Categorized | The Desktop Computer

Hardware and Software 3.2. The Desktop Computer

The desktop computer is a personal computer made for use on a desk in an office or home. Typically, a desktop is a stand-alone computer, but it could also refer to a workstation accessing a server, such as a SunSparc station. What distinguishes a desktop is that a.) it’s meant for a single user, unlike a server or a mainframe, and b.) it’s not very portable, to distinguish it from a laptop or PDA such as a PalmPilot or Treo.

When you think of “personal computer,” what comes to mind is a tower sitting neat and trim on or below a desk. But, technically, a “desktop” is one of those computers in a horizontal box, usually with a monitor plunked down on top of it. A tower is, well, a “tower.” Usage being what it is, we refer to them both as “desktops.”

Hardware

The hardware in a desktop computer is neatly modular, making it easy for someone with even beginner’s knowledge to replace, upgrade, or add components. The case is designed to easily come off (unlike a laptop) and most come with various and sundry open slots to add components.

Desktop computers usually have a separate monitor, the exceptions being Macintosh iMacs and eMacs. The keyboard and pointing device, usually a mouse, attach to the computer’s PS/2 or USB ports. Additional ports allow you to attach an unlimited number of peripherals, such as printers, hard drives, optical disk drives, and so on.

The best news about desktops is that you can get considerably more power and features for considerably less than a laptop. The lowest-priced desktops clock in at around $300; you can have a desktop that can out-power the best laptops for under a $1000. The bad news is that where you put your desktop is where it stays. There’s no packing your computer to Starbucks or heaving it on a plane to conveniently continue your work!

Unless your business or lifestyle requires you to be itinerant, you should start with a desktop. Why? Price, for one. Easy upgradeability, for two. But how do you choose?

So there you are standing in front of an array of desktops each bearing a bewildering list of specifications pasted all over them. What do all these things mean as far as your business is concerned? Remember: it’s a cardinal rule in computer marketing that bigger numbers sell better. But bigger numbers may not be what you need. “Bigger” and “faster” usually mean “pricier.” So how do you strike the right balance between price and power?

Processor—your attention should instantly focus on the processor. It is the brains of the desktop and will affect your productivity on almost everything you do.

What should you be looking for? Two things: brand and clock speed.

There are a bewildering number of brand names out there, but in general they fall into two categories: premium processors and budget processors. Premium processors are the best-engineered, cutting-edge technology processors and almost always run faster and more efficiently than the budget processors. The current top-end processor is Intel’s Core Duo processor, so if you purchase a computer with a Core Duo, you can bet you’re getting state-of-the-art technology, at least at the time this book was published. But, be warned, you may not need state-of-the-art tech, particularly when premium processors are sold at a substantial premium (that’s why they call them premium, no?). Budget processors, such as Intel’s Centrino or AMD’s Athlon, are excellent processors, as well, but may not run every application as well as the premium processors and are often slower. My laptop has a Centrino processor and it will not run my motion graphics applications.

A processor’s “speed” is the numbers of calculations it can process per second. An 800 megahertz processor can process 800,000,000 calculations each second. A one Gigahertz processor can process 1,000,000,000 calculations each second. Why should this matter? The faster the processor, the less waiting you have to do if you’re running processor-heavy applications, like image editors.

“Premium” and “faster” are not always better. Choosing a desktop with a premium processor can run you a hundred dollars or more than one with a budget processor. And “fast” only matters if you’re really crunching bits―such as heavy-duty graphics editing, video editing, or doing some pretty complicated spreadsheet, statistics, or database stuff. If you’re doing basic word processing, spreadsheets, accounting, Internet, or even basic graphics work, “premium” and “faster” only means your wallet is thinner, when all is said and done.

Hard drive—since the hard drive is the primary place you’ll be storing most of your data, it should be the next thing you evaluate before you buy. You should be primarily concerned with brand, size, and speed. There are several brands of hard drives and each varies in reliability. Since you are going to be storing your most important business data on the hard drive, you should do your homework and read the reviews on various brands and their reliability. Size refers to how much data can be scrunched into the drive and is measured on most desktops today in gigabytes (a byte is one unit of data and a gigabyte is one billion units of data). The speed measures how quickly that data can be read off the drive and is usually measured in RPM (revolutions per minute), which is the speed at which the drive turns. The faster it turns, we are to believe, the faster the data can be read off the disk. This is generally true, but not always.

So a Western Digital 120 GB 7200 RPM hard drive is one made by Western Digital that stores 120 GB of data (actually around 112 GB) and spins at 7200 revolutions per minute. Brand matters; it’s worth paying extra for a brand with the best track record for not crashing. However, bigger and faster are not necessarily better. You may not need a lot of storage space, unless you’re doing heavy video, graphics, or desktop publishing work, so you don’t need to pay for a big hard disk. Since hard disks crash on occasion, you may want much of your data to be stored in a different manner, such as on CDs. And speed―well, the big thing about speed is that it doesn’t matter how fast the hard drive is. It matters how quickly the computer can move the data to memory. And that’s usually slower than the hard drive speed. Anything over 7200 RPM is going too fast for the computer.

RAM—RAM is the second part of the memory equation in a computer. An acronym for “Random Access Memory,” this is the memory that is available for the processor. Before the processor can do anything with data or instructions, they have to be loaded into RAM. So the computer grabs the data or instructions (applications) from a storage device, like the hard drive, and loads it into RAM.

What matters about RAM is the size, measured in gigabytes for today’s computers. In general, the larger the RAM, the more applications and files you can open and move around in. Larger RAM also permits you to work with very large files, such as video, audio, or games.

Again, bigger is not always better. If you’re doing video and audio, you want to be maxed out on RAM. If you plan to work with five or six applications all at the same time, again, max out. But if you’re keeping it simple doing basic things with two or three applications at once, the time you save with mega-amounts of RAM may not be worth the greater expense.

If you’re given the RAM speed, that’s a neat number. But RAM tends to be the fastest thing on a computer. Faster than the hard drive, faster than the bus speed (the buses move data from one component to another, like from the hard drive to the RAM), and usually faster than the processor. Since RAM is almost never the thing that makes you wait, you can pretty safely ignore RAM speeds.

CD-ROM or DVD Drive—an optical disk drive is the third (but not final) part of your desktop memory equation. It is pretty darn hard to find a desktop that does not have a DVD drive, and it’s probably not worth buying if you manage to find one without such a drive. Why? Because many applications don’t come on CDs anymore, and DVD drives, which are very inexpensive, can play CDs, too.

Should your optical drive be a writable drive? Buying a desktop with a writable DVD drive will increase its cost by $30-$50, so is it worth it? When I said that the optical disk drive is the third part of your memory equation, I meant it. Your hard drive is not dependable. Should it crash, you will need to recover the data. You can always buy a separate hard drive and do your backups to that hard drive (which is what I do), but you can just as easily back up your vital business data to writable CDs or DVDs once a day. So the answer is, yes, make sure you purchase a writable DVD drive.

Ports—ports are the “plugs” that allow you to attach peripheral devices such as monitors, printers, optical disk drives, external hard drives, camcorders, or whatever to your computer. Every desktop comes with at least the following ports: two PS/2 ports (one for the keyboard and one for the mouse), an SVGA or VGA port for the monitor, and a serial port for the printer. In addition, your computer can have one or more USB 2.0, FireWire, or IEEE 1394 ports for connecting peripherals. These latter three ports enable very high-speed connections to peripheral devices, although FireWire and IEEE 1394 ports are designed specifically for video transfers (most camcorders come with an IEEE 1394 port built into the camera).

More is not necessarily better. FireWire ports can be daisy-chained; with just one FireWire port, you can theoretically hook up as many peripherals as the computer can handle. Since the licensing fees for FireWire are pretty steep, if you’re buying a computer with more than two FireWire ports, you’re paying a lot of money for something you really don’t need.

What about USB? Well, USB 2.0 hubs are relatively inexpensive―you could connect an external six-port hub for as little as $20. However, your computer should have at least two USB ports (my desktop has eight), but even the low-end models typically come with six or more. Since you may end up with “high-use” peripherals like USB portable flash memory, it’s convenient to have at least two USB ports in the front of the desktop (I consider flash memory cards to be the fourth and final part of your memory equation―flash memory allows you to store and move data quickly between locations and computers).

Only “multimedia” computers come standard with an IEEE 1394 port; if you’re doing any video transfers from a camera, this port is an absolute requirement.

Most desktops still ship with at least one SCSI connector. It is still possible to find SCSI peripherals, but you’ll probably not buy them.

Modem—all desktops come standard with a built-in 56.6 K modem (unless you’re building your desktop yourself from scratch); your only use for the modem is if you’re connecting to the Internet via a telephone line. Hopefully, that’s not the case.

Network card—this card allows the computer to be attached to a computer network through Ethernet; it typically has an Ethernet port (RJ-45 port) at the back of the computer. If you are connecting to the Internet via cable or DSL, your modem device/router will connect to your computer through your network card.

Wireless card—most desktops come equipped with a wireless network card that allows you to hook into a network without hooking up cables. Wireless networks require special wireless stations and they are, gently speaking, a pain to set up. Since wireless cards come standard in most laptops, if your virtual office combines both a laptop and a desktop, going wireless may be the route for you.

Video card—the video card is a separate processor that renders the visuals on your monitor. For most uses, it’s not important. However, if you plan to do heavy graphics or video work―or if you’re setting up a virtual office to play video games (why not?)―the video card matters a lot. It determines the limits of your screen and color resolution (see our note on screen resolutions in 3.2.2) and determines how quickly moving graphics display on your monitor. Multimedia and gaming machines come with very powerful video cards to allow for seamless video playback or complicated game graphics rendering.

Very few desktops come equipped with a video card that will enable you to use two monitors at once, so you will need to upgrade the card if you need two displays. There are, believe it or not, good reasons to run two monitors―if you plan to use two applications simultaneously and switch quickly between them or if you plan to use certain applications, such as video editing or motion graphics applications that absolutely require two monitor workspaces (not to mention graphics or statistics applications which are easier to use on two monitors).

So what matters on a video card? First, you want to know if the card is hooked into a separate slot (either a PCI or AGP slot) rather than built into the motherboard. If your card is built into the motherboard, then it shares RAM with the processor, so ramping up the performance of the video card (higher screen resolutions or playing video) seriously degrades the performance of both the processor and video card.

If the video card is separate from the motherboard, you should be most interested in the memory size (RAM) of the card. The more demands you make on the card (by playing video or games or ramping up the screen resolution), the more memory you’ll need. For standard office applications at a normal screen resolution, a 32MB or 64MB card is more than enough. But if you’re handling video, animation, or motion graphics, you’ll want a 128MB or higher video card.

Most video cards come only with an SVGA connector, which means you can only use a computer monitor as your display. Some multimedia machines come with S-Video connectors (allowing you to hook your computer up to a television) or DVI connectors (allowing you to hook your computer up to HDTV). It’s cool, but only if you’re doing a lot of video work.

Sound card—like the video card, the sound card is meant to relieve the main processor of the processing and memory demands that audio playback requires. Unless you’re doing serious audio or video work, the sound card is probably the least of your worries. If it is, you want a sound card separated from the motherboard (so it doesn’t steal RAM from the processor) and, like the video card, the amount of memory determines how well the card can handle heavy sound files.

3.2.1 PC World

http://www.pcworld.com

PC World is one of the oldest print magazines solely dedicated to PCs, PC software, and productivity. Its Web site has some of the simplest and richest resources for making a desktop computer purchase decision (http://www.pcworld.com/ic/desktops/#). Articles include:

  • Top Ten Value Desktop PCs
  • Top Ten Power Desktop PCs
  • Numerous news articles
  • Updates on Windows Vista problems and solutions

3.2.2 MacWorld

http://www.macworld.com

You are, of course, not limited to PCs in the desktop world; in fact, over 6% of personal computers out there are Macintoshes. With its new Intel processor, Macs can be configured to not only run Macintosh system and applications, but also Windows XP, Vista, and open-source systems such as Linux. Macs are the desktop of choice for video editors, motion graphics artists, and many graphics and desktop publishing professionals.

MacWorld is the longest-running magazine for Macintosh hardware and software enthusiasts; their site offers rich reviews and articles on Macintosh hardware. (However, read PC World’s discussion of how well Macs run Windows system and software if you’re planning to use your Mac as a dual Mac/Windows machine.)

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