Top Ten PC Buying Tips
1. Desktop, notebook, or tablet. If you like to type notes in class or work on papers in the library (or the quad), choose a notebook. Tablets work well in classrooms because the writing is noiseless, and if the professor draws diagrams, you can too. If you"d rather have high performance over portability, and cost is a top priority, choose a desktop.
2. Picking the right processor. For a desktop system, you don"t necessarily need the fastest processor. A 2.5-GHz (or equivalent) processor will get you through even the toughest class workload. To help with better multitasking, go with one of the new dual-core CPUs, such as the Intel Pentium D or the AMD Athlon 64 X2.
When picking a notebook, look for a mobile processor that"s strong but won"t run down your battery too fast. Research the battery life. Not all systems fare the same even with the same processor; battery lives vary from 2 to 5.5 hours.
3. How far to go with graphics. If your schoolwork is basic word processing, spreadsheets, Web surfing, and e-mail, then an integrated graphics chip will suffice. If you do 3D rendering or have a digital-editing sweet tooth, steer clear of integrated graphics and get the best graphics card you can afford. If you"re into gaming, a graphics card can make or break a winning streak. If you"re a middle-of-the-road gamer, go with cards like the ATI Radeon X700 or the nVidia GeForce 6600 for desktops and the ATI Mobility Radeon X700 or the nVidia GeForce Go 6600 for notebooks.
4. Hard drives (where size matters). Get a big hard drive—200GB minimum on a desktop and 80GB for a notebook—if you"re tackling Video Editing. Otherwise, if you can survive on less; shoot for 40GB to 60GB for both desktops and notebooks.
5. Upgrade to 512MB of memory. Many budget systems come standard with 256MB, but to squeeze out the best performance from your system, your best option—and the least expensive—is to upgrade to more memory. We recommend 512MB, which is optimal for running Microsoft Windows XP. The additional cost of upgrading is minimal, and the performance boost you get in return is definitely worth the money.
6. The importance of being wireless. All notebooks today have wireless capability, whether it comes integrated or as an add-on in your PC Card slot (we prefer it integrated).
7. DVD/CD-RW or bust. Don"t settle for anything less than an optical drive (or drives, if you"re getting a desktop) with both DVD reading and CD burning. Nearly all desktops now come with dual-layer DVD+/-RW drives that can write to optical discs that hold up to 7.95GB of data. If you primarily download and make music CDs and watch DVDs, a DVD/CD-RW combo drive is just right. For making DVDs, look into getting a dual-layer DVD+/-RW drive.
8. Easy on the eyes. Consider a 17-inch LCD monitor for your desktop; it"s a good-size display that will still save space on your tiny dorm room desk. If you"re looking to grab a minor in gaming or are a budding graphic artist, go for a CRT; it"s better at high-speed motion and color calibration than an LCD—and also a lot cheaper.
On a notebook, you want a screen that won"t make you squint halfway through your midterm paper but isn"t so huge that it weighs down the system. Notebook screens add weight and rob battery life as they get bigger. The key is a balance between screen size and portability; 14.1- to 15-inch screens seem to achieve this best.
9. Windows XP Pro, Home, Media Center Edition, or Professional x64 Edition? Most people will choose between Windows XP Professional and Win XP Home. XP Pro supports features such as remote desktop, encrypted file system, domain membership, SNMP, and roaming profiles; XP Home does not. In other words, XP Pro supports those things that corporations would need. Most home and college users will do just fine with XP Home. Windows XP Media Center Edition is a superset of XP Pro, building on it to provide multimedia capabilities and a "10-foot interface." With support for a TV tuner and DVR capabilities, a remote control, and video and audio players, it brings multimedia to a PC and the capabilities of using a PC as a media device. This could be ideal for a small dorm room where your PC can do double duty as a PC and TV/DVR. Windows XP Professional x64 Edition offers 64-bit support for AMD 64 and Intel EM64T processors. It"s still new, so there aren"t many apps around that can take advantage of all that power.10.
Splurge on the warranty. With the excessive wear and tear a student can put on a system, especially a notebook, invest the additional money in a longer-term warranty than the standard one year parts, one year labor.