Choosing a desktop computer is a tough home electronics decision for most. While it’s easy to compare the picture quality on HDTVs or the features on a DVD player, desktop PCs are hard to understand until you get them out of the box and start using them. Knowing a little about how a desktop PC works will help you find one that can meet your needs for years to come, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much your desktop PC dollar can buy.
New Intel-based Macs can run Windows software as well as the Mac OS. An iMac is an all-in-one solution, but it cannot be upgraded and may cost more than a similar-powered Windows desktop PC.
Be sure your desktop PC has enough RAM to do what you need. 512K is a good minimum; multimedia users should have 1GB; and gamers, editors, and designers should have 2GB.
Look for a desktop PC with an Intel Dual Core or Athlon XD two-chip processor. The speed of a desktop PC is measured in gigahertz, and the higher the number, the more power you have for editing, gaming, and graphic design.
A desktop PC with a DVD-R will work for most users and allow you to create CDs and DVDs. Filmmakers and multimedia authors may want to consider a new HD DVD-R, which supports high-definition media.
You’ll need a built-in modem or Ethernet port to connect your desktop PC to the Internet. Look for extra USB ports (always useful) and an HDMI port if you want to connect your desktop PC to a high definition television.
A single unit of storage space on a desktop PC’s hard drive. A megabyte is equal to one million bytes, a gigabyte equals 1,024 megabytes, and a terabyte is a thousand million bytes.
An optical drive that enables the creation of compact discs on a desktop PC. Available as CD-R, which can create a disc once, and CD-RW, which allows compatible discs to be rewritten.
An optical drive that can write DVDs and CDs, allowing you to create videos that will play in most newer DVD players. HD DVD-R drives can create high definition video discs.
A high-speed connection port that allows you to connect a desktop PC to a cable, DSL, or T1 line for faster Web access and downloads. It can also be used to create a home network.
A computer chip that allows a desktop PC to display images on a monitor. Advanced graphics cards have built-in memory that enhances picture quality and speed.
The built-in storage of a desktop PC, typically measured in gigabytes.
High Definition Multimedia Inputs allow you to connect a desktop PC to a compatible high definition TV. These all-in-one cables can carry more data than other types of cables.
The ability of a desktop PC to perform two or more functions at the same time, such as creating a document while listening to music.
Additional devices that connect to a desktop PC, such as keyboards, mice, and printers.
A desktop PC’s “brain,” that allows it to run software. Processor speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz), with higher numbers delivering faster speed and the ability to run more software simultaneously.
Random Access Memory used by computer to perform processor functions. More RAM allows the desktop PC to do more things simultaneously and can increase operating speed.
A computer program that allows a desktop PC to perform an action.
The ability to change components, such as a hard drive, optical drive, or graphics card, or to increase the memory of a desktop PC.
Universal Serial Bus is the standard for connecting peripherals to a desktop PC. These cables transmit power and data to peripherals.
It used to be an either-or proposition, but thanks to Apple’s new Intel-powered Macs and BootCamp software that allows their desktop PCs to run Windows, Macs are more compatible than ever. If the thought of wading through specs overwhelms you, an all-in-one iMac or Mac Mini is a quick and easy solution. You’ll find two or three standard models each year. All iMacs have a built-in monitor, while a Mac Mini requires a separate monitor.
The downside to these desktop PCs from Apple is that they cannot be upgraded, and iMacs can be more expensive than an equally powered Windows desktop PC. If you want to run Linux or Windows in a native environment, you’ll need to choose a desktop PC from someone other than Apple.
The first concerns with a desktop PC are RAM (random access memory), which the desktop PC uses to run software, and help the hard drive operate efficiently. The bigger the RAM numbers, the more speed and storage you’ll have. You’ll need a minimum of 512KB RAM to run current Windows operating systems, but 1GB is a better minimum if you plan to use multimedia files. If you’re editing audio, video, or images on your desktop PC, consider upgrading to 2GB of RAM for better performance. Gaming speed and resolution can also improve with more RAM, which is much cheaper today than it was a few years ago. If you don’t have enough RAM, your computer will run slowly and your ability to operate multiple programs at the same time will be limited. Investing in at least 1 GB of RAM is an excellent payoff for most of today’s mutli tasking computer users.
Hard drives keep getting bigger and cheaper too, just in time for the digital revolution that has us committing everything from family photos to record collections to our desktop PCs. Hard drives with 60 to 80GB of space are common, even in budget-priced desktop PCs, and these will do for most users. If you’re using the desktop PC for multimedia editing or to store an extensive music collection, you can find hard drives up to 1TB (terabyte), or you can use an external storage drive for extra needs. If you plan on using an external hard drive, consider the connection options between the hard drive that you will need to access and the PC itself. Desktop PCs connect via two methods: USB and FireWire. FireWire is much faster than USB, making it the only choice for multimedia editing or 3D modeling.
The processor is the “brain” of your desktop PC, and spending more on a desktop PC always means a faster machine. Intel’s Core Duo and Athlon XD processors are dual chipsets that work together to speed performance, which is measured in gigahertz (GHz). The higher the GHz, the faster your desktop PC will run. Surfing the Web, using Microsoft Office, or reading and sending e-mail don’t require a lot of power from your desktop PC’s processor. Gaming, watching videos, or editing multimedia files does require a lot of processor power, and you’ll see a dramatic difference in desktop PCs with faster chipsets. Think about how you’ll use the desktop PC today, and what you might do with it two or three years down the road, when deciding how much processor speed you need.
Unless you choose an iMac, you’ll need a monitor for your desktop PC. LCD displays start at around $250, and they’re a worthy upgrade from an older CRT monitor. If you already own a monitor, make sure it’s compatible with the resolution of your new desktop PC.The graphics card is another consideration, but these can be upgraded. The included graphics cards on desktop PCs are excellent for everything up to video editing and high-resolution gaming. If you need more graphics power for your desktop PC, choose a chip with at least 256MB of built-in RAM. The GeForce 6800 or Radeon X800 are excellent choices for graphic design, multimedia editing, and gaming.
Desktop PCs require CD drives to load new software that you purchase (in-store versus download). CD-R drives that allow your desktop PC to burn compact discs are common, and desktop PCs with DVD-R drives are moving into the budget category. DVD-R drives include CD-R functions (burning music to CD) and allow you to burn DVDs of home movies or multimedia files. DVD-R burns slower than CD-R; look for the speed, represented as a number followed by an X. Higher numbers deliver faster burn speeds, but you’ll need compatible CD-Rs or DVD-Rs.At the highest end, HD DVD-R drives are now available. This is an expensive technology that is useful mainly to video editors and multimedia authors. A standard DVD-R drive will meet the needs of most desktop PC users.
Half the fun of a desktop PC is connecting to the Internet. At a minimum, you’ll need a built-in modem for dialup access or an Ethernet port for broadband. Wireless Internet connections almost always require an additional wireless modem.
With so many peripherals, including printers, keyboards, and external drives, running on USB connections, it’s amazing that most desktop PCs still offer only two USB ports. If you have a lot of USB devices, you can find a desktop PC with extra ports, or buy a separate, powered USB hub. A good rule of thumb is you’ll want at least four USB ports. An additional convenience to consider is USB port location. Ports located in the rear are fine for printers. However, USB ports located in the front of the machine will provide convenient access for devices that require frequent plug-ins for data exchange such as MP3 players and digital cameras.
A new item to look for is an HDMI port. This allows you to connect your desktop PC to a compatible HDTV, so you can watch media files on the big screen. Online digital movie rentals are a reality today, so this feature may be worth the investment.
You’ll need a mouse and keyboard at a minimum. Some desktop PCs now come with a wireless mouse and keyboard. These reduce desktop clutter, but the batteries they need to run can get costly.An inkjet printer is the most economical way to get files from your desktop PC to the real world. If you’re on a budget, buy your printer based on ink cost, not printer cost, as you’ll be buying a lot of ink over time (see Inkjet Standard Printer Buying Guide, Inkjet Photo Printer Buying Guide, Laser Printer Buying Guide, Multifunction Printer Buying Guide).