclusively to execute instructions. Depending on what you are using the computer for, this may or may not matter to you.

The Celeron processor also runs at a lower frequency (266 MHz) and has a lower operating temperature when compared to the other Pentium processors. Since it runs at a lower temperature, it requires a smaller heat sink (used to cool the processor). If a company decided to boost the performance of this processor by increasing the voltage (called overclocking), it would no doubt overheat down the road.

Pentium III
In addition to the new line of faster Pentium II and the Celeron processors, Intel has a new processor called the Xeon which is directed at the high-end computer user. The Xeon is similar to the faster Pentium II processors, but incorporates a larger and faster L2 cache and a new Slot 2 design. The following table compares the new Xeon processors to the Pentium II 400 MHz model:

Pentium II Bus    L1 Cache         L2 Cache      Socket
    Processor      Speed   Size   Speed     Size     Speed   Voltage    Type  
400 MHz 100 MHz 32K 400 MHz 512K 200 MHz 2.0V Slot 1
400 MHz Xeon 100 MHz 32K 400 MHz 2,000K 400 MHz 2.0V Slot 2
450 MHz Xeon 100 MHz 32K 450 MHz 2,000K 450 MHz 2.0V Slot 2

The Pentium III processor is a Slot 1 upgrade for motherboards supporting the 100 MHz bus (Intel 440BX and 440JX chipsets) and 133 MHz bus (Intel 810E and 840 chipsets). It uses the same Single Edge Cartridge Contact 2 (SECC2) package style as the Pentium II processor, but the Pentium III requires less power to operate (1.8V versus 2.0V) and since the Pentium III does not have an attached cooling fan, for those considering upgrading, it is important to make sure that the motherboard supports 1.8V. The following table compares the new Pentium III processors:

Pentium III Bus    L1 Cache         L2 Cache      Socket
    Processor      Speed   Size   Speed     Size     Speed   Voltage    Type  
450 MHz 100 MHz 32K 450 MHz 512K 225 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
500 MHz 100 MHz 32K 500 MHz 512K 250 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
533 MHz 100 MHz 32K 533 MHz 512K 266 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
550 MHz 100 MHz 32K 550 MHz 512K 275 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
600 MHz 100 MHz 32K 600 MHz 512K 300 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
650 MHz 100 MHz 32K 600 MHz 512K 325 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
667 MHz 133 MHz 32K 667 MHz 256K 667 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
700 MHz 133 MHz 32K 700 MHz 256K 700 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
733 MHz 133 MHz 32K 733 MHz 256K 733 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
750 MHz 133 MHz 32K 750 MHz 256K 750 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
800 MHz 133 MHz 32K 800 MHz 256K 800 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
850 MHz 133 MHz 32K 850 MHz 256K 850 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
866 MHz 133 MHz 32K 866 MHz 256K 866 MHz 1.8V Slot 1
1,000 MHz 133 MHz 32K 1,000 MHz 256K 1,000 MHz 1.8V Slot 1

Pentium III enhancements include the new Katmai New Instruction (KNI) set (referred to as MMX-2), which is designed to accelerate graphics and multimedia applications, such as real-time MPEG2 encoding/decoding, 3D graphics, and AC3 audio & speech recognition.

Pentium 4
The Pentium 4 is Intel's latest and most powerful processor, with speeds in excess of 1.8 GHz. There are speed improvements for Internet applications that use streaming media (sound and video), 3D graphics enhancements for games and design applications, image processing including digital photography, digital video and content creation, speech recognition, engineering and scientific applications, and multitasking applications.

This new processor is twice the size of a Pentium III, containing 42 million transistors, and is based on a new micro-architecture called NetBurst. The last time Intel introduced a new micro-architecture was in 1996 with the Pentium Pro. Other enhancements to the Pentium 4 based on this new architecture include 144 new multimedia instructions, better performance for multimedia applications (graphics and sound), dual channel RDRAM memory, 400 MHz system bus, Streaming SIMD Extensions 2 (SSE2), a new advanced Level 1 cache technology (Execution Trace Cache), and a new Hyper Pipelined Technology.

Hyper Pipelined Technology is used in the new NetBurst micro-architecture increases the length of the Pentium 4 pipeline to twice that of a Pentium III. Consider the pipeline like an assembly line in a factory containing components to build a computer. The first item in the line is the case, followed by the power supply, then the motherboard, diskette drive, hard drive, and so on until you get to the last item which is the software applications. Obviously if there is a limited amount of space on the assembly line to place components, there is a limit to the amount of items that can be used to build the computer. The Pentium III had 10 stages in its pipeline, so there was a limit of 10 instructions that could be waiting in the queue to be processed by the processor. The Pentium 4 has 20 stages, double the amount of a Pentium III and can therefore have more instructions in the queue waiting to be processed and therefore allow for a faster processing speed.

But there is a catch, what if the hard drive was missing in our assembly line? What do you do when you get to the last item which is the software applications that need to be loaded on the computer? You start over. This Hyper Pipelined Technology takes this very thing into account (its called latency) and has a special cache that checks the instructions in the pipeline to make sure everything is in order.

Older Pentium III motherboards can not be upgraded to a Pentium 4 processor. This new processor requires the new Intel 850 chipset as well as a new motherboard design (Intel D850GB).

SIMM, DIMM, and RIMM Memory
There are currently three different memory module types, the 72-pin SIMM (Single In-line Memory Module), the 168-pin DIMM (Dual In-line Memory Module), and the 184-pin DDR (Double Data Rate) DIMM and RIMM (Rambus DRAM) slots. The 72-pin SIMM memory transfers information over a 32-bit data path. The 168-pin and 184-pin DIMM and DDR DIMM memory transfers information over a 64-bit data path. The 184-pin RIMM memory transfers information over a 16-bit data path. As far as the type of memory that you install in the computer goes, there are several types and if you are a first time buyer, I would take whatever the computer comes with and not worry about it, it can get rather confusing. Suffice to say that RIMM and/or DDR DIMM memory is going to be the way of the future and that is what you want in your new computer if it is an option.

As for the types of memory that you can install goes, there are memory modules that have either tin or gold plated connectors. The modules with the gold plated connectors are supposed to last longer and be a little more reliable than tin, but I've never had a problem with either type.

Memory modules are available in the following five basic flavors:

DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory)
The type of memory that was used in the 386 and 486 class computers. Of the three types listed here, this is the slowest.

EDO (Extended Data Out)
Primarily used with Pentium class computers since there is no significant gain in performance with slower processors. This was the dominant type of memory used between 1995 through late 1996.

SDRAM (Synchronous DRAM)
The fastest of the first three types of DRAM memory. This form of memory has a separate clock signal to the control signals and supports burst access modes.

RDRAM is a type of memory module that was developed by the Rambus Corporation for use with Intel Pentium 4 processors and started showing up in new computers at the end of 1999. RDRAM has a 1.6 GB per second data transfer rate which greatly improves the performance of graphics intensive applications.

DDR SDRAM (Double Data Rate SDRAM)
This is a fairly new type of memory that is being developed to compete with RDRAM memory. DDR SDRAM is a type of SDRAM memory with speeds up to 200 MHz, significantly higher than the current 133MHz (PC133) SDRAM standard.
The Memory Bottleneck
From a purely performance point of view, the speed at which a computer can perform various tasks depends on a number of factors. These factors include things like the speed of the processor, the speed that data can be transfered between the processor and other components inside the computer (bus speed), and the speed of the computer's memory. While processor speeds have continued to double every 18-24 months and there have been improvements to internal bus speeds, computer memory has only seen modest speed improvements in the past few years. There are two schools of thought as to how to fix the memory problem. On one side is Intel with the Rambus DRAM memory solution and on the other side is everyone else pushing DDR SDRAM memory.

The current memory standard at the time of this update for SDRAM is PC133 - memory operating at 133MHz. PC133 is capable of transfering data at 800MB/s (800 MegaBytes per second). This is commonly refered to as the peak or maximum bandwidth. Considering the fact that SDRAM is only 75% efficient at transfering data at this rate, the effective transfer rate is limited to an effective or actual bandwidth of 600MB/s (800MB/s * 0.75).

DDR SDRAM memory (PC266) operates at twice the speed of PC133 (133MHz * 2) and is capable of transfering data at 2100MB/s. Since DDR SDRAM is only 65% efficient at transfering data at this rate, the effective transfer rate is limited to 1370MB/s (2100MB/s * 0.65). Rambus DRAM (PC800) is capable of transfering data at 1600MB/s, but since it has a higher efficiency rating (85%), the effective bandwidth is 1360MB/s (1600MB/s * 0.85) - about the same as DDR SDRAM. Since DDR SDRAM and Rambus DRAM have essentially the same effective bandwidth, the main consideration at this point in chosing one over the other is price - Rambus DRAM is more expensive than DDR SDRAM.

Both DDR SDRAM and Rambus DRAM require a 184-pin memory slot along with a special set of chips on the motherboard to access the memory. Computers with SDRAM memory can not be upgraded to DDR SDRAM or Rambus DRAM. Likewise, computers with either DDR SDRAM or Rambus DRAM can not use each others memory modules or SDRAM memory.

Which type of memory do you need to get? For most people, SDRAM is still the cheapest solution for most computer applications (word processing, E-mail, surfing the Web, etc.). If you plan to use your computer for multimedia applications (image and sound development, graphics intensive games, etc.), either DDR SDRAM or Rambus DRAM is the way to go.

ISA and PCI Bus Slots
When you install new components in your computer, such as a graphics adapter card or internal modem, these adapter cards are installed in a slot on the computer's motherboard called a bus slot. Once installed, the adapter is then capable of communicating with the rest of the computer. There are two basic types of bus slots that are available, the ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) and the PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect).

ISA bus slots were developed by IBM back in the late 1980's and it has a 16-bit data bus. There are several manufacturers that still produce these adapter cards today (proprietary cards for scanners, video cards, sound cards, etc.) that require an ISA bus slot in order to be installed in your computer.

PCI bus slots have a 64-bit data bus and since Pentium processors use 64 bits of data at a time (per clock cycle), they are definitely the bus of choice for Pentium computers. The PCI bus currently runs at 33 MHz, but Intel has talked about doubling this. This increased size and speed associated with the PCI bus is important for your multimedia adapter cards (video and sound) in your computer.
If you plan to ever install any adapter cards in your computer that are still using the old IBM standard, then you will need ISA bus slots. Most new computers do come with at least 1 of these. PCI is essential in a Pentium class computers and you definitely want a PCI video adapter and a PCI sound adapter at the very least. Most Pentium class computers contain at least 2 PCI bus slots and the newer Pentium Pro, Pentium II, and Pentium III computers may contain 4 or more and AGP slot for video. Make sure that you have the appropriate number of slots for the components that you plan to add in your computer in the future.

ATA Versus Ultra ATA
ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) is the official name for the Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) standard that hard drives use to communicate with the rest of the computer via the data bus. The original standard first defined in 1991 called ATA-1 defined the physical, electrical, transport, and command protocols for computer storage devices. There has been several revisions to the ATA standard, from ATA-2 (Enhanced Integrated Drive Electronics or EIDE) up to the latest standards known as Ultra ATA or Ultra DMA (ATA-4 and ATA-5).

The Ultra Direct Memory Access (Ultra DMA or ATA-4) standard is an advanced version of the ATA-2 (EIDE) standard, which allows the drive to communicate at twice the speed of the older standard. The speed increase is achieved by reducing some of the delays inherent in the ATA standard and using Direct Memory Access (modes 0, 1, and 2) that allows the drive to access the computer's memory without intervention by the processor. Drives that conform to this standard will be listed as ATA/ATAPI-4, Ultra-ATA, Ultra-DMA, Ultra-DMA/33, or UDMA/33 and support data transfer rates up to 33MB/second.

The ATA-5 standard has additional DMA support (modes 3 and 4) using a special 80-wire, 40-pin Ultra-DMA data cable. The wires in an Ultra-DMA cable are shielded by a set of proprietary ground wires positioned between each signal wire. These additional ground wires reduces the amount of bus noise between the wires which enhances the hard drive's performance, speed, and reliability. Drives that conform to the ATA-5 standard will be listed as ATA/ATAPI-5, Ultra-ATA, Ultra-DMA, Ultra-DMA/66, or UDMA/66 and support data transfer rates up to 66MB/second. Also a new standard in performance the ATA-100 at 100MB/second data transfer rates.

Universal Serial Bus
The Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a new industry-wide standard that will eventually replace the hassle of connecting parallel and serial devices to your computer. With USB, you don't need to worry about selecting the correct serial or parallel port, installing expansion cards, configuring the myriad of dip switches, IRQ (interrupt) settings, DMA (Direct Memory Access) channels, I/O (Input/Output) addresses, or the getting the correct settings for the device's software drivers. USB is Plug & Play with a twist, you never have to turn off the computer to connect or disconnect a device. You have virtually unlimited expansion capabilities without ever having to remove the cover off the computer. USB has an industry standard, one-size-fits-all connector that allows you to install and remove devices without opening the computer. Since this connector is hot swappable, you do not have to turn off the computer.

Since there will no longer be the need to install an adapter card inside the computer to connect a device, the installation of new computer components will be much easier. Also, since the USB contains its own power supply, new devices will no longer need AC power adapters (modems, speakers, etc.) as they will run off the computer's power and the cost of new devices should be more affordable.

USB Specifications:

  • One industry-wide standard connector type.
  • Automatic configuration.
  • Multiple devices are chained together.
  • Up to 127 devices in a daisy-chain may be connected simultaneously.
  • Peripheral connections may be up to five meters in length.
  • The USB cable distributes +5-volt power to low-power devices.
  • Connects to PBX and digital telephones without the need for special adapter cards.
  • Supports high-speed interfaces, such as ISDN, PRI, and T1.
  • Data transfer rate of 1.5 Mbits for low speed devices such as keyboards and mice.
  • Data transfer rate of 12 Mbits for medium speed devices such as modems, scanners, and digital cameras. (Note, data transfer rates to support higher speeds necessary for mass storage devices should be available for USB in the near future).
Is your computer ready for USB? If you are using a USB compliant version of Windows 95, the version level should be 4.00950B or later. For more information on the Universal Serial Bus, see the USB.org site.

High Performance Serial Bus
IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 1394 is a new standard that is used by the computer manufacturers to connect various types of devices to your computer. In a lot of ways, 1394 is similar to USB in that they both are fairly new technologies, offer an alternative method to connect devices to your computer without the need to reboot, the ability to connect several devices to your computer, and both technologies use similar cables and connectors. The main difference between 1394 and USB is speed. The data transfer rate for 1394 devices is over 30 times faster than USB and this is expected to increase in the coming years.

Eventually, 1394 will replace the serial, parallel, and SCSI ports on the back of a computer, but what happens to USB? 1394 and USB ports will both coexist on the computers of the future. Devices which do not require a high speed connection (such as keyboards, mice, keyboards, mice, monitors, joysticks, low-resolution digital cameras, low-Speed CD-ROM drives, and modems) will use USB ports. Devices that do require a high speed connection (such as hard drives, DVD-ROM drives, set-top boxes, digital audio and video, digital cameras, printers, and scanners) will use 1394 ports.

The following table summarizes the current standards for 1394, USB, and SCSI:

 Technology  Maximum Cable
1394 4.5 m 50 MBps 62
USB 5 m 1.5 MBps 127
SCSI-1 6 m 5 MBps 8
SCSI-2 6 m 5-10 MBps 8 or 16
Fast SCSI-2 3 m 10-20 MBps 8
Wide SCSI-2 3 m 20 MBps 16
Fast Wide SCSI-2 3 m 20 MBps 16
Ultra-2 SCSI 12 m 40 MBps 8
Wide Ultra-2 SCSI 12 m 80 MBps 16
Ultra-3 SCSI 12 m 160 MBps 16

Digital Versatile Disc
A Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) is an optical, high capacity version of the CD-ROM. Up to now the CD-ROM has been limited to a maximum storage capacity of 650 MB of data, the new DVD discs will be able to store all of the information on 25 CD-ROMs and then some. There are currently three versions of the DVD, a standard single-layer, single-sided disc that can store 4.7 GB of data, a two-layer, single-sided disc that can store 8.5 GB, and a two-layer, double-sided disc that can store 17 GB. DVD will be used to store everything from computer games to software applications to full-length movies and will be similar in size to a CD-ROM or compact disc. The DVD drive will be able to read any CDs that you have now, but in order to take advantage of this new technology, you will need to get a DVD drive in your new computer.

Accelerated Graphics Port
The Accelerated Graphics Port (AGP) interface is a new bus specification developed by Intel. In order to use this new technology, you need an AGP video adapter card and a motherboard in your computer that has the special AGP connector (older computers can not be upgraded to AGP without changing the motherboard). At the time of this writing, most Pentium II class computers are being shipped with the AGP chipset, but make sure you check the specifications before buying to be sure.

The way AGP works is that it enables software applications that use 3D images to dynamically access the computer's RAM memory to render and store information so that it can quickly be used to refresh the image displayed on the monitor. Access to the RAM memory is via a dedicated bus that runs independently of the computer's PCI bus and also has a higher bandwidth and faster transfer rate. The result is that 3D software applications not only run faster, but graphics are more lifelike.

The purpose of the Unified Memory Architecture (UMA) was to move the graphics buffer that was used by software applications to render images from the dedicated memory on the graphics card to the computer's RAM memory. Since the cost of the video adapter card was a major consideration, the amount of on-board video memory was kept to a minimum, thus reducing the overall cost of the video adapter cards since video memory is more expensive than conventional RAM memory in the PC.

AGP still assumes that there is some dedicated memory on the graphics adapter card to use as a buffer, but the computer's RAM memory is used to render memory intensive 3D images. The big difference between UMA and AGP is that the computer's RAM memory used with UMA must be allocated when the computer is booted up, thus reducing the total amount of RAM available to other software applications and decreasing performance. With ADP, once the image is rendered, the RAM memory is reclaimed by the computer's operating system and is then available for other software applications to use.

Internet Service Providers
A common phrase that you will hear when shopping for an Internet Service Provider (ISP) is up to, as in a connection speed up to 56K. This reminds me of the weekly car ads that I get in the mail which say that I qualify for up to $1,000 off a brand new car, which in reality is saying that I qualify for $0 to $1,000 off the list price and anything over $1,000 is out of the question. Keep this in mind when you are shopping around.

There are several methods available to connect your home computer to the Internet. These range in cost from installing a simple modem in your computer for $29-39 to spending tens of thousands of dollars on optical fiber cable and the associated hardware. As with most other things, the more it costs usually the better (faster in this case) it is. The thing that you need to ask yourself is, is it worth spending $10,000 per month for a fast Internet connection to surf the web for recipes and do e-mail or can I get by with a $19.95 per month service that only provides a 56K connection.

Before we get into the various types of services, a few definitions are in order. First off, the speed of an Internet connection or the data transfer rate, is measured in bits per second (bps). Modems will list their connection speed as Kbps (Kilo = thousand) bits per second. The faster services will either be listed as Mbps (Mega = million) or Gbps (Giga = billion). You will also see services described in terms of upstream and downstream data transfer rates. Upstream refers to the rate at which data is transferred from your computer to your ISP. Downstream refers to the rate at which data is transferred from your ISP to your computer. There are a couple different types of wiring that are used for Internet connections that you should be aware of, twisted pair or 10BASE-T (telephone cable) and coaxial cable or 10BASE-2 (cable TV cable). Twisted pair cable simply means that each pair of wires are twisted together, this reduces the amount of interference (called noise) that can affect the signal. Coaxial cable will usually be shielded which means there is a layer of material inside the cable to reduce interference.

A modem (modulator/demodulator) connects your computer to the Internet by modulating the digital signal from the computer to a carrier signal (audio). This audio signal is then sent (via the modem) over your existing telephone line to your ISP. Your ISP will have a modem that your modem is dialed in to that demodulates the signal back to digital, giving your computer the ability to connect to the Internet. The data transfer rate of a modem is limited by the telephone company's bandwidth which is about 3,000 Hz.

If you upgraded from a 33.6 Kbps modem to one of the new 56 Kbps modems when they first became available, you seen a rather modest increase in your dialup connection speed at best. Theoretically, the maximum modem speed connection over a standard analog telephone line is approximately 35 Kbps, so a 33.6 Kbps modem connected about as fast as the telephone line would allow. I was getting a 31.2 Kbps connection with my 33.6 Kbps modem and after upgrading to a 56 Kbps modem, I got 31.2 Kbps. Remember what I said about up to.

Lucent Technologies developed the K56flex modem technology that enables a 56K modem to connect at up to 56 Kbps over a standard analog telephone line (53K is about the maximum). This new technology offers faster Internet access without the need to install an expensive ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line. To take advantage of this increased connection speed, the modem that you are using as well as the modem that you are dialing into must have the K56flex technology. What this means to the typical Web surfer is that Web pages that contain graphics, video, and sound files will download much faster.

If you are purchasing a 56K modem with your new computer, make sure that the modem uses the new K56flex technology or the modem's firmware is upgradeable.

For more information on K56flex technology, see The Official 56K Modem Web Site. If you have a 56K modem that is not currently running the K56flex standard and need the firmware upgrade, see the V.90/K56flex Upgrade Central site.

Like modems, Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) use twisted pair cable for the Internet connection. Where the modem uses your current analog telephone line, the telephone company will need to install a new digital line for ISDN. Typically the ISDN service is allocated in 64 Kbps channels, one channel gives you a 64 Kps connection, two channels gives you a 128 Kps connection.

DSL refers to Digital Subscriber Line and is a relatively new technology for home Internet access. DSL uses your existing telephone line, but is able to significantly increase the bandwidth over the lines between your home and the telephone company. This is one of the more attractive alternatives to using a modem, especially if you have two phone lines with one line just for computer use. DSL gives you 24 hour access to the Internet and does not interfere with incoming and outgoing telephone calls. In other words, your computer is connected to the Internet 24-hours per day, you can still use your telephone anytime you wish, and you only need one telephone line! There is a drawback to DSL however, you need to live less than 3 miles from the phone company's main office and the closer you are to the main office, the faster the data transfer rate. Data transfer rates range from 128 Kbps to 8.5 Mbps.

Depending on the type of service that your telephone company supports, there are several options for DSL, which include Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL), Consumer Digital Subscriber Line (CDSL), EtherLoop, High Bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (HDSL), ISDN based DSL (IDSL), Rate Adaptive Digital Subscriber Line (RADSL), Symmetric Digital Subscriber Line (SDSL), and Very High Bit-rate Digital Subscriber Line (VDSL).

Cable Modems
If you have cable TV and your cable company supports it, a cable modem may be an option for you. A cable modem uses your existing cable TV cable by allowing you to connect your computer (using a network interface card) to the set-top box that connects your TV to the cable. The upstream data transfer rate for a cable modem is 27 Mbps and around 2.5 Mbps downstream, but this depends on the cable company's connection to the Internet.

The technology to connect a computer to the Internet via a wireless connection is fairly new. The only wireless connections available at the time of this writing are General Packet Radio System (GPRS) which has connections speeds raging from 56 Kbps to 114 Kbps and Satellite which has a connection speed of 400 Kbps. Future technologies will include Enhanced Data GSM Environment (EDGE) which will be available in 2001 and has a connection speed of 384 Kbps and the Universal Mobile Telecommunications Service (UMTS) which will be available in 2002 that will have a connection speed up to 2 Mbps. Problems with wireless connections are interference, noise problems, and bandwidth limitations.

What Type of Configuration Do You Need
Most computer systems, particularly the higher-end models, come in more than one configuration, desktop, mini tower, or tower. The configuration you chose depends mainly on the amount of expansion you plan to do in the future. Most tower configurations tend to have a greater amount of expandability than do desktop models as well as larger power supplies to handle additional internal components, such as multiple hard drives, CD-ROM drives, and tape drives. Also, the amount of space that you have in your office or home needs to be taken into consideration. Tower configurations are made to be placed on the floor (except for the mini tower models), whereas desktop models are made to sit on the surface where the keyboard and monitor are located. Other than expandability and maybe a larger internal power supply, whether the computer is a desktop, mini tower, or tower configuration, its still the same computer.

Complete System Bundles
Most stores, including mail order outlets, bundle various types of computer systems with a set of software applications. Some of these bundle deals include a printer, but most do not. If you are thinking about purchasing a bundled system, find out what exactly is included in the bundle as well as the manufacturers and models of the various components, such as the hard drive, modem, monitor, CD-ROM drive and speed, etc. Outlets that have bundled systems that appear to be a lot cheaper than other outlets are cheaper for a reason and usually this reason is not readily obvious. D D P Systems offers a complete package with quality components and industry standard warranties. Call the experts 540-337-7777 or visit: ddpsystems.com

Sources for Information
Based on the type of things you plan to do with your computer, you will have a set of minimum requirements that the software must have in order to do the tasks that you plan to perform at a reasonable or acceptable speed (I define an acceptable speed as being able to do a spell check in a word processing application faster than I can thumb through Webster's Dictionary myself). To find out what types of systems are available, the first place to start is by picking up a copy of one of the many computer magazines on the market or visiting their Web site, such as PC World, PC Magazine, or Byte, or one of the trade newspapers, such as InfoWorld or PC Week. These magazines and newspapers usually have articles comparing the various types and brands of computers as well as other components, such as monitors, modems, printers, and software. But beware, don't put too much into the rating systems that these magazines and newspapers use, since many of the computer manufacturers pay these companies for advertising, I seriously doubt that a magazine is really going to give a system such as IBM, Compaq, or Gateway a very poor rating, would you? Use these ratings as a way to narrow down your list of options.

One of the best sources for information is your friends and family members. See if any of them have a system similar to what you want to buy. Check to see if they have had any trouble with their system or have ever tried to get technical support from the system's manufacturer. Also see if they have ever had any compatibility problems with any software applications or hardware. The main things to look for are compatibility problems with the operating system, printers, and CD-ROM drives. If they have had compatibility problems, see what steps they took to get the problems resolved and how long it took to get the system working again. And finally, see if they would buy another computer system from this company.

In addition to the World Wide Web, information on the various types of computer systems and software can also be found in the USENET newsgroups. If your Internet Provider gives you access to the USENET newsgroups, you can just click on one of the links below. If your provider does not give you USENET access, these newsgroups are available via the Web at www.remarq.com.

Groups with a * may contain several subgroups.

Computer Salesmen
Before you walk into a computer store with money burning a hole in your pocket, make a list of the items (hardware and software) that you want in your new computer system and bone up a bit on the computer lingo. Prior knowledge as to what exactly you want and a knowledge of the terminology will help you when you meet with a salesman for the first time.

A computer salesman, just like any other salesman, is going to want to sell you something - a computer. Their job depends on their sales ability and in some cases, have a certain quota of systems and/or peripherals they need to sell. By having prior knowledge of what exactly you want or don't want and having an understanding of the terminology will help you make a good decision on whether their system is right for you. If the salesman is not able to answer your questions or you feel like you are being pressured into buying the system that they want you to buy, find another salesman or just leave the store and come back another day. Remember, if you get talked into something that you don't really want, it's your own fault.

If you are shopping for a computer for the first time, particularly if you've never used a computer before, do not buy the first thing you see. Get all the information that you can about the system or systems that you are interested in, then go home and do a little price comparison. A great way to compare the pricing of a system is to visit the Web site of one of the on-line computer stores that allow you to configure your own system. One good sites for comparison is DDPSystems.com This company has a wide selection of complete computer systems and will spend time giving good advice to help you make the right choice. This should give you a pretty good idea of price your would expect to pay.

One thing to watch out for when buying a computer (or anything for that matter) is the old bait and switch ploy. The way this typically works is you are shown a super-duper computer system, usually a well known brand with all the bells and whistles. Once given the specifications on this one-of-a-kind system, you are informed that they also have an in-house brand of computer with the same specifications for a much cheaper price. By just saying that their computer is essentially the same as the brand name computer, most people assume that all of the specifications associated with the brand name computer apply to the in-house computer and leave it at that. When in fact, the only specification that probably does apply is that both systems run off electricity, although I wouldn't be surprised to find an in-house brand powered by a set of rubber bands. Most stores that deal in this type of activity don't stay in business too long and the two that I know of that used the bait and switch ploy in this area, are no longer in business. To avoid this use a company that has been in business for more than 15 years. DDPSystems.com

What brand of processor does the computer have, type and speed?
Intel and American Micro Devices (AMD) are the leading manufacturers of processors, but processors are also manufactured by other companies such as Cyrix. The type of processor or the class of computer is important. Anything under a Pentium II is old technology. Since Pentium is a copyrighted name, other chip manufacturers have to call their processor something else like 586. As far as the speed of the processor goes, the current standard in computer systems being produced today is somewhere around 700MHz to 1.0GHz, although there are still a lot of the older ones being sold and several models faster than 1.0GHz.

What brand and type of hard drive is in the computer?
Most manufacturers are using the enhanced version of the IDE drive (EIDE) in the systems currently being built, although there are still a lot of regular IDE drives available. I doubt that you can find anything under an 2 GB drive available on the store shelves, but there are still some companies selling brand new computer systems with old 1.0 GB hard drives, drives which have been discontinued. If you have a choice, stick with a brand name drive such as IBM, or Western Digital. If you plan to do a lot of work with large files, such as sound and video, you may want to consider getting a SCSI hard drive. SCSI hard drives are typically twice as expensive as EIDE drives, but if you need the speed, they are definitely worth the extra cost.

What brand and speed of CD-ROM drive does the computer have?
It is important that the drive is supported by the software that you plan to use. The current standard in CD-ROM drives in most computers is around 52x, but there are faster drives. There are still a few 6x, 8x, and 12x CD-ROM drives floating around, but you don't want one of those in your brand new computer unless you are only going to use the drive to load software, play music CD's, or just to access files, such as clipart images. But if you intend to play games or view video files from a CD, go with the fastest transfer rate you can get, at least a 52x. A DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) drive is another option to consider, although these are still rather expensive and you do need a high-end computer to take advantage of its capabilities. Yet another CD-ROM option is the ReWritable CD-ROM drive which allows you to create your own CDs for music and storing backup files.

Can you upgrade the computer's memory and how hard is it?
Most computers have 4 slots available on the motherboard for installing SIMM memory modules (Single In-line Memory Modules), although I have seen some motherboards that only have 2. The Pentium II, Pentium III, and Pentium 4 class computers should also have at least 2 DIMM (Dual In-line Memory Module) slots available. These slots on the motherboard are needed when you want to add more memory to your computer and eventually you probably will. Check to see how many slots are in the computer and of those, how many are currently being used. A word of warning here, SIMM memory modules must be installed in pairs. (DIMM memory modules on the other hand are installed individually) If there are 4 SIMM slots in the computer and each slot contains a 4 MB SIMM, then the computer contains 16 MB of memory (4 + 4 + 4 + 4 = 16). If you wanted to upgrade the computer to 32 MB of memory, you only have 2 options, 1) remove all the SIMM modules and replace them with two 16MB modules or 2) remove two of the modules and replace them with either two 8MB modules (to give you 24MB of memory) or two 16MB modules (to give you 40MB of memory). SIMM modules only come in certain sizes such as 4MB, 8MB, 16MB, 32MB, 64MB, etc. and they must be installed in pairs. If the new computer does not have any memory modules open and only has a limited amount of memory, beware!

Besides the number of memory slots in the computer, find out what type of SIMM or DIMM module the computer uses and whether you need parity or non-parity, gold-plated or tin, DRAM, EDO, SDRAM, or RDRAM. Parity memory modules are usually a bit more expensive than non-parity and computers will generally require one or the other, but there are some computers that can use both. DRAM memory is slower than EDO and EDO is slower than SDRAM. One last thing to check, does the computer need a specific brand of memory module like IBM and Compaq, these can be very expensive.

If the computer system comes with a tape drive, what brand, type, and capacity it is?
IDE tape drives are more common in home computers than SCSI due to the cost, but SCSI tape drives allow you to backup your data at a much faster rate (at least twice as fast). Also, find out what type of tape cartridge the drive uses. Most tape drives require a specific style of cartridge, but there are some tape drives that will accept more than one style of cartridge.

What type of monitor does the computer come with, if any?
If you read the fine print in most magazine ads for computers, the listed price does not include a monitor. So, that cheap price on a system isn't quite so cheap when you have to tack on another $200 for a monitor. Make sure the price you are quoted includes the monitor, as well as everything else that you need.

Does the computer have a USB connector?
Most of the computers manufactured after January, 1997 contain the chipset and connectors to allow you to take advantage of the Universal Serial Bus standard. The computer that you buy should have this connectivity available or you're buying old technology.

Does the computer come with software?
Finally, is software included with the computer. Most bare bones systems sold today will come with at least Microsoft Windows 98 or Windows Me. In addition, most systems will include some sort of business package, such as Microsoft Works, Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect Office, Lotus SmartSuite, or Sun Microsystems StarOffice.
Still Don't Know What to Buy?
Some people feel so confused when it comes to buying a computer, particularly their first computer, that they don't want to have to make a decision and would just prefer that someone just tell them what to get. Make it easy just call 540-337-7777 or visit: DDPSystems.com

Here is what I would recommend for a low-end home computer system:

Processor 800MHz Pentium III
Memory 128MB 133MHz SDRAM
Hard Drive 20GB Ultra ATA hard drive
Floppy Drive 3.5 inch 1.44MB diskette drive
CD-ROM Drive 52x CD-ROM drive
Monitor 15 inch color monitor
Video integrated AGP graphics
Sound System integrated audio with speakers
Modem 56K PCI data/fax modem
Power Protection surge protector
Operating System Windows XP
Anti-Virus Software Norton 2001
For a more advanced high-end home computer, this is what I would recommend:
Processor 1.8GHz Pentium 4
RAM Memory 512MB PC800 RDRAM
Hard Drive 1 18GB Ultra160 SCSI Drive with controller
Hard Drive 2 18GB Ultra160 SCSI Drive
Floppy Drive 3.5 inch 1.44MB diskette drive
CD-ROM Drive 20x/48x CD-ROM drive and
12x/8x/32x ReWriteable CD-ROM
Backup Drive use ReWriteable CD-ROM
Monitor 22 inch color monitor
Video AGP Graphics with 32MB memory
Sound System SoundBlaster Live! with surround sound speakers
Modem 56K PCI data/fax modem
Power Protection APC Back-UPS
Operating System Windows 2000 Professional
Business Software Microsoft Office XP Professional
Anti-Virus Software Norton 2001 or McAfee VirusScan
This is more or less a middle of the road set of recommendations, you would need to add or delete options based on your specific needs. You can of course replace the Intel processor with a comparable AMD processor. Other options that you may want to consider adding to the system would be a printer, scanner, tape backup, digital camera, network card and hub for a home network, and of course additional software applications.

Is WebTV an Option?
If you are considering purchasing a WebTV, you need to read the article by Stephanie Miles at CNET News.com. I get a lot of questions about the pros and cons of getting WebTV rather than buying an expensive desktop computer and up until now, if you only wanted something that would allow you to surf the web and you were not interested in word processing, playing games, video conferencing, etc., I would have said for $300, WebTV is the way to go. However, on October 30th, 1998, WebTV announced that it was dropping support for Java. What is Java? Java is used by web page authors and it allows them to provide advanced features and functionality to their pages, such as fancy buttons, slide shows, stock market and news tickers, and chat rooms to name a few. Without the Java support in WebTV, the web page authors must either create duplicate sets of pages without Java for the WebTV users to view or just accept the fact that WebTV users will not be able to view their work.

In my opinion, not supporting Java is like selling a new car without an engine, it will look nice, but it won't go very far...

Take a Course
Once you get your new computer, take some time to learn how to use it. Computers can be very frustrating, especially if this is your first one. There are literally hundreds of computer user groups and evening and weekend courses available at public schools, libraries, and colleges. Check the computer section of the yellow pages in your phone book or the local newspaper for the one nearest you. I teach a course here at D D P Systems that is targeted to first time computer users. This course is taught in small groups or with individuals. You will learn more in one hour than a one week course at a local community college. We cover everything from which mouse button to click to what makes a computer tick to creating a Web page. If you are interested, see TIP (http//www.ddpsystems.com/tip.html).

In Closing...
We have discussed and defined several of the most important components of a computer in this document, but things are always changing. For the most part, this document only covers the computer hardware and software issues that I work with here at D D P Systems. I encourage you to visit these other sites and by all means, make an informed decision when you buy.

Good luck!

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