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Computer Buying Guide The stressfree guide to buying a desktop or laptop computer American Writers & Artists Inc. Copyright © 2006 by American Writers & Artists Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Published by: American Writers & Artists Inc. 245 NE 4th Avenue, Suite 102 Delray Beach, FL 33483 Phone: 561-278-5557 Fax: 561-278-5929 Website: www.awaionline.com The Computer Buying Guide Guide Objectives: • What operating system is right for you? • Laptop or desktop – which is best for you? • See what you should look for when buying a desktop computer • What to look out for when buying a notebook computer • Learn if you can upgrade the computer you already own • Get tips from the experts and see what they use Nothing’s worse than going to the computer store and listening to a know-it-all salesperson tell you to buy the most expensive computer in the store because the Radon graphics accelerator with 128 megabytes of RAM is something he thinks you’re definitely going to need. Instead of listening to a nerdy computer salesperson, who may be on commission or a sales quota, AWAI’s Computer Buying Guide will give you a good idea of what you should look for when you buy a new computer. But before spending any money you need to decide on what operating system is right for you. This guide will help you make that decision. Not sure if a laptop is right for you or if you should stick with a desktop system? We have the advantages and disadvantages broken down for you. Ever wondered what the pros are using in their home office? This guide will give you an insight and help you make the purchasing decision that is right for you. 2 Section 1: Windows or Macintosh? Figure 1-1 What operating system is right for you? It depends on your and your clients’ preferences and needs. Figure 1-1 One of the most common question is "What computer should I buy?" While this is a very important question, it is the wrong one to ask … at least at first. The first computer-related question you should ask is "Which operating system should I use." A computer's operating system (OS) is the program that tells it what to do and how to do it. It's what gives your computer its look and feel when performing basic functions like copying and saving files, running printers and peripherals, searching for files, and so on. It's also the part of your computer that allows you to run all your other programs - like your word processing, design software, spreadsheets etc. The reason you should choose the operating system before deciding on a computer is that you cannot run the two best-known systems on the same type of computer. The two best-known systems are (in alphabetical order) Macintosh - which runs, as you might expect, on Macintosh computers ... and Windows - which runs on PCs. You might hear about a number of other operating systems, such as Linux and Unix, but we advise sticking with either Windows or Mac (or both). Macintosh's current system is OS X. (The latest version is 10.4 or "Tiger.") Windows has several different versions of its Windows XP system. Some people are very passionate about which system they choose. Some are die-hard PC users, while others won't use anything but a Mac. You've probably heard that many graphic designers prefer Macs. However, both Macs and PCs handle layout and image-editing software equally well. So there's no need to make your decision on that basis alone. The Computer Buying Guide specializes on PCs using Windows systems. Computer Buying Guide 3 What is important is to choose a system that you are comfortable with and that meets the needs of your clients and the printing bureaus they use. If you are a graphic designer and already have clients lined up or a favorite printing bureau, ask them which operating system they prefer. You might want to go with the one that most of them like best. You can test a variety of operating systems at your local library, FedEx/Kinkos, or at an Internet café. Or ask your friends if you can do a test run on their systems. See which one seems easier and more logical to you. If possible, ask other freelancers which system they prefer, and why - particularly if they have used both. We did that with five of our graphic design experts. Here's what they have to say ... Lori Haller: For design work, large magalogs, and direct-mail campaigns, I use a Mac and work in Quark, Illustrator, and Photoshop. We also have InDesign and other PC/Mac software on a variety of machines. I use whatever fits my clients' specifications best. Roger C. Parker: All of my computers use Microsoft Windows. I want them to be compatible with the most widely used platform. I've heard stories about some software inconsistencies between versions and operating systems that convinced me to stick with Windows. Dennis Rome: Windows. Because I am a computer consultant, I had far too much money invested in Windows software before starting the Graphic Design program - so I didn't switch to Mac. However, a Mac may be in my future as income grows. Mike Klassen: Windows. That's just what I grew up with. Plus, I was a Microsoft employee, so I'm very comfortable with the system. Kammy Thurman: I use Windows, because that's what I learned on. But my sister (with whom I work) uses a Mac. She and a copywriter friend have just about convinced me to switch over to Mac. One final consideration: If you buy a new computer, it will most likely come with the latest version of its operating system pre-installed. If you buy a used computer, you may get an older - sometimes much older - version of the operating system. In that case, make sure the computer is new enough to upgrade the operating system software if you decide to do so. American Writers & Artists 4 Section 2: Laptop or Desktop – Which is best for You? Figure 2-1 Both laptops and desktops have advantages and disadvantages. Your choice will depend on your budget and work style. Figure 2-1 If you want a computer system that will serve you well for several years - one that you enjoy using and that is part of building a successful freelance business - there are several things to consider before making a purchase. Maybe you are looking into the purchase of a laptop, with the flexibility to be able to work wherever and whenever you want. Or you prefer a stationary desktop system in your home office. Both systems have advantages and disadvantages. Here's a comparison table compiled from our own experts and Indiana State and Yale Universities: DESKTOP LAPTOP lower cost portability more easily expandable takes up less space better potential ergonomics ability to work on site with clients more secure larger screen The list of advantages for desktops is longer, but that does not mean it's the right choice for you. The portability and smaller size of a laptop can be huge advantages, particularly if you like working at your client's site, at the coffee shop, or by the lake. The smaller size can also be a big advantage if your office space is limited - or if you're temporarily forced to work on your kitchen table. When deciding between laptop and desktop systems, your best bet is to try both and see which one is better suited to your needs, your work style, and your lifestyle. Computer Buying Guide 5 If you don't know someone who will lend you a laptop, do a search online for "laptop rental." Even if you do not find one that has the operating system you prefer, trying it out will still help you decide if a laptop is really for you. Now let's see what our graphic design experts have to say ... Lori Haller: I use both a laptop AND a traditional desktop system. Sometimes when I need a change of scenery, I'll use the laptop and take it outside. It gives me freedom to move around, sit in a more relaxed position - and I really need that diversity if I am trying to land a breakthrough format or come up with a winning new product launch. Roger Parker: I do most of my work on my home and office desktop systems. I only present from my laptop, and it's an old one. Many laptops have hard-to-use keyboards. Given the volume of words I write, I need a full-size, ergonomic keyboard. Dennis Rome: Laptop - I really like being portable, to be able to work wherever. I have a high-end Sony VAIO. However, I do have a "backup" desktop system ready to go with all my design software and fonts loaded in case my laptop has a problem or gets damaged. It also serves as a great backup storage system for all my client files and documents. Mike Klassen: I have both. I prefer a desktop because they're easier to expand with internal and external hardware. My laptop simply serves as a backup or something I can take with me to places like the AWAI Bootcamp. Kammy Thurman: A desktop right now, but we're shopping for a laptop because we need it for off-site digital photography sessions. I will also use it for my copywriting/design business so I'll have more mobility - like being able to work from my deck in the mornings. American Writers & Artists 6 Section 3: Buying a Desktop Computer Figure 3-1 What should you look for when you’re buying a new computer? That depends on what you want it to do. Table 3-1: Desktop Computer Buyer’s Guide lists some of the more important factors and features to be aware of when buying a new computer. Just make sure the information listed isn’t too out of date! Figure 3-1 With so many factors to consider, deciding which desktop PC to buy can be a real challenge. From components to software to accessories, new PCs offer a bewildering array of choices, and for some folks, sifting through the large number of options can be daunting. Table 3-1: Desktop Computer Buyer’s Guide will give you a good idea of what you should look for when you buy a new desktop computer. The table contains solutions for all pocket books: Budget, Middle of the Road and High End. You should be able to find a “Budget” system for about $750, a Middle of the Road system for about $1,250 and a High End System starting at $1,750. Computer Buying Guide 7 Table 3-1: Desktop Computer Buyer’s Guide Factor Budget Middle of the Road High End, Gaming AMD Sempron or Intel AMD Athlon64 or Intel AMD Athlon64 X2 or Celeron Pentium 4 6xx series Intel Pentium 4 8xx CPU series 512MB 1024MB (1GB) 2048MB (2GB) RAM 17-inch CRT or 15-inch 19-inch CRT or 19-inch CRT or LCD flat panel 17-inch flat panel/LCD 19-inch flat panel/LCD Monitor 64MB 128MB 256MB or more Video Memory 80GB 160GB 250GB or more Hard Drive CD-RW Drive DVD+-R/RW Drive DVD+-R/RW Drive CD or DVD Drive USB 2.0 USB 2.0 USB 2.0, Firewire Ports 10/100 Ethernet, 56K Gigabit Ethernet, 56K Gigabit Ethernet, 56K modem modem modem Included Devices Refer to AWAI “Computer Basics – A Step by Step Guide to learning Computer Basics the fun and easy Way” for a detail description of each of these components. American Writers & Artists 8 Section 4: Buying a Laptop Figure 4-1 What should you look for when you’re buying a new computer? That depends on what you want it to do. Table 4-1 Laptop Buyer’s Guide lists some of the more important factors and features to be aware of when buying a new computer. Just make sure the information listed isn’t too out of date! Figure 4-1 Deciding on which notebook to buy is even more confusing than buying a desktop computer. That’s because there is much more variance in features and prices between various laptops. Laptop computers can’t be upgraded as easily as desktop computers, so your decision is pretty much final. Table 4-1: Laptop Buyers Guide will give you a good idea of what you should look for when you buy a new laptop computer. You should be able to find a “Budget” system for about $850, a Middle of the Road system for about $1,400 and a High End System starting at $2,000. Some other important factors to consider when buying a Laptop include: • Size Generally speaking, while convenient and cool looking, smaller notebooks aren’t as powerful or fast as larger laptop computers. If you travel frequently and need to lug your laptop around with you, you might want to consider a smaller notebook. If your laptop doesn’t move around much you’re probably better off with a larger model. • Battery Life A laptop’s battery life can range any where from 1 to 4 hours. Some laptops can even accept a second battery for extra long life. Battery life probably isn’t much of an issue if you only use your laptop when it’s plugged into the wall. • Warranty Laptop computers are notorious for breaking down. What’s worse, they’re not very easy to open and they have their own unique notebook parts, so they’re much harder and more expensive to repair than their desktop counterparts. Most of us hate the old three-year extended warrantee sales pitch, but if you’re buying a notebook computer the cost of the extra warranty is probably worth it. Computer Buying Guide 9 • Included Devices and Features Laptop computers usually have several devices and gizmos built-in—often more than a desktop computer! A modem and Ethernet port are usually a standard part of most laptops today. Some laptops also have memory card readers (especially useful if you have a digital camera or PDA), Firewire ports, and even wireless networking, known as WiFi. If you’re comparing various models, make sure that you know what devices are or aren’t included. Table 4-1: Laptop Buyer’s Guide Factor Budget Middle of the Road High End AMD Sempron or Intel AMD Turion64 ML32 or AMD Turion64 ML40 or Celeron M, Intel Pentium M 740 Intel Pentium M 760 CPU 512MB 1024MB (1GB) 2048MB (2GB) RAM Display 14” 15.4” 17” 64MB 128MB 256MB Video Memory 40GB 60GB 80GB Hard Drive CD-RW Drive DVD+-R/RW Drive DVD+-R/RW Drive CD or DVD Drive USB 2.0 USB 2.0 USB 2.0, Firewire Ports 10/100 Ethernet, WiFi 10/100 Ethernet, WiFi Gigabit Ethernet, WiFi (wireless networking), & (wireless networking), & (wireless networking), 56K modem 56K modem 56K modem, & Bluetooth (a next-generation wireless port) Included Devices American Writers & Artists 10 Section 5: Upgrading a Computer Figure 5-1 Computer upgrades can get expensive! There’s a fine line between when it’s more cost effective to upgrade an older computer, or to simply buy a new computer altogether. Figure 5-2 Most computer upgrades require that you, or better yet someone who actually knows about computers, opens up the computer case. Figure 5-1 Figure 5-2 When you upgrade a computer, you usually replace older components with newer components to improve the computer’s performance. You can also upgrade a computer by adding additional components, such as more memory or a second hard drive. Upgrading a computer to improve its performance is often cheaper than buying a new computer. For most upgrades you will need someone with a lot of computer experience to do the upgrade for you. It’s often difficult to determine which is better—upgrading an old computer or simply buying a new computer. If you’re an average computer user, plan on buying a new computer every four or five years (sorry—someone has to break this news to you). By then, the cost of a new computer will be less expensive than any effective upgrades you do. Computer Buying Guide 11 So what can you do to upgrade a computer? The following table lists some of the more common upgrades. Table 5-1: Typical Things to Upgrade on a Computer Upgrade Description Increasing the amount of memory in a computer is probably the most effective and inexpensive upgrades you can make. More memory can significantly increase the performance of your computer. 1GB of memory is all you should Memory (RAM) ever need—for the next year or so anyway. Keep in mind that applications like Photoshop like RAM, the more the better. The hard drives in newer computers have become so huge that you may never need to buy another one. If you do somehow run out of room on your hard drive, you can buy a second one, since most computer can handle two or more internal hard drives. Look into external hard drives (USB or Firewire) to provide Hard Disk quick additional space or important backups. It’s often better to buy a whole new computer than to upgrade the CPU and CPU and motherboard. That way you get all new components all once—which is a lot Motherboard cheaper than buying them all individually. There are an endless variety of devices that you can add to a computer. You can add CD-ROM, DVD, and Zip drives, graphics cards, tape backups, and more. Add Devices and Peripherals Quick Reference Make sure any upgrades you make to a computer are worth the cost—sometimes it’s simply better to buy a new computer. Upgrades to Improve Performance Include: • Adding more memory or RAM • Adding a faster hard drive • Adding a new CPU and motherboard (usually not recommended) • Adding new devices, such as a DVD drive American Writers & Artists 12 Section 6: Customizing Your System so it works for You Figure 6-1 The CPU is the part in your computer that does the work. The more memory you have, the faster is your computer. Figure 6-1 The following is a list of components mentioned on tables 3.1 and 4.1 and a brief description of their function and selection criteria: The Processor Your computer’s processor (sometimes referred to its CPU or central processing unit) is the part of your computer that does the number crunching. The speed of these chips –called the clock speed – varies from around 800MHz (megahertz - “mega” means “million”) up to more than 3GHz (gigahertz – “giga” means “billion”). It used to be that the higher the number (3GHz is higher than 400MHz) the faster the processor. And the faster the processor, the quicker your computer does tasks. This is no longer true. An Athlon64 3500 running at 2.2GHz is generally faster than a Pentium 4 running at 3.2GHz. The “3500” in the name indicates the processor performs as fast as a Pentium 4 at 3.5GHz, if such a part existed. Recently, CPU manufacturers (Intel & AMD, basically) have moved away from displaying the GHz speed, and replaced it with a symbolic number. Web sites like Tom’s Hardware Guide have handy charts that compare CPU model performances on different applications and benchmarks. All chips sold by Intel and AMD will run Windows. Of those, some will even run Windows 64bit, which will soon enter the mainstream when the next version of Windows (Vista) is released. Buying a computer with a 64bit-capable CPU will probably remain current longer, but it is not necessary. More important for graphic professionals is the new crop of “dual core” CPUs. What this basically means is two CPU sharing one chip. The advantages are very evident for people who run multiple applications at the same time. A user running Photoshop and Indesign will be able to execute a complex filter in Photoshop and keep working with Indesign without suffering any slowdown from the PC. The following list briefly describes the selection of CPUs you are likely to find in systems sold today: Computer Buying Guide 13 • Intel Celeron D 300 Series: Lowest cost offering from Intel. It is not 64-bit capable and only single-core. Found mostly in budget systems. The mobile version, Celeron M, can be found on low cost laptops. • Intel Pentium 4 500 Series: Quickly being replaced by newer models, it is one step up from the Celeron line. It is not 64-bit capable and only single-core. • Intel Pentium 4 600 Series: Enhances the 500 series by being 64-bit capable. • Intel Pentium D 800 Series: The latest from Intel, it sports two Pentium 4 cores per chip. It is also 64-bit capable and found in medium to high end machines. • Intel Pentium M 700 Series: The mobile king from Intel. Found mostly in notebooks, it is very efficient ( a 2.0GHz M is faster than a 3.0GHz Pentium 4) and consumes little power. It is not 64-bit capable and only single-core, and currently being replaced by the “Core Duo” and “Core Solo” chips in high-end laptops. • AMD Sempron: Lowest cost offering from AMD. It is not 64-bit capable and only single-core. Found mostly in budget systems. • AMD Sempron 64: Adds 64-bit support. Still low end. • AMD Athlon 64: The workhorse of the AMD family. Single core only but all 64-bit capable. Covers the whole price range, so refer to the model number (from 2800 to 4000) to determine capabilities. • AMD Turion 64: The mobile version of the Athlon 64. It competes directly with the Pentium M. • AMD Athlon 64 X2: Dual core versions of the Athlon 64 family, these are the fastest CPU currently for sale. If you are using your computer for generating and displaying an lot of graphics, you want to choose a computer with the fastest processor you can afford… with one important adder: You also want to get as much memory (also called RAM) as possible. And finally, if you are looking for a notebook computes, stay away from those using desktop CPUs. These consume too much power for any decent battery life, and they run hot. Stick with Pentium M and Turion. System Memory (RAM) and Storage (Hard Drive) Many computer users confuse two very different parts of their computers, because they are measured in similar ways. These are memory –commonly called RAM (Random Access Memory) – and hard drive space. Think of your computer as a woodworking shop. Computer memory is like your workbench. It’s where you do your work. The more bench space you have, the easier it is to do the work. If you have a small bench, you pile stuff on top of other stuff. It gets harder to work efficiently. The same is true of your computer memory. The more RAM you have (to the limits allowed by your computer), the faster and more efficiently you can accomplish your tasks. American Writers & Artists 14 RAM is measured in megabytes or gigabytes. As a graphic designer, you should try to get at least 1024 megabytes of RAM – more, if possible. So, when buying a computer, try to get as fast a processor as you can. But don’t skimp on the RAM. Your hard drive space is storage space. Even though it is also measured in mega- and gigabytes, it is not the same as RAM (memory). Hard drive storage space is like all the cabinets, drawers, and shelves in a woodworking shop. It’s where your computer stores finished and unfinished work, your pictures, documents, music, and similar things. It’s also where the computer stores your programs when you’re not using them. Hard drives are now relatively inexpensive. Try to get a computer with at least a 80 gigabyte (GB) internal hard drive. You should also consider getting an external drive that is at least that big for backups. Monitor For a graphic’s professional, this is arguably the most important component. Two factors are important in describing a monitor, size and resolution. A small monitor will quickly frustrate the user when working with large image files. There are basically two types available today, CRT and LCD panels. CRT monitors are bulky, but until recently have been the choice for graphics because of the resolution flexibility and color accuracy. It is getting harder to find good, large CRT monitors because the LCDs are taking over, but a large 21” screen that can support a resolution of 1600x1200 at 85Hz can be the designer’s best friend. The 85Hz refers to the number of times the screen is being “painted” per second. A value lower than 75 might be uncomfortable for some people because they might see a flicker. LCD screens do not have a flicker problem, since all the dots are “painted” at the same time. They are more expensive than CRTs, but take less space and recently have improved in their color accuracy. Still, a 20” LCD (1600x1200 resolution) can cost around $500 while a 24” LCD (1920x1200 resolution) will be just under $1,000. On a laptop, the only choice is an LCD panel. High resolutions might be better for graphics work, but keep in mind everything (icons, menu items, buttons, etc) will look smaller on screen. Those with tired eyes should try several at the store before committing. Graphics System Virtually all computers for sale today are very capable at dealing with 2D work: Photo editing, layout, web design, etc. The requirements for 3D work go beyond the scope of this guide, but be advised that just because a graphics card is very adept at 3D games it does not mean it will be any good at working with 3D graphics programs such as 3D Studio Max or Maya. Peripherals and Accessories All PCs today come with USB2.0 ports. The more, the better, because all kinds of devices can be plugged into your PC with USB: external hard drives, keyboards, mice, scanners, printers, Computer Buying Guide 15 memory card readers, etc. A Firewire port is useful mainly for people who work with video files, since most cameras only transfer video with Firewire. As with USB, most PCs are sold with at least one Ethernet port. Even if your PC will not be part of the network, you might find it useful if you have a broadband connection to the Internet. The standard speed is designated as 10/100, and it refers to the number of kilobits that can transfer in and out per second. Newer systems will have Gigabit Ethernet (1000), but this is only useful if the PC will be part of a network that is running at that speed. Your web surfing will not be any faster because of it. A CD burner is very useful if you plan to share large files with other people and for limited backup. These days, a DVD burner is almost the same price and has the benefit of much larger capacity (over 4500MB vs. 650MB) Now, let’s see what our design experts are using: Lori Haller: I run my main business using a Power Mac G4. I use Mac OS X Version 10.3.9 with a 467 MHz CPU. I back up on a firewire drive and also onto CDs. Then every 3 months, I have it backed up and kept off-site in a safe – so even if the place burns down, the artwork is always properly archived. Roger Parker: I have three late model Dell computers, all with 1 gigabyte memory (RAM). The laptop is considerably older, but adequate. A fast computer is a pleasure to use. Get at least a 40GB hard drive. An 80GB drive is better, as graphics files quickly mount up. The best insurance you can get is off-premise, automatic, backup. My primary computer is automatically backed up to a remote archive every night. Dennis Rome: I have a Sony VAIO laptop (Pentium 4, 3.2GHz processor with 1 gigabyte of RAM. It has a 100GB hard drive. I also have a “backup” desktop system (Pentium 4, 3.0GHz, 300GB Serial ATA hard drive, and 2GB of RAM. Mike Klassen: I have a Dell, Pentium 4, 3.20GHz, 2GB RAM and the built-in Dell graphics adapter. Tip: Get a system with as much processor speed and RAM as you can afford. Anyone using Windows plus software like Photoshop is going to endure lots of frustration on a slow system with the minimum amount of RAM. American Writers & Artists 16 Computer Buying Guide Review Section Summary Windows or Macintosh • Both systems can handle design software equally well. • Ask your clients for their preferences. This is important for smooth exchange of files. • Test a variety of operating systems at your local library, FedEx/Kinkos, or at an Internet café. Laptop or Desktop – Which is Best for You? • Laptops let you work wherever you want, but desktops are usually cheaper. Before you buy a laptop or desktop consider where and for what you will be using it. Buying a Desktop Computer • The market offers an almost endless choice of desktop systems. When you compare prices, make sure that the components offered for each system are comparable. Table 3-1 will help you with that. Buying a Laptop Computer • Laptops let you work and access the Internet wherever and whenever you want. However, battery life is often limited to 1-4 hours. • Laptops are usually more expensive than a comparable desktop system and cannot be upgraded as easily. Upgrading a Computer • Make sure any upgrades you make to a computer are worth the cost—sometimes it’s simply better to buy a new computer. • Upgrades to improve performance include adding more memory or RAM, adding a bigger hard drive, adding a new CPU and motherboard (usually not recommended), and adding new devices, such as a DVD drive. Customizing Your System, so It Works for You • Make sure any upgrades you make to a computer are worth the cost—sometimes it’s simply better to buy a new computer.