Choosing the Right Computer, Part 3:
Customizing Your System So It Works for You

In our previous two articles in this series, we discussed the first two decisions you need to make when choosing a computer: (1) Macintosh or Windows? and (2) Laptop or Desktop?

Now, you need to determine how your system will be configured. (It's a lot like choosing options on a car you're buying.)

The three most important configuration decisions are processor type and speed, memory (RAM), and hard drive space. Don't worry if you don't understand these terms yet. You will in a moment.

The Processor Speed

Your computer's processor (sometimes referred to its CPU or central processing unit) is the part of your computer that does the work. You've probably seen computers that say “Intel Inside” or that boast of having a Pentium 4 chip. Or you've heard about Macintosh G4 or G5 systems. These are all different types of processor chips.

The speed of those chips –called the clock speed – varies from around 400MHz (megahertz - “mega” means “million”) up to 3GHz (gigahertz – “giga” means “billion”).

Don't worry too much about what the numbers mean. All you need to know is that, generally, the higher the number (3GHz is higher than 400MHz) the faster the processor. And the faster the processor, the quicker your computer does tasks.

Word of warning: You cannot directly compare processor speeds between Macintosh and Windows systems. While a 2GHz processor on a Windows machine is faster than a 500MHz Windows, it is not necessarily faster than a 1.5GHz Mac.

As a graphic designer, you want to choose a computer with the fastest processor speed you can afford … with one important exception. You also want to get as much memory (also called RAM) as possible.

Memory and Drive Space Demystified

Many computer users confuse two very different parts of their computers, because they are measured in similar ways. These are memory –commonly called RAM (Random Access Memory) – and hard drive space.

Think of your computer as a woodworking shop. Computer memory is like your workbench. It's where you do your work. The more bench space you have, the easier it is to do the work.

If you have a small bench, you pile stuff on top of other stuff. It gets harder to work efficiently. The same is true of your computer memory. The more RAM you have (to the limits allowed by your computer), the faster and more efficiently you can accomplish your tasks.

RAM is measured in megabytes or gigabytes. As a graphic designer, you should try to get at least 512 megabytes of RAM – more, if possible.

So, when buying a computer, try to get as fast a processor as you can. But don't skimp on the RAM.

Your hard drive space is storage space. Even though it is also measured in mega- and gigabytes, it is not the same as RAM (memory). Hard drive storage space is like all the cabinets, drawers, and shelves in a woodworking shop.

It's where your computer stores finished and unfinished work, your pictures, documents, music, and similar things. It's also where the computer stores your programs when you're not using them.

Hard drives are now relatively inexpensive. Try to get a computer with at least a 40 gigabyte (GB) internal hard drive. You should also consider getting an external drive that is at least that big for backups.

Now, let's see what our design experts are using:

Lori Haller:
I run my main business using a Power Mac G4. I use Mac OS X Version 10.3.9 with a 467 MHz CPU. I back up on a firewire drive and also onto CDs. Then every 3 months, I have it backed up and kept off-site in a safe – so even if the place burns down, the artwork is always properly archived.

Roger Parker:
I have three late model Dell computers, all with 1 gigabyte memory (RAM). The laptop is considerably older, but adequate. A fast computer is a pleasure to use.

Get at least a 40GB hard drive. An 80GB drive is better, as graphics files quickly mount up. The best insurance you can get is off-premise, automatic, backup. My primary computer is automatically backed up to a remote archive every night.

Dennis Rome:
I have a Sony VAIO laptop (Pentium 4, 3.2GHz processor with 1 gigabyte of RAM. It has a 100GB hard drive. I also have a “backup” desktop system (Pentium 4, 3.0GHz, 300GB Serial ATA hard drive, and 2GB of RAM.

Mike Klassen:
I have a Dell, Pentium 4, 3.20GHz, 2GB RAM and the built-in Dell graphics adapter. Tip: Get a system with as much processor speed and RAM as you can afford. Anyone using Windows plus software like Photoshop is going to endure lots of frustration on a slow system with the minimum amount of RAM.

There are other important details to consider when buying a computer, such as the graphics system, onboard CD/DVD drives, and the like. These and many other non-computer related ideas are covered in detail (but in easy-to-understand language) in AWAI's new Graphic Design Biz-In-A-Box program.

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Published: August 25, 2005

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