A computer isn’t a single, simple device. It’s actually an ecosystem of multiple devices from different manufacturers, even if every part you see has the same brand name on it. That’s because even the biggest computer makers purchase their parts from the same companies whose products fill your local electronics store. If you’re willing to put a bit of time into research, you can select specific components for a computer that meets your needs exactly. Ideally you’d just buy the largest and fastest of everything, but in the real world that’s an expensive option.
Your computer’s motherboard, processor and memory are its core components. Choose a motherboard first, because its speed, sockets and expansion options affect your remaining choices. High-performance motherboards have more slots for RAM and expansion cards, and can accommodate the most powerful processors. They also have a faster system bus, meaning they transfer data more quickly between the CPU and RAM. Other motherboards are designed for compact size and low power consumption, or varying levels of price and performance. Some have graphics and sound built in, while others assume you’ll want to choose your own.
CPU and RAM
Your processor and RAM work closely to provide your system with most of its performance. Intel and rivals AMD manufacture a range of dual- and quad-core processors, varying widely in processing power and electrical consumption. Your choices are determined by your motherboard’s processor socket, which will support a specific family of processors. In general, quad-core processors are more powerful than dual-core, but unless you run high-end games or powerful application software, you might see little benefit from the added cost. RAM should match the bus speed of your motherboard, and always buy more than you think you’ll need.
After those core components, your video and storage subsystems have the biggest impact on your system. Some motherboards include a video chipset, which will work fine for light-duty uses such as Web browsing and word processing. For games and other image-intensive programs, it’s better to have a powerful standalone graphics card. A top-end graphics card can cost more than a basic computer, so exercise restraint unless you definitely need the horsepower. Your hard drive is also an important factor in overall performance. Larger is better, as a rule. Compare your options against what’s included in mainstream computers, and buy at least one size larger.
With your system’s main components decided, it’s time to pick the remaining pieces that round out a complete system. A keyboard and mouse are fundamental choices. Pick ones that feel good under your hands, because you’ll use them a lot. Ergonomic keyboards can help prevent repetitive stress injuries. A wireless keyboard and mouse cut down on cord clutter, though they’ll need batteries. A DVD or Blu-Ray drive adds movie capability, and makes it easier to install software. They’ll also let you burn files to blank DVDs for storage. Flat-screen monitors in the 19- to 21-inch range are inexpensive, and high-powered graphics cards can handle much larger screens at high resolution.
Expansion and Connectivity
Older computers had a range of ports for connecting to various devices. Those have mostly been replaced with USB slots, so you’ll want lots of those for connecting to printers, cameras and the dongles for wireless accessories. Most computers also have speaker and microphone jacks, and will support full surround-sound speaker sets. Add a webcam for video chat or phone calls. Most motherboards include a wired network card, requiring a cable to connect to your modem or router. If you want the freedom of wireless connectivity, you’ll need to install a wireless network card into one of the motherboard’s expansion slots.