Category Archives: Hardware

Is the Perfect Computer… A Notebook?

That's What I Like!

Oh yeah - portable and happy-go-lucky - like me!

This is Part 6 in the How To Buy A New Computer Series

Part 1 Buying A New Computer
Part 2 Hard Drives and Memory
Part 3 How to Pick A CPU
Part 4 What Are L1 and L2 Cache and Bus Speed?
Part 5 How To Choose The Right Monitor


PERFECT  FOR YOU

There is no such thing as The Perfect Computer – but there is a perfect computer for you.

Now that you understand the hardware specs, it is time to find the right combination of speed, memory, power, and price that will make your working life a dream.

LAPTOP OR DESKPTOP

The first, obvious choice is between a notebook computer and a desktop computer.

Do you need a computer that let’s you be online any time and everywhere? If your idea of an office is the local Starbucks, then a notebook is a must.

There are two essential questions to ask about a notebook:

  1. Is it light enough to lug around with me?
  2. Is it powerful enough to do the work I need to do every day?


Notebook computers necessitate a series of  compromises.

  • A big screen adds weight, but a small screen makes multitasking impractical.
  • A processor powerful enough to run applications like Photoshop drains the battery quickly.
  • A computer light enough to carry for any length of time is going to be either under-powered or over-priced.

So you need to seriously think about how you will use your notebook before you fall in love with it.  If you don’t plan ahead, the divorce can be costly.

Notebook computers fall into roughly three classes, each heavier and more powerful than the previous one:

  1. Lightweight and super-portable
  2. Every day use
  3. Desktop replacements

THE DESKTOP REPLACEMENT

If a notebook will be your only computer, even if you travel with it, you may need a larger, heavy desktop replacement style notebook. These computers usually have 15 – 17: screens and can weigh over 8 pounds. They will probably run for less than 2 hours on a fully charged battery.

But a powerful laptop can run video or photo editing software without choking. It will have a hard drive roomy enough to store your documents without the added weight and space of an extra external hard drive. And it will be able to handle all your business tasks as well as playing a DVD to pass the time in airports or on the plane.

Just make sure to buy a rolling case for your new computer.

THE FEATHER WEIGHT

Until this year, a super-lightweight computer (under 3 lbs.) cost over $2,000.00. The only market for such devices was assumed to be salesmen and business executives who would gladly pay any premium for small and light.

Then the ASUS Eee PC changed everything.

A real computer that runs Windows XP, weighs less than 3 lbs, fits in a bookbag, and costs less than $400.00 – the EEE PC shook up the notebook market.

Now everyone from Lenovo to Dell to HP is selling a netbook, and prices keep dropping.

It can be hard to resist the “grab and go” appeal of the netbook – but before you buy one, make sure you understand: a netbook cannot be your primary computer.

The netbook excels at one thing: it is the perfect companion PC for reading email or surfing the web when you can’t or don’t want to use your regular computer.

At least as they are currently configured, netbooks are too underpowered to use for much serious work.

THE EVERY DAY NOTEBOOK

In between these two extremes is the every day notebook.

A good laptop will have a good (but not super) processor – usually Core2 Dual instead of Core2 Quad. Most online sellers, like Dell, will allow you to beef up the specs, so that you can buy a large enough hard drive and enough RAM to run several applications at once.

Expect to pay anywhere from $800.00 to$1,000.00 for a laptop with a 15 1/2″ display, a Core2 Duo  2 GHz processor, 4 GB of RAM and a 320 GB (5400 RPM hard) drive. Increasing the size of the hard drive or the speed of the procesor will, of course, increase the price.

Such a notebook will be able to replace your desktop computer when you travel without breaking the bank. You may find you often use it in the evenings, when you are away from your desk, as well when you are away from the office.

If you decide to settle for less power, a smaller hard drive, or less RAM, you can probably save $150.00.

PLAN A YEAR OR TWO AHEAD

Keep in mind – it is harder to upgrade components on a notebook. You can’t add a second hard drive or buy a new monitor. Even swapping out the RAM can be tricky, since many notebooks have only one user-accessible memory slot. So you often have to discard the installed RAM, rather than just add to it.

Many business users replace notebook computers just as they do cell phones. They buy a cheap model, expecting it to only last a year or two. When it slows down, breaks down, or gets stolen – they just buy a new one.

If this sounds like you – invest in good back up and encryption programs.

If you want your computer to last for 3, 4, or 5 years – don’t shop bottom of the line. The dollars you save up front will melt away with wasted time and lost productivity.

Photo by Tanakawho Released under Creative Commons License

How To Choose The Right Monitor

Watching You Watching Me

Watching You Watching Me

This is Part 5 in the How To Buy A New Computer Series

Part 1 Buying A New Computer
Part 2 Hard Drives and Memory
Part 3 How to Pick A CPU
Part 4 What Are L1 and L2 Cache and Bus Speed?


IT’S IN THE CARDS

As you decide what monitor you want, don’t forget the video card (sometimes called the graphics card) on your new computer.

There will be two options:

Less expensive computers will have “onboard ” video. This means the video is build right into the motherboard.  To draw images on the monitor, onboard video will borrow memory from RAM, reducing the amount of memory available for running applications.

This is fine if all you do is surf the web and read email.

However, if you want to edit photos, watch movies (or even lots of You Tube), edit video, use drawing programs, play games – in short, if you want to do anything that is at all video intensive – onboard video will frustrate you.

The second, better option is a dedicated video card. These cards will have their own memory chips, ranging from 128 MB to 512 MB. If you use Photoshop, play video games, or edit movies, get the dedicated video card. It can add over $100.00 to the price of the computer, but it will be well worth it.

ANALOG vs DIGITAL – VGA vs DVI

The video card will have color-coded plugs for attaching the monitor.

There will be at least one plug, and there may be up to three. Some video cards allow you to attach more than one monitor to your computer. Others allow you to attach either an analog or a digital monitor.

A blue plug is for an analog monitor. This monitor can be either a CRT (big, boxy, TV-like) or an LCD (sleek, flat screen) monitor. You must attach an analog monitor to an analog plug.

There may also be a larger, white plug on your video card. This is a DVI plug for a digital monitor. Just as TV is going digital, so too are computer monitors. Digital monitors will have crisper, clearer displays. You must attached a digital monitor to a digital plug.

Be sure you select a video card that will work with your monitor.

RECOMMENDATION: If your budget permits, get a stand alone video card with at least 256 MB of memory and a DVI plug.

LOOKING GOOD

If you spend much time at the computer, you’ll want the best monitor you can afford. Most monitors are now widescreen LCD, flat panel monitors – so that choice is easy.

However, just because a monitor is widescreen and flat panel does not mean it is digital. Digital monitors will all be labeled “digital,” and they will always have a white DVI plug. They will also cost more, but again, the extra expense will be a good investment. You’ll be able to use a new digital monitor for years to come. It will have a sharper picture and it will be easier on your eyes.

Computer monitor resolution is a tricky thing. A bigger monitor doesn’t mean a bigger picture.

Instead, the higher the resolution, the smaller the type. It’s like the difference between writing with a very sharp pencil and a Magic Marker. You can get a lot more words on the paper with a fine point, but they will be smaller and harder for some people to read. If you have poor eyesight, try going to a store where you can see different size monitors in action before you buy a 24″  widescreen monitor with a 1920 x 1080 resolution.

RECOMMENDATION: 19″ widescreen, digital, flat panel monitor

Photo by Hebe Released under Creative Commons License

What Are L1 and L2 Cache and Bus Speed?

Something Fishy Here

Not All It Seems On First Glance

This is Part 4 of the How To Buy A New PC series.

Part 1 Buying A New Computer
Part 2 Hard Drives and Memory
Part 3 How to Pick A CPU

WHAT’S UNDER THE HOOD?

There are still more PC parts that will make a real difference in how responsive your computer feels.

Luckily, since you are buying – not building – a PC, you don’t need to know much about them.

There is a special type of computer memory known as “cache.” Bits and pieces of frequently used data are cached for speedy recall. When you dig into a new PC’s specs, you may see something like:

Intel® Core™ 2 Quad Q9550 (2.83GHz, 12M L2Cache, 1333FSB)

We know what Core2 Quad means; Q9550 is the  processor model number. 2.83 GHz is processor speed. But what are L1 and L2 cache and 1333FSB?

L1 cache is usually integrated into the CPU – it is a way for the CPU to grab stored data very quickly. L2 cache is usually a special chip on the motherboard. Again, it is specialized memory that data can be sent to and retrieved from with extreme speed. All you, as a PC buyer, need to know is a larger number means faster performance.

FSB is the abbreviation for Front Side Bus. It is the highway that data travels along as it moves from CPU to RAM and other parts of your PC. Again – you need only know that higher numbers are faster.

When you shop for a PC from a major manufacturer, it is unlikely that you will be able to independently choose cache or bus speeds.

But here’s the thing worth knowing: cheaper computers will have slower L2 cache and FSB speeds. Since these are arcane parts, most consumers will never hear about them. But they are a major reason why two seemingly similar PCs can be priced so differently.

A 2.83 GHz processor may be set into a motherboard with older cheaper L2 cache and the data transfer may be strangled by an inadequate bus. Although the advertisement for the computer will prominently feature the processor speed – and the low, low price – you will not get an adequate picture of the computer’s real speed. When you plug it in and start working, your brand new computer may feel sluggish.

TODAY’S TAKE AWAY

When two computers have similar CPU and RAM, but very different prices, compare the specs more closely before plunking down your money. This may not be a case of the “generic” brand costing less. It’s more likely to be a Rolls Royce grill slapped on a Volkswagen.

Photo by MickL Released under Creative Commons License

How To Pick A CPU

Computer Brains

Computer Brains

This is Part 3 of the Buying A New Computer Series. You can find the rest of the series at:

Buying A New Computer Part 1

How To Buy A New Computer Part 2: Hard Drives and Memory

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A  COMPUTER PROCESSOR

The processor, also known as the CPU (for Central Processing Unit) is the brains of your computer.

The CPU isn’t the only thing that will determine how well your computer performs, but it is an extremely important part. The CPU executes the code – which is to say, it runs the programs. The processor performs thousands upon thousands of calculations each second. It moves data in and out of memory. It writes information to disk and then fetches it when needed. The CPU is the boss as well as the traffic cop that makes your computer work.

How quickly the CPU executes instructions (i.e., how fast it is) is the speed that PC manufacturers brag about in their ads. Processor speeds are currently measured in Gigahertz, abbreviated as GHz.

INTEL

There are many different types of CPUs in current computers, from two different manufacturers. The most commonly found Intel processors are

  • Celeron
  • Pentium Dual Core
  • Core 2 Duo
  • Core 2 Quad

Without getting deep into the specs, the processors are listed, from slower to faster, in the order of how quickly they can process data – which in plain English means how fast they are.

There is also a special case, the Atom, which Intel uses in NetBooks, those extra small, lightweight notebooks meant for web surfing and email. The Atom processor requires less power, so the battery lasts longer. However, it is also slower and less able to multi-task.

With computers, there is always a trade off between speed and battery life, so you are less likely to see the most powerful processors in notebook computers.

AMD

AMD, the other big player in the CPU field, generally sells its processors for less than Intel, resulting in a lower overall computer price for consumers.

There is a raging debate about Intel vs AMD, but just remember – for normal use, you might be able to save a few dollars by going with an AMD processor without sacrificing performance.

AMD makes it almost impossible to compare their CPU specs by giving the various processors meaningless names. The most commonly found AMD processors in desktop computers are:

  • Athlon
  • Athlon X2 Dual Core
  • Phenom X3 Triple Core
  • Phenom X4 Quad Core

Again, the list is ranked from slower to faster.

However, there is not a straight one-to-one comparison between AMD and Intel processors. An Athlon X2 Dual Core will not necessarily have the same specs as an Intel Core 2 Duo.

JUST PICK ONE

You don’t need to get tied up in knots over CPU specs. The computer company will give you a rough measure, in GHz, of the speed. You will also get an excellent predictor or performance in the price. A computer that costs $500 is almost guaranteed to be slower than one that costs $900

Small increases in CPU speed will not be as noticeable as increases in RAM. To the person sitting in front of the monitor, a 2.3 GHz CPU with 512 MB of RAM will seem much slower than a 2.1 GHz CPU with 2 GB of RAM.

BOTTOM LINE ADVICE

When you are selecting your computer, a faster CPU is better than an older, slower CPU because it will be better able to handle new applications that you may add in the next two or three years. New programs, from word processors to internet browsers, demand more and more CPU power to run.

So get the best processor you can afford, even if it is not the very fastest processor in the line.

Photo by Rob20 Released under Creative Commons License

Hard Drives And Memory

Write It and You Won't Forget It

Write It or Forget It

This is the second post in the New Computer Series. Post # 1 – How To Buy A Computer – Can be found here.

If RAM is a computer’s short term memory, its hard drive is the long term memory.

Barring mechanical failure, once data is “written to disk,” it is safe until it is deliberately deleted. You can turn your computer off for days, weeks, or months and the data will still be there when you return.

STORAGE vs. PERFORMANCE

When casual PC shoppers talk about a new computer’s “memory,” more often than not, they are talking about the hard drive – although the memory they should be worrying about is the RAM.

Think of your hard drive as storage, not as memory.

A 500 GB drive will hold lots of stuff – but it will not speed up your computer. RAM and processor speed will have a much bigger impact on performance. If you want your computer to feel faster, add RAM. If you want to keep photos, video, and music on your PC instead of on the top shelf of your closet, get a bigger hard drive.

So does a hard drive have any effect on speed? Yes.

Computer memory, like human memory, takes many forms. Yesterday, we talked about RAM. The more RAM your computer has, the better it runs. But even if you add the maximum amount of RAM possible, eventually your computer is going to say, “Hold on – let me make a note of that,” and it will write some temporary information to disk.

This sort of short term data storage and retrieval takes place in “virtual memory,” also known as the “swap file.” If your computer’s RAM is all committed, rather than grind to a halt until you hit the “Save” button, your PC will do something very like much like plastering sticky notes all over the place.

This sticky note information will be called on as needed, moving in and out of the swap file. However, it will not be saved. Data in virtual memory – even though it was written to your hard drive – will be erased when your computer is shut down.

Writing to disk is slower than storing the same data in RAM. If your hard drive is badly fragmented, moving data in and out of the swap file will be slower still. And if you combine a slow, relatively full hard drive with inadequate RAM, you may spend a lot of time waiting for your screen to redraw or rebooting after your computer crashes.

There is one another aspect of hard drives worth considering – their speed. The disks in hard drives are moving parts. They literally spin. Most desktop hard drives spin at 7200 RPM. Older, slower hard drives spin at 5400 RPM. With a faster hard drive, applications will open more quickly.

THE BIGGER THE NUMBERS, THE BETTER

For best performance – get as much RAM as you can. Add a bigger hard drive if you plan to take lots of photos or video. And look for a drive with a rating something like this:

500GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM)

Next Up: What are all those other numbers about? CPUs, Bus Speeds, and Cache

Photo by Erica Marshall Released under Creative Commons License

How To Buy A Computer

The More Ram The Better

The More RAM The Better


I’ve helped several clients pick out new computers recently and I found that many of the same questions pop up from person to person. Since there are great bargains on new computers right now, this will be the first in a series of posts explaining what to look for when you buy a computer.

Let’s start with some definitions.

Memory

Like people, computers have many different types of memory. This can be especially confusing to non-tech buyers, since the same word can refer to drastically different components. However, as a rough rule, whatever type of memory you’re buying, more is always better and faster is always desirable.

DATA AND MEMORY

Computers have something very analogous to human short term and long term memory. If I told you I work for a company called Ghost Leg Media, and then, five minutes from now asked you the name of my company, you might very well say “Ghost Leg Media.” However, tomorrow or next week, you will probably have forgotten.

However, if we were old high school friends who put out an underground paper called “Ghost Leg News,” you would probably still recall the rollicking good times we had back in the day, working at good old Ghost Leg.

In the first case, Ghost Leg Media was lodged in your short term memory, but – since it had no importance to you – it was quickly forgotten. In the second case, a memory with great emotional resonance stayed in your long term memory and you might recall it long after you forget the names of your teachers or classmates.

Computers have a similar trick.

A computer’s short term memory is called RAM, which stands for Random Access Memory.

RAM is very fast, but it is also temporary. When you turn off your computer, data stored in RAM is lost.

When you are working on a document and your computer crashes and the document is lost – that document was stored in RAM.

On the other hand, if you had clicked “Save,” the data was written to disk. This is the computer’s long term memory. Data that is stored on the hard drive – written to disk – is safe for the long haul, barring catastrophic failure. Turning the computer off and on will have no effect on your data.

MEASURING MEMORY

RAM is now measured in Gigabytes. A new computer will usually come with anywhere from 1 GB to 4 GB of RAM pre-installed.

On a standard Windows computer, don’t settle for anything less than 2 GB of RAM for Windows XP and 4 GB of RAM for Windows Vista.

If you can afford to upgrade only one component, upgrade the amount of RAM installed.

Up Next: Hard Drives, Storage, and Virtual Memory

Photo by TBatty Released under Creative Commons License

New Palm Sized Projector Coming Sept 30

3M's MPro 110

The New 3M MPro 110

A fabulous new tool for eBay Education Specialists and other teachers and trainers will hit the market at the end of this month. 3M has announced that the MPro 110 will ship on Sept 30. PopSci has a short review.

Unfortunately, except for price, details are still sketchy. The resolution remains a matter of speculation. Lumens? Unknown. But the price is a real eye catcher – only $359.00. This is a deal compared to standard tabletop projectors – but even more so compared to the other palmtops for sale in Europe and Japan.

3M probably expects to find its audience among salesmen and small businesses that need to share a computer screen or presentation among a small group. But just imagine the opportunities this opens up for trainers! Even a relatively compact projector takes deskspace and is too bulky to lug around needlessly. But a palmtop – barely larger than an iPhone – can be dropped into your mobile gear bag. You’ll always be ready to hook it up and begin training, selling, or demonstrating – whether the event was planned or not.

Imagine – no more peering over someone’s shoulder as three people crowd around a laptop. Just hook up the MPro and project the image on any nearby white wall. Once we know more about the capabilities of this little machine, it could open a multitude of doors.

Steadicam

Is it the equipment that makes the camera operator an artist or the artistry that makes the camera dance?

Wouldn’t you like to be able to create long, gliding tracking shots in your videos? Maybe pan from low to high in a super smooth motion? Never jiggle the camera as you walk alongside your protagonist as she enters a building and runs up the stairs?

Well, you can. You just need between $4,000.00 and $60,000.00 for a Steadicam.

The Steadicam revolutionized Hollywood cinematography in the 70’s. Eventually, smaller, lighter, less expensive Steadicams were developed for the video market as well. Of course, they are still prohibitively expensive for non-professionals. Unfortunately, wanting and needing and paying for equipment are not the same things. Most videographers won’t be buying a Steadicam any time soon. But then, even 5 years ago, who would have predicted that a top-notch Hi Definition camcorder (like the Canon HV20) would be a mainstream consumer camera, with a price point of under $1,000.00?

B&H Photos’ latest newsletter has an interview with Garrett Brown, the man who invented the Steadicam. In an accompanying video, Brown demonstrates the latest line of (relatively) inexpensive Steadicams for lightweight camcorders. It’s a joy to see.

If you can’t live without tracking shots, but you can’t round up the cash for a Steadicam, there’s the Poorman’s Steadicam. Of course, it is in no way a true Steadicam – but it is an inexpensive stabilizer for anyone with a camcorder weighing less than 4-6 lbs. You can build your own for approximately $15.00 or you can order one for $40.00 (currently sold out – more will be available in the fall).

It ain’t sexy – but if you watch the sample videos, you’ll soon find yourself thinking, “Wish I had one.”

Pay Less for Good A/V Equipment

Here’s a tip on buying used audio/video equipment on eBay – look for rental businesses cutting back on inventory or A/V stores that are going out of business. They often sell slightly older – but very high quality – accessories in lots of 3 or 5. (I’m talking about screens, carts, stands, etc – not projectors) You’ll often get a low per item price.

Sell the extras – and 9 times out of 10, you’ll get yours (the one you keep) for free.

I bought 3 Premium DaLite Project-O-Stands for ~$200, including shipping. Sold 2 for the going eBay rate of $100 each. This allowed me to keep the best one for myself – and it ended up costing me about $5 instead of $100.

I recall Janelle Elms telling a similar story about projector bulbs during an eBay University talk (probably where I got the idea, actually).

It can take time to find these sorts of lots, so look before you need them, do some research on the brand names and sell through rates, and be ready to jump when the opportunity arises.

USB Microphones

USB microphones give consistently better audio quality to podcasts and screencasts. So what sort of USB microphone should you use? I’ve been very pleased with my Samson C01U USB Microphone

Earlier this year, Samson introduced a new version, which incorporates a switch for both multidirectional and unidirectional recording. This is a great feature when you have more than one speaker – for instance during interviews or podcasts. The new microphone, the Samson Multipattern Condenser microphone, will enhance any screencast.

These are both large-ish desk mics, and they may be a bit unwieldy for everyday use. If you are looking for a headset/microphone you can use with Skype or other VOIP services, the Plantronics DSP-400 may be the headset you need.