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"Buying a Computer"

[ Personal computer specs modified from original
version as parts are ordered and decisions are made. ]

Are you looking to buy a new computer? Right now is the time. And I'm certainly buying a new system now. Shee-it.

Plenty of people are cashing in on the low prices of computer components since the American technology market is doing so well. Those old 486's are finally being replaced by brand new Pentium II processors capable of running at up to 450MHz. The latest games demand faster and faster systems, while computer companies are competing to bring the middle class market the treasured sub-$1000 computer.

Take advantage of market competition! Take advantage of the Internet, too -- computer information on the World Wide Web has solidified its place as a reliable and safe world to conduct research. You're in the position now to know more about your system before you buy it than ever before.

And few sites will take the time to actual help you out and put everything in perspective. Some sites throw prices at you, or various reviews on hardware, but how do you know you're getting what other consumers are actually buying? Well, it's my goal to give you some sort of familiarity with all this garbledegook about buying computers online.

Granted, this is nothing more than a Soapbox -- it will not be updated past its original publishing date. All I'm attempting to do is help out people who are unsure of where to look. I find this a suitable topic for the Soapbox because, like most of everything, it's rare to find the opinions of normal people on the Web. You may hear reams and reams about some new whizbang graphics card, but how do you know other people actually find it to be a good card to spend your money on? You don't, unless you're lucky and networked enough to have people to talk to who know the biz.

No matter what sort of user you are, you need to have kept an eye on the consumer market for computers. Knowing how the world economy is doing will help you tell if prices are going up or down. Exempli gratia, the Asian market's failures have caused the memory market to raise its prices. And memory prices have been dropping like a rock lately... Less than $150 for 128MB of RAM? Goddamn! Also useful is being aware of when the big companies cut their prices for their products. Tom's Hardware, for example, has a chart of Intel's Pentium prices and the dates the prices will drop. Don't ask me how he got them. :)

So here we are.


LIGHT USERS

No, you don't have to plan much of this out in order to buy a computer. But you DO have to know what sort of computer user you are in order to get the appropriate computer for yourself.

I'd imagine most people buying computers right now do not have all that much interest in computers. They want to be able to read their e-mail and check up on friends' web sites. They want to be able to type in a letter and print or fax it. That's about it. A few side interests, like downloading cool chat programs or seeing what the big deal is about Quake.

Alright. My first recommendation is do not buy a computer from a store like Best Buy or CompUSA. Definitely do not buy from a department store or Radio Shack or whatever.

Got it? Buy a computer through a mail order computer company. The highest quality mail order companies are Micron and Dell. They deliver great components in your computer for quite a good price. Gateway is also good, but I'm afraid they fill their computers with cheap ass components (although they're improving). Do us a favor and stay away from Compaq (for right now), IBM, Acer, and Packard Bell, okay? My first computer was a Packard Bell and that bucket of crap was probably about to shimmer violently and erupt into the Northern Lights in my own bedroom before I tossed it. A guy in my dorm bought a Packard Bell a year or so ago, even after we pleaded for him not to, and the thing stopped working a few days after he got it. Sheesh.

Doesn't make a difference to you? Well, maybe so. But my last computer was a Gateway 2000 and the hard drive they gave me had a flawed design. My roommate's identical hard drive crashed and burned, although mine's still clinging on, running from the Bad Sectors of Death. My CD-ROM didn't play compact discs correctly, so every few seconds while listening to music, my system would lock to buffer the CD. And the Telepath modems in old Gateway systems? They had huge compatibility problems. And while some people are quite agile with fixing those sorts of problems, if you don't work with computers often, you're going to want quality components. And it doesn't cost much more, usually.

Mail order computer companies are built around their web sites: they usually don't have physical stores. So go to the web sites, check out which base system you want, and then configure it before ordering it. You can order online safely, and I'll get to online ordering later.

Alternatives to Dell and Micron (and usually with even better components) are local computer stores. Does your city have the free magazine Computer Currents? This magazine is great for people seeking cheaper prices on higher quality systems. They'll usually offer top-of-the-line computers with all the best brands (and sometimes you can choose which brands)... IBM and Quantum hard drives, US Robotics, Micron, Creative Labs, Labtec, Teac, and so on. Look around in your own area. If you prefer seeing your computer before you buy it, and you don't trust ordering online or any of that, buying in your area is for you. But you'll have to pay state sales tax, something you might not have to do if you order it.

Second recommendation: if you don't use computers for heavy graphics/programming/sound/etc. work or gaming, then do NOT stress out over what sort of system you're going to get! I have to re-emphasize this. Chances are, if you're a light user, that anything you find on the market now will be plenty. Computers are at a point now where they're fast enough to run office-based applications just fine. It used to be that you'd have to wait for the program to crunch out that big spreadsheet, but now the program is waiting for you. Even bloated software like Excel. ;)

You don't need to worry that much about RAM, either, or monitor size, hard drive space, CD-ROM speed, and most all of that jazz. Here's why. 64MB of RAM is more than enough for most light users right now, even though I'm sure it'll be nothing in a couple of years. But RAM is dirt cheap right now and I don't see why you shouldn't get that comfort memory. Besides, Win95 and Macs run okay on 32MB of RAM, but you really will notice the difference with double the RAM. You can open more programs at once and not feel a slowdown as more page addresses and whatnot are stored in memory. CD-ROM 24 speeds are pretty good for data and music -- 32 is an extra comfort. Hard drive space is not an issue for most people -- it's the heavy users who install those 500MB games and the graphics people who have 10MB Photoshop files of pretty spheres who need hard drive space.

If you don't play the latest games, you do not need a 3d graphics card. The mail order companies ship 2d/3d combination cards these days anyway, so I guess there isn't much to do about that.

I don't know much about Macs, but since Apple is the only distributor of its computers, you don't have many options. All I know is go for a solid G3 processor system. They're all good if you're into Macs. (props out to Jobs for releasing the iMac without a floppy drive...good for you, dude) The Mac isn't laughable anymore, and I really wish I bought some of their stock a few months ago, but oh well. Jobs is bringing the dead back to life.

So don't sweat the details. Don't get all the fastest and extra components -- you won't need them and they're overpriced anyway. The difference between a 333MHz Pentium II processor and a Pentium II 350MHz is about $100. And you're only gaining a slight increase in performance. Hardly worth it, even if a dealer tells you otherwise. Don't be suckered into buying more than you need. Up to this date, anything above 300MHz is fairly overpriced, but 333s and 350s will be more affordable after Intel cuts prices on August 24th to make room for the 450MHz they're introducing.

What's the skinny then? Well, if you're not going to be playing the heavy 3d effects games like Unreal or doing elaborate modelling using CAD or something, you're not going to notice the difference between the best computers and a pretty good computer. So go with the latter. Upgrading systems isn't as vital as it used to be -- the computers can handle the newest office software just fine.

The financial aspect of it all: you can expect to buy a good 266MHz computer with 64MB RAM and the usual components for much less than $2000 these days. Quite different from the days of old, no? I paid $3000 for my last Gateway 2000 system, and after seeing prices drop, as well as my system's reliability, I'm happy to have more options when buying a new system.

Don't worry your pretty little head about making transactions over the Internet, okay? All the evil stuff they talk about in the news is exaggerated and makes hackers look like people who give a shit about you. The truth is that in order for someone to monitor your orders for credit card numbers, the hacker has to be watching for that second that your information passes through the 'Net. Reliable sources say that this sort of fraud has never even happened. Besides, most companies have SSL, which is encryption for information passed over the Internet. We're talking 32-bit to 64-bit encryption just for your stupid credit card number. That's quite a few levels above the encryption I use for PGP (Pretty Good Privacy, a system which allows you to encrypt e-mail). 128-bit encryption is military grade and realistically impossible to crack. :P Furthermore, if you just look at your credit card bill after buying your computer, you'll see if there are any transactions you didn't make. Show some responsibility and don't bow down to the media gods.


ABOVE-AVERAGE TO POWER USERS

If you're anything like me, you make your income through the computer and you'll do things from day to day which vary from playing Quake 2 with 3d effects, to compiling Java programs, to viewing the Web in the latest version of your fave browser, to developing web sites, to listening to music online and offline, to using networking aides like FrontPage and Lotus Notes.

If you're an expert, why are you even reading this? You know what you're doing anyway. Oh well.

So you've worked with computers long enough that you know exactly what specs you want on your new system, plus you know which brands are good and which aren't. Why not build your own system from individual parts?

Caveat emptor: building your own system is not quick to do or time-friendly. Either you get a tech geek to put your system together for you, or you spend hours looking for the best prices on the best components. Then you have to make sure no companies you ordered your products from have scammed you, and then you have to screw in all your computer parts and connect them up to the power supply and hope nothing was damaged in shipping. But usually things work out fine. The end result is that you'll probably be so happy with your computer that you'll name it, or something. Now THAT'S a system. ;)

I'm eager to get rid of this system. My very first computer was a 386/20MHz Packard Bell with 2MB of RAM (haha) and a 2400 baud modem. I kept that thing for a long time before I was able to get a new computer. Then I got a Gateway 2000, 133MHz system which has been overclocked to 150MHz and upgraded to 64MB RAM and 3.5GB room on two hard drives. The poor thing really suffers with Photoshop plugins and especially in games like Unreal. Can't even fight a Skaarj without the screen jerking around. Old people crowing about the slideshows before movies came around? I've seen it firsthand. =)

The last package I got was the last package I'll get. It had some problems I've mentioned earlier in this 'Box, plus it was not friendly to upgrading and it wasn't made to last for someone like me. Keep in mind that I didn't use the computer as extensively as I used to. But it was a good system and it was top-of-the-line when I got it a couple years ago. Overpriced, unfortunately.

So now, with a bit of help from Hardware Man Dan, my roommate, I'm putting my system together from scratch. We suffer from a sort of geekdom which derives pleasure for us from eking out the highest framerates from Quake and other frames per second type games. Oh, and I have to do a lot of graphics work, too. ;)

I've learned a lot in researching what products I want for my system. There really is no excuse for buying separate parts without putting the time into checking them out online. There are so many sites on the 'Net with reviews of the latest products and comparisons head-to-head. You can't just look in the paper and buy whatever's advertised -- you can easily get higher quality products for cheaper prices these days.

You'll have to be familiar with all the acronyms and specifications involved in the parts of your computer. I didn't know much about motherboards before I thought about a new computer, but I know enough now. Does your motherboard have enough PCI slots for all your components? Will your processor fit on your motherboard? Will the clock settings on the motherboard coincide with the CPU? Is your RAM PC100 compatible? Does your modem have to be v.90 compliant?

Use the Internet. Tom's Hardware reviews many products and provides explanations of what the jargon surrounding different technologies actually means. Cyrellis and AnandTech do the same. And Computers.com goes a step further by giving you a list of the cheapest prices for individual components advertised on the 'Net. Plus, it's a site run by c|net, so c|net has the funds to publish big comparison tables between the latest competitors. Quite useful site indeed. Find the product in the comparison that fits your needs, see who has the cheapest price, call the company or visit their site, and then you're done.

PriceWatch is a site I've used extensively in the past to gather prices from a lot of different companies. You can also use it to track trends in the prices. No reviews...just prices and contact info for companies.

So once you've learned what all the babble means, you have to decide what you need. Here's a rundown of the system I'm most likely to get:

Motherboard Abit BH6 5PCI/2ISA/1AGP
CPU Pentium Celeron 266MHz SL2QG
RAM 128MB PC100 SDRAM 10ns CAS2 -GH Samsung
2D Video Matrox Millennium G200 8MB SGRAM
3D Video Diamond Monster II 12MB Voodoo2
Monitor 15" Sony 100ES .25
Hard Drive IBM UDMA 33/s 8.4GB 5400rpm
CD-ROM Teac 32x IDE
Sound Card Turtle Beach Montego A3D
Speakers Labtec 2612 w/subwoofer
Modem US Robotics Sportster 56k v.90
Case 300W mini tower w/auxiliary fan
Misc. Mouse, keyboard, CD burner?, printer?,
Win95, 3 1/2 floppy, scanner?

Yes, that's a Celeron 266MHz. The Celeron is highly overclockable and, for most people (including me), the lack of L2 cache (which makes the Celeron cheaper than P2) has little effect if your Celeron is overclocked to 448 or 496MHz. The 266MHz costs about $100 and will provide surprising competition to the P2 chip.

I have to get a 15" instead of a 17" because the desks in my dorm have shelves and they barely fit 15" monitors. If you would like to contribute a desk without shelves, please send it to the Ben Turner 17" Photoshop-at-High-Res Fund, c/o Ben Turner. Debating whether to get a Montego sound card or the Diamond Multimedia MX200, which has support for four speakers. But where do you put the rear speakers? On the floor? Mount them on the back of your chair? A good pair of headphones is a definite plus for immersive audio.

I went with high-end graphics cards considering I play games and use Photoshop often. The Millennium G200 is Matrox's newest graphics card, offering top-notch 2d quality with the best image quality available. It also supports 3d, with its color sharpness and clarity blowing the Voodoo2 out of the water. Its horsepower in 3d leaves a bit to be desired, however, so... I managed to snag a retail Diamond Monster II for only $163. What a deal! So I have two cards for 3d, the G200 with better image quality (and can get to 1024x768 res) and the Voodoo2 for raw multiplayer FPS power. :) I wanted a Millennium II PCI, but those are out of production and are extremely hard to get. Besides, the G200 costs about the same amount, but it uses an AGP slot, so I might have to get a new 2d card to make room for the future's AGP 3d cards. Plenty of hard drive space for games and for the huge Photoshop files. Not to mention general application room (Office and Win95 are huge). 128MB of RAM is plenty for someone like me. The 5 PCI slots on the motherboard are perfect for upgrading -- no shortage of slots.

Overall, this system should cost about $1700. Not bad, eh?

I read reviews of these products on various sites, like the ones listed above. Then I went to PriceWatch and got a rundown of prices. Computers.com was also useful. The system will cost about $1700, as said earlier, not including a printer or scanner or CD burner. Definitely an excellent price for such a high-end system. You really can't buy a better system in the stores without paying $3000. With minimal cooling and good ventilation from the auxiliary fan on my case, the Celeron 266 should get up to 448MHz easily (with near-P2 quality benchmarks) and may even get up to 496 if I add extra cooling. That's right: a $100 CPU that produces strong results against the fastest P2s. Overclocker's dream, Intel's nightmare.

So soon I will order all this stuff from various companies. It's important to make sure the shipping charges are reasonable, since companies love to screw people over with shipping bills. Often they'll jack up the price of shipping to make a little extra profit. Another thing to look for: warranties. If you're buying the retail version of a product, you should have a warranty through the manufacturer. But if you're buying the OEM version of some hardware (no retail box, just the bare essentials), make sure there's at least a 1 year warranty on the product. One year should be just fine -- if a component is a lemon, it'll usually stop working in a month. When you select companies to buy from, look for a toll-free number and a web site. You're very lucky if you're able to buy from the better companies out there. You want to be sure to get the product you wanted, plus not have problems returning damaged goods or whatever. Be sure you're strict with these guys -- something might slip by you. Finally, check your credit card bill at the end of the month to make sure nothing bad has happened.

I won't get into how to build the system. There are guides on the 'Net about that. AnandTech has a DIY guide up that he just posted. Spotty in some areas, but very useful overall. I wouldn't be able to help much myself, considering I'm not there in the room with you. It helps to have plenty of experience before you assemble your own system. I don't have that. ;)


There we have it. Once you have your system running, you should be really happy with it. Now you get to download and install all your programs onto it, plus transfer old files from your old computer. Whee! One thing that helps is if you store the original executable installation files for all your programs on Zip disk or some similar storage disk. Then you don't have to download everything again. But it requires that you always have the latest version saved to disk. It's worth the time. You might want to check to see if you have the latest drivers and all that before feeling like you've completed the job.

If you like, you might want to see my software recommendations so you can compare my favorite programs with yours. The software area needs some maintenance work, but I don't have any new programs to add to it, I think. Mainly 3dfx drivers and that sort of stuff.

Helpful enough? Give you some reassurance about your coming decisions? I hope so. This was far from comprehensive, but there was a lot of stuff that wasn't explained to me, and I tried to reproduce much of the unanswered questions here. Any further questions can of course be e-mailed to me.

I'm looking forward to playing Quake II at over 60fps, myself. :) Not to mention being able to cut down load times significantly on my big apps.

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