PC Desktops Product Guide

PC Desktops

The desktop PC (personal computer) is rapidly emerging as the most common household appliance. It may be as common as a toaster or television. Part of that is due to the Internet, a virtual world that you can easily access and travel through your PC. Also known as the web, it's more than a reference library. You can email a variety of people with text, photos, and videos. You can view videos and television shows from websites around the world. Visit foreign countries through images and listen to natives. Skype is an Internet service you can use to place phone calls around the world, even to those who don't have a computer. You can download games, read books, access software, pay taxes, do your banking/investing, and shop from online stores. Of course, you can still buy and run software like word processors, games, and applications covering a vast scope of interests without the Internet. The PC also acts as a connection hub for digital cameras, digital media players (i.e. iPod), networking, and many peripherals. Tablets, for example, let you use your PC as a drawing and painting tool, literally replacing pads and canvas. Musicians can use a computer for composing, editing, sequencing, scoring, and recording music directly from a musical instrument.

It's getting to the point when you shouldn't ask why should I get a computer but, rather, what computer do I need?

When it comes to personal computers, there are two types. One type runs Microsoft Windows as an operating system and is offered by many different manufacturers. The other type is exclusively manufactured by Apple, is called the Macintosh, and uses versions of Apple's OSX as its operating system. We will discuss both of these in this guide.

A desktop computer usually sits on top of a desk, although you always have the option of placing it anywhere. The basic components are the tower, keyboard and mouse. Most desktop computer towers stand vertically, are a little more than a foot in length, and are becoming smaller each year. Desktop towers usually have plenty of room for upgrading via expansion slots. A computer monitor is required but usually not included when purchasing a desktop computer. Virtually all PC desktop computers have upgradeable memory, a hard drive (used for storing software and files), many have CD or DVD players (some even have CD recorders), a modem (for telecommunication and Internet access), video and sound processors and an entire array of connectivity ports. All new models are shipped with a manufacturer's bundle of software (often pre-installed on the hard-drive), with a current version of Microsoft Windows.

In essence, a computer has no intelligence of its own. It consists of processors that follow instructions fed to it by software, programs on disc or through the Internet.



CPU


There's a CPU - Central Processing Unit - that is the fundamental mover of information within a computer. It responds to your manipulation of the keyboard, a mouse, and from software on your computer's drives.

Your main concern about the CPU is its speed. Faster speeds are better. Gigahertz or GHz measures speed. One GHz means 1 billion instructions per second. That means a processor rated at 2GHz should be able to read or perform up to 2 billion instructions per second. This may seem like a lot but it really isn't. Computers have no intelligence, no background memory or personality like the human brain. It executes instructions very fast but has no concept of what it is processing.

So if you're running a word processing program and you click "a" on your keyboard, the processor must read that command, find the letter, place it properly, and send it to your monitor so you can see it. That may require a few hundred instructions. Then consider that you are typing 80 words per minute. Each character of each word (including spaces) may require a few hundred instructions. Adding color, movement, and sound require additional instructions. If your processor isn't fast enough, your computer's performance is reduced.

Prior to 2004, most processors used one channel. Processors produced today use multiple channels or cores to help handle large amounts of information. This enables slower speeds, which save energy and prevent overheating. Of course that occurs if software structures the instructions for use by multiple channels. These are referred as dual-core (2 channels) or quad-core (4 channels). Primary manufacturers are AMD and Intel.



Coprocessors


The CPU handles all the information - storage, retrieval, text, images, and sounds - that the computer is used for.

If you want to use your computer for sophisticated image, audio, and video production and viewing, the complex command sets may reduce the efficiency of the CPU. To maximize performance, most desktops have expansion slots for installing special processor boards that are specifically dedicated to video and audio applications.

ATI and Nvidia are two manufacturers that specialize in advanced video performance boards. They include dedicated coprocessors and additional memory to help your PC meet your higher demands.

Manufacturers like Creative produce advance sound processing boards that extend audio performance on your desktop.



The Data Bus


Another factor that affects the speed at which a computer carries out operations is the bus speed. The interface in which the computers processor communicates with part of the computer is called a data bus. Bits and bytes of information are continually being transferred using these buses. Different processors transfer information at different rates. A processor with a wider data bus can move more information more quickly. You want a higher bus rate if you often work with graphics and play computer games. If you are just shopping for a good bargain, and will occasionally deal with graphics, you can settle for a lower bus rate without worrying about it effecting computer performance. Look at the chart below for some different processors and their bus rates.

ProcessorProcessing Speed (MHz)Bus Speed (MHz)
Athlon 600 to 1100 266 or 200
Celeron 566 to 700 66
Duron 600 to 750 200
Pentium III 733 to 1000 133 or 100
Pentium 4 1400 to 1500400
Via Cyrix III500 to 700 133, 100, or 66


Operating System


An Operating System aids the CPU in directing where information should go (to monitor, printer, scanner, etc.) and communicates with you. It also helps you organize all your applications when using the computer.

Windows, developed by Microsoft, is the most common operating system. It is used in over 80% of the world's personal computers (PC). Because of its vast market share, most commercial software is designed for Windows compatibility.

Macintosh OSX, developed by Apple, is used exclusively in computers currently manufactured by Apple.

Windows will not work in an Apple computer (with Apple Boot Camp you can install Windows XP) and OSX will not function in a PC. There are emulation programs that may allow some cross-platforming but those are generally limited.

A third operating system, Linux, is a public domain operating system and is primarily used by advanced computer enthusiasts. Some of those applications may work with Windows and OSX.



Memory


Computers use two types of memory. They are fundamentally RAM (random access memory) and drive storage. A third memory type, ROM (read only memory) is integrated in hardware and software to help the processor understand basic instructions.

RAM

RAM consists of chips that contain an ability to hold certain amounts of information, usually in billions. Types of RAM chips include SDRAM, DDR, DDR2. This type of memory is used when the computer is turned on and running applications. RAM is used to hold all the software and instructions that are fed to the processor. RAM contributes to processor performance because more of this memory allows the processor to work more efficiently. It's akin to you working on a table. You have plenty of papers that you need to retrieve, read, and place down. If you're working on a tiny table, you've got to stack things up. That reduces your performance. A larger table lets you organize papers neatly for more rapid performance. That's why the amount of available RAM helps contribute to the processor's speed.

There's a funny (or tragic) property about RAM. Just as it is triggered on when you turn your PC on, it shuts off when you shut your computer. And when you turn the PC back on, the RAM has no memory of what was done. It's a clean slate.

Storage Drives

That's where storage drives come in. Fundamentally, the primary storage mechanism is known as a hard drive. It's like a closet. Anything you save goes into the closet and remains there until you choose to remove it. It remains there virtually forever, whether the computer is on or off. Hard drives can store up to trillions of bits of memory (a bit is a tiny memory unit), depending on the capacity of your drive. If you store video and music, you need more storage because it takes up more space than pages of text. So it's best to find a desktop that has ample space for your needs.

Just remember to see if the desktop has available drive bays in case you want to add additional drives.

Video/Graphics Memory

Video memory comes as a circuit inside your desktop or notebook computer and it effects how clearly you view images on your monitor and graphics. Video memory can be part of the motherboard or it can fit into expansion slots. The more video memory you have, the sharper you may view images on your monitor. Video memory enhances the ability to view text, photographs, illustrations or even movies. For non-graphics-oriented viewing, 2MB of SDRAM (Super Dynamic Random Access Memory) or VRAM (Video Random Access Memory) should be sufficient. If you work with graphics, go for 8MB or more of SDRAM or VRAM.

Video memory and processing capabilities may be upgraded by adding new Video Processing boards to a computer's internal expansion slot. Some computers include video boards that allow you to connect a VCR, TV or Camcorder to input and output video images.



Drives


Transfer Rates

A feature you'll notice written in many desktop computer descriptions is 4X CD-ROM or 6X DVD-ROM. These numbers refer to the transfer rate of data from the drives to the computer. The original transfer rate from a CD-ROM is 150KB/sec. 2X is twice that rate, 3X would be triple that rate, and so on. The normal transfer rate from a DVD-ROM is 350KB/sec. The higher the number before the X, the faster the rate of transfer.

CD-ROM

Many desktop computers come with a CD-ROM drive, used to run programs and software. A CD is a Compact Disc and stores about 650MB of memory per disc. Now there are recordable and rewritable CD where you have the option of saving files (music, video or data) onto a CD, but you can only do so with a special "burner" or CD Writer drive, also known as a CD-RW drive. Some CD you can only record on once, and others may be reused, erased and recorded over numerous times. However, unlike a cassette or other magnetic storage devices, CD quality is digital, therefore leaving no room for distortion.

DVD

While many desktop computers still only have CD-ROM drives, numerous recently manufactured desktops have DVD-ROMs. A DVD is a Digital Versatile Disc and stores about 4.7GB to 17GB of memory per disc. Most DVD drives can also read CDs. There are DVD-RAM drives that can record, using special recordable DVDs.

CD-RW

Desktop computers may come with a CD-RW (CD-ReWritable) drive. Besides being able to read music or software CDs, CD-RW drives allows you to record data and files onto a recordable or rewritable compact disc. Record anything from music to video files on your very own computer.

DVD Burner

Virtually all desktops have a DVD burner. It reads virtually all CD's and DVD's while also having the ability to record (or write) onto CD and DVD. The reason why this drive is called a Burner is because it can copy data at extremely fast speeds, as if it is burning it into the disc. On some discs, you can only record to once which are indicated by the letter “R” such as CD-R or DVD-R. Others allow multiple recordings “RW” (CD-RW or DVD+RW). A DVD typically holds 4.7GB information, a dual layer (DL) DVD holds about 8.5GB information and a CD holds up to 700MB information. Most software is packaged on CD, with some more complex applications on DVD. Video output on a DVD is typically 720x480. Though excellent, this resolution is not considered high-definition.

High-Definition

If you have high-definition quality in mind, there are two emerging removable disc formats - Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. Each of these are designed as formats for storing and presenting HDTV quality recordings. Each disc holds up to 50GB of information and can offer TV/Video display up to 1920x1080. Both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray drives are backward compatible for DVD and CD use. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray, however, are not compatible with each other.



Modems


A modem is, very simply put, a device that allows your computer to communicate through a phone line. You need a modem in your computer in order to access the Internet. Modem speeds are measured in BPS (bits per second), and most computers today come with an internal 56K modem. Some higher end models now come with a DSL modem, upgrade ability. DSL connections require a monthly service charge from your local phone company. Upgrading modem speeds is also an option, if you feel the connection is too slow. It's also good to keep in mind that even though you might have a fast modem, other factors may impinge on your on-line connection speed. If the computer you dial-in to is slower than your connection, you're only going to go as fast as the computer. Also, damaged telephone wires and bad connections and even a limited RAM cause slower-than-desired connections.



Monitor


Unless otherwise noted, desktop computers usually do not include a monitor. (See monitors for more information).



Peripherals/Connectivity


With interface or connectivity ports, computer users have the ability to connect numerous external devices. Interface ports may be located on the front or rear of your desktop. These ports allow you to attach a monitor, printer, scanner, keyboard and mouse. There may also be ports for sound and video input and output. Most PC computers come with Parallel, Serial, USB and now even FireWire, among others. with Parallel, Serial and USB ports (among others).

Parallel Port

The most common use for parallel ports is for connecting printers. Other peripherals like backup drives may also connect to a parallel port. The parallel port of any computer is usually located on the back panel of a desktop computer. Most desktop computers come with just one parallel port. You can hook two devices up to one parallel port using a pass through adapter. However, both devices cannot be used at the same time.

USB Port

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus and is one type of interface port that you may find on your desktop computer. There may be more than one USB port on your computer, and they are used for connecting devices to your computer. A USB connection allows for faster transfer of information between your computer and any device. Adding a scanner, digital camera or other gadget becomes easier and transfer rates of data become quicker than a parallel port connection.

FireWire Port

FireWire is one of the fastest peripheral interfaces available today, which makes it great for use with multimedia peripherals like video camcorders and other high-speed devices like the top-of-the-line hard disk drives and printers, among other devices. Its transfer rate is 400Mbps, and has 30 times more bandwidth than USB. FireWire is sometimes also termed iLink or IEEE1394. Many video and audio professionals are now turning to FireWire because of its high speed, flexible connectivity and the ability to link as many as 63 devices. Newer model PC desktop computers with come with at least one of these ports. If you plan to work with transferring video and audio from external devices to your computer, make sure your computer comes with one.

Digital Video - DV

DV stands for Digital Video. Many new video camcorders now record in this digital format. This format has simplified the process of editing recorded video forever. Recorded digital video is usually stored on a special tape called MiniDV, or Hi8. Once transferred onto a PC using a high-speed FireWire port, using certain software, the digital footage can now be cut and editing, then transferred with ease.



Service and Warranties


Most desktop computer models come with 1-year manufacturer's warranty that will cover parts, labor and provide toll-free support. Manufacturers will cover defects under normal use but not against spills or breakage. Most manufacturers allow you to bring the desktop into an authorized repair shop or ship it back to the company. Usually, a toll-free service phone number is provided during initial warranty period.

We strongly advise considering extended warranty options that may cover your desktop for up to three years.



Setting Up and Starting Your PC


Most desktops are packaged as a Tower, along with a keyboard and Mouse that connect to USB ports. When you start the PC, it goes through its automatic set-up processes, including the initialization of the built-in trial Internet Security software. It may take several minutes to run but it's worth it. Don't try to go on the Internet before installing this application. Internet predators may cause harm to your PC.



Summary


With all the different styles out there today you can find the right design that suits your taste. Just remember desktops offer you the greatest possibility of upgrades and you can get the most powerful system to run any software out there. With Duo processors and now Quad cores out this year, this is the best time to pick up a new desktop to handle those multiple applications that you need to run and even now new software utilizes CPU processors with multiple cores.

When you have connected all the devices (monitor, printer, scanner) you may have to install the software for those items. This software program tells the desktop computer what devices are plugged into it and what its function is. Simply just go to the manufactures website to download the driver software if you don't have it already.

Make sure you keep all paper work that came along with your desktop, because the pieces of paper would have serial numbers that you would need to enter when you reinstall software that came with your system. Here you would also find manufacturer's warranty information and customer service numbers that you can call in event of system failure. Usually manufacturers offer free hardware service for 3 months or more. Some cover manufacturer's pre-installed software for about 30 days.

Make sure you always make it a habit of backing up you files onto CDs, DVDs, or to an external hard drive. This is an important process since anything can happen to your new desktop.

You should always run the windows update and antivirus software once a week to fix conflicts or new viruses that pop up.

With computers now merging into the living room connecting to LCD and Plasma TV screens, you get more features than just watching TV or movies, you get access to the internet, ability to save your favorite shows on DVD and listen your whole MP3 music collection on your home theater system.





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