Buying A Computer

A lot depends on your price range, use and the future expansion requirements.

Complete Computers To Go

Today, the average home user is probably better off getting an out of the box machine from a company like Dell, IBM, H-P, Gateway or Compaq.

Let me say that again. The average home user. Not the dedicated game player. Not the dedicated music composer. Not the dedicated video filmmaker. I’m talking mama and papa bear, not finicky little Goldie Locs. Goldie Locs needs to bypass this part of the article and go right to the custom box!

Why so? Large scale integration! In an out of the box machine almost everything you need to run the computer is built right into the board, leaving few slots open for add-ons and often a box too small to easily add anything anyway.

Even in an out of the box unit you should look for at least one or two open slots (known as PCI slots), plus a video slot (known as an AGP slot). They may be required down the line for expansion if say, your integrated video output dies and you need to get a new card (for $60 or $100 instead of buying a whole new box for $400) or need to add on a video capture card.

Most out of the box units these days come with at least 3 if not up to 7 USB ports, which is now the industry standard for connecting almost anything from scanners, digital cameras to printers. Most come with a decent video card, although the memory is usually “shared” with system memory (this is why game players will want to explore custom boxes, you can get a video card with dedicated memory). Shared memory is good enough for beginner games and most video applications, so this is very “adequate.”

Most low cost out of the box units ($450 and up) come with a “baby” CPU (central processor or brain) that is fine and dandy for most home applications and many games. Some of the more sophisticated software programs, however, may need to run on a higher end AMD or Intel CPU. So if you’re not planning on spending $1,000 for some exotic program the baby CPU will work just fine.

Most low cost out of the box units come with a modest size hard drive (generally 40 GB or more) and a CD burner that also plays DVDs. The more expensive units often come with DVD burners that also burn CDs and larger (80+ GB) hard drives. They also come with better CPUs, but we are now talking in the $600 to $900 range for a system.

These are systems. The come with keyboard, mouse, tower and some type of monitor (usually a 17” CRT or standard tube monitor in the low priced end and a 15 to 17” LCD in the over $900 range). The also include the operating system (usually a home version of Windows XP) and often some productivity software (usually Microsoft Works and some type of anti virus program). You open the box. Take out the parts. Plug in the mouse, keyboard, power cords, monitor and turn on the switches. In about 90 seconds you are up and running.

These systems include a network interface so you can plug in your cable or DSL modem using either the J 47 jack or the USB cord. You can also plug this into a router and get added to a network in just a few minutes by using the Windows XP set up menus or adding a computer name. These systems include a 59 K modem with the latest upgrades so you can plug in a phone line and connect to AOL or MSN with the pre-installed software and be on the internet within 5 minutes if you have a valid checking account or credit card.

Almost every computer these days comes with a FireWire input so you can connect a high speed remote hard drive or video camcorder and maybe be up and running in a few minutes, unless you have to tweak the built-in software to make it see the new device (which may require a trip on-line to the internet to talk with a user group and get some help setting things up).

The beauty of these machines is that anyone who can open the box of a brand new vacuum cleaner or waffle iron can assemble and make work a pre-boxed system within 30 minutes and even get on the internet.

Computers ala Carte

Also known as one from column A, B and C.

With the customer box comes the ability to pick and choose what you want from mother board (the main chassie) to CPU to video card to hard drive.

With the out of the box systems you have no idea where your board or drives come from. With the custom box you pick and choose brand name based on knowledge, advise and recommendations.

Some mother boards are better, faster and more flexible than others. They may let you load more memory (and out of the box may be limited to half a gig, while you might be able to pack on 2 GB of RAM memory in a custom board), a wider variety of CPUs (you may not be able to upgrade from the baby CPU on an out of the box unit to an Intel P4), different BIOS (Basic Ins and Outs) and the ability to have lots of extra free slots if you intend on adding fancy audio, video and secondary monitor cards.

Your cards are another consideration. The out of the box units may stick you with a very generic sound card with wimpy music playback. With a custom machine you can add a high end Sound Blaster card that is almost as expensive as a complete out of the box computer. This will play back MIDI music sounding like a philharmonic orchestra. It also comes with better software so you can compose and record your own music like a pro! Some may also want to add real pro equipment like Pro Tools, that will let your record 8, 16 or 24 separate tracks of music simultaneously – but this device may require more than a “baby CPU” and can also conflict with the built-in, integrated audio card on an out of the box unit.

Video. Some serious users, like wedding photographers or schools, may want to add high end capture cards and cards to run multiple monitors so they can edit video professionally for broadcast. These people will also want to add a high end Sound Blaster or the Pro Tools audio card at the same time!

Serious game player will certainly want the best video card money can buy (and we are talking well over $300 here just for the card – the one in the out of the box system is worth about $50) with 64 or 128 bits and upwards to 512 MB in dedicated memory with special chips to make the action move smoother. These cards may also conflict with the on-board, integrated, out of the box system.

Some mother boards even come with TWO AGP ports to make adding extra monitors easier!

One some out of the box system the battery that controls your real time clock might be soldiered in, while on a custom motherboard you can easily replace this battery in two years when it goes dead.

Do you want a Seagate, Western Digital or Fuji hard drive? What size? 100 GB? 200 GB? Do you want one with 4 MB of on board memory to help data transfer? Do you want one that runs at 10,000 RPMs or better? Do you need four hard drives installed?

What type of DVD writer? Single sided? Double sided? DVD- or DVD+ or both with DVD RAM? What speed? What make? What software to support it (NTI standard, NTI Plus, NTI Pro or another brand altogether)?

Same with the modem. Do you want just anything (like on an out of the box) or do you want a Motorola, 3-Com, Diamond, Lucent, Supra, US Robotics, etc.?

The problem with all of this, of course, as after you decide which CPU you want and the system, brand of memory and speed of transfer, that “custom box” without the keyboard, mouse and monitor will cost at least as much as an out of the box system ($450+) to over $1,000!

Finally, unlike the "out of the box" systems which you pick up, put into your cart, pay for, take home and use, the custom boxes take time to be assembled. You may have to wait as long as one week to pick up your units and sometimes a card or item you want goes out of stock or simply doesn't work in the system, so they may have to make a substitution with or without your consent. Out of the box is definately "instant gratification" while the custom machine is not...

Plus, you have as yet to pick a monitor, which can run as low as $150 for 17” CRT (which was $1,500 four years ago) to $600 for a 19” LCD screen!

We’ll tackle screens some other time!


The Musician's PlaceTo Shop!
Instant Gift Certificates!

© 2001-2005 Issues Magazine.
All Rights Reserved.

Get 15 FREE prints!