The Computer Guy Masthead

How to Buy Computer Hardware

"If your computer makes you money, then spend money on it" Buy the most powerful system on the market, add more RAM and upgrade the monitor and hard drive. If your budget is limited, then balance current needs, budget, and future needs and formulate a plan for what to buy now and what can be added without throwing anything away.

If you are buying your first computer, most likely you will consider that system under powered in six to 12 months and will want to upgrade. If you have a computer at work and purchase one for the home office, you will underestimate how much you will work on it and which programs you will use etc. To be satisfied with your computer purchase you should KNOW what you want to get out of your hardware now. Unfortunately you NEVER know what you will want in a year or two, or what your software will require. To maximize your investment, define clearly what you want to get out of your system, learn the order in which you should buy your system, and plan to replace your system in 18 to 24 months. You can minimize this if you buy in a logical order. Your circumstances need to be treated uniquely, but the general order will hold for most users.

    Define clearly what you want to get out of your system. If you need presentation quality printouts buy the printer first, then buy the software to get the results you want. Only then are you ready to buy the hardware to run the software.

    If you play games, buy the monitor first, then the game software, and then the hardware to make that run as you would like (fast hard drive, RAM, video card).

    Don't look at what you might need next year or the year after. Buy the hardware and software to meet your needs now and all but ignore the future.

    Many people expect yesterday's hardware to run today's software. Remember how quickly the 286 was outdated? Note the MINIMUM hardware requirements for today's software. A 486/25 is underpowered to run today's desk top publishers and operating systems. A Pentium is recommended on many new games.

    A tower with at least three large (5-1/4") bays, and two small (3-1/2") bays that you can access from the outside. It should have a 250W power supply and hold at least two hard drives. This configuration allows for two floppy drives, a CD drive, a tape back up and one additional device. It should accept 'standard' motherboards (no built in ports, and normal mounting screw hole locations). For easy access, service, expandability, and heat dissipation from the CPU, the larger the better.

    The monitor, keyboard, printer, software and mouse/trackball. These will get the most direct use and spending money on these items is well worth it. When you upgrade, you will not need to replace these items. If you upgrade these, you are throwing something away to do it so avoid this if at all possible. Don't skimp on your comfort because if the system is not comfortable to use, you'll avoid your computer.

    The motherboard, CPU, RAM and hard drive will probably be upgraded regardless of what you buy now, so don't feel the need to over spend. When the hard drive gets too small, (hard drives fill up very quickly) simply add another one. When you need more RAM, add to what you already have. If the CPU gets too slow, replace the chip. If the motherboard proves inadequate, replace it and your CPU.

    Video card, sound card, CD, controller cards, modem, etc. All these accessories offer hundreds of choices, from very cheap and barely functional, to expensive and truly cool. The costs add up quickly, but are controllable. The table below shows typical mail order prices and capability of these components.

    Price Comparison (Early '97)

    ItemLow EndHigh End
    Video card$20256k 16 colors$3504MB 16 Million colors
    Sound card$308 Bit$400All kinds of cool stuff
    Speakers$10Makes noise$300Surround Sound
    CD$40Single speed$1000Masters your own
    In/Out card$10Game and printer ports$100High Speed
    Modem$252400 Baud$20033.6 Fax, Voice
    Hard drive card$302 IDE Drives$350SCSI Master
    Printer$2009 pin dot matrix$140012 PPM, 4 MB RAM
    Scanner$100hand held B&W$1400Single pass w/ software
    Cost$465for low end$5,500for high end

    The differences in prices and capabilities are tremendous and you can easily escalate the cost of your system. If you cannot afford what you want, buy something functional within your budget. When you do upgrade and throw out the replaced component, your loss is minimal. Be careful not to go too low, because you will be forced to upgrade earlier than expected. A comfortable range is about 4 to 6 times the low cost. This gets reasonably useful components without spending too much money on a throwaway component.

    A caution to people who have a price target, but are not buying because they are waiting for better equipment for the same money next month. As soon as you buy that "dream system" your comparison changes. Now you will be saying, 'How much is this system today?'. Generally you lose 5-10% before the first month is over, making it difficult to remain excited about this dream system, when it is losing value faster than you are paying for it. Be aware of this from the start and it won't hurt so much.

    Keeping in mind this purchasing plan, and protecting your upgrade ability, will extend the life of your investment. Even by following this advice, your system may still need to be upgraded every 12 to 18 months (adding memory, upgrading cards etc.) and replaced outright in four years (due to greater demands by software).

Ben Davies | "The Computer Guy"
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