Computers buying guide

Buying a computer can be a confusing experience. With so many different types of computers, and so much jargon to understand, it's hard to know which computer is right for you. We've put together this buying guide to help you get to grips with what's on offer.

Laptop, netbook, desktop or tablet?

Probably the first decision you'll have to make when buying a computer is whether to get a notebook, a netbook or a desktop machine. All offer their own benefits and drawbacks.

  • Notebooks: otherwise known as a laptop, a Notebook is a small portable computer that can run on batteries for typically two to three hours. Notebooks are now a serious consideration over a desktop PC.

    Pros: usually lightweight, portable and can run on battery power.

    Cons: hard to upgrade internal hardware, less powerful compared to similarly priced desktops, less hard drive space and generally more expensive.

  • Netbooks: the netbook is a recently invented name for small lightweight, but good value notebooks. They typically have a screen size of around 10 inches or less, relatively low power processors, smaller hard drives than laptops and have no optical disc drive. Some have "solid state" hard drives (like flash memory) that are more robust than traditional hard drives with lots of moving parts. Other features, such as the ability to connect to a 3G mobile, may also be available.

    Pros: Lightweight, small and can run on battery power, often for quite a long time.

    Cons: Hard to upgrade internal hardware, less powerful than a fully featured laptop/notebook, less hard drive space. They sometimes come with the older Windows XP operating system to keep things simpler and costs lower. Although with Windows 7 now available on Netbooks it's not an issue anymore, as Windows 7 was engineered with Netbooks in mind.

  • Desktops: as the name suggests, a desktop is a personal computer that is small enough to fit on or under a desk. They are not usually portable and often consist of a separate desktop monitor and case to house the processor, hard drive and other components. These are usually used for more intensive programs such as the latest games, or serious photo or film editing, and you can use them with a big screen.

    Pros: Upgradeable, typically more powerful than similarly priced notebooks, better hard drive storage space.

    Cons: Not portable and take up more space than notebooks and netbooks.

  • Tablet: highly portable computing devices give you full control of the screen, features and applications. By using your finger or a stylus, you can directly touch the screen to make gaming more interactive, and the hands-on approach provides a more tactile experience than a mouse for drawing and illustrating.

    Pros: Compared to laptop computers, these products are small. Most tablets offer anywhere from a 7-inch to a 10-inch display screen and weigh less than 1 pound. You can store all your music, capture photos or videos, video chat and even read books on their built-in eReaders.

    Cons: They may have a durable body, but the touchscreen display is exposed. And if the touchscreen is damaged, your device could become useless.

Using your computer

The second question you should ask is what you want your computer to do. Computers vary in price according to power and functionality. For example, there is no point spending thousands on a state-of-the-art gaming computer if you only use it for Internet browsing and word processing. We've classified all our computers into different usage types, described below. You should decide which one fits your needs best, and then look for it on our website.

  • General light use: for simple tasks, connecting to the internet and occasional email, basic word processing etc.
  • Entertainment: for regular multi-purpose use and for storing and playing music and video.
  • High performance: for high-end performance, game playing and applications such as graphic design and video editing.
  • Ultra mobile: for internet and email on the go!

Computer terminology explained

Whether you choose to buy a laptop or a desktop, you will probably encounter the same types of jargon. Here is our guide to some of the key terms:

  • Processors

    The processor (or CPU) is the brain of the machine, controlling all aspects of the computer. Processors are made up of millions of tiny transistors that can process huge numbers of instructions per second. The speed of a processor is measured in Gigahertz (GHz).

    There are two manufacturers of processors - Intel and AMD. Each manufacturer has different processors for laptops and desktops, and depending on how demanding the computer's performance is:

    Desktop General light use Entertainment High performance
    AMD Sempron Athlon x2 Phenom x3 or Phenom x4
    INTEL Celeron Pentium Dual Core or
    Core 2 Duo
    Core 2 Duo or Core 2 Quad or
    i3/i5/i7 Series CPU
    Notebook General light use Entertainment High Performance
    AMD Sempron mobile Turion 64 Turion 64 x2 or Athlon x2
    INTEL Celeron M Centrino or Pentium Dual Core Core 2 Duo/Quad or i3/i5/i7 Series CPU
    Netbook Ultra mobile
    AMD Atom Neo Processor
    Coming soon
    INTEL Atom Processor

    Basic processors are found in most inexpensive computers and are fine for simple tasks such as word processing and spreadsheets. For more complicated tasks, such as simpler gaming and running multiple applications, intermediate processors offer extra power.

    For high-end performance, for example graphic design and complex video editing, you may want the most powerful processors. These are "dual core" - basically two processors running together and handling different tasks - or even "quad core", with four processors.

    Both Pentium and AMD make dual core processors in their power range (for example the Athlon 64 X2 in a desktop and The Centrino Duo in a laptop).

    The AMD Phenom x4 and Intel core 2 Quad are both four processor CPU's. Now available, the Intel Core i3/5/7 range is capable of processing up to eight threads at a time; it's like having 8 cores on a single chip.

  • Memory

    Memory is temporary storage used by programs and files currently running on your computer. Memory is known as RAM, or Random Access Memory, and needs power to be able to store information. So, when your computer is switched off, the information is forgotten about.

    Memory or RAM is not to be confused with your hard drive, which provides permanent storage for programs and files. Memory is measured in Megabytes (MB) and Gigabytes (GB). More memory is usually the easiest way of improving performance on a computer without changing the processor. Typically 2GB is suitable for Vista Premium, though you should see better performance with 3GB or more.

  • Hard drive

    The hard drive is where you store all your data. It keeps hold of the data when the computer is switched off. Desktop computers generally offer more hard drive space than laptops. The size of your hard drive is important if you want to save lots of music and videos.

    Laptops typically now come with 250GB or more. If you have a desktop with lots of music or media to be stored, then look for 500GB or even 1TB (a Terabyte - which is 1000GB).

    Remember, though, the more data you store on your computer, the more important it is to back it up! We suggest you also buy an external hard drive at least as large as your computer's hard drive to backup your data.

  • Optical drives

    Optical drives are the tray drives in the front or side of a computer, similar to those found on your stereo or DVD player. Drives allow you to load and install software and write (or "burn") data to a disc. New computers usually have a DVD drive that can read and write to DVDs and CDs. However, optical drives come in many formats:

    • CD-ROM - only reads CDs
    • CD-RW - record and play CDs
    • DVD-ROM - reads CDs and DVDs
    • DVD-RW - record and play CDs and DVDs
    • DVD Dual Layer - loads double DVD
    • BD-R - reads Blu-ray discs
    • BD-RE - record and play Blu-ray discs
  • Operating systems

    An operating system is what allows you to use applications and generally access all of the information you have on your computer. By far the most popular operating system is Microsoft Windows, the most recent version being Microsoft Windows 7. All computers sold by Tesco include a windows operating system pre-installed. Windows 7 is now available.

  • Graphics cards

    Graphics cards enable computers to display graphic information. They can either be integrated, or dedicated. Integrated graphics cards share memory with your computer, whereas dedicated graphics cards have their own memory and operate faster and at higher quality. If you are looking for gameplay and video playback, look for a computer with a dedicated graphics card.

  • Security & Safety

    It's vital that you take steps to ensure your computer is protected from viruses and other attacks from the Internet. Every computer comes with the Windows standard firewall and we recommend you use an anti-virus package along side it. In addition to this, if you have children, you should consider setting up Parental Controls which are built into Windows Vista and Windows 7 as standard. Finally, as mentioned above, computers now store the history of our lives in terms of pictures, music and videos - it's crucial to make sure you backup this data, as computer hard drives don't last forever. We strongly suggest using an external hard drive to backup your data. More information, including details of our Anti-Virus software, is in our Security & Safety guide.

Printers, monitors and other computer extras

There are lots of different pieces of hardware (or "peripherals") that you can buy. Some of these are a very important part of a home computer set-up. A printer allows you to print anything you're working on. A wireless keyboard and mouse can make things a little less cluttered on your desk. Scanners allow you to make copies of other documents and photos. A new speaker system can boost the sound from your computer. And, if you're buying a desktop, the most crucial item of all is the monitor.

Monitors

Flat screen, or TFT (Thin-Film Transistor) displays have all but replaced older CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) displays. The biggest advantage is that flat screens save space and energy. Screens come in different sizes - 15", 17", 19", 22" and bigger, with widescreen versions now becoming more common. Specifications to look out for include refresh rates. These are measured in milliseconds (ms) and determine how quickly a pixel can change from black to white.

Another thing to consider is resolution. The higher the resolution, the better the image quality.

Finally, consider contrast ratio. A higher contrast ratio means a screen can better differentiate fine colour details. A 500:1 contrast ratio is better than a 150:1 contrast ratio, for example.

Wireless internet

A wireless network enables you to share a broadband Internet connection around the computers in your home. Dad can be online banking in the study, Mum ordering home shopping from Tesco on the laptop in the lounge while the kids are researching their homework online from their bedroom desktop PC - all at the same time. What's more, it's all done without cables. Wireless is also referred to as Wi-Fi.

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