Making Sense Of Computer Specs: Set Budget First, Then Scour The Market

In our last article on buying computers for the agency, we gave some advice on how to evaluate your agencys hardware needs and how to plan the purchase of needed computers. (See NU, Aug. 11.)

Assuming youve done that very important homework, its time to start looking around for some machines to fill the bill. The problem is that the choices are many, and the options and specifications can be confusing.

Obviously, its important to know how much you can afford to spend for these new machines. What I suggest, however, is that you use the methods below to get a general idea of what it will cost to meet the needs you already determined in your planning phase. If your budget doesnt allow you to meet those needs, youll need to scale down your expectations and redefine exactly what youre going to do with your new technology, then come up with a budget that fits. Or, you could spend the money to do what you believe needs to be done.

The primary information that comes into play here is the list that youve made already. That list should include your agencys basic computer needs (number of units), software needs, anticipated storage needs, networking needs, output (printing) needs, etc.

Take your list of needs, then compare it with whats available out there. One easy way to do this is to look at some computer magazines and check out the ads for systems, which, I assure you, will be plentiful. These ads often spell out the key features of systems, including clock speed, RAM, hard drive capacity, included software, and much morealong with prices, of course.

Another, even easier way to survey the market is to do so online. Most major computer manufacturers maintain detailed and easy-to-use Web sites that can give you a very good idea of what you can expect to pay for the systems you need.

In fact, some computer maker Web sites will allow you to “customize” your purchase by specifying the exact parameters you need, then giving you a price for that configuration.

But first, you need to know something about the terms youll encounter. Lets lay out a few very basic guidelines to help you along in the process.

Clock Speed. This is a measure of the amount of data a computers central processing unit (CPU) can handle in a specified period of time. Today, this speed is measure in gigahertz (GHz), with the fastest commonly available computers topping out at a little over 3GHz. Faster is better, of course, but its also more expensive.

You can expect to pay $1,700 or more for a top-of-the-line desktop model with that much speed, but the good news is, you probably dont need that much muscle. In fact, youd be hard-pressed to discern visually the difference in operational speed between a 3GHz unit and a 2.4GHz machine that might sell for $1,000 or less. So while speed is good, dont extend yourself financially for a capability you might not even notice.

As a general rule, a minimum clock speed of 2GHz should be sufficient for ordinary business uses. If your agency is a heavy number-cruncher, then push the clock speed as high as you can within your budget limitations.

Memory cache. Youll also want to be aware of a computers memory cache. This is a memory bank that bridges main memory and the CPU. It basically allows operations to proceed at a faster pace by remembering instructions it has received recently.

A computer may feature a level 1 cache (L1), which is built into the CPU chip. A level 2 (L2) cache is a secondary memory bank that feeds the L1 cache. A larger L2 cache may add some speed when running certain programs.

RAM. Random-access memory, usually referred to as just “memory,” is a group of memory chips that are the computers primary workspace. Just about every program you use needs some of this memory, so it makes sense to exceed the minimum 64MB of RAM needed to run the latest versions of Windows.

In fact, business users should specify at least 256MB, while heavy number-crunchers would do well to get 512MB. Think of it as working at a desk that has space for multiple piles of paper (not to mention your elbows), instead of a tiny workspace that can fit only a single pile.

There are also several different types of memory available, and the choices can be really confusing. Suffice it to say that for most users, SDRAM (Synchronous Dynamic Random Access Memory) is the least expensive route, and it should get the job done. If your agency is involved, or plans to get involved, in multimedia applications, speedier and more advanced memory such as RDRAM and DDR SDRAM is advisable. These actually are coming as standard equipment on many new PCs.

Hard Disk. Your hard disk is the place youll store most of the files you need to work with on a day-to-day basis. It will also hold all of the software applications you utilize, unless youre using software delivered via the Internet or an intranet by an outside source known as an application service provider (ASP).

Hard disks come in a dizzying array of names and specifications, but there are two figures that are most important. First is the capacity, which is measured in gigabytes. Twenty GB is generally the lowest amount of storage offered in new systems, and thats a lot of storage if youre just filing text documents.

On the other hand, if your agency is involved in multimedia use or if you store a lot of images, youll be glad to have as much storage space as possible. Systems from major computer makers may offer as much as 120GB in hard drive storage, but 40GB-80GB will be more typical.

Just a note of caution: Your hard drive should not be a repository for long-term storage, say more than a year. Too many thingsincluding power disturbancescan compromise your hard drive for you to allow it to be your only option in retrieving a document. If you dont have a backup plan in place, make it part of your purchase strategy.

The other important figure for hard drives is the speed at which the drives platters spin, which affects the speed at which your computer can read information on the drive or write information to the drive. Commonly available speeds include 5400 RPM (revolutions per minute), 7200 RPM, 10,000 RPM and 15,000 RPM. Higher speeds will come in handy in agencies that make heavy use of the hard drive for image storage or high-volume document storage.

Now you have an idea of what to look for in terms of some basics, but theres more to consider, including operating system, Internet access, software needs, peripheral devices, and how and where to purchase equipment. All these points and more will be discussed in future articles in this series. Stay tuned.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 15, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.