Back to school is a great time to take advantage of retailers competing for parent's dollars, and finally upgrade from that old Windows 98 machine limping along in your basement.
However, between gigabytes and megabytes, the component descriptions can be harder to decipher than your teenager's last six text messages.
From RAM to hard drive to software, how does the non-nerd decide what's worth upgrading, and what to forego to save a few bucks? Allow me to demystify some of the tech terms so you can confidently tell that sales rep exactly what you want.
The CPU is like your computer's brain. It controls every action your system performs, so spending some upgrade dollars here is a good way to ensure your new computer stays viable longer.
You are most likely to see the CPU described in terms that may look like gibberish to the average consumer. Intel or AMD will be your most common choices, and while I could make arguments for the benefits of both processors, for the sake of simplicity I like Intel because it is easier to decipher descriptions. Most Intel systems will come with the option of i3, i5, or i7 and speed and performance of your system will increase as you go up in number.
The size of hard drive you select determines how much data you can store on your computer. When deciding whether or not to pay more for a larger hard drive, think of your planned usage.
To give you some perspective, you can store 150-200 high quality photos in 1 GB. Video files vary greatly based on length and quality, but storing an average standard definition DVD on your drive will take about 2-5GB. Documents and drivers don't take much space.
Most new computers will have a standard 500GB hard drive, which will be more than enough for the average user. If you use your computer primarily for Internet surfing, email, and solitaire, you're better off spending your money elsewhere. If you're a shutterbug or are looking to back up an extensive movie collection, a larger hard drive may be worthwhile.
For most users, RAM will be the most noticeable upgrade. The amount of RAM in your system is the primary factor in how fast it can boot up, launch a program, navigate between them, and generally respond to your inputs.
If you have too little RAM for the amount of tasks you ask your system to perform, it will run slowly, freeze, or crash. Based on the demands of current operating systems and software, I would recommend aiming for 4GB of RAM and upgrading as your budget and system permits. Windows 7 32-bit can't recognize more than 4GB (more on that in a minute). It's cheaper to upgrade now than later, and while you may not need all that speed now, software upgrades you install in the future will require more RAM than that same program does today.
While the lion's share of new PCs will come pre-loaded with a Microsoft Windows operating system, you may be presented with the choice of Windows 7 32-bit or 64-bit. If you don't have many programs to install after getting the new system home, we'd recommend selecting the 64-bit version of Windows as it's the newest architecture, what all computers will eventually run standard, and currently somewhat less attacked by virus writers.
If you need to run older software on your new system, they will likely run more smoothly on Windows 7 32-bit. While the 64-bit operating system has an emulator that promises to allow older software to run, there may be compatibility issues.
If the tag on the new computer you're considering still looks like it's written in a foreign language, send me a note at www.callnerds.com/andrea for help deciphering the code.