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Michigan State UniversityMichigan State UniversityInfrastructure Planning and Facilities

Conquering computers: How to shop with ease


June 30, 2010 

Buying a computer can be confusing. Many people are not completely knowledgeable about computers and trust salespeople to tell them what they need to know.

“Salesmen are going to try to sell you things you probably don’t need,” said Dave Graff, information security administrator. “Be skeptical and don’t buy anything unless you’ve done research on whether you need it or not.” Here is a list, compiled by Graff, of the things you should know before buying a computer.

Before you start shopping

  1. Set a budget: Before you buy a computer, decide how much you are willing to spend. The MSU Computer Store offers edu­cational discounts on Dell, Apple, HP and IBM. You may not need all of the latest, most expensive, accesso­ries and upgrades for your computer.
  2. Questions to ask yourself: 1.Is this computer for myself or multiple people? 2. Will it be used for word processing, e-mail, web browsing, photo/ video editing, music/ movies or video games? 3. Do you need portability?

Picking your computer

  1. Laptops vs. Desktops vs. Notebooks: Desktops generally offer the best performance for the price, but they are not mobile. Modern laptops sacrifice very little in the way of performance or features compared to the desktop computer and are portable, but this can carry a higher price tag. Netbooks are a low-cost alternative to laptops, sometimes costing as little as $300. They are light and thin with small screens, keyboards, no CD/DVD drive, slower processors, and less RAM (see number 3 below.)
  2. Operating Systems: The two major home operating systems at this time are Microsoft’s Windows 7 and Apple’s OSX. Windows XP is not recommended for a new personal computer. If you purchase Windows 7, purchase the home premium ver­sion at minimum and get the 64-bit version. OSX will not run Windows programs.
  3. RAM: RAM, also known as computer memory, is where open programs are kept. Two gigabytes are recommended for basic home use. Four gigabytes are recommend­ed for photo/video editing and games. RAM is easily upgradable, so don’t feel pressured to buy more than you need.
  4. Hard Drive: The higher capacity a hard drive has, the faster it will run. A basic hard drive holds 160 gigabytes of data, the equivalent to 34 DVDs. If more than one person is using the computer, consider at least a 300-gigabyte hard drive.
  5. Display monitors: If you have an old cathode-ray tube (CRT) monitor, con­sider upgrading to a liquid crystal display (LCD). They are easier on the eyes and sharper. Wide-screen LCDs are now the most prevalent type of display and the best value. A larger display will give you more desktop space, but will add weight and bulk on laptops.
  6. Graphics cards: Most computers come with an integrated graphics card. This is typically enough for personal use, but if you want to play 3D computer games, then a graphics card with dedicated memory is needed. Graphics cards in desktop computers are very easy to upgrade. Don’t feel pressured to buy more than a standard integrated graphics card if you do not think you’ll need more than that at the moment. Graphics cards in laptops are rarely upgradeable and will have to last the life of the machine.

After the purchase

  1. Computer updates: Installing operating system updates is a critical part to keeping your computer working smoothly. Config­ure the updates to install automati­cally, and reboot when it prompts you to apply them.
  2. Anti-virus software: Anti-virus soft­ware is a must for Windows computers. The Physical Plant uses Eset Nod32, which is available for purchase through the MSU Computer Store. No matter what anti-virus software you end up using, make sure it gets regularly updated. If it is not updated cor­rectly, your computer is more at risk to get a virus.
  3. Productivity software: University employees are entitled to software at academic discounts at the MSU Computer Store. Programs such as Office Suite are available for less than their price at retail stores.

Q&A: Processors

The processor is the device that carries out actions for your computer, essentially the brain of your com­puter.

Q: Which company, Intel or AMD? 
A: AMD processors are generally a better value, but Intel processors use less power overall which can be important for laptop battery life and your power bill.

Q: What about processor clock speed?
Clock speed is no longer a reliable indicator of performance. The processor price is generally a good guideline, but the fastest processors available can cost hundreds of dollars for only marginal improvements.

Q: How many central processing unit cores?
A: Most processors today contain two or three cores. High-end can contain up to six, but it is not worth the price.

May/June 2010

*Prior to the creation of Infrastructure Planning and Facilities in January 2013, several IPF departments were a part of the now-dissolved MSU Physical Plant. Some historical articles on this website reference that former unit.