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									Computerized Investing’s
Annual PC Buyer’s Guide                                                              OnLine Exclusive
By Wayne A. Thorp, CFA

  O     ur annual PC Buyer’s Guide is
        intended for those looking to
purchase a personal computer to aid
                                          forced to make trade-offs when
                                          selecting a new computer while on a
                                          budget. However, it is still important
                                                                                    investment analysis, tracking, and
                                                                                    research, you must consider the
                                                                                    software you intend to run—espe-
them in the computerized investment       to purchase a system with at least a      cially if you tend to use software-
analysis and tracking process. These      minimum level of capabilities so that     based applications for your investing
tasks include portfolio tracking and      it will serve your needs for the next     tasks—and select the appropriate
management, stock and mutual fund         few years. If you try to save money       operating system (OS) that supports
screening and analysis, and techni-       today by purchasing a marginal PC,        that software. When shopping for a
cal analysis and charting. General-       you are likely to have a frustrating      new computer, your operating system
purpose computing—such as Web             computing experience and will need        choice, realistically, comes down to
browsing, e-mail, and word                                                                   Windows from Microsoft and
processing—is also taken into                                                                the Mac OS from Apple Inc.
consideration.                    “One of the biggest PC trends                                Microsoft may be one of
   Our recommendations                                                                       the most polarizing compa-
here should allow you to run
the top investment software
                                  over the last several years                                nies among computer en-
                                                                                             thusiasts, and its Windows
titles available to individual                                                               operating system controls
investors. Depending on your      has been the extraordinary                                 an overwhelming market
specific computing needs, your                                                               share, both in the U.S. and
ideal system may be more or
less advanced than our recom-
                                  decline in prices, even as                                 globally. Depending on the
                                                                                             source, estimates are that
mended systems. Unlike many                                                                  some version of Microsoft
of the annual buyer’s guides      the relative processing power                              Windows is installed on
you may run across, our                                                                      roughly 85% to 95% of the
recommendations are intended
to allow you to run the widest
                                  of computers has risen                                     world’s computers. Accord-
                                                                                             ing to,
variety of investment-related                                                                which tracks market share
software titles for the next few         exponentially.”                                     trends in Web browsers and
years.                                                                                       operating systems, Windows
                                          to upgrade or even buy an entirely        controlled 91% of the global market
  Defining Your Needs                      new system sooner than you other-         as of September 2010, while Mac
                                          wise would have.                          had just over 5%. While Windows’
   As when preparing for any major          While it is easy to try to skimp        market share has slipped from just
purchase, you probably have some          on a new computer in order to save        over 92.5% since November of last
idea of how much you want to spend        money, it can be just as easy to go       year, Mac’s global OS market share
on a new computer. Unfortunately,         overboard and spend money on              has been relatively static. In the
you can find dozens, if not hundreds,     features and options you don’t even       U.S., however, Apple moved into
of systems that cost roughly the same     need. Realistically speaking, any of      third place among PC-makers in the
amount of money, yet have very dif-       today’s mid-range systems will fit the    third quarter of this year, capturing
ferent configurations. The question       needs of the typical computerized         a 10.8% market share after seeing
then becomes: What exactly do you         investor. However, given the speed of     growth of more than 24% over the
need from a new computer?                 innovation in computer technologies,      last year (according to IDC World-
   One of the biggest PC trends over      a mid-level system purchased today        wide).
the last several years has been the ex-   will more than likely be obsolete in        Trailing far behind both Windows
traordinary decline in prices, even as    three or four years. At that point, you   and Mac is the Linux operating
the relative processing power of com-     may be better off with a new system       system—which, like the Mac OS X,
puters has risen exponentially. It is     that takes advantage of the latest        is derived from UNIX. Today, roughly
very easy nowadays to find computers      technological developments.               1% of systems use some form of
well below $1,000 that will provide                                                 Linux, a number that has remained
you with more than enough comput-          Choosing an                              stagnant for some time. Despite the
ing power for the next few years.          Operating System                         fact that Linux is widely hailed as
   This increase in affordability means                                             extremely secure and stable, it has
it is less likely that buyers will be      When buying a new computer for           never caught on among mainstream

November Online Exclusive 2010                                                                                          1
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 32-Bit Versus 64-Bit                                                                         knowledge. For this reason, you may
                                                                                              be better off buying a new system
                                                                                              with Windows 7 already installed if
    If you are looking to buy a new Windows system, you are probably going to run
                                                                                              you are looking to upgrade your XP
    across 32-bit and 64-bit designations when it comes to the operating system. Prior to
    Windows 7, 64-bit systems were considered more the realm of technology enthu-             system. If you are currently run-
    siasts or software developers. However, today most new Windows 7–based laptops            ning Windows XP, which Microsoft
    and desktops are running a 64-bit version of the operating system.                        intends to stop supporting in April
                                                                                              2014, chances are that your system is
    Basically speaking, 64-bit systems can handle greater amounts of memory, or RAM.          nearing the end of its useful life and
    The theoretical limit for 32-bit systems is 4G (four gigabytes) of memory, although a     you may want to consider buying a
    variety of factors lowers this to around 3G. Most of today’s 64-bit systems are ship-     new system with Windows 7.
    ping with up to 8G of memory. According to Microsoft, 64-bit versions of Windows 7
    can support up to 192G of memory.
                                                                                              Mac OS X
    The benefits of 64-bit technology become apparent when you are using large                   Apple has become synonymous
    amounts of memory. However, even then this only applies to certain functions: “nor-       with personal electronics over the
    mal” computing functions such as word processing and Web browsing will not reap           last several years with the popular-
    any added benefit from having a 64-bit system. However, functions such as graphics        ity of its iPod line and iPhone. Now,
    processing and scientific calculations will see a boost in performance.                   with the iPad tablet, Apple is again
                                                                                              re-shaping the way people look at
    If you do decide to go with a 64-bit operating system, be aware that you may not          computers, and the competition is
    be able to run 32-bit-based software on it. For this reason it is a good idea to check    scrambling to play catch up. Because
    with the software manufacturer to determine whether it will run on a 64-bit system.
                                                                                              of the strong demand for Apple’s
    Likewise, hardware such as printers that do not have 64-bit drivers may not operate
    correctly on a 64-bit system.                                                             non-Mac offerings, the company no
                                                                                              longer derives a majority of its rev-
                                                                                              enues from Mac-related sales. For the
computer users, prompting the recent              ready installed, upgrade to Windows         quarter ended September 30, 2010,
headline from PC World: “Desktop                  7, or do a “clean” install on your ex-      $4.9 billion of the company’s $20.3
Linux: The Dream is Dead.”                        isting computer (basically start from       billion in net sales—or 23.9%—came
  Linux is popular on many bargain                scratch). Upgrades start at $120.           from Mac-based desktop and por-
systems, as the operating system is                 If you are running Windows Vista,         tables (excluding iPods and iPads).
freely distributable, unlike Windows              the “in-place” upgrade to Windows              Worldwide, Apple accounted for
or Mac. Linux is typically found as               7 is relatively painless and straight-      less than 5% of total PC shipments
a server platform, not on consumer                forward, assuming you move from             for the quarter ending September 30,
PCs.                                              equivalent versions (such as mov-           2010, according to research firms
                                                  ing from Vista Home Premium to              Gartner and IDC Worldwide. These
Windows 7                                         Windows 7 Home Premium) or take             two firms place Apple PC at 10.4%
   As of October 22, 2010, all new                a step up (such as from Vista Home          and 10.6%, respectively, of the total
PCs are are running Windows 7,                    Ultimate to Windows 7 Ultimate).            U.S. shipments for the quarter.
which was released in October 2009                  The process is more complicated if           Currently, Mac OS X version 10.6,
to replace the much-maligned Vista                you attempt to migrate from Win-            Snow Leopard, ships with all new
operating system. Compared to ear-                dows XP to Windows 7. Windows XP            Macs. In late October Apple an-
lier versions of Windows, Windows 7               users will need to perform a “custom”       nounced that the next version of Mac
is faster, easier to use, better looking          or “clean” installation of Windows          OS X, Lion, will be released in the
and more secure. There are multiple               7. The clean installation will remove       summer of 2011. A single license
editions of Windows 7: Starter (in                all programs and files from the hard        to upgrade from Leopard (10.5) to
the U.S., found only on small note-               drive during the upgrade process.           Snow Leopard costs $29; a five-
book PCs or netbooks), Home Premi-                Microsoft’s Windows Easy Transfer           license family pack costs $49. If you
um, Professional, and Ultimate. For a             utility, which comes with Windows 7,        are running Max OS X 10.4 (Tiger),
rundown of the features provided by               will help you save your files and set-      the upgrade cost is $169.
each edition, visit the Microsoft Web             tings. Before attempting such an up-           For more information on Snow
site at                grade, make sure you have all of the        Leopard, visit the Apple Web site at
windows-7/compare/default.aspx.                   installation disks for any software you
   If you wish to upgrade your cur-               have installed and wish to use again.
rent Windows XP or Vista system to                Expect to spend several hours migrat-       Windows on a Mac
Windows 7, you have several options:              ing from Windows XP to Windows                Historically, the Mac OS has been
Buy a new system with Windows 7 al-               7, even if you have some computing          viewed as being more secure and

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 Table 1. Cost Comparison: Desktop vs. Laptop

                                                                            Windows System

                                            Desktop                        Ultra Compact Laptop                      Mid-Sized Laptop                         Netbook
                                      Dell Inspiron 560s                      Dell Inspiron 14                        Dell Inspiron 15                 Dell Inspiron Mini 10v
   Operating System       Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit             Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit          Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit           Windows 7 Starter 32-bit
   Processor              2.93GHz Intel Core 2 Duo                  2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo                2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo                 1.66GHz Intel Atom
   Memory                 4G RAM                                    4G RAM                                 4G RAM                                  1G RAM
   Hard Drive             750G                                      500G                                   500G                                    160G
   CD-ROM/DVD-ROM         DVD±RW/CD-RW                              DVD±RW/CD-RW                           DVD±RW/CD-RW                            no internal optical drive
   Video Card             integrated graphics                       dedicated 1G 2D/3D graphics card       integrated 2D/3D graphics accelerator   integrated 2D/3D graphics
   Sound                  integrated audio w/speakers               integrated audio                       integrated audio                        integrated audio
   Modem/Wireless         no modem                                  integrated wireless card               integrated wireless card                integrated wireless card
   Network Adapter        wired Ethernet                            wired Ethernet                         wired Ethernet                          wired Ethernet
   Monitor                20" widescreen HD LCD                     14" HD LCD                             15.6" widescreen LED                    10.1" LCD
   Price*                 $638                                      $700                                   $675                                    $300

                                                                 Mac System
                                          Desktop                           Consumer Laptop                        Professional Laptop
                                            iMac                                 MacBook                              MacBook Pro
   Operating System       Mac OS X Snow Leopard                    Mac OS X Snow Leopard                   Mac OS X Snow Leopard
   Processor              3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo                2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo                 2.53GHz Intel Core i5
   Memory                 4G RAM                                   4G RAM                                  4G RAM
   Hard Drive             500G                                     500G                                    500G
   CD-ROM/DVD-ROM         DVD±R/DVD±RW/CD-RW                       DVD±R/DVD±RW/CD-RW                      DVD±R/DVD±RW/CD-RW
   Video Card             dedicated 2D/3D graphics accelerator     integrated 2D/3D graphics accelerator   dedicated 2D/3D graphics accelerator

   Sound                  built-in audio                            built-in audio                         built-in audio
   Modem/Wireless         integrated wireless card                  integrated wireless card               integrated wireless card
   Network Adapter        wired Ethernet                            wired Ethernet                         wired Ethernet
   Monitor                21.5" widescreen LCD                      13.3" LCD                              15" widescreen backlit LED
   Price*                 $1,199                                    $1,249                                 $1,999

  *Current as of October 21, 2010.

user-friendly than Windows. How-                         using a variety of utilities.                                    system’s hardware. As a result, some
ever, this has not translated into sig-                    Apple’s Boot Camp, which is                                    functions, such as 3-D graphics, don’t
nificant market share. As a result, the                  included with Mac OS X 10.5 and                                  run as well in a virtual environment.
number of Mac-based software titles                      higher, allows users to install and                                Two programs that allow you to
pales in comparison to the number                        run Windows XP, Vista and 7 on                                   run a virtual Windows system on a
of Windows titles. This is even more                     their Macs with the full capabilities                            Mac are Parallels Desktop 4.0 (www.
evident in the area of investment                        and speed of a standard Windows                         and VMware Fusion
analysis and tracking. For software                      machine (in order to run Windows 7                               2.0 (
companies, this is a matter of eco-                      you will need Mac OS X 10.6 Snow                                 fusion/). Both programs require a
nomics—resources are devoted to                          Leopard). However, it does not allow                             “Mactel” system—a Mac with an In-
developing software that can be used                     you to run Mac OS X and Windows                                  tel processor. Both systems also offer
by the largest group.                                    simultaneously—you must reboot                                   free trials, after which either will cost
   The majority of Mac software for                      your system to switch between oper-                              you $80 for continued use.
individual investors are personal                        ating systems.                                                     Be aware that if you decide to use
finance titles such as Quicken Essen-                      Another option Mac users have for                              Boot Camp, Parallels, or VMware Fu-
tials for Mac. However, even when                        turning their system into a Windows                              sion to run Windows on a Mac, there
Mac-based investment software is                         PC is to use third-party software to                             is the added expense of acquiring a
available, it often lacks the advanced                   create a virtual Windows environ-                                Windows license.
features found in equivalent Win-                        ment inside their Mac. The Windows
dows offerings.                                          machine runs at “normal” speeds and                                Laptops vs. Desktops
   As a result, many Mac users choose                    can operate simultaneously with the
to own a separate Windows system in                      Mac OS, so programs native to Win-                                 Once you have decided upon an
order to run the Windows titles they                     dows or Mac can run side-by-side.                                operating system, there is the ques-
cannot find for the Mac. However,                        Be aware that these virtual systems                              tion of whether to go with a portable
Apple hardware today is so similar to                    usually aren’t quite as fast as using                            system—laptop or notebook—or a
that used by Windows systems that                        Boot Camp, since Windows does                                    desktop PC. As portable PCs have be-
it is able to run Windows software                       not get complete control of all of the                           come more and more affordable over

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the years, their demand has risen to      of the PC market was the mini-            offer the same computing power of a
the point where portables now outsell     notebook, or netbook—a small-to-          typical notebook computer: They are
desktop PCs both in the U.S. and          medium-sized laptop optimized for         best suited for Web browsing, e-mail,
globally.                                 Web browsing and e-mail. In 2009,         and for running native applications,
  While both portable and desktop         DisplaySearch pegged year-over-year       or “apps.” Like netbooks, tablet PCs
systems have their merits, the deci-      growth in netbook shipments at            are geared toward those who want
sion to opt for a portable system typi-   103%. However, the global recession,      basic mobile computing but do not
cally rests on the following questions:   falling prices of mainstream note-        need to run “standard” software such
  • Do you need a computer when           books and the introduction of tablet      as that offered on a more traditional
     travelling?                          PCs such as the Apple iPad have           notebook or desktop.
  • Do you need to use a computer         all dimmed the shine on netbooks.
     in multiple locations?               That being said, DisplaySearch is          Where to Buy
  • Is space at a critical premium?       still estimating netbook shipments to
  If you answered yes to any of these     increase 23% in 2011.                       Once you have decided upon the
questions, you are probably better off      Most models range in price from         type of system you wish buy, the next
with a notebook/laptop system.            $300 to $500, making them relatively      step is actually purchasing it. When
  However, the following situations       inexpensive. However, the typical         shopping for a new PC, you can buy
are more conducive to selecting a         netbook has a display no larger than      your system either directly from the
desktop system:                           10", a small keyboard, and no opti-       manufacturer or from a retail store.
  • Budget constraints;                   cal drive (CD or DVD). As a result,       A few companies—such as Dell,
  • Need or preference for a larger       these systems generally are purchased     Hewlett-Packard (HP), and Apple—
     display;                             as a second computer, not as a prima-     allow you to build a custom system,
  • Requirement of the most power-        ry platform. If you are looking for an    place your order online or by phone,
     ful features available.              ultraportable netbook system for e-       and have the system shipped directly
  When considering desktop systems        mail, Web browsing, and basic word        to you (mail order). Likewise, these
versus notebooks/laptops, also be         processing, Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo,       same companies and others make
aware of the difficulties you may face    Samsung, Toshiba, and Asus all sell       computers available at retail outlets
when attempting upgrades. Desktop         netbooks costing under $500.              such as BestBuy, Costco, Office De-
systems tend to be easier to upgrade        However, the compact comput-            pot, Staples, and Walmart.
and repair, mainly because there are      ing website points
a number of “generic” components          out that there are now ultraportable      From the Manufacturer
you can install with relative ease that   notebooks that do not fall into the         Arguably, the biggest advantage to
won’t present compatibility issues.       netbook category: They have screens       ordering a new PC directly from the
  Notebook PCs, on the other hand,        up to 12" and more powerful proces-       manufacturer is that you are able to
tend to have hardware designed spe-       sors and higher resolution displays       customize the system to get exactly
cifically for a particular model, mak-    than netbooks. These ultraportables       what you want. In addition, due to
ing them more expensive to repair         do not weigh much more than a             inventory practices, manufacturers
and more difficult to upgrade. You        netbook, and they generally cost less     are usually able to offer new tech-
may be able to pick up a new hard         than $700.                                nologies more quickly than retailers,
drive or additional memory modules                                                  which usually have to move their
from the local electronics store, but     Tablet PCs                                existing inventory of older technology
you will more than likely encounter         Although, technically, tablet PCs       before restocking.
difficulties installing component up-     have been around since the beginning        However, a major trade-off when
grades on a laptop system. Even the       of the millennium, the segment was        buying direct is the lack of face-to-
latest Mac laptops have batteries that    rejuvenated by the introduction of        face assistance in case something
must be replaced by Apple.                the Apple iPad in early 2010. In-         goes wrong. Dell offers in-home PC
  Lastly, there are definite cost con-    dustry experts predict that tablet PC     installation and Internet set-up for
siderations to buying a laptop—ex-        sales will surpass those of netbooks      $79, where a third-party technician
pect to pay a premium for mobility.       by 2012.                                  comes to your house, unpacks your
Table 1 shows the price difference          Generally speaking, a tablet PC is      new computer, sets up the system––
between comparable (in terms of           a portable computer equipped with         including hooking up peripherals and
computing power) mid-range desktop        a touchscreen as the primary input        establishing the connection to your
and notebook systems.                     device. Tablet PCs typically do not       internet service provider (ISP)––and
                                          have a physical keyboard, instead         provides a basic orientation session
Netbooks                                  they offer a virtual onscreen sub-        to get you acquainted with your new
 Two years ago, the hottest segment       stitute instead. Tablet PCs do not        computer. Dell also offers fee-based

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phone support to help you with such        Table 2. Recommended System (Desktop)
things as setting up your wireless
network and Internet connection and                                                  Windows                           Mac
installing software and peripherals.         Operating System           Windows 7 Home Premium            Mac OS X Snow Leopard
   Furthermore, most manufacturers           Processor                  2.0+GHz AMD Athlon II X2,         3.06GHz Intel Core i3
include in a system’s purchase price                                    Phenom II X2; Intel Core 2 Duo,
                                                                        Core i3, or Core i5
one year of on-site service as part
                                             Memory                     4G RAM                            4G RAM
of any warranty. These two options           Hard Drive                 500G                              500G
should cover the majority of prob-           CD-ROM                     DVD±R/DVD±RW/CD-RW                DVD±R/DVD±RW/CD-RW
lems you may face—at least for the           Video Card                 dedicated ATI or NVIDIA DirectX   ATI Radeon dedicated
first year.                                                             10-capable graphics               graphics
   For repair service coverage after         Sound Card                 built-in audio                    built-in audio
the manufacturer warranty expires,           Network Adapter            wired Ethernet                    wired Ethernet
                                             Monitor                    22" widescreen LCD                21.5" widescreen LCD
many larger mail-order companies
                                             Price*                     $625 - $1,000                     $1,199
offer maintenance through third par-
ties. Realistically, there is no reason      *As of October 22, 2010.
to pay for service beyond three years.
HP and Dell both offer three-year
protection plans that cost $150+ and      to buy computers from their web-                  nents that make up your computer
$119, respectively. Apple’s AppleCare     sites, as do online retailers such as             system.
Protection Plan provides three years and                Table 2 summarizes the recom-
of telephone technical support and        However, be prepared to compromise                mended specifications for buying a
repair coverage for $169.                 your wants, and perhaps your budget,              desktop computer today that will
                                          to fit the retailer’s offerings.                  allow you to perform the most com-
Retail                                      On the other hand, once you have                mon types of investment analysis and
  Buying retail—either from an actual     purchased the system, it may be                   general-purpose computing tasks for
store or an online retailer—doesn’t       difficult to get a retailer to offer free         the next few years.
necessarily mean paying more for a        consultation and technical support.                 Given the rapid changes in technol-
system that isn’t exactly what you are    BestBuy’s Geek Squad services in-                 ogy that are taking place, one cer-
looking for. Popular stores such as       clude in-home computer setup start-               tainty is that what is top-of-the-line
Best Buy, Office Depot, and Walmart       ing at $150 and diagnostic services               today may very well be relegated to
are very competitive with manufac-        ranging from $130 to $300.                        mid-line in a matter of months. We
turers and online vendors on price                                                          realize that computing needs can vary
and usually offer a selection large        System Recommendations                           greatly from person to person, and
enough for you to be able to find                                                           what we offer here are merely our
the system that closely matches your       The next section provides guidance               thoughts and opinions. The ultimate
needs. These same stores allow you        on choosing the hardware compo-                   decision, however, is yours to make.

Choosing the Key Components for Your PC
  For most of us, a computer is a          Processors                                       will function. However, the chip
singular item. However, “under the                                                          design can squeeze more power out
hood,” it is a collection of compo-         The engine that drives any PC is                of a lower-speed chip than one with
nents that influences the overall         the processor, or CPU, executing                  a higher clock speed. In addition, the
performance of the PC and, by exten-      operations, performing calculations,              hardware setup of your PC can also
sion, your overall computing experi-      and coordinating the other hardware               impact its performance beyond the
ence.                                     components. The processor is also                 processor. For example, the amount
  The pieces of a computer, or the        the driving force behind the cost of              of memory or RAM a PC has can
hardware, include processor(s), hard      any PC, as it tends to be the most                have a more tangible impact on a
drives, optical drives such as DVD-       expensive component.                              computer’s performance than the
ROM drives, and video and sound             Theoretically, the faster the proces-           processor.
cards.                                    sor, the more quickly the computer                  Historically, processor manufactur-

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ers were able to increase the speed      systems on the market today.              4G for 64-bit Windows 7 systems, or
and power of a processor by increas-                                               3G for 32-bit systems.
ing the number of transistors on the      Data Storage                               Adding an additional gigabyte of
chip die. Eventually, however, chip                                                memory when customizing a new
makers ran into physical limitations       Over the years, operating systems       system will cost you less than $30,
to adding more transistors to a single   have become more complex and              while adding two extra gigabytes of
chip. As a result, the latest trend      powerful, and software makers are         memory should cost less than $80.
is “multi-core” processors. Today,       designing products to exploit the lat-
dual-core processors consist of two      est technology. Also, more and more       Internal Hard Drives
independent microprocessors (cores)      users are getting involved in digital       Temporary memory, as we have
and quad-core processors consist of      photography, video and music. All of      discussed, plays a vital role in the
four cores.                              this requires an immense of amount        operation of a PC. However, it is
  However, you cannot assume that        of hard disk space—both internal          equally important to have the capac-
there is a linear relationship between   and external—to store all of this data    ity to store data for future use. This
the number of cores a PC has and its     and provide room for expansion over       is where permanent storage comes
overall processing speed. A dual-        time. This section discusses key hard-    into play, which allows you to retain
core chip is not twice as powerful as    ware devoted to data storage.             data even after you shut down the
a single-core processor. Multi-core                                                PC. The primary type of permanent
processors do allow for more efficient   Memory                                    storage in personal computers is the
processing, depending on the tasks          Computers have two types of            internal hard drive.
you are performing with your com-        memory—temporary and permanent.
puter. In particular, multi-core pro-    Any data saved to temporary memory        Hard Disk Drive (HDD) vs.
cessors offer advantages for so-called   is lost when you shut the computer        Solid State Disk (SSD)
“power” users—high-end gamers, IT        down. The most common type of                Over the last few years, solid state
administrators, and software develop-    temporary memory in a computer            drives (SSDs) have gained in popu-
ers. If you plan on performing tasks     is RAM, or random access memory.          larity, especially for portable systems.
that are extremely processor-inten-      RAM is the primary storage for a          Just like traditional hard disk drives
sive—such as heavy-duty gaming or        computer processor—it is the work-        (HDDs), SSDs allow you to save
video editing—or if you plan on run-     ing area used for loading, displaying     data, images and music. Where they
ning virtual systems such as Windows     and manipulating applications and         differ is in the execution. Solid state
in the Mac OS, you may benefit from      data. Therefore, the amount of RAM        drives store data on memory chips,
a system with a multi-core proces-       your system has impacts several           whereas HDDs write data to, and
sor. Most new computer buyers don’t      aspects of the computing experi-          read from, spinning platters. Simply
need the fastest processor or the one    ence—most importantly, the types          put, a solid state drive is a much
with the greatest number of cores.       and number of software programs           larger version of the flash drive you
To save money without sacrificing        you can run simultaneously at an ac-      may have in your digital camera.
performance, you may wish to con-        ceptable rate.                               Three advantages SSDs have over
sider a system with a processor that        Even with a top-of-the-line proces-    HDDs are speed, power, and longev-
is a couple of generations behind the    sor, a lack of physical memory can        ity. Traditional hard drives, no matter
newest processors.                       have a significant negative impact on     how fast they are, still have to move
  Most of the consumer desktop           the performance of the PC. Further-       their read heads over the platters—
systems on the market today have         more, applications such as anti-virus     envision a needle on a record. Solid
dual-core systems, but quad-core         software that are always running in       state drives, in contrast, have no mov-
systems are becoming more common.        the background can quickly use up         ing parts. This allows them to read
The more common processor choices        a system’s memory and processor           and write data at much higher speeds.
for the typical PC buyer are cur-        resources.                                   Also, since there are no mov-
rently Intel’s Core 2 Duo and Core i3       It is relatively easy to add more      ing parts, SSDs use less power and
(dual-cores) and Core i5 (quad-core),    physical memory to your system,           produce less heat than a traditional
and AMD’s Athlon II and Phenom II        if needed. However, it is probably        hard disk drive. This means they
X2 (dual-cores) and Phenom II X3         worth paying for as much memory as        don’t draw down a laptop battery
(triple-core).                           you can afford up front.                  as quickly as HDDs, which is why
  On the laptop side, you will gener-       Most of today’s budget PCs running     you tend to find solid state drives in
ally find Intel’s Core 2 Duo and Pen-    Windows 7 ship with at least 1G           portable systems.
tium Dual-Core and AMD’s Athlon          (one gigabyte) of memory. However,           Lastly, the lack of moving parts
X2 Dual-Core, Athlon II X2, and          given the low cost of memory, we          significantly lowers the likelihood of
Turion X2 processors in mainstream       recommend going with no less than         mechanical failure with a solid state

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drive.                                     systems (however, these high-speed        DVD devices, is a high-definition
  However, these benefits carry with       drives generally have somewhat lim-       (HD) format that can store roughly
them a pretty steep price premium.         ited storage capacities). Many laptop     three-and-one-half times more data
Whereas a 64G internal solid state         hard drives spin at a slower 5,400        onto a disc—50G can be stored on
drive generally costs between $150         rpm to conserve power and generate        a two-layer Blu-ray disc. This makes
and $200, one terabyte (1T: one            less heat.                                the Blu-ray drive a good choice for
trillion bytes, or 1,024G) internal                                                  those looking to back up a large
hard drives for less than $100 are         Optical Drives: CD, DVD, &                number of files—such as documents,
plentiful. Given the significant price     Blu-ray                                   photos, or music—to a disc.
premium of SSDs over HDDs, we                Another type of data storage device       Combination Blu-ray readers/
recommend buying a system with a           is the optical drive, which uses lasers   DVD±R/RW burners are now avail-
hard disk drive.                           to read data from, and write data to,     able for between $60 and $140. Blu-
                                           optical disks such as CDs and DVDs.       ray DVD burners, on average, cost
Hard Disk Drive Considerations             It is virtually impossible to find a PC   between $150 and $200.
  The most important factor to             without an optical drive, and rewrite-      However, unless you want to take
consider when selecting an internal        able DVD drives are now the norm          advantage of the higher-storage
hard disk drive is the size, or stor-      for PCs.                                  capacity of Blu-ray or play Blu-ray
age capacity. The explosion of digital       DVD, which stands for digital           discs, we don’t see any reason to
media has also placed greater empha-       versatile disc, is the preferred opti-    spend the extra money for these
sis on the need for adequate storage       cal drive on the market today. DVD        drives.
capacity. Digital photos, music, and       drives can now also read all types of
video can take up a large amount of        CDs—standard music CDs, CD-               External Storage Devices
your hard drive very quickly.              Rs, and CD-RWs. The applications            All of the hardware components
  Budget systems today offer at least      for DVDs on desktop systems are           we have discussed thus far have been
160G of hard disk capacity, but we         limited mainly to storage, unless the     internal in nature—meaning they
recommend that you go higher if            computer is a media center offering       reside within the case of the PC.
you can afford it. Many mainstream         a cinematic viewing experience for        However, in this age of portability,
desktop systems today ship with hard       DVD movies. However, many users           many PC users do not want their data
drives between 300G and 1T in size         like the ability to view DVD movies       “tied down,” so they are making use
and, unless you have no interest in        on a laptop while traveling.              of portable storage media, such as ex-
digital photos or music, we recom-           Recordable and re-writeable DVDs        ternal hard drives and flash memory
mend a minimum of 500G in hard             offer impressive storage capacities       devices that you can connect to your
disk capacity.                             of up to 4.7G for single-layer (SL)       system via either USB or FireWire.
  Notebook systems tend to have            single-sided discs and up to 8.5G for
smaller internal hard drives. This is      dual-layer (DL) single-sided discs,       USB vs. FireWire
especially true for “value” notebook       or 9.4G for single-layer double-sided       Universal Serial Bus (USB) 2.0 is
computers, which can ship with hard        discs and 17G for dual-layer double-      a high-speed method for connecting
drives as small as 100G. Most mid-         sided discs.                              all sorts of peripherals to a PC, such
range notebooks offer hard drives            With recordable DVDs, there are         as mice, keyboards, printers, external
that are at least 300G in size, while      two competing standards: DVD-RW           hard drives and CD/DVD drives, and
higher-end notebooks can offer 640G        and DVD+RW. DVD+RW drives                 compact flash drives. USB’s high-
or more of hard disk space.                cannot write to a DVD-RW disc and         speed competitor, which Apple devel-
  Beyond size, a secondary consider-       vice versa. However, with the advent      oped, is IEEE-1394, or FireWire.
ation for internal hard drives is the      of multi-format drives, which can           While FireWire offers significantly
speed at which they spin. The faster       read and write to both DVD+RW             higher data transfer speeds—up to
the drive rotates, the faster it is able   and DVD-RW discs, this is no longer       3.2Gbps (gigabits per second) for
to read and write data. While not a        an issue. Therefore, we strongly rec-     FireWire 800, versus up to 480Mbps
major concern for casual computer          ommend purchasing a multi-format          (megabits per second) for USB
users, those who are into gaming and       DVD±R/RW drive if you are plan-           2.0—it has failed to achieve the same
other multi-media applications will        ning to write or burn DVD discs.          mass-market appeal as USB 2.0.
want to pay attention to drive speeds.     The majority of internal drives such      Therefore, most peripherals, includ-
  The majority of hard drives in           as these cost less than $40. Further-     ing external hard drives, use USB 2.0
desktop systems spin at 7,200 rpm          more, standard DVD-R and DVD+R            connectors.
(rotations per minute), although you       discs, purchased in bulk, can cost          However, FireWire is the preferred
may find 10,000 rpm or even 15,000         between $0.18 and $0.35 apiece.           method of connecting digital-video-
rpm drives in high-performance               Blu-ray, the next generation of         related electronics such as digital

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camcorders. Therefore, if you intend      form of external 2.5" drives. A 500G      multimedia applications, a dedicated
to do video editing on your PC,           external 2.5" drive, on average, costs    graphics card is a must. Upgrading
we suggest getting a system with a        less than $100.                           a desktop PC from integrated graph-
FireWire card, which will cost less         The price per megabyte for these        ics to a 256M dedicated video card
than $75 (FireWire 800).                  drives is only a fraction of the cost     usually costs under $50. Depending
  In November 2008, the USB 3.0           of flash memory. A Western Digital        on the line of laptop you are looking
“SuperSpeed” specification was            500G My Passport Essential external       to buy, you may not have the option
completed. The major new feature          hard drive, which supports both USB       to upgrade from integrated graphics
is improved data transfer rates, with     2.0 and USB 3.0, retails for $100         to a dedicated video card. When such
maximum throughput of 4.8Gbps,            (, or $0.0002 per             upgrades are available for the laptop,
several times faster than USB 2.0.        megabyte. By means of comparison,         the cost is usually under $100.
Roll out of USB 3.0 devices has been      an 8G Sandisk USB flash drive that
slow, especially since Windows 7          costs $20 at Walmart has a per-mega-      Audio
does not have USB 3.0 drivers and         byte cost that is more than 1,000%          The vast majority of new systems
Intel announced that it will not sup-     greater than that of the Western          today come equipped for stereo
port USB 3.0 prior to 2011.               Digital My Passport Essential exter-      sound, although you have options
  No matter what type of system you       nal drive.                                that will affect the overall sound
purchase, make sure it has several                                                  quality. Some desktop systems and
USB 2.0 connectors, including some         Video & Sound                            many notebooks have integrated
on the front of the case for easy ac-                                               audio, which should suffice for listen-
cess.                                        Computers are as much personal         ing to MP3s and CDs or performing
                                          entertainment systems as tools. Some      general computing tasks. However, if
Flash Memory Devices                      even allow us to watch and record         you are looking for enhanced audio,
  For secure and highly portable data     TV programs. Even if your multi-          you may have the option to upgrade
transfer and storage, there are a num-    media desires aren’t that ambitious,      either to software-enhanced audio or
ber of flash memory devices available     chances are at some point you will        to a dedicated sound card.
today. Unlike an internal or external     listen to audio clips or music or           Software-enhanced sound, which
hard disk drive, flash-based devices      watch video clips or movies with          typically costs around $25, is a step
store data on a chip instead of writ-     your computer.                            up from basic integrated audio.
ing data to, and reading it from, a          Depending on how much multi-           Furthermore, it is usually the only
“platter.” The lack of moving parts       media usage you intend for your PC,       internal audio upgrade available for
makes flash memory much more              you will want to be sure to buy audio     notebook systems.
durable. In addition, flash memory        and video capabilities to match.            If you want the highest quality
devices require very little power to                                                sound, especially for watching video
operate, so they do not require their     Video                                     or recording audio, hardware-driven
own power source.                           Earlier we discussed the CPU,           sound is the best option. This re-
  Flash media cards have long been        which controls much of what goes          quires a dedicated sound card, which
the removable media choice for digi-      on with the PC. However, computers        is typically an option only for desktop
tal cameras, handheld devices such        also have a GPU, or graphics pro-         systems. An upgrade to a dedicated
as personal digital assistants (PDAs),    cessing unit; these chips create the      sound card direct from the manufac-
and the like. Flash technology has        images you see on the display. Most       turer will cost under $100.
also been integrated with a USB in-       desktop systems today have dedicated
terface to arrive at USB flash drives,    or discrete video memory that offers       Displays
which are small enough to fit on a        better graphics capability compared
keychain, yet offer storage capacity      to “integrated” video memory. Some          While the computer itself does the
far greater than CDs, or even DVDs.       value desktop systems and many            heavy lifting as far as running soft-
An 8G USB flash drive, on average,        notebook systems still have integrat-     ware and performing calculations, the
costs under $30.                          ed video memory, where the system         monitor is an equally vital compo-
                                          uses the primary memory for video         nent, since it allows you to view the
Ultraportable Hard Drives                 and other operations. If you are not      fruits of your PC’s labors.
  Just like their internal cousins, the   sure, inquire as to whether memory          When shopping for a new desktop
capacities of external hard drives        is dedicated specifically to the video    system, be sure that the quote you
continue to climb, with capacities in     system or whether the video memory        receive includes the cost of a display;
excess of one terabyte. Such large        is integrated with the main memory.       some companies quoting “low” prices
amounts of storage are also available       If you plan to use your new PC for      for new computers may be selling
in relatively small packages in the       gaming, graphics or other serious         them without a monitor. As you com-

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pare prices of new systems, do not         system for gaming or for watching           high-speed access to the Internet
look to the monitor as an area where       movies. The cost of such a display, on      using Wi-Fi–enabled devices such as
you can save a lot of money. The           average, is currently between $140          PCs, cell phones, or personal digital
increased viewing area and clarity of      and $200.                                   assistants (PDAs). Wireless access
a larger display is well worth reduced                                                 points, or hotspots, have sprung up
eyestrain through the years.                Internet Connectivity                      in almost every place imaginable over
                                                                                       the last several years, from coffee
LCD                                          Very few people these days use a          shops to hotels and airports. If you
  LCD (liquid crystal display) is          home computer without accessing the         are planning to buy a new laptop,
now the norm for both desktop and          Internet. There are several on-ramps        make sure it has a built-in wireless
laptop/notebook systems. However,          to the information super highway: di-       network card so you can make use of
manufacturers including Apple, Dell,       al-up modems or high-speed connec-          these hotspots.
HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba have been          tions such as DSL, cable, or satellite.       Cellular phone companies—includ-
adding LED (light-emitting diode)                                                      ing Verizon, AT&T and Sprint—are
displays to their product lines and        Dial-Up Connection                          also entering the high-speed Internet
adding displays backlit by LEDs to           These days, those of us with high-        market by offering Internet access
their laptop lines. While using an         speed Internet connections take them        over their cellular networks (where
LED does not change the overall            for granted. However, a number of           they are available). Some laptop mak-
viewing experience, it does allow for      people live in areas where connecting       ers offer built-in mobile broadband
much thinner systems overall com-          to the Internet with a traditional dial-    adapters. Please note, however, that
pared to traditional LCDs, and LED         up modem (using a land telephone            these services require a wireless sub-
displays consume less power—two            line) is their only option.                 scription, similar to a cellular phone
definite benefits for portable systems.      Depending on where you live, there        plan.
                                           may not be providers of high-speed            For those with broadband Internet
Screen Size                                Internet such as DSL/ADSL and               connections at home, you can also
  Almost all new consumer desk-            cable. Even if satellite Internet is        set up a wireless network and use
top systems today offer widescreen         available, for many the costs are too       Wi-Fi to connect to it. In order to
displays that are at least 19" in size,    high. If you fall into one of these         have wireless at home, you would
with upgrade options up to 24"             categories, you will need to have           need broadband Internet access, such
common. At the manufacturer level,         a system with a built-in modem.             as DSL/ADSL or cable, a wireless
upgrading from a 19" to a 22" LCD          However, you cannot assume that a           router to connect to your cable or
is less than $75. We recommend this,       standard modem is included with a           DSL/ADSL modem, as well as a
especially if you plan to use your PC      new PC. Adding a 56.6Kbps internal          wireless card for your PC.
for extended periods,                      modem costs less than $20.
  For laptop users, there is a trade-off                                                Printers
between screen size and portability.       High-Speed Alternatives
Today’s ultraportable notebook sys-          High-speed or “broadband” con-              While not technically part of
tems, which usually weigh less than        nections offer data transfer speeds         the computer itself, printers, like
five pounds, have screen sizes that        that are vastly superior to dial-up         monitors, play an important role
average around 13" or 14". Desktop         but, again, their availability is tied to   and should be considered a part of
replacement notebook systems with          where you live. Ranked in descending        a complete PC system. It is highly
screen sizes ranging from 17" to 20"       order based on data transfer speeds         unlikely that you can use a computer
often weigh over seven pounds, an          are fiber-optic, cable, DSL/ADSL,           for any length of time without having
important consideration if you plan        and satellite.                              to print something, whether it is an
to travel with such a system.                In order to access the Internet           e-mail message, a Web page, a digital
                                           using either a cable or DSL/ADSL            picture, or a price chart. Printers, like
Resolution                                 modem, or if you are considering net-       computers, come with numerous op-
  A display’s resolution is the num-       working multiple computers at home,         tions and issues to consider and have
ber of pixels that make up the actual      you will need a PC with a built-in          varying price points. Keep in mind
viewing area. LCD displays have            Gigabit network adapter. On average,        that the quoted price for a computer
what is called a “native resolution”—      a five-port 10/100/1000 (1000BASE-          system rarely includes a printer. This
generally the highest resolution that it   X) Gigabit network adapter costs            is usually something you need to
can best display. Again, a 22" display     under $30.                                  purchase separately.
with a 1920 × 1080 (full HD) resolu-
tion is a worthwhile investment,           Wireless                                    Inkjet Printers
especially if you plan to use your          Wi-Fi technology offers wireless            Inkjet printers are the most com-

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mon printers on the market today for       You can find color inkjet printers      tanks and separate tanks for each
the average PC user. They are inex-      that cost as little as $30, but remem-    color (instead of multi-color ink
pensive, reasonably fast, quiet, and     ber that “you get what you pay for.”      cartridges).
achieve good print quality.              For standard color printing, expect
  If you are spending the money          to pay between $50 and $150 for a         Laser Printers
for a printer, color is the way to go.   good-quality color inkjet printer.          Compared to inkjet printers, laser
This is especially important if you        Over the life of a typical inkjet       printers offer superior printing speed
want to distinguish between data on      printer, the greatest cost will be for    and quality. While the prices of laser
printed graphs with multiple lines or    ink. Sometimes, printers that are         printers continue to fall, they are
bars—often a concern when printing       more expensive are actually less          probably overkill for the average
reports from investment software and     costly to run in the long term because    computer user.
information from the Internet.           they often have higher-capacity ink         Personal monochrome (black and
                                                                                   white) laser printers start at around
                                                                                   $75, while personal color laser print-
       Wayne A. Thorp, CFA, is editor of Computerized Investing and                ers tend to run between $150 and
  AAII’s financial analyst. Follow him on Twitter @CI_Editor.                      $500.

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