We have grown accustomed to immediate access to information. Our smartphones have become constant companions keeping us in touch with the world. For some, smartphones have become their primary computing device, but for most adults, their computer continues to be a critical device for deeper research, analysis, interaction and creation of content. Whether it is a laptop or desktop system, the personal computer has become a household appliance at the ready when your need dictates its use.
If past patterns hold true, it is likely that two out of 10 members currently reading this article are doing so through their phone. One of 10 members is using a tablet to access this article. The vast majority of our members currently accessing this article (seven out of 10) are using their computer to access this article on AAII.com.
Although personal computers (PCs) might not get the same press attention that smartphones or tech gadgets command, they remain an indispensable tool for the individual investor. Gartner continues to report that worldwide shipments of personal computers are falling year-over-year. During 2017, Gartner estimated that PC shipments were 262.5 million units, a 2.8% decline from 2016. It was the 13th consecutive quarter of declining global PC shipments, as well as the sixth year of annual declines.
However, Gartner analysts said there were some signs for optimism. The regions of Asia/Pacific, Japan and Latin America have positive year-over-year growth of PC shipments. “The fourth-quarter results confirmed again that PCs are no longer popular holiday gift items. This does not mean that PCs will disappear from households,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “Rather, the PC will become a more specialized, purpose-driven device. PC buyers will look for quality and functionality rather than looking for the lowest price, which will increase PC average selling prices (ASPs).”
The statistics of declining PC unit sales in the U.S. do not wholly speak of how integral PCs still are as basic, everyday tools. We are likely to keep our computer longer as more and more of our intensive processing is done in the cloud. The typical user does not need a new computer every year or two to keep up with everyday web browsing, word processing, financial management or spreadsheet usage. We are more likely to look to upgrade to a new system when a critical component breaks. Of course, some individuals enjoy frequent computer upgrades just as some individuals prefer to regularly replace their cars prior to the need to perform any major maintenance.
According to Gartner, the majority of consumers own at least three types of devices, meaning there is a wide array of options to explore after deciding whether to upgrade your current system or replace it with something new. With the start of the new year, here is the Computerized Investing PC Buyer’s Guide.
The choice of an operating system is sometimes approached with apprehension. However, as more and more applications become cloud-based, choosing an operating system becomes less of an issue. Very few consumer applications will be solely dedicated to one option.
The operating system is the underlying software on your computer that interacts with you, all of the programs on your computer and the outside world. It performs many low-level operations such as recognizing the input from your keyboard and mouse, sending output to your display, organizing the files on your storage drive, controlling devices such as printers and webcams and managing the computer’s connections to the outside world.
Choosing an operating system should not be daunting, but it is something to keep prominently in the front of your mind. Luckily, the choice is usually dictated by what kind of hardware and software you want. According to StatCounter, Windows controls about 72.7% of the market share for desktop operating systems in the U.S. as of December 2017. Apple’s macOS X controls about 21.9%. The remaining options include Chrome OS with 3.3% market share and Linux with 1.5%. [Note: StatCounter data is based on web usage.]
If the usage of one particular application forms the base of your computing needs, you probably already know what choice to make. For the general consumer, browsing the web, checking email, editing documents and building spreadsheets, it really does not matter if you use a Windows or a Mac system.
For investment-related software, however, the operating system can be an important consideration, especially if you are running specialized investment analysis and tracking software, most of which are only compatible with a single operating system. As a result, your software needs will directly affect the operating system you choose. With the vast majority of high-end investment software written for Windows, some people inevitably find out too late that their favorite Windows software titles are not compatible with the Mac. Due to Windows’ overwhelming lead in market share compared to Mac, most software companies that create dedicated apps choose to cater to the largest piece of the pie.
All else being equal, Windows gives consumers a much broader selection of systems, with offerings in the thousands. This tremendous selection means that chances are high you will be able to find a system that offers you the exact technical specifications you desire at the price you are willing to pay. In contrast, Apple offers limited options for customizing, but its operating system is tightly integrated and optimized with its hardware.
It is worth noting that Apple does not compete on price, so you are going to pay a premium for a Mac over a Windows system with similar specs. Lastly, there is a much larger software library—especially for individual investors—under Windows compared to Mac OS.
Linux, the open source operating system derived from UNIX, is a popular choice for many budget systems, which can be cheaper because the manufacturers do not have to pay Windows licensing fees. Because it is open source and freely distributable, Linux is also popular among hobbyists; however, the average PC user would probably not use it.
Virtual Machine Applications
Since the hardware used on both Mac and Windows systems has converged over the years, a number of utilities now make it possible to run the Windows operating system, and therefore Windows-based programs, on a Mac. So, if you are determined to use an Apple system but occasionally still need to run Windows software, you have two paths—Apple’s Boot Camp or the use of a virtual machine application.
Boot Camp is Apple’s multi-boot utility and comes installed on all Intel-based Macs. You will need Microsoft Windows installation media or disk image (ISO) containing a 64-bit version of Microsoft Windows 8 or later, Home or Pro editions and the license to use the Windows software. The biggest drawback with multi-boot utilities such as Boot Camp is that you cannot run Windows and Mac OS simultaneously; you have to reboot your system in order to switch between Mac OS and Windows. The minimum Mac hardware and Mac OS needed vary depending on the version of Windows you plan to install. If Boot Camp interests you, the Boot Camp Support on the Apple website is a good place for more information.
Another option for those looking to run Windows on Mac is to use virtualization software, whereby Mac and Windows apps are running simultaneously. Keep in mind that running multiple instances of an operating system in a virtual environment can place a significant burden on your system’s resources; in addition, Windows does not always get full control of the Mac’s hardware. As a result, these virtual systems may be slower than what you experience with multi-boot utilities.
Two popular programs that allow you to run Windows in a virtual environment are Parallels Desktop for Mac and VMware Fusion. Both program groups come in basic versions for general users or more advanced “pro” versions for developers, testers or power users. Parallels Desktop 13 is available to try for free for 14 days, after which a new-user, one-time purchase license costs $79.99. The Pro and Business editions of Parallels are sold as subscriptions that run $99.99 annually. Desktop for VMware Fusion 10 comes with a free 30-day trial, after which a new-user license also costs $79.99, or $159.99 for the Pro version.
It is important to keep in mind that, to run Windows on a Mac, you must also purchase a Windows license to install the software.
The engine that drives any PC is the processor, or central processing unit (CPU), which executes operations, performs calculations and coordinates the other hardware components. The processor is also the driving force behind the cost of any PC, as it tends to be the most expensive component. Intel and AMD are the two major players in the industry. While Intel calls its chips CPUs, AMD calls its newest chips accelerated processor units (APUs), as they act as both a CPU and graphics accelerator on a single chip. Intel chips are most prevalent in desktop systems and boast better performance for most tasks. However, AMD chips are generally recognized as offering better video performance, especially on lower-priced systems.
Theoretically, the faster the processor (as measured by its clock speed), the more quickly the computer will complete tasks. The number of cores available in a chip will also impact its speed. Historically, processor manufacturers were able to increase the speed and power of a processor by increasing the number of transistors on the chip. Eventually, however, chipmakers ran into physical limitations of adding more transistors to a single chip. As a result, the norm today is “multi-core” processors. Intel’s eighth-generation Core i7 runs a base speed of 3.7Ghz with six cores. With additional cores, your processor can perform more multitask operations without your system grinding to a halt.
The hardware setup of your PC can also influence its performance beyond the processor. For example, the amount of memory, or RAM (random access memory), in a PC can have a more tangible impact on a computer’s performance than the processor.
Power consumption is becoming an important consideration for processors, especially for laptops, as lower power consumption equates to longer battery life. The latest-generation processors will consume the least amount of power. Many manufacturers are designing their latest-generation processors with mobile computing in mind.
Most new computer buyers do not need the fastest processor or the one with the greatest number of cores. To save money without sacrificing performance, you may wish to consider a system with a processor that is a generation behind the newest processors.
Today’s mainstream PC buyer will most likely be choosing from Intel’s fifth-, sixth-, seventh-, or eighth-generation i-Core chips. It is easy to tell which generation Intel Core chip a system has, as sixth-generation part numbers begin with “6” and seventh-generation part numbers begin with “7.”
For example, the Core i7-8650U, is an eighth-generation chip. We know this because the first number after the dash is an 8. The next part of the chip name—the “650”"—is the model number. Generally, the higher the model number within a generation, the faster the processor. The last part of the chip name is the product line suffix. The “U” part of this chip denotes “ultra-low power,” meaning that Intel has configured the chip to run slower in order to use less power and extend battery life for a mobile environment.
There are a number of other suffixes that reference features ranging from “high-performance graphics” (H) to “extremely low power” (Y) in the mobile line or “power-optimized lifestyle” (T) in the desktop line. Intel lists the various suffixes for each generation on its website.
Core i3 (dual-core or quad-core) chips are generally found in budget systems; the Core i5 (quad-core or six-core) chips are generally found in mainstream systems; and the Core i7 (six-core) chip is usually found in performance systems or gaming machines. When shopping for systems with Intel processors, the order of increasing price and performance is: Celeron, Pentium, Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7.
From AMD, the common desktop chip lines available today are Sempron, Athlon, A-Series, FX-Series and Ryzen. Sempron 3000 and Athlon 5000 chips are AMD’s cheapest options for everyday computing. AMD’s mid-range APU lineup is the Athlon X4 and A-Series product line. These chips use faster mulit-core processors and have better clock speeds and graphics processors. The top of the line of AMD’s integrated chips is the FX and Ryzen series.
Over the years, as operating systems have become more complex and powerful, software makers have designed products to exploit the latest technology, all of which require greater amounts of hard disk space. In addition, more and more users are getting involved in digital photography, video and music. This, too, requires an immense of amount of hard disk space, both internal and external, to store all of this data and provide room for expansion over time. This section discusses key hardware devoted to data storage.
Computers have two types of memory: temporary and permanent. Any data saved in temporary memory is lost when you shut the computer down. The most common type of temporary memory in a computer is random access memory (RAM), or physical memory. RAM is the primary storage for a computer processor: It is the working area used for loading, displaying and manipulating applications and data. Therefore, the amount of RAM your system has impacts several aspects of the computing experience. A system with more memory can load webpages faster, handle more files that are open at once, open large files more quickly and have more programs open at once.
Even with a top-of-the-line processor, a lack of physical memory can have a significantly negative impact on the performance of the PC. Furthermore, applications such as anti-virus software that are always running in the background can quickly use up a system’s memory (as well as processor) resources. Therefore, if you are budget-conscious, you are better off going with a somewhat less-powerful processor in favor of additional memory and an SSD drive (defined below).
Historically, it has been relatively easy to add additional physical memory to your system, if needed down the line. However, with the advent of extremely thin systems, soldered parts are becoming more common, especially in Apple products. It is probably worth it to pay for as much memory as you can afford up front to avoid having to add more in the future—especially for laptops, which normally have a limited number of memory slots.
The typical mainstream PC now ships with between 4 GB and 16 GB of memory, with higher-end gaming systems offering 16 GB or more of memory. We recommend opting for no less than 8 GB. However, if you plan to perform a lot of high-definition video editing, work with large databases and multitask, you will want to consider at least 16 GB of memory.
Adding four additional gigabytes of memory when customizing a new system will probably cost you less than $100. Adding memory to an existing system requires opening up your PC and possibly removing your existing memory modules and replacing them with the new memory modules; however, this is a relatively easy process and can have a significant impact on the performance of an older system.
Internal Hard Drives
While temporary memory, as we have discussed, plays a vital role in the operation of a PC, it is equally important to have the capacity to store data for future use. This is where permanent storage comes into play, which allows you to retain data even after you shut down the PC. The primary type of permanent storage in personal computers is the internal hard drive.
Hard Disk Drive (HDD) vs. Solid-State Drive (SSD)
Solid-state drives (SSDs) are continually gaining in popularity, especially for portable systems. Just like traditional hard disk drives (HDDs), SSDs allow you to save data, images and music. Where they differ is in the execution. SSDs store data on memory chips, whereas HDDs write data to and read from spinning platters. Simply put, a solid-state drive is a much larger version of the flash drive you may have in your digital camera or the thumb drive you use to transfer files between computers. You will typically find SSDs in Ultrabooks or ultraportable systems such as the Apple MacBook Air. Even on mainstream portable and desktop systems, SSD upgrades are becoming more common.
SSDs have three advantages over HDDs: speed, power and longevity. Traditional hard drives, no matter how fast they are, still have to move their read heads over the platters—much like a needle on a record. SSDs, in contrast, have no moving parts. This allows them to read and write data at much higher speeds and not suffer damage from sudden movements.
Since there are no moving parts, SSDs use less power and produce less heat than a traditional HDD. This means that they do not draw down a laptop battery as quickly as an HDD, which is why you tend to find SSDs in portable systems.
Lastly, the lack of moving parts significantly lowers the likelihood of mechanical failure with an SSD.
The benefits of SSDs come at a price premium, although this has dropped significantly over the last few years. Today, there are many 500 GB internal SSDs available between $140 and $200. In comparison, one terabyte (1 TB, or 1,024 gigabytes) internal hard drives cost less than $50. Expect to pay between $300 to $430 for a one-terabyte SSD.
If you do a lot of disk-intensive work or transfer large files between external devices and your computer, an SSD may be a worthwhile option.
Another storage option that we see is the hybrid drive (SSHD), which is the combined use of separate SSD and HDD components in the computer. With this setup, the SSD is used as the boot drive, greatly improving the time it takes the system to start from being completely turned off or from sleep or standby mode. They also offer significantly greater storage capacities than SSDs at much lower unit prices. A 1 TB hybrid drive will cost around $70, while a 2 TB hybrid drive typically costs around $100.
Hard Disk Size Considerations
The most important factor to consider when selecting an internal hard disk drive is the size, or storage capacity. The explosion of digital media has also placed greater emphasis on the need for adequate storage capacity. Digital photos, music and video can take up a large amount of your hard drive very quickly.
Even today’s budget desktop systems usually offer at least 1 TB of hard-disk capacity. With a 1 TB drive you can hold:
- 250,000 songs at 4 MB per 4-minute song
- 120 hours of HD video at 8.3 GB per hour of video
- 285,000 images at 3.5 MB per 6-megapixel image
- Up to 260 movies
Notebook systems tend to have smaller internal hard drives. This is especially true for “value” notebook computers, which can ship with hard drives (HDD) as small as 128 GB. Most mid-range notebooks offer hard drives that are at least 500 GB in size, while higher-end notebooks can offer as much as 1 TB of hard disk space. Higher-end notebooks are also more likely to ship with SSD drives.
Depending on the type of system you buy, and the size of its hard drive, you may be surprised to find yourself short of free disk space right out of the box. This is because more and more PC makers are shipping what the industry terms “bloatware” (less politely called crapware). PC makers install bloatware because they are paid to do it. With PC profit margins so thin, manufacturers will gladly accept the extra money. Bloatware also helps subsidize the cost of a new PC, making it cheaper for the consumer. In the process, however, the bloatware takes up disk space and can increase the time it takes for your PC to boot.
One of the first programs we often recommend people install on their new systems is CCleaner, a free PC cleaning utility. It’s important to spend the time it takes to delete the unnecessary bloatware. When in doubt about whether a piece of software is bloatware or a vital program, perform a Google search. It is always better to err on the side of caution, however, so if you aren’t sure leave the software in place instead of removing it and possibly making your system unstable or, worse yet, unusable.
Optical Drives: CD, DVD & Blu-Ray
Another type of data storage device is the optical drive, which uses lasers to read data from and write data to optical disks such as CDs and DVDs. The CD/DVD player is starting to go the way of the floppy drive, however. It is no longer guaranteed that a new PC will ship with an optical drive, especially laptops. Most software titles today are downloadable, assuming you have a high-speed internet connection, so the need to have an optical drive for installation purposes is declining. Most systems keep a system restore partition hidden from the user that can be used to reset the computer to the original shipping state in the event of catastrophic system failure. You can also obtain an external USB drive for under $50 if you use older software that is only available on a CD or DVD or wish to create media.
All of the hardware components we have discussed thus far have been internal in nature, meaning they reside within the case of the PC. However, in this age of portability, many PC users do not want their data “tied down,” so they make use of portable storage media, such as external hard drives and flash memory devices that they can connect to their systems via a variety of port types.
Universal Serial Bus (USB) is a high-speed method for connecting all sorts of peripherals to a PC, such as mice, keyboards, printers, external hard drives and CD/DVD drives and compact flash drives. In November 2008, the USB 3.0 specification was completed. The major new feature was improved data transfer rates, with maximum throughput of 4.8 Gbps (gigabits per second), several times faster than USB 2.0. In July 2013, USB 3.1 Gen 2 was announced with a faster transfer mode called “SuperSpeed+”. The new standard increases the transfer rate to 10 Gbps, double that of USB 3.0.
USB 3.0 ports are easy to identify because they are blue, and they are backward compatible with USB 2.0 ports.
USB-C ports and connectors were developed roughly at the same time as the USB 3.1 specification. The USB-C connectors are to connect to both the system and device with an eye toward being future-proof. The 24-pin connector is relatively thin, yet double-sided. USB-C allows charging, data transfer and video—all in one simple connector. A single USB-C connection can be used to drive a display and power a laptop.
Desktop systems typically have several USB ports, both on the front and in the back, so it is rare that you will run out of ports. With laptop/notebook systems, however, you are lucky if you get more than two USB ports. We recommend that your laptop have at least one USB-C port in addition to a few traditional USB 3.0 ports. Apple started shipping some laptops with only one USB-C port—MacBook Retina and MacBook 12-inch.
Depending on what devices you are connecting, you may find yourself wanting additional ports, and you can get a USB hub if necessary.
Flash Memory Devices
For secure and highly portable data transfer and storage, there are a number of flash memory devices available today. Unlike an internal or external hard disk drive, flash-based devices store data on a chip instead of writing data to and reading it from a “platter,” like a hard drive. The lack of moving parts makes flash memory much more durable. In addition, flash memory devices require very little power to operate, so they do not require their own power source. This is the same technology used with solid-state drives (SSDs).
Flash media cards have long been the removable media choice for digital cameras, handheld devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) and the like. Flash technology also has been integrated with a USB interface to arrive at USB flash drives, which are small enough to fit on a keychain yet offer storage capacity far greater than CDs or even DVDs. The majority of 32 GB USB 3.0 flash drives cost under $15.
Ultraportable Hard Drives
Just like their internal cousins, the capacities of external hard drives continue to climb, with capacities of one terabyte (1 TB; one trillion bytes, or 1,024 GB) or higher. Such large amounts of storage are also available in relatively small packages in the form of external 2.5-inch drives. A 2 TB external 2.5-inch drive, on average, costs less than $100. These energy efficient drives get the power they need to operate from the USB port, so no power adapter is required for their use.
The price per megabyte for these drives is only a fraction of the cost of flash memory. A Western Digital 1 TB My Passport external hard drive, which supports both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, is currently available on Amazon.com for $55.00. By means of comparison, a 256 GB SanDisk Cruzer USB 3.0 flash drive costs $50.98 on Amazon.
Nowadays, computers are as much personal entertainment systems as tools. Even if your multimedia desires are not ambitious, the chances are good that at some point you will still listen to streaming audio from Spotify and watch YouTube video clips or stream movies from Netflix with your computer.
Depending on how much multimedia usage you intend for your PC, you will want to be sure to buy audio and video capabilities to match.
While the CPU controls much of what goes on with the PC, computers also have a GPU, or graphics processing unit; these chips create the images you see on the display.
Entry-level systems used for typical office productivity software, web browsing, email, low-resolution video and simple games will come with integrated video cards.
Mid and high-end systems ship with discrete video and are better suited to also handle graphic design, high-resolution video, financial analysis, connections to multiple monitors and gaming.
Most mid- and high-end desktop systems today have dedicated or discrete video that offers better graphics capability compared to “integrated” video chips. The latest-generation chips from Intel and AMD are starting to merge discrete graphics with their central processing units.
If you plan to use your new PC for gaming, graphics, high-definition video or Blu-ray disc viewing or other serious multimedia applications, a dedicated graphics card is a must. Upgrading a desktop PC from integrated graphics to a basic dedicated video card should cost less than $75. For laptops, depending on the line you are looking to buy, you may not have the option to upgrade from integrated graphics to a dedicated video card. When such upgrades are available for the laptop, the cost is usually under $100.
The vast majority of new systems today come equipped for sound, although you have options that will affect the overall sound quality. Some desktop systems and many notebooks have integrated audio, which should suffice for listening to MP3s and CDs or for performing general computing tasks.
However, if you are looking for enhanced audio, you may have the option of a dedicated sound card. Hardware-driven sound would be the best option if you are involved in recording audio. This requires a dedicated sound card, which is typically an option only for desktop systems. An upgrade to a dedicated sound card direct from the manufacturer will cost under $100.
The biggest sound impact will come from the speakers connected to your system. Music only sounds as good as the speakers it’s playing through. Many PCs and Macs don’t come with very good speakers. Even high-end laptops can only feature tiny built-in drivers.
The majority of desktop speakers are sold as stereo pairs. Some have accompanying subwoofers. Some gamers and cinephiles might want to consider a 5.1-channel surround-sound system, but the extra cost and inconvenience of placing all those speakers around the room isn’t worth it to most users. One-piece sound bars have become common, although they don’t provide the stereo imaging you get from speakers placed farther apart. Even portable Bluetooth speakers can serve as speaker systems for your computer.
Where you plan to use your computer will also help determine your best speaker option. Low-frequency bass sound can carry quite far and can be felt as well as heard, so you may not want a speaker system at the office with a subwoofer if your work mates keep asking you to turn down the sound even if you are only listening to CNBC. For home use, you may seek out larger speakers suitable for distortion-free music playback.
While the computer itself does the heavy lifting as far as running software and performing calculations, the monitor is equally vital since it allows you to view the fruits of your PC’s labor. When shopping for a new desktop system, you can usually get a better price on a monitor by bundling it with a new computer. When getting quotes for new systems, be aware of whether or not the price includes a monitor. As you compare prices of new systems, do not look to the monitor as an area where you can save a lot of money. The increased viewing area and clarity of a larger display is well worth reduced eyestrain through the years.
When shopping for a new monitor you are bombarded with a series of specifications and terms, some of which are important to consider.
Pixel Response Time
The pixel response time is the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white or transition from one shade of gray to another. Measured in milliseconds, the lower or faster the response time, the better the monitor is at displaying video without blurring moving images. This is a very important factor for gamers, but it’s also something to keep in mind if you plan to watch a lot of video on your computer. The typical mainstream display will have a PRR of 5 ms (milliseconds), but you can find displays with PRRs as fast as 2 ms or less.
The resolution of a monitor refers to the number of pixels it displays both horizontally and vertically. Today’s liquid crystal displays (LCDs) have what is called a “native resolution,” generally the highest resolution that it can best display. The higher the resolution, the more information that can be displayed on the screen. In order for a display to be truly “high definition,” it must have a minimum resolution of 1,920 by 1,080. This is the typical resolution of most of today’s widescreen displays. You will find higher resolutions of 2,560 by 1,440 pixels for Wide Quad HD (WQHD), and 3,840 by 2,160 pixels for Ultra HD (4K) displays.
Almost all new consumer desktop systems today offer widescreen displays that are at least 20 inches in size; 22- to 24-inch displays seem to be the current “sweet spot.” However, upgrade options larger than 24 inches are not uncommon. At the manufacturer level, upgrading from a 20-inch to a 27-inch LCD monitor is around $50, excluding touch displays. We recommend at least a 24-inch monitor, especially if you plan to use your PC for extended periods. For laptop users, there is a trade-off between screen size and portability. Today’s ultraportable notebook systems, which weigh less than five pounds, have screen sizes that average around 13 or 14 inches. Desktop replacement notebook systems with screen sizes ranging from 17 to 20 inches often weigh over seven pounds, an important consideration if you plan to travel with such a system.
Touch screens have made their way into the mainstream via tablets and smartphones. As these devices, especially tablets, have eaten into the demand for traditional PCs, manufacturers have started adding this functionality to laptop and desktop systems. The touch screen enables the user to interact directly with what is displayed, rather than using a mouse or touchpad.
For desktop systems, touch capability is most prevalent on all-in-one systems, while the number of touch-screen laptops is on the rise as the touch-optimized Windows 10 operating systems gain acceptance. If you are purchasing a Windows 10 system, we advise going with a touch display, as there will be times when you will find the functionality useful.
Interestingly enough, Apple does not offer touch screens for any of its Macs, choosing instead to leave that capability to its line of iOS devices.
New computers, especially desktop models, are often bristling with video ports. If you buy a bundled computer/monitor package, the computer will more than likely have the appropriate connector for plugging in the display. However, if you are buying a computer and display separately, make sure the two are compatible or you will need to buy an additional adapter.
Video Graphics Array (VGA) is an old-school video connector that is in its sunset years. It is rare to find new computers that support VGA, and with good reason: It is an analog signal in a digital world. Although it can support high resolutions, if you try to connect a new LCD monitor into a VGA port, you are not likely to get a pixel-perfect image.
It is rare to find a TV or computer monitor that does not support HDMI. You probably have HDMI cables stashed away in a junk drawer and setup is easy (if you don’t have one, you should!). An HDMI connection is used to connect a display to a high-definition source, such as a Blu-ray player, video game system or DVR-based HD cable/satellite set-top box. HDMI is more than adequate for typical high-definition video, but things start to break down at very high resolutions. The HDMI connection can also be used to carry sound to your monitor if it had built-in speakers.
Digital Visual Interface (DVI) is a video display interface used to connect a video source, such as a display controller to a display device, such as a computer monitor. It was developed with the intention of creating an industry standard for the transfer of digital video content. However, some newer monitors forgo DVI in favor of HDMI, so if you have a computer with only a DVI connector you will need a DVI-to-HDMI cable in order to connect the two.
DisplayPort is a higher bandwidth connection that is being touted as the successor to DVI and HDMI. It does not require special circuitry, or the hardware to run that circuitry, so it can support thinner and lighter monitors. Mini DisplayPort (MiniDP or mDP) is a miniaturized version of the DisplayPort, with identical functionality and signals. MiniDP is found on some PC notebooks and desktop motherboards. With an adapter, the Mini DisplayPort can drive display devices with VGA, DVI or HDMI interfaces.
Nowadays, very few people use a home computer without accessing the internet. Your location will strongly dictate your connection options—dial-up modems or high-speed connections.
These days, those of us with high-speed internet connections take them for granted. However, a number of people live in areas where connecting to the internet with a traditional dial-up modem is the only option.
Depending on where you live, there may not be providers of high-speed internet such as cable. Even if satellite internet is available, for many the costs are too high. If you fall into one of these categories, you will need a dial-up modem. An external USB dial-up modem can be purchased for less than $50.
High-speed or “broadband” connections offer data transfer speeds that are vastly superior to dial-up but, again, their availability is tied to where you live. Ranked in descending order based on data transfer speeds are fiber-optic, cable, DSL/ADSL and satellite.
In order to access the internet, your PC will need a network adapter or network interface card (NIC) that connects your system to a network. The term was popularized originally by Ethernet add-in cards for PCs but it also applies to other types of USB network adapters and wireless network adapters.
Most PCs and laptops come pre-equipped with a network interface card built into the system’s motherboard. This includes not only wired-capable devices like desktops and laptops but also tablets, cell phones and other wireless devices.
However, we are seeing some ultra-thin laptops without wired Ethernet ports. These systems require a USB Ethernet port or docking station with an Ethernet port. A USB Ethernet 10/100/1000 Gigabit adapter (dongle) can be purchased for under $30.
Not all desktops will come with wireless connectivity. Desktop systems have slots to add functionality such as additional network adapters and video cards. With a desktop system, you can opt for a wireless network card or a wireless adapter that plugs into a USB port. On average, an internal wireless network adapter for a desktop costs under $60, while an internal PCI 10/100/1000 Gigabit network adapter costs under $30.
Wi-Fi technology offers wireless high-speed access to the Internet using Wi-Fi–enabled devices such as PCs, cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) or mobile wireless hotspots. Wireless access points, or hotspots, have sprung up in almost every place imaginable over the last several years, from coffee shops to hotels and airports. All modern laptops have built-in wireless network cards so you can make use of these hotspots when on the go.
Cellular phone companies—including Verizon, AT&T and Sprint—are also entering the high-speed internet market by offering internet access over their cellular networks (where they are available). You are able to purchase personal hotspots and a data plan and connect multiple devices to them at the same time. Some laptop makers offer built-in mobile broadband adapters, but the rise in popularity of personal hotspots, as well as the ability to use your mobile phone as a hotspot, has led many PC makers to abandon this option. Please note, however, that these services require a wireless subscription, similar to a cellular phone plan.
For those with broadband internet connections at home, you can also set up a wireless network and use Wi-Fi to connect to it. In order to have wireless at home, you would need broadband internet access, such as DSL/ADSL or cable, a wireless router to connect to your cable or DSL/ADSL modem, and a wireless card for your PC.
Many of today’s computers, as well as mobile devices, are equipped with Bluetooth, a wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi have some similar applications: setting up networks, printing or transferring files. A personal computer that does not have embedded or built-in Bluetooth can be used with a Bluetooth adapter that will enable the PC to communicate with other Bluetooth devices. While some desktop computers and most recent laptops come with a built-in Bluetooth radio, others will require an external one in the form of a dongle. If you have a computer without a built-in Bluetooth radio, you can purchase a USB Bluetooth adapter, on average, for less than $20.
While not technically part of the computer itself, printers, like monitors, play an important role and should be considered a part of a complete PC system. It is highly unlikely that you can use a computer for any length of time without having to print something, whether it is an email, a webpage, a digital picture or a price chart. Printers, like computers, come with numerous options and issues to consider and have varying price points.
Also keep in mind that you will need a place to put your printer. If you are short on space, you may want to look for a mobile printer or one with a relatively small footprint.
When looking at printers, print resolution is an oft-quoted statistic. Reported in dots per inch (dpi), the higher the resolution—all else being equal—the better the image quality. However, resolution is not as important as it once was, as manufacturers have found ways to manipulate resolution without actually increasing the number of dots per inch.
Inkjet Versus Laser
Inkjet printers are the most common printers on the market today for the average PC user. They are inexpensive, reasonably fast, quiet and achieve good print quality.
If you are spending the money for a printer, color is the way to go. This is especially important if you want to distinguish between data on printed graphs with multiple lines or bars, often a concern when printing reports from investment software and information from the internet. Inkjet printers also are quite good for printing pictures.
You can find color inkjet printers that cost as little as $45, but remember, “You get what you pay for.” For standard color printing, expect to pay at least $100 for a dependable, good-quality color inkjet printer.
Compared to inkjet printers, laser printers offer superior printing speed and text quality. The prices of laser printers have fallen to the point where, depending on your needs, a personal laser printer may be an option.
Most personal monochrome (black and white) laser printers start at $100, while personal color laser printers tend to run between $200 and $350.
Recommended Page Volume
If you do a lot of printing, you will want to check the recommended (not maximum) monthly page volume, quoted by the manufacturer. If you are looking at a printer and cannot find this information, move on to a different printer. Then, try to estimate how often you refill your printer’s paper tray and in what amounts to get a gauge for how much you print each month, and pick a printer with a recommended monthly page volume of at least that amount. Looking at the page yield of a printer’s ink cartridge(s)—how many pages a cartridge can print before running dry—will give you an idea of how costly a printer is to operate.
Cost of Operation
Over the life of a typical inkjet printer, the greatest cost will be for ink. Sometimes, printers that are more expensive are actually less costly to run in the long term because they often have higher-capacity ink tanks and separate tanks for each color (instead of multi-color ink cartridges).
Cost-per-print is an important factor taken into account when determining which printer to purchase. These calculations vary by printer and manufacturer, so determine this information before beginning your calculation. You may be able to find these details from the manufacturer’s website or they may be located directly on the printer.
If the printer uses individual cartridges for cyan, magenta and yellow, instead of the single tri-color cartridge, you will have to calculate the cost per page for each color cartridge and add them together to arrive at a total cost per color page.
If you print color graphics or pictures that favor one color over another, you will see lesser page yields than if colors were spread more evenly across the palette. With a tri-color cartridge, you will have to replace the entire cartridge when only one of the colors runs out, even though there is probably ink remaining for the other two colors. If you print a lot of color images, think about getting a printer that uses individual cartridges for the three colors instead of the single tri-color cartridge.
General Purpose Versus Multifunction
When you go to the printer section of an electronics store or a website such as Amazon.com, you will see that printers can fall into several categories, including general purpose, photo and multifunction. For the purpose of our discussion here, we will skip over photo printers and focus on general purpose and multifunction.
General-purpose printers are pretty much what their name indicates. They are for everyday printing of text (email, webpages, etc.), graphics and photos. Unless you are looking for professional-grade photo printing, a general-purpose printer will fit your needs.
There are also multifunction (also called all-in-one or three-in-one) printers that combine printing, scanning and copying into a single piece of equipment. These printers are more suited for offices or home offices. Given their complexity and added functionality, you will pay more for a multifunction printer: on average between $75 and $200 for an inkjet model and between $225 and $500 for a color laser model.
You have several options for connecting your printer to your computer. For a wired connection, there is USB and Ethernet. If you are connecting a printer to a newer laptop/notebook, Ethernet may not be an option since fewer ultra-thin laptops now offer that wired connection. If you are going to connect your printer via USB, make sure you have an open port.
Like computers themselves, many printers have built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so you can print wirelessly from your computer and other devices.