The secret code of computer buying

Megabit, megabyte, megahertz, mega-hype. Sounds a bit like a modern-day Dr. Seuss title.
The primary selling features used by computer retailers today are the speed (and type) of processor, along with the size of the hard drive, the amount of RAM, and the number and types of drives that are built into the computer.
I firmly believe one of the reasons so many different types of information are included in computer descriptions is to overwhelm and impress the consumer. But that’s what marketing is all about, right?
The numbers aren’t really all that confusing once you are armed with a little bit of knowledge. Let’s take a sample computer system on the market right now, and try and deconstruct the description into understandable chunks:
Pentium 4 2.6GHz
256 MB DDR RAM
120 GB 7200 RPM HD
CDRW drive
DVD drive
56Kbps modem
10/100BT NIC
Windows XP Home
•Gigahertz—the Processor
In a nutshell, the clock frequency of a processor (or CPU) usually is measured in MHz or GHz. The clock frequency of a CPU determines how many times per second the transistors can change state (switch between 1 and 0).
In real-world terms, it’s the brain of your computer—and the frequency is how fast the brain can switch from one instruction to another.
It’s important to realize the speed of the processor doesn’t necessarily translate into raw speed increase—a 2.6 GHz processor will not be twice as fast as a 1.3 GHz processor, for a variety of technical reasons.
Processor speed is not going to significantly affect how fast Web pages load, or retrieve your e-mail faster. It’s really only going to make a difference in three different uses: heavy-duty gaming, scientific number-crunching, and movie or music encoding and decoding.
If these aren’t major selling points for you, don’t make the processor speed a major factor in your decision-making process.
•Megabyte—Random Access Memory (RAM)
The analogy that best fits RAM is it’s your desk. You sit in an office with a filing cabinet, and, instead of pulling information out of the cabinet, working on it, putting it back, then pulling it out again, over and over, you simply leave it on your desk.
That way, the information is close by and handy for you to use as you need it.
When you launch an application, you load it from your hard drive into RAM, where it can operate much faster than from your hard drive. Even your operating system (Windows, Mac OS, Linux) is loaded into RAM.
Amounts of RAM in a machine are now measured in megabytes (MB) or Gigabytes (GB).
The price of RAM for computers has dropped dramatically in recent years; I can remember drooling over an 8 MB upgrade that was more than $600.
The basic rule of thumb for how much RAM you need is as much as you can afford. RAM, more than anything else, can make your machine perform better. 256 megabytes should be the minimum you have in a new machine,
•Gigabyte—Hard Drive Storage
Think of your hard drive as a tiny LP record. It’s a platter that spins at high speed. The hard drive is where everything gets stored. Everything you load from disks, download from the Internet, and save from your work files is stored on the hard drive.
Following the analogy above, it’s the filing cabinet where you keep your operating system, all your documents, applications, music, and movies.
Measured in gigabytes (GB)—and yes, that’s the same unit of measurement as RAM uses, just to confuse you—most people have difficulty filling up the hard drives now. 80 GB usually is enough for most people, unless you’re doing a lot of digital video editing.
In that case, buy the biggest hard drive you can afford—you’ll definitely need it.
Next week, find out all about DVD and CD drives—and why you need a network card in your computer.
Relevant links:
•The Megahertz Myth—http://www.hardwareanalysis.com/content/article/1465/
•RAM Explained—http://www.memorystock.net/memory_explained.asp
•Incredible Connection-Hard Drives—http://www.incredible.co.za/services/buyers_guides/hard_drives.asp

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