buy a new computer or laptop with best features
The key components of a computer are the processor, memory, operating system, hard drive, graphics adapter (with video RAM), optical drive, and display (monitor). Laptop computers have additional features and considerations that are important. Where applicable, we’ve noted feature information that is important and distinctive to the type of computers.
This is the computer’s “brains.” Clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), and the chip’s design, termed “architecture,” determine how quickly it can process information. Within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the computer. But different processor families reach different efficiencies.
For laptops: Laptops generally come with a dual-core processor. If you’re on a budget, an Intel Pentium Dual-Core or AMD Turion 64 X2 is fine. For greater power or battery life, get an Intel Core 2 Duo.
For desktops: The lowest-priced Windows systems probably use Pentium Dual-Core, Celeron D, Athlon 64, or Sempron processors. But most common now are dual-processor desktops. Dual-core processor families from Intel (Core 2 Duo) and AMD (Athlon 64 X2) represent newer technologies developed to increase processing power beyond what a single-chip processor can achieve. Macs have transitioned to Intel Core 2 Duo series processors. Quad-core processors are also becoming more common in higher-end desktops, and AMD also offers a triple-core processor.
The different processor families make direct speed comparisons difficult, but any recent processor family will probably deliver all the speed you need.
Random access memory (RAM)
Most brand-name computers sold today have at least 1GB of RAM, the memory the computer uses while in operation.
For laptops: We recommend at least 2GB of RAM (random-access memory).
For desktops: For Windows Vista or Mac OS X, we recommend at least 2GB. Memory upgrades are not expensive, but don’t get more than 3 GB in a Windows PC unless you opt for a 64-bit version of Windows, which requires 4 GB or more of memory.
If you go with a PC, you have a choice of several versions of Windows Vista, each with its own hardware requirements. Vista Home Basic leaves out several features we liked in this software, while Vista Ultimate costs more and has more features than most home users need. We recommend Home Premium as the Vista version for most home users. You’ll need a 64-bit version of Vista to use more than 3 GB of memory, but be aware that 64-bit operating systems have problems working with some older software and add-on hardware.
Apple computers come with Mac OS X, an operating system based on Unix. Mac OS is considered by many to be easier to learn and use than Windows. It’s less prone to fall victim to online threats because malware writers don’t see it as an appealing target. New features in Mac OS X Leopard (10.5) include an automatic backup tool, and a reorganized desktop. A souped-up e-mail application lets you create automatic greeting cards and invitations and turn e-mails into to-do list tasks or calendar items. The new Dashboard lets you create your own on-screen widgets, or mini-applications. And the latest Safari browser lets you make a widget out of a live Web site (though Safari lacks anti-phishing protection). The Spotlight tool can now search servers and networks. You can preview files without launching their applications and search for files by attributes. You can even run Windows Vista. With a feature called Boot Camp, you can set up a dual boot on your Mac that lets you run any version of Windows on one partition and Leopard on the other. You can also run Windows without dual boot by using a virtualizer like Parallels Desktop.
Graphics adapter and video RAM
A computer’s graphics adapter is either integrated onto the motherboard or on a separate internal plug-in card. In addition to feeding the computer’s display with an analog (VGA) or a digital (DVI) signal, a graphics adapter might have an output such as an S-video or HDMI port to feed video to an external TV (common), or accept video from an external analog source (rare). But an adapter can always display video from sources such as a file, a DVD, an external analog feed, or a TV tuner. All desktops and laptops come with a minimum of integrated graphics capability for watching DVDs or playing casual games such as solitaire. Video RAM, or VRAM, is secondary RAM that works with the graphics processor to provide smooth video imaging and game play. To run Windows Vista’s 3D interface or play 3D-intensive games, we recommend at least 256 MB or more.
This is your computer’s long-term data storage. Given the requirements of today’s games, digital photos, and video files, bigger is better. Sizes commonly range from 160GB to 750GB. You’ll even see drives of 1 terabyte (1,000GB). For added security, you could opt for a RAID array (redundant array of identical disks), which includes two identical drives set up so that data is written to both drives simultaneously. That way if one crashes, all your data is safe on the other one.
You might also see the term serial ATA, or SATA, applied to hard drives. SATA provides a faster form of data transfer than the older parallel ATA disk drive interface.
For laptops: Most laptops come with a traditional 60- to 320-gigabyte hard drive, which is where all your files and programs are stored. Pay attention to a hard drive’s speed. 4,200 RPM, while rare, is considered fairly slow. 5,400 RPM is common. 7,200 RPM is fastest, but costs more. Some laptops can be equipped with two hard drives for improved performance or backup.
Solid-state drives are on the cutting edge of storage technology, allowing your computer to access data without the moving parts required by a traditional hard drive. So-called flash drives don’t have the spinning disk of a conventional hard drive, so they use less power, work quieter, and should be more resistant to damage from rugged use. And because there are no moving parts, they promise quicker access to data. Apple’s MacBook Air is available with a solid-state hard drive as an option. Sony, Lenovo, and other companies also sell laptops with solid-state drives.
DVD writers are standard gear on today’s computers. A DVD burner provides removable storage for home-video footage or digital photos. With the HD disc format wars over, Blu-ray disc (BD) drives are the standard to look for. BD is capable of playing the growing list of Blu-ray movies and can store 50GB, almost six times the capacity of a double-layer DVD. On some systems, you might find Blu-Ray/HD DVD combo drives, which can also play whatever HD DVD movies are still out there. There are also three older competing, incompatible DVD formats-DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM. Some drives can write in more than one format, but all can create a disc that will play on stand-alone DVD players.
For desktops: Unless you’re a graphic artist, there’s little reason to choose an almost-extinct CRT. LCDs offer numerous advantages over the CRT, chief among them their smaller footprint. Sizes range from 15 to 24 inches and larger (measured diagonally). The most common sizes are 19 and 20 inches.
Better LCD displays can use a DVI connection, found on some PCs with graphics processors. You can often obtain a deep discount on an LCD monitor by buying it bundled with a new computer at a manufacturer’s Web site.
For laptops: A 14- to 15-inch display, measured diagonally, should suit most people. Displays that are 17 inches are common. Models with a 13-inch display are becoming more common, as the industry moves toward even smaller models; several 9-inch models have already appeared. A resolution of 1,440×900 (WXGA+) pixels (picture elements) or more is better than 1,280×800 (WXGA) for viewing the fine detail in photographs or video, but it might shrink objects on the screen. You can use settings in Windows to make them larger. Most models are offered with a display that has a glossy surface instead of a matte one. Those look better in bright ambient light as long as you avoid direct reflections. Try to view the screen in bright light before buying. A “wide aspect” display (WXGA or WSXGA) fits wide-screen DVD movies better.
A new display technology called LED-backlighted LCD is making its way into laptops. An advantage of the technology is its more efficient use of power and, as a result, longer battery life. Color on LED-backlighted screens is sometimes better, sometimes worse than displays using older technologies.
For desktops: Form factors for computers are more varied now. In addition to the most common tower format, you can find all-in-one and small-form-factor (SFF) computers. Mainstream computers usually come in towers, which fit on top of or under a desk. The all-in-one form factor, such as the Apple iMac, packs all the components into the same enclosure as the LCD display. Only the keyboard and mouse are separate. Sony, HP, Dell, and Gateway also have all-in-one models. SFF cases include the Dell Studio Hybrid and the Apple Mac mini.
For laptops: When not plugged into a wall outlet, portable computers use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for power. In Consumer Reports’ tests, a normal battery provided 2 to nearly 5 hours of continuous use when running office applications. (Laptops go into sleep mode when used intermittently, extending the time between charges.) You can lengthen battery life if you dim the display, turn off wireless devices when not needed, and use only basic applications. Playing a DVD movie uses more battery power than other functions, but most laptops should be able to play one through to the end. Many laptops can accept an “extended” battery, adding size and weight but giving as much as twice the battery life.
For desktops: This controls the cursor on the computer’s screen. It comes either wired or wireless. Wireless mice give you more mobility, but you must keep them charged or replace the batteries every few months. More expensive mice have optical light sensors on their undersides rather than rolling balls. We recommend spending a little more for an optical mouse.
For laptops: Most laptops use a small touchpad in place of a mouse; you slide your finger across it to move the cursor. You can also program the pad to respond to a “tap” as a “click,” or scroll as you sweep your index finger along the pad’s right edge. An alternative system uses a pointing stick the size of a pencil eraser in the middle of the keyboard. You can attach a USB or wireless mouse or trackball if you prefer.
Most computers come with a standard wired keyboard, although you can also buy one separately. Some keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls that let you pause, play back, change tracks, and so on. Some also have additional keys to expedite getting online, starting a search, launching programs, or retrieving e-mail. Like mice, keyboards can also be wireless.
For laptops: A laptop’s keyboard can be quite different from that of a desktop computer. The keys themselves might be full-sized (generally only lightweight models pare them down), but they might not feel as solid. Some laptops have extra buttons to control DVD playback. You can attach a USB keyboard, which you might find easier to use.
Computers for home use feature a high-fidelity sound system that plays CDs or downloaded music files, synthesized music, game sounds, and DVD-movie soundtracks. Three-piece speaker systems with a subwoofer have deeper, more powerful bass. Surround-sound systems can turn a PC into a home theater. There are connections for an external audio source (such as a microphone) and for headphones.
For laptops: The small speakers built into laptops often sound tinny. And a brand name like Altec Lansing or Harmon Kardon doesn’t mean that they’ll sound good. Headphones or external speakers deliver much better sound. But some larger laptops include much better speakers and even a subwoofer for deeper bass.
The ports to look for on a computer include USB, FireWire, Ethernet, and S-video or HDMI. USB ports let you connect many add-on devices, such as digital cameras or external hard drives, as well as a memory drive for copying files to and from the hard drive. Having these ports at the front of the case makes connecting devices more convenient. An Ethernet port or wireless network card lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or a broadband Internet connection. FireWire or IEEE 1394 ports are used to capture video from digital camcorders and connect to other peripheral devices. An S-video or HDMI output jack lets you run a video cable from the computer to a television so you can use the computer’s DVD drive to view a movie on a TV instead of on the computer monitor. Media-center PCs (equipped with TV tuners) can also capture video from a VCR, letting you copy tapes to DVDs. The once-ubiquitous modem port is disappearing from new PCs as dial-up Internet access marches toward oblivion. Other slots to look for on a new computer are memory-card readers for flash cards.
For laptops: Most laptops let you attach those devices without the docking station. At least two USB ports for easy hookup of, say, a printer, digital camera, or scanner are standard. A wired network (Ethernet) port is also standard. A FireWire port for digital-video transfer is common. An internal wireless-network (Wi-Fi) adapter is standard. Another option is an internal Bluetooth wireless adapter to link to a Bluetooth-capable cell phone, camera, or another laptop.
For laptops: Portable computers usually include at least one PC-card or Expresscard slot for expansion. You might add a wireless-network card or a cellular modem if those are not built in.
For laptops; Some notebooks offer a connection for a docking station, a $100 to $200 base that makes it easy to connect an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, printer, network, and power in one step.
For laptops; A growing number of notebooks include fingerprint scanners for security and as a convenient alternative to typing a password when logging in. Some of Lenovo’s laptops use face-recognition technology; Toshiba and other manufacturers are expected to add it to some of their models. Lenovo’s new IdeaPad uses VeriFace technology when you log in. With VeriFace, your face is scanned, via the laptop’s webcam, and then scanned again to make sure it matches the initial scan every time you log in.
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