There was a time when families gathered in the den after dinner to discuss their day or watch TV. These days, Mom checks e-mails while Dad watches his favorite sci-fi movie on Blu-ray and the kids Skype with their friends.
Today, your family computer is the focal point of your home. It's where you do everything from organizing your family finances to catching up with your best friends from college.
Because so much of what you do relies on your computer, when it comes time to buy a new one, you want to find the brand and model that's just right for your family. Yet it can be daunting to sort through all of the different options at your local electronics store. Just trying to decipher the acronyms -- CPUs, GBs, RAMs, GHZs -- can leave you with a technology-induced headache and a lot of unanswered questions. Do you need to splurge on a top-of-the-line model, or is a basic PC enough? How much memory should you get? Is it worth investing in a graphics card?
This article will get you started on your search. It will help you sort through your options to find the computer and peripherals that best fit your family's needs.
Assessing Your Family's Computer Needs
To know what you need in a computer, you've got to know what you plan to do with it. Before you head to the computer store, sit down with your family and discuss how you're going to use your new computer:
- Do you just need a computer for basic, everyday functions like responding to emails and surfing the Internet? Then you may be fine with a basic model that has limited memory and an average central processing unit (or CPU -- the computer's "brain"). You can also get away with integrated graphics (built into the computer).
- Will you be downloading and editing a lot of photos, music and videos? In that case, you'll want extra memory to store your expanding media collection. You'll also need a fast CPU (quad-core or six-core), and plenty of memory (RAM), as well as a graphics card.
Next, talk about costs. How much money do you want to spend? You can get a basic compact PC for as little as $300, or spend $2,000 or more for a high-end desktop [source: PC World].
Finally, think about where you'll be using your computer. Do you have the space for a full-sized desktop computer? If you're cramming the computer into the corner of an already packed desk, consider getting something smaller -- like a compact PC or laptop.
Tips for Buying the Right Family Computer
Once you've figured out how your family will be using your computer, then you can focus on your options. If you're on a limited budget, want to surf the Web and check e-mail, but not much else and you definitely don't want to spend a fortune, get a compact PC. They cost about $300 to $600, plus they take up about half the space of a regular desktop. The disadvantage is that they don't offer much processing power, but you should be able to add memory. Or, look into buying a tower computer with a lower-end processor or older hardware. You can spend as little as $500, but still get good speed out of your processor. The disadvantage is that you may have trouble playing back high-resolution graphics and videos, and older PCs are harder to upgrade.
If you have a little cash to spend, but don't need all the bells and whistles, buy a desktop computer with a dual-core CPU and 4 to 8 gigabytes (GB) of memory. You'll spend in the range of $800 to $1,500, but for that you'll get enough power to play games, watch videos and organize your photos [sources: PC World, CNET]. You'll also get decent media playback, plus a Blu-ray drive (in most computers). If you're serious about photography, movies or video games, go for a performance PC with a quad-core or six-core CPU and 8 GB or more of memory. Although it will set you back $1,500 or more, you'll get a processor that can handle the most detailed graphics. Serious gamers can add a large hard drive and a graphics card. For a lower-cost solution, just buy extra RAM and a graphics card. If you're not computer-savvy, get an all-in-one desktop PC, which incorporates the monitor and CPU in one unit. Plug it in and you're pretty much ready to go. A PC with a touchscreen makes computing even easier.
An all-in-one PC can also save space, especially if it comes with a wireless keyboard and mouse to cut down on the cords. Busy professionals should go for a laptop. They've got enough memory to use at home, plus they're portable enough to take with you. You can upgrade the laptop's processing unit if you want to use it to play high-end games, or get one outfitted with a Blu-ray drive so you can watch high-def movies. If you want to save money, however, you could buy a netbook (which can cost up to $400), although it won't have much functionality beyond letting you surf the Web or take notes in class [source: PC World]. Netbooks are better for taking with you than for using at home, which makes them ideal for students or busy professionals.
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