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How to Buy the Best New PC

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 5/27/2009

There are many guides for building PCs, but not many for buying them. Yet knowing what you're doing is just as important when buying, as some manufacturers are happy to profit off consumers who lack knowledge. This brief guide points out what you must know before buying a new PC.

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    Finding guides about how to build a computer isn't difficult. There are plenty of such texts available covering the topic from a variety of angles. Finding a guide about buying a new PC is a bit more difficult, however. Certainly, building your own PC is far less expensive, and gains you a wealth of useful knowledge about your computer. But not everyone has the time or interest needed to build a PC. Even an enthusiast might sometimes find purchasing a PC to be a better choice - for example, building a PC for your grandparents might seem like a great idea, but do you really want to be their only source of technical help when their computer goes kaput?

    This guide is meant to cover the basics of buying a PC from a major vendor, such as Alienware, Gateway, or HP. Buying a PC is certainly easier than building one, but PC makers are a business, and there is an array of tactics they use to try and squeeze extra money out of their customers. Going in with knowledge about how to get a good deal can save you hundreds of dollars.

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    Understand The Components

    Dell Desktops Are Affordable, But Often Handicapped By Low-Performance Parts While buying a computer requires less understanding than building one, you should still make sure that you have a basic understanding of the differences between components in your computer.

    One great example of why is Nvidia video cards. Nvidia often re-brands video cards, meaning that some video cards from the 8000 series also exist in the 9000 series, and some video cards from the 9000 series now are also sold under the new GTX naming scheme. In other cases, the naming schemes make it difficult to make a simple comparison between products - for example, the naming scheme of AMD's Phenom II products does a good job of telling you how those products perform within the Phenom II brand, but say little about how they perform against the original Phenom.

    Besides resolving confusions with branding, you should also develop a basic understanding of the components in order to ensure you're getting a good deal. For example, if an expensive PC is being sold on the basis that it has the best RAM available, you should check to make sure that is actually the case. There is nothing that is keeping the PC makers honest besides your own knowledge, so don't assume that everything advertised is true.

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    How To Buy A New PC: Buy For BalanceSome PC from major manufacturers have serious weaknesses in their configurations. To learn how to buy the best new PC, you'll need to learn a little bit about how PCs work. To save themselves money, PC makers often advertise one strong point, hoping you'll ignore other weak, cheap components. If you're savvy on how to get the best deal, you can side-step these advertising traps and buy a great computer a a low price.
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    Buy For Balance

    This IBuyPower Gamer Paladin 950 Has A Quad-Core Processor, But A Low-End GPU One common method PC makers will use to increase profits is to build a PC with a configuration that is not well balanced. The companies making mass-market computers know that most buyers do not have intimate knowledge of how a PC operates or what is important, which means that most buyers will be purchased based on only a few specific, easy to quantify numbers. For example, you might be drawn in by an advertisement showing a PC with 4 Gigabytes of RAM and a Quad-Core processor for only $599. Certainly, this looks like a steal, but the advertising headline doesn't tell the whole story. A computer with this sort of configuration might still be troublesome if its motherboard is completely devoid of expansion slots or if it can only offer Intel integrated graphics.

    When purchasing, think of your new potential PC as a team of components. If all of the components run quickly, then your PC as a whole will run quickly. But if only one component gives up and goes home, the performance of your entire PC might be compromised.

    It is hard to sum up all of the ways in which a PC might be poorly balanced, but I will set down some ground rules. First, don't purchase a computer that has more than four gigabytes of RAM and does not run Windows Vista 64 bit. Regular 32 bit versions of XP and Vista have a limit on the amount of RAM they can support, so adding more than four gigabytes won't result in any performance benefit. Second, don't buy a computer with Intel integrated graphics. It is tempting, as it can save a fair amount of money at times. But Intel integrated graphics are so far behind the times that some versions aren't even powerful enough to run Vista's Aero interface smoothly. Lastly, don't buy a PC with a Quad-core processor unless you're purchasing a high-end workstation for programs you already know take advantage of four cores. Despite the advancements made by hardware, the vast majority of PC software does not use more than two cores.

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    Avoiding PC Buying Pitfalls: Don't Fall Into The Upgrade TrapThere are many obstacles that can arise when buying a new computer. PCs are complex, and there are many ways in which PC makers can skimp to save themselves cash at your expensive. There are also common PC upgrade traps which are designed to milk money from the customer. These traps are effective to the un-educated, but they're also predictable, making them easy to avoid if you keep an eye out for them.
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    Don't Fall In The Upgrade Trap

    The easiest way to overpay for a PC is to go crazy with customization. PC vendors often offer tons of selections for different amounts and types of RAM, processors, video cards etc. While changing these components out can often times net you a PC with specifications nearly exactly the same as you would have aimed for if you'd built the PC yourself, you pay a heavy price for those options. Take the Alienware Area-51 750i as an example. To upgrade from an E8400 to an E8600 costs fifty dollars, but the difference in retail price is only $20. Even more absurd is the Q8200 quad-core - adding that processor will nail $150 dollars onto your price tag, but the actual cost of the Q8200 at retail is exactly the same as the price of a E8400. This continues with the video cards, power supplies, and every other customizable component.

    As a result of this mark-up, it is usually better to find a PC that meets your needs in its base configuration than to try and customize specific parts of a less expensive PC. Alternatively, you can do some of the upgrade work yourself. The most time-consuming and difficult tasks associated with building a PC are putting together the components, booting the PC, troubleshooting any problems, and installing the operating system. Once that is done, replacing video cards, RAM, and non-OS hard drives is fairly easy. If you don't mind opening the case of your new rig, you can always add in a new video card or additional RAM yourself, saving you a great deal of cash with minimal hassle. The only thing you must be cautious of when following this route is that the maker of your PC does not void warranties on PCs with new components installed, so read your warranty information carefully.

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    Make The Purchase

    These are general tips aimed at unveiling a few common pitfalls that can trip up people attempting to buy a PC. This guide is not comprehensive, however, as the PC world is always changing. New technologies are constantly introduced and PC makers constantly change the configurations they offer. It would be a good idea to supplement this general advice with a wealth of data from other sources, like other Bright Hub articles. Consumer rating companies like Consumer Reports are also an excellent tool, as they often rate individual manufacturers on both the quality of their product and their customer service. Once you feel you have enough information, then make your purchase. The complexity of PCs makes it difficult to decode the lingo and side-step traps that can cause you to spend more than you need too, but a new computer is a lot of fun. No one should force themselves to slave away on a PC from the stone age.

    You may find it helpful to look at this series of articles on Computer Components for a quick introduction to what you should understand when looking at what options a seller is offering. The first in the series is Computer Components: What is the CPU?. and you can link to others in her series at the bottom of each article.