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Computer Buying Guide: Which Computer?

Most computer manufacturers (including Apple and Dell) allow you to choose the components in your computer. While this freedom to choose is good, it's easy to get confused by the variety of options and components that are available. To see which is right for you please check out this comparison list: Mac or PC?

Listed below are the major components of a PC, followed by a description of each component's function:

The Processor is the heart of your computer. It determines how fast, and how smoothly, your computer will run.

There are several different kinds of processor currently available in the market. AMD's Athlon processors, and Intel's Core 2 Duo or 'Core i' series (i3,i5,etc), and Celeron processors. Most current machines come with a minimum of an Intel Core i3 processor, while some of the lower-end ones use Celeron chips. Mac users should get a minimum of an Intel Core i5 in the laptop and desktop.

Hoya Computing recommends that you also check on your computer's bus speed and clock speed. They can have a great impact on your system speed. Your manufacturer will be able to tell you more about these features on your computer.


Memory (sometimes called RAM, for Random Access Memory) is the amount of random data access space available to your computer. It works as a temporary filing space, allowing you to run multiple programs without slowing down the system's speed and performance. We strongly recommend a minimum of 4GB of RAM, and suggest that if you plan on using the computer for any multimedia purposes (playing movies or music, for instance), you upgrade to 6GB or 8GB.

Also keep in mind that processor speed can be greatly augmented by extra memory. This is particularly important for laptops, since higher end-processors can cost exponentially more than equivalent desktops, and many laptops have a "shared video memory" setup (where system RAM is used to drive the computer's video display). In many cases, it's easier to buy extra RAM to compensate.

Incidentally, there is little difference at the outset whether the memory is packaged in one (1) DIMM [Double Inline Memory Module] or two (2) DIMMs. Either configuration provides the same usable memory from a given MB of RAM, but the DIMM count makes a difference when it comes to upgrading memory. If your RAM is placed on only 1 DIMM, you have a slot to spare, and you can add another DIMM to the open slot to increase memory. If your memory is packaged in 2 DIMMs, then you may have to replace one or both with DIMMs of higher MB when you want to upgrade. Single DIMM memory is usually slightly more expensive, but a better choice if you plan to upgrade your computer's memory down the road.

Note that some high-end computers (e.g. Mac Pro) require matching pairs of memory chips to function.


Storage is for executable programs (i.e. apps) and data files not being used currently, and for retaining those programs and files when your computer is powered down. Your hard drive (HDD) is the principal storage mechanism of your computer.

We strongly suggest a minimum hard drive size of 250GB. While this seems like a great deal of space, modern operating systems (Mac OS or Windows) take up a lot of HDD room, and students tend to find ways to fill their hard drives with no problems. It's better to have extra room left over then be left scrambling to delete files to create room for new ones.


Removable Storage: CD/DVD drives, USB keys, external drives allow you to store data on removable discs and transfer them between computers.

CD/DVD Drives are found in most desktop computers and large laptops. Most commercial software is distributed via electronic download, making an optical drive optional. The minimum specification for a computer is a standard CD/DVD recorder, which reads and writes both CD-ROM and DVD media. Specialty drives such as Blu-Ray, will read regular CD-ROM and DVD discs.

Note that some ultra-compact laptop computers do not have built-in CD/DVD drives. Examples of these are Apple's MacBook Air, the newer Apple iMac desktop, and almost all netbook-class computers. If you purchase one of these computers, it may be helpful to have a USB external CD/DVD drive.

External hard drives come in all sizes, both in terms of storage capacity and physical size. External drives are useful for storage of larger files, as well as for backing up criticial files (it's always good to have backups of important documents). For additional security, some external drives have security features, such as fingerprint-swipe identification, to make data more difficult to steal by non-authorized users.


Given the amount of time you will be spending looking at your computer screen, it is important to invest in a good monitor.

For desktops, we suggest that you purchase a monitor that is at least 19" with a minumum resolution of 1280x800 pixels. A 19" monitor (monitors are measured diagonally across the screen, with most modern monitors using a wide, 16:9 aspect ratio) will allow you to run your computer at a high resolution (the higher your resolution, the sharper and crisper the image displayed).

For laptops, we recommend no less than a 13" screen. If you use your laptop extensively in one particular place, you can purchase an external monitor to attach to your laptop (note: for some laptop computers, you will need a special adapter to connect the monitor to the computer).


Keyboards and Mice
For a student's first computer, we recommend a standard keyboard and mouse. While some people prefer ergonomic keyboards or specialized mice, the standard versions will serve perfectly well while a student figures out what is right for them.

For laptop users, almost all laptops feature touch-sensitive trackpads in lieu of a mouse. Laptops also feature USB ports, allowing you to attach your own mouse, or other input devices.


Computer ports are useful for connecting external devices, such as printers or scanners, or external media drives, such as DVD/CD drives, external hard drives, USB keys, or specialty equipment.

In addition to standard video (monitor), USB (Universal Serial Bus), and audio ports, some computers may feature FireWire, eSATA or Thunderbolt ports, which allow for ultra-high-speed connection for specific devices. Some computers will also have internal slots for adding hardware, with desktops generally having more than laptops. As a general rule, it's easier to expand a desktop than a laptop.


Network Cards are the primary methods for connecting to the Internet. Wireless networking is being deployed across campus, but ethernet cards still provide the fastest connection to the Internet. Our wireless system supports the 802.11a, g, and n protocols.


Operating systems (OS) determine what programs you can run on your computer. OS is the principal difference between PCs (Windows) and Macs. We suggest you choose the operating system that you are most comfortable with, whether it is Windows or Mac OS.

Students purchasing Mac computers will run Mac OS X 10.7 or later. PC users, however, should make sure that they get Windows 7 Professional or Better as their operating system, to make sure that their computer receives security updates.


At this time, the only other software that we consider truly essential is: (a) Symantec EndPoint AntiVirus, and (b) Microsoft Office 2010 for Windows or Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac OS. They give the basic word processing functions. We recommend waiting until you have chosen a course of study to purchase any other academic software.

We are currently working with our software vendors to provide students with academic discounts on other purchases.


Printers and scanners are not absolutely essential (in our view). Printers are available in all computer labs at a rate of 10 cents a page (5 cents if you print on both sides), so try to decide for yourself whether it is cost efficient to buy a printer. Scanners, desktop copiers, and other 'paper based' accessories are nice, but in no way necessary, and tend to take up a lot of room in a dorm room.


Warranty coverage is an important consideration because: a) students use their computer for many years, b) student computers tend to take more abuse than corporate computers, and c) students needing warranty repair of their computers are usually on short deadlines.

Our packages with Dell and Apple come with a 3-year warranty that includes free diagnostic tools, phone/repair service from trained engineers, and full parts and onsite labor. Both manufacturers give you the option to add a 4th year to this warranty at anytime during the computer's original warranty period. In addition, Dell offers 'CompleteCare' on their laptops, which covers spills, drops, and other cases of accidental damage.

Regardless of the computer vendor, you should carefully review the warranty to make sure that it covers the usable life of the computer for your career at Georgetown.


Want to Know More?
The best consumer is an educated one. If you are interested in a particular product such as a DVD-ROM, CD-R, memory upgrade, monitor, etc., compare prices and quality to find out which one is best for you. The most expensive product is not always the best, because it may contain features that the average person will never need. Every purchase is customer specific. Check out your favorite local or online store and ask the staff or read customer product reviews.

If you would like more information, e-mail us at, or call us at (202) 687-0640. Whatever your needs, budget, or preference, we would be happy to assist you in finding the right computer.