Section 1: General informationThe 'coming soon' dilemma...
What is the biggest concern of most computer buyers? Probably the fact that computers nowadays become outdated so quickly.
People want to buy computers that will last.
The trouble is that people who know a little bit about the PC industry tend to 'wait forever'. They know that better stuff is always 'coming soon' and they want to wait just a bit longer to get better stuff for the same price or same stuff at a lower price.
So what can you do?
The short answer is: There are good times to buy a computer and there are bad times to buy. Just pick a good time and don't wait beyond that unless you don't mind continue using what you've got.
You might suspect that there is a longer answer to that... You're right, here it is...
You need to ask yourself these 3 questions:
Q1. What do I want to do with the computer?
Q2. How much am I willing to pay?
Q3. When do I want to buy it and how long do I want it to 'last'?
A. There are lots of thing that can be done with a computer. Perhaps you want to surf the internet or play games or maybe you just want to use it for word processing. It is obvious that everyone does not have to buy the fastest computer available. I myself work with 3D graphics and I always need a fast computer with lots of RAM (currently I have an Athlon 64 ~3500+ with 1.5GB of RAM and a GeForce 6800 GT). Now, many users will do just fine with slower CPUs, less memory and slower GFX cards... but...
One should however not limit him/herself to one specific task because as you start using your computer you will probably want to do more than you first anticipated. And of course - a "beefier" computer will last longer.. A top of the line computer will last about 3 years before it starts to feel the age.
I could probably divide the different usages into the following 6 categories:
(The order is 'least demanding' to 'most demanding' with some reservations)
1. Office work (Microsoft Office package (Word, Excel, Access))
2. Surfing on the Internet (Casual surfing, chatting, paying bills, shopping)
3. Programming (JAVA, C++, Visual Basic)
4. Creating/playing music and/or movies (Using a MIDI synth or playing MP3's & DivX :-)
5. Playing Games (Simpler 2D games or demanding 3D games such as FarCry, Doom 3, HalfLife2 etc.)
6. Creating Art (2D or 3D graphics such as Photoshop & 3DStudio Max (or something cheaper :) )
For categories 1 to 2, any new computer that you buy in the store will probably do. Most bigger stores sell certain brands, like IBM(©), Dell(©), HP(©) etc.etc..
These computers are often well suited for 90% of the buyers (people who don't really know that much about computers).
90% of the buyers don't care e.g. about what motherboard they get, how fast the memory is or how much cache the CPU has. They generally only care about two things: Price and MHz/GHz. They look at different models and say 'Ah, you get a 3,2 Ghz Dell for the same price as an 3,0 GHz HP' or something like that. Typically you also get decent customer support if you buy a "big-brand" PC.
Ease of use and included software is also often important with these customers. All the big brands are generally good at that.
Categories 3 & 4 are a bit different. For someone just starting to learn how to program, any new computer will suffice, however as any experienced programmer will tell you, serious programming of commercial applications will require a fast computer (to cut compile time) and a lot of memory. (And if they are programming on the new generation of programmable GFX cards, then they will need one of those too.) (Theoretically though, you could just buy any new computer and add some extra RAM.)
My personal opinion is that programmers shouldn't have too fast computers, because then they don't optimize their code. :-)
Category 4 is either the musician or those using their computer as a TV. Either way, With music it depends on how advanced stuff you're planning to do. If you're going to use a heavy duty sequencer or you'll be editing large files, you will need a fast computer lot's of memory and lot's of hard-drive space. Almost the same applies for editing movies and stuff like that. The difference is you'll really need A LOT of HD space. Professionals would probably consider a SCSI (Ultra Wide) controller.
Typically, this category will also want a CD burner and DVD player.
The 'Brand' issue:
You might wonder what the difference is between a famous brand and a set-up that some little known (small) company is selling cheaper.
The most common difference is that these small companies will skip the software.. Maybe you'll get the Operating System but little else. Other differences are often cheaper components (but not necessarily worse) e.g. motherboards. For first time buyers I'd recommend a well known brand.
However, if you already own a computer and are buying a new one, in most cases buying a famous brand will be a waste of money. In those cases find a good local dealer that has what you want. No point in paying for stuff you may already own. Add to that the fact that a 'non-brand' computer will be easier to expand/upgrade. However, if you don't plan to ever open your computer (which you shouldn't unless you know what you're doing) this is all academic.
Note however, that buying the 'loose' parts yourself and assembling your own computer should be reserver for enthusiasts (such as myself) only. Not all components work well with other components, and trying it out yourself could be an annoying and costly experience. And indeed, either way, it will almost certainly cost you significantly more in the end compared to buying a complete set-up. To be honest, the only advantage, apart from being moderatly 'fun', is the fact that you can handpick exactly the components you want (and that you donšt have to buy them all at once if you don't have enough cash).
Section 1, conclusion:
If you think you are one of those that make up the 90% then you don't really need any specific instructions other than the tips you'll find in the next section (where I explain what you get & about minimum specs that a package should offer). Just go to your local dealer and buy a package from any known brand that seems to offer the most stuff for the least money. You will probably ask the sales-person about a good deal, but they tend to be lamers themselves and what they tell you will just be a bunch of sales-talk.
Your computer will be good enough for most things in categories 1 to 4 and to some extent also cat. 5. This is however where things get complicated. If you wish to play the latest cool 3D games, it's time to take a closer look at the hardware.
Section 2: The hardware explained. Minimum specs.
Section 3: Categories 5 & 6. Demanding hardware.
Section 4: Links to other buyers guides.