ŇI want to buy a computer, but I donŐt know where to start!Ó

A BuyerŐs Guide for Computer Shopping

Presented by

Scott Laleman, Technology Coordinator

Lindop School, Broadview, IL


Trying to buy a computer can be a real bear. Should you get a laptop or a desktop? Macintosh or Windows? How much memory should it have? How much hard drive space? How fast does it need to be?


Then when you get it home, you have to choose an Internet provider. Do you go with dial up, DSL, or Cable Modem? Big name company, or little guy? The Internet Service Provider (ISP) that comes with the computer, or something else?


This session is intended to help you make a little more sense of the products that are out there, what to look for when buying a computer, and what ISPŐs really provide.


The first decision: Mac or PC

Since Lindop is an entirely Macintosh school, youŐd probably expect me to push Macs. Not so. I donŐt work for Apple, and I donŐt own an Apple, but I use them all of the time. Here are the factÉyou decide for yourself.



Apple Macintosh

Microsoft Windows


Tend to be more expensive since Apple makes the hardware and the operating system (the software that runs the machine) to work together. When you buy an Apple computer, you get AppleŐs operating system. No other company makes computers with AppleŐs operating system.

Can be very inexpensive. PCŐs used to be called IBM clones, since IBM made the first PC. Parts can be purchased at any computer store, and people can put together their own PCs. When you buy a PC, you purchase a license to use the Windows Operating System. Many different companies make PCs, so there is more competition for price.


There are more and more programs being created to run on AppleŐs new operating system (OS X) every day. Microsoft Office for OS X was one of the first to come out. However, since Apple holds such a small share of the computer market, many game manufacturers donŐt make games for Macs.

Virtually every software manufacturer makes software for PCs. Even Apple has made Windows versions of Appleworks. If you want to play games, a PC is the way to go.


Apple computers are solid to the core. With the introduction of OS X, Apple has made a commitment to stability in their computers. I have been using OS X for over 6 months and my computer has never crashed. Since Apple makes the software to run itŐs own hardware, there are very few compatibility issues.

PCs have gotten much more stable over the years. With Windows XP, Microsoft has finally come up with an Operating System that doesnŐt crash every time something goes wrong. It is very stable. However, since there is such a variety of hardware and software manufacturers, there are sometimes compatibility issues with add on hardware or software you may want to run.


Macs come with a variety of built in toys that work very nicely. Foremost among these is iMovie, a program that allows you to download digital video from a camera and edit it on your computer. With the higher-end Macs, you can get a superdrive, which will burn DVDs. On these machines, there is a program called iDVD in which you can design the look of your menus on the DVD. Also included are iPhoto, a digital photo album, and iTunes, which will rip your CDŐs to MP3s

The Windows versions of these toys are not quite up to par with AppleŐs. Windows XP includes a video editing program, but not all PCs come with the firewire port to download video. Even if they do, there are sometime compatibility issues. Windows Media Player will rip CDŐs to WMA files instead of MP3Ős, and burning DVDs on Windows requires add on software.


Macs come in many different shapes and sizes. They have 4 different sizes of laptops available, and the G4 Flat Screen iMac is available with a 15Ó or 17Ó screen and only takes up about 18Ó on a desk.

The variety of PCs is virtually unlimited. Many companies are making all in one units that will fit easily on a desktop. Other companies still make towers that have to be set aside from the monitor. Flat screens are available for PCs, but most still cost over $500.


RAM, ROM, Megahertz, Gigabytes--what is all of this stuff?


The following pages contain information about some of the technical terms used when talking about computers.




RAM stands for Random Access Memory. RAM is much like your short term memory. When information needs to be accessed quickly, but not for very long, it is stored in the computerŐs RAM. The amount of RAM you have is crucial. As a rule of thumb, when purchasing computers for the school, we get at least 256 Megabytes (MB) of RAM. The amount of RAM you have determines how many programs you can have running at the same time, and also determines how fast graphics intensive programs (such as games and computer aided design programs) will run. ItŐs always better to have more RAM than less.




ROM stands for Read Only Memory, which means it is information that cannot be changed. For example, the information stored on a CD-ROM disc is burned onto that disc, and it cannot be altered and saved back to the disk. Read only means just thatŃthe computer can read it, but it canŐt change it or delete it.




Megahertz is a term used to describe the speed of the processor, or the heart, of the computer. The faster a processor is, the faster your programs will run. This, in combination with the RAM determines how fast your computer will run. Most new PCs have processors that run at over 2 Gigahertz, or 2000 Megahertz. Most Macintosh computers run just under 1 Gigahertz, usually between 700-800 Megahertz. The difference in the speed between the two computers is because the processors and software are designed differently for Macs.




When someone talks about how many Gigabytes your computer has, they are talking about the storage space on the hard drive. Standard hard drives run anywhere between 20-40 Gigabytes (gigs for short). For a comparison, a standard floppy disk holds 1.44 megabytes of information. A 20 gig hard drive, then, would hold the equivalent of almost 14,000 floppy disks worth of information.


What else should I look for?


Software is what drives a computer. Most people use Microsoft Office at work, yet many PC manufacturers donŐt include the entire Office suite on their computers as standard software. They may include Microsoft Word, but not PowerPoint or Excel. If all you need is Word, then donŐt bother paying the extra money. However, if you do a lot of presentations or need to do spreadsheets, get the Office suite. Macs also do not come with Microsoft Office. DonŐt be afraid to ask questions about software and what it does. If a salesperson really wants you to buy the computer, theyŐll sit down with you and show you how certain programs work. There are some good programs out there for managing finances too. Microsoft Money and Quicken are the two most common and popular programs for doing this.


When looking at advertisements, read the fine print. A few years ago, you could buy a computer for almost nothing at Best Buy, but you had to sign up and pay for MSN (MicrosoftŐs Internet service) for 2 or 3 years at $20 per month. Make sure a monitor is included in the price of the computer. There is no worse shock than getting a good price on a computer only to find that it doesnŐt have a screen with it!


Overall, use common sense. If a deal sounds too good to be true, thereŐs probably a catch. Computer prices have come down a great deal over the past several years, so there are some good deals to be had, but keep your and ears open, and most importantly, ask questions!


Shopping for an Internet Service Provider


When looking at Internet Service Providers (ISPs) you have to start out by making the choice between dial up and broadband. What are the differences? LetŐs take a look:


Dial up


Dial up Internet service is the way everything started. Back in the Ôold daysŐ if you wanted high-speed Internet access you had to go to a University or a big business. Dial up was the only way to get to the Internet from home. This requires that your computer have a modem (which most computers now have included), and a phone line. The phone line plugs into your computer, and the computer communicates with remote services through a series of high pitched squeals and squeaks over the phone line. This type of Internet service is fine if youŐre chatting, sending email, or surfing the web occasionally. However, you canŐt use the phone while you are on the computer, and if someone picks up the phone or there is line noise, you run the risk of being cut off. This type is service is also much slower than broadband, so if youŐre trying to download music or high quality pictures, it may take a while. One megabyte of information typically takes around 5 minutes to download over a 56K modem. Dial up access can cost anywhere from $5.95/month to around $25/month.




This is known by several different names: DSL, ADSL, Cable Modem, High speed access, etc. Broadband is basically the type of high speed Internet Access that you would see at a school, business or university. While the speed of the access coming into your home may not be quite as fast as it is for a school, the difference is not that noticeable, and it is considerable faster than dial up. Broadband access typically costs around $50/month. Advantages include not tying up a phone line, always on connection, and high speed access. One megabyte of information typically takes less than a minute to download over a broadband connection.




LetŐs take a look at some of the ISPs that serve the Chicago area:



The big boys


America Online is the original, and still the king, of online services. Started in the early 1990Ős, AOL quickly became very popular for itŐs chat rooms and pioneered the Instant Message. AOL offers a lot of services to its members and is very easy to use. However, because AOL offers so much, it is the most expensive of the dial up ISPs at about $23/month for unlimited access.


MSN came on big in the late 1990Ős to try to knock off AOL. In fact, Microsoft started putting MSN icons on their desktops to get people to use it. While not as sophisticated or as easy to use as AOL, MSN still holds a large share of the dial up market, and is priced at about $22/month.


Earthlink has partnered with Apple and offers both dial up and broadband access. Their dial up service is $21.95/month, and broadband varies by location, but it is typically around $50/month


AT & T broadband is Internet service offered through the cable company. You must have an Ethernet card in your computer (or you can buy one through the ISP). This is an Ôalways-onŐ connection, which means as soon as you turn on your computer, youŐre online. Cost is around $50/month if you rent a cable modem, slightly less if you buy your own.


SBC DSL service is another broadband service, but this one uses your phone line. Unlike dial up, however, DSL sends signals through unused frequencies in your phone line, so you are able to use the phone and be online at the same time. You must sign on to DSL, but your computer can be set up to do it automatically as soon as you turn it on. Prices for DSL are also around $50/month.


When shopping for an ISP, beware of the fine print! There are many ISPs that advertise service for $9.95/month, such as Juno, Joi and NetZero, but these usually require payment for an entire year up front. Broadband companies also advertise specials, such as a DSL or Cable modem that may require a 1-year contract as well. Shop around and again, ask questions!