Everything* you always wanted to know*well, almost everything...
about buying a computer at UVM
You're thinking of buying a computer...what now? You've no doubt already used a computer in some way (as you are now, reading this web page!), and know that they can be wonderful tools and great fun. Now you're looking to get one of your own but you have questions.
This short guide was prepared to help answer some of those questions. We attempt to keep it current, but there may be some information that is out of date, for which we apologize in advance. The first part consists of common questions that many people have about buying a computer. Since sometimes it seems like people are speaking in a foreign language when they talk about computers, the last part explains some computer terms. Remember that there are no stupid questions, so please ask if you don't understand something. We have counselors at the Computer Depot who will be glad to help you.
Do I need to own a computer?
If you are a student enrolled in the School of Business Administration (BSAD), the answer is yes (information about the computer requirement). While no particular make or model is specified, the Depot offers laptops that meet the minimum specifications.
If you are not a BSAD student, then there is no requirement to own a computer. While instructors do assign homework to be done on a computer, there is no college that uses them to such a degree that you must own one. You may find, however, that a computer of your own is most convenient for doing your classwork. While a major part of what we do is to sell computers, we realize that the expense, though in many cases affordable, is not to be taken lightly. See below for info about computers on campus that you can use for free.
How are computers being used at UVM?
If you can think of something that people do at a university, you can probably find someone that is using a computer to do it. You will find computers in every area from Accounting to Music to Zoology. The University has IBM mainframes, SGI and Sun workstations, Dell PCs, and Apple Macintosh computers, to name a few. They are used to figure out your schedule, layout the newspaper, do calculus problems, and even compose music. (Or, if you are a professor, to make up the exam!)
Will I be able to afford a computer?
Yes! UVM offers Apple and Dell computers to students, faculty, staff and departments at educational discounts over retail. Apple has an educational loan program for individuals offering attractive payments at a reasonable interest rate. Apple's financial services number is 1-800-APPLELN (1-800-277-5356). Please call us to find out about Dell's financing programs.
Are there computers I can use if I don't own one?
There are several computer labs on campus. The Enterprise Technology Services (ETS) computer lab in the basement of Waterman has both Mac OS and Windows computers available for use, as well as laser and color printers. The Department of Engineering and Mathematics has several Windows and UNIX workstation labs in Votey. There are other computer labs in some of the residence halls and other departments. See www.uvm.edu/it/computers/ or ask around!
If I decide to get a computer, where should I go?
The Computer Depot is located in 200 Davis Center, within the UVM Bookstore. Our phone number is (802) 656-3067, and our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. During our Back-to-School (BTS) promotion during the summer, students may order from a selection of laptop bundles online.
What does the Depot sell?
We sell the full line of Apple computers and Dell OptiPlex desktop & Latitude notebook computers. If it isn't on our price lists, we can probably order it for you. Our service department repairs the models we sell (see our main service page for current models serviced). We also sell peripherals (printers, iPods, speakers, cables, etc.), software, and memory. Chances are that if you want it, we can get it!
Why should I buy from the Computer Depot?
- We offer special educational prices on the computers we sell. Often these prices are below the price that dealers pay for the same equipment.
- We offer you the convenience of purchasing your computer on campus, pre-sale consulting, and expert support.
- On-campus carry-in repair service by manufacturer-certified technicians is available on all the equipment we sell. If your computer or display ever breaks, we will ensure that it gets fixed.
- All Apple computers we sell include AppleCare extended warranties; they may be purchased with the standard one year warranty if you wish (price will be reduced accordingly). Note: AppleCare does not cover accidental damage--it only extends the standard warranty from one year to three.
- The Dell computers we sell carry three year warranties, and CompleteCare accidental damage protection is pre-bundled on all laptop models.
What about the new computers at the department store?
Many manufacturers have low-cost lines of home computers available in mass market outlets (e.g. Sears, Staples, Costco, Best Buy). These computers are aimed at the home computer market and generally come bundled with software for the home computer user. However, these computers may have difficulties accessing the UVM networks, or conflicts with recommended software (such as Antivirus or the VPN Client), and may therefore run into more difficult support problems. We strongly suggest that you consult your college's minimum computer recommendations if it has any to get an idea of the supported hardware and software on campus. When comparing prices, remember to "spec out" the computer you're looking at to be the same as what we sell, and examine how much you might have to pay for things like a 3-year warrant (and damage protection if offered), Microsoft Office, and an antivirus program. MS-Office is offered at educational pricing much better than retail, and if you pay for antivirus software, you'll pay too much: UVM provides enterprise-level antivirus software for free (www.uvm.edu/software)
Since the Depot sells the entire line of Apple computers, and the enterprise-level line of Dell computers, we can usually provide you with a similar computer for less money. In addition, our solutions are better suited to the computing needs in an academic environment. We also have on-campus service and networking support for what we sell.
Should I wait to buy until the new _____ (fill in the blank) is out?
It has been said that if the automobile industry had advanced as fast as the computer industry, we would all be buying $10 cars that went 250 mph while getting 400 mpg. The truth is that no matter what you buy today, six months from now you can buy a faster computer for less money. This isn't going to change in the near future. This means that there is no universal answer to this question. If you really want the next great thing, wait. Otherwise, go ahead and buy a computer that meets your needs now, and enjoy it. For most people, whatever you buy now will serve you well for at least the next four years.
How do I decide what kind of computer to buy?
This can be the hardest part of buying a new computer if you're not sure. Basically you need to ask a lot of questions of yourself and others. Some things to consider:
- What do I want to do with the computer?
- What software do I want to use? Word processing? Spreadsheets or databases? Graphics or sound? A programming language? Special software for a class?
- What experience do I have with computers?
- Am I more comfortable with Mac OS, Windows, or Linux?
- Do I want a desktop or a laptop computer?
- Do I want a portable computer that I can dock to a larger, external display and a full-sized keyboard and mouse/trackball when I'm at my desk?
- Do I need a larger display (or two) and more memory yet less computer "horsepower"?
- Do I want to game with the pros and there need a "gaming machine"?
- How much can I afford to spend?
Once you know the answers to these questions, come in and talk to us. We will help you find the computer that best fits your needs.
Which is better, PC (Windows) or Macintosh?
Which is better, blue or red? A hard question to answer in any but the most subjective way. It is the same with Windows and Mac OS computers. Both will do almost anything that you might want to do. Most of the major software packages have versions for each platform. The Mac OS is a "friendly" operating system, with an interface that is designed to be intuitive and easy to use, yet is powerful, too. Most "background" tasks are handled by the Mac OS, which is built partly on the concept that the person using the Mac does not need to be bothered with the cumbersome details of getting a program to work. Windows has progressed toward the same ease of use while maintaining the ability to delve into the "guts" of the OS. The distinction of which OS is better becomes even less clear since both Windows and the Mac OS share many of the same features such as 32-bit applications, plug and play, hierarchical menus, and drag & drop. Windows computers are more common in the business world, and have more stuff (internal hardware & software) available for them. They also tend to be less expensive, though not necessarily more affordable in the long run. On the other hand, most Mac computers do not require extensive configuring to perform optimally, and since the introduction of OS X, the software and business markets have expanded greatly. To complicate matters, Apple's entire line now comes with Intel processors, allowing them to boot to Windows , run fast PC emulators (Parallels or VMWare Fusion), or seemlessly run some Windows programs (CrossOver Mac). So which one do you buy? Try them all first: Macintosh and Dell demo computers are available in our office for a test drive; think about what you want from your computer and which one feels better to you. It's a personal choice, and there is no wrong answer.
What about Linux?
Linux if available for both PC's and Macs, though it is not supported by UVM. Therefore, if you decide to install it, you will most likely need to seek help from the Linux distributor. You may be able to get assistance with some campus-specific functions of Linux via the Computer Depot Clinic (CDC), so it wouldn't hurt to come in and ask them first.
Where can I get software for my computer?
The Computer Depot sells a variety of software packages. For detailed information please review our software sales pages. Several "site-licensed" software packages such as antivirus, statistical analysis, SFTP/SSH, and Cisco's VPN Client are available for free download at www.uvm.edu/software (UVM NetID and password required). Microsoft Office for Mac OS and Windows may be downloaded for UVM departmental computers at no charge at www.uvm.edu/it/mca/, then click on "Access the Network Share" link on the right. This Microsoft Campus Agreement software is not for personal use.
What do I do if I don't know how to use a computer?
Ask somebody! There are peer advisors in most dorms, counselors in the labs, or professors. If you can't find anyone to answer your question, try calling the ETS Client Services HelpLine at 656-2604, or see the ETS home page. Client Services also offers classes and on-line tutorials. If all else falls, try the tutorial that come with your computer or as a last resort, read the manual! (Oh no, not THE MANUAL!) Both Macintosh and computers running Windows have exhaustive on-line help which may be worth checking out.
How do I make a decision when I don't understand the terms?
Let's go over some of the terms that you hear when people talk about personal computers. You may already be familiar with some items through use, and yet may need to know what they are called. The most basic terms dealing with computers are hardware and software.
Hardware is the physical part of the machine. If you can touch it, it is likely to be hardware. Software, or programs (sometimes called "applications"), is the term for instructions that tell your computer what to do. If you think of a cookbook in these terms, the paper, ink, and binding are all hardware; the words, sentences and pictures are all software.
When you use a computer, the part you look at is called a display or monitor. Tube-type displays are also called CRTs, while flat-panel and laptop displays are also called LCDs. Displays are like televisions in that they provide a visual presentation of information. Displays are controlled by a video "adapter" or card in the computer, and they must be designed to work with each other. In most computers, a separate video card is not necessary because it has been built onto the main circuit board (motherboard or system board).
There are several terms that you need to know in order to compare displays. The first is size, which is expressed in inches. It is measured from the upper left corner to the lower right corner of the screen. Common display sizes for laptops are 14", 15", & 17", while desktop displays can range from 17" to 30" and up. Many LCDs are available in a wide-screen format.
Historical note: if you measured a CRT screen, the visible area was not as big as the advertised dimensions. For example, most 15" monitors had only 13.8" of actual viewable area. The specified size included the entire phosphor-coated area, the outer parts of which were too curved for usable video. While not technically erroneous, it was misleading. Thankfully, LCDs can be made so that the visible area is exactly as advertised.
The resolution of a display is given in the number of horizontal pixels by vertical pixels. A pixel is one of the dots of light that form the picture on the screen. (If you want to see some pixels, get a magnifying glass and use it to look at your TV.) When given the resolution of a display you may hear a term like 1024 x 768, which means that there are 1024 pixels across the screen and 768 pixels down. The higher the number, more stuff will fit on the screen; since screens do not physically change size, higher resolutions make things look smaller since more items fit onto the fixed screen. Conversely, lower resolutions make things look larger at the cost of viewing less information. For a great description of resolution, see the Wikipedia site en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Display_resolution.
Often instead of giving a number, the resolution of the screen may be referred to by some letters: VGA, SVGA, XGA, and UXGA are all display resolutions. These letters are variants of VGA, or Video Graphics Array, and reflect the increasing resolution capabilities of displays. Most displays will list one of these as the maximum resolution that it is capable of. See the Wiki site above if you'd like detailed descriptions of these terms, or you can ask a Depot staff person.
Historical Notes (the next two items are not typical concerns now as they referred mostly to CRT displays and very early LCDs):
Dot pitch tells you how close together the dots on the screen are. Dot pitch is measured in millimeters and tells you how sharp the image on the screen will look. The smaller the dot pitch, the sharper the picture. For example, a .28mm dot pitch monitor will look better then a .39mm dot pitch monitor. Avoid .39mm dot pitch monitors unless you enjoy headaches. You'll notice that many very low end computers and bundles have these kind of monitors bundled with them.
The last number is refresh rate. This is a number given in Hz (Hertz, the name for cycles-per-second; 1 Hz = 1 cps). It tells you how often the picture is drawn on the screen every second. The higher the number, the more often the screen is redrawn and the less "flicker" you will notice. Generally this number should be around 70Hz. Some monitors are called multi-synch monitors, meaning that their refresh rate is adaptable to the kind of video card used (i.e. it will work with VGA and XGA).
Ergonomics are important too. When you are looking at a display for your desktop computer, see how adjustable the base is. Can you swivel it up and down? It is important that you be able to adjust it to a comfortable viewing angle. (CRT notes: While you are at it, find out if it meets the Swedish Government radiation standards. There is some concern over the amount of radiation that CRTs emit, and the Swedish Government has been leading the world in publishing standards to limit low frequency radiation. Apple and DELL monitors met this standard. See the Wikipedia CRT page for more info.)
The next part of the computer you will probably notice is the keyboard. All the desktop computers we sell at the Depot come with Extended keyboards having 101 keys. They include function keys (F1, F2, F3, F4, etc.) which are often programmable via software, meaning that you can set them to execute common tasks. Laptop computers come with a variety of keyboards. Most come with 84 keys, and in a slightly different configuration than that of the regular extended keyboard; quite often, each manufacture may arrange the "extra" keys differently than their competitors. Laptop keyboards are by design smaller than their desktop counterparts.
Next to the keyboard you will often find a mouse. Mice are little things that you roll around on the desk to move a pointer on the screen called a cursor (it's that arrow shaped thing). Mice come in all manner of different shapes and sizes. There are also upside down mice, called trackballs, where the mouse stays still and you roll a ball on the top with your fingers. Laptops have trackpads (works like a trackball without any moving parts as you move a finger over a flat pad), and some have an additional small, eraser-like joystick in the middle of the keyboard. Dell calls them pointing sticks.
Finally we get to the computer part of the computer. The term CPU means Central Processing Unit, and it can refer to either a single chip in the computer (processor -- see next item), or the computer itself. In the case of desktops, the CPU is that big box behind the keyboard that the display sits on. Some people refer to it as the "hard drive," but that is a mistake: the hard drive is a component inside the computer, not the computer itself. See below for a description of what a hard drive is. The most important part of the computer is the CPU, because the CPU is the part of the computer that actually does the computing! Confused? The name goes back to the days when computers where very large, and the CPU was a box of electronic parts about the size of your bathroom. The chip-CPU is normally called the processor now, so if you hear techs refer to "the CPU," they are most likely talking about the computer instead.
All the computers that we sell now use Intel® processors. Currently, these are the Core2 Duo line for both desktops and laptops, and essentially house four processors in a single chip!
Historical Note: PowerPC CHIPS
Back in the old days (we're talking personal computers here so that's not all that long ago), Apple and IBM were the only game in town. Then a fellow named Bill started to sell DOS to anyone who wanted it. This did several things. First, Bill became a zillionaire. Second, everyone and his sister started selling clones of the IBM PC for less money than IBM charged for the original. Soon Apple and IBM weren't the only game in town. They didn't like that. So in 1991 they teamed up to introduce PowerPC. Apple used this chip in the Macintosh line of computers for several years. Some recent PowerPC processors were the G3, G4, and G5. If you wanted the fastest computer around, the G5 was it. Some Macs came with two processors for unbelievable performance. Now, however, the Intel Core2 Duos out-perform even the fastest G5's, and the Mac Pros with Intel Quad Xeon processors blow their predecessors out of the water.
The speed rating, or more accurately the clock speed, of a processor is given in GHz (gigahertz, or a billion cycles per second). Generally, the higher the speed rating, the faster the computer, but not in every case. There are many other aspects that come into play in determining the final speed of the computer, such as the speed of the video adapter and hard drive, the amount of RAM, and the OS. For example, not having enough RAM (see memory below) will slow down the computer immensely. Additionally, as processors have evolved, their clock speed has actually gone down while performance has gone up. Therefore, a 2 GHz Core2 Duo processor could out-perform a 4 GHz Pentium 4.
Since we are talking about chips, now would be a good time to talk about RAM. RAM is short for Random Access Memory. Like CPU, its name goes back to the days of the early computers. RAM is the short-term, fast, and temporary memory that your computer uses to run programs. The more RAM you have, the more programs you can run at once, and some operations are faster. Think of your desk. You can work with the papers that are on the top, but not the ones in the file drawers. If you had a bigger desktop, you could have more papers out. More RAM is like a bigger desktop: it allows the computer to do more with data in memory without having to go back and forth to the hard drive (which is slower). The amount of RAM that a computer has is measured in megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB). When you turn off or restart your computer, the contents of the RAM are lost. Returning to the desk analogy, shutting down your computer is like putting all of the papers that are on the desk back into its file drawers where they belong, and starting up your computer is like taking those papers back out to work on them again. An unexpected shutdown or freeze is like someone coming along and suddenly sweeping everything off your desk! When you take a file out of the drawers & put it on your desk, you actually pull out a copy (open the file); when you put the file back after making changes, you replace the one in the drawer with the edited copy (save the file). In the sometimes magical world of computers, this all happens without your having to know the nitty-gritty details.
Memory is packaged in DIMMs, short for Dual In-line Memory Modules. DIMMs are easily installable into sockets on the motherboard, and this must be done with the power OFF!
The Hard Drive (or hard disk) is another kind of memory in a computer. It is named for the disk, or platter, in it that holds the information, which is made of metal or glass and coated with a magnetic material. The platter spins at a high RPM while a read/write "head," floats on a cushion of air created by the spinning disk. The head is attached to a minutely controlled arm that moves the head toward the center of the disk or out to its rim. As the head moves along this path, it reads from or writes to concentric tracks on the surface of the disk. How? By changing the arrangement of iron particles on the disk to represent the 1's and 0's of computer "language." The hard drive is like the drawer in the desk analogy. You can put a lot of papers in it, but you have to move a paper out onto the top of the desk to use it. Hard drives come in many sizes, expressed in gigabytes (GB). The smallest drives available in new computers are commonly 60GB (though that may change in six months!). Over-80GB drives are becoming commonplace today. In addition to size, hard drives are also given a speed rating, in milliseconds (ms), called average access time. It is the average time that it takes the drive to move the read/write head from one track to another. Most drives are rated at about 8-10ms. Don't worry about the speed, any hard drive you buy with a new computer will be more than fast enough. You should worry about the size of your hard drive. Like RAM, you can never have a hard drive that is too big. For college, a 60GB drive is plenty big, but if you want to have a lot of music or videos, or install a ton of games, an 80GB or 100GB drive is better. There isn't a huge cost difference these days. (Just for the record, I don't own any stock in any hard drive or RAM chip manufacturing company, nor do the people in the Depot receive a commission!)
USB "THUMB" DRIVES
Drives of this type go by many names: Thumb, Flash, Jump, Key, etc. They are so named by their shape or size typically, but they all are just flash memory devices with a USB connection. Flash memory is a kind of RAM that will hold data like a hard drive, and acts like a drive as far as the computer is concerned, but has no moving parts.
Floppy disk drives are other devices for storing information, employing a flexible disk coated with magnetic material. Floppy drives are similar in function to hard drives, except that the disks --"floppies"-- are removable and hold less information. The reason that they are called floppy disks is that the disk on which the information is stored is made of thin plastic and is (you guessed it) floppy. Floppy drives are quickly becoming obsolete due to the ease of use of USB drives and CD burners, not to mention that those devices are superior. Computers sold by the Depot have not come with floppy drives for several years.
We should also mention CD-ROM drives. CD-ROM stands for Compact Disk Read Only Memory. A CD-ROM looks just like a regular CD, except that instead of music, it contains computer information. A CD-ROM holds about 700MB of data. It is important to note that you can only read the information on a CD-ROM, you can't write to it. (What? I've heard of CD burners -- what do you mean I can't write to a CD? Read on...) CD-ROMs are used to distribute large amounts of information in a small format. Many reference books are available on CD-ROM. As an example, the whole unabridged Oxford English Dictionary fits on one CD-ROM disk. Almost all computers today come standard with CDRW drives, which allow you to write to a CD (see, here's your answer) -- this is great for backing up your valuable data. CDRW stands for Compact Disk Read/Write. These drives will read CD-ROMs and read from and write to CD-Rs (wRite once) and CDRW disks. CDRWs can be written to over and over again. And finally, DVDs, which stands for Digital Video Disks, allow you to watch movies on your computer. A DVD actually holds 4 GB of information - plenty of space for your favorite movie! A CDRW drive that will read DVDs is called a Combo drive, while one that will write to DVD media is commonly referred to as a DVD+/-RW drive.
The last part of the computer we need to talk about is the bus. The bus is the connection between the different parts of the computer, including any expansion cards. Expansion cards come in many shapes and sizes. There are video cards that can drive large displays with millions of colors, network cards that attach your computer to other computers over a network, and many other kinds of cards. PCI, or Peripheral Component Interconnect (what a mouthful!) slots are the most common slots available in desktops. Video cards nowadays are usually AGP, or Accelerated Graphics Port. Many laptops have a Cardbus slot, where you can insert expansion cards such as for wireless networking, USB/FireWire ports, etc.
You may be thinking, OK, I've read "USB" a couple of times already, and now you talk about "FireWire"? That's the problem with writing a computer information missive: the more you write, the more terms you dig up! USB stands for Universal Serial Bus, and is a type of connection that will allow you to connect various devices to your computer. Examples include keyboards, mice, external hard drives, cameras, etc. FireWire is Apple Inc.'s proprietary name for the IEEE 1394 high-speed communications ports which they designed. Most of us refer to the IEEE 1394 ("I tripple-E thirteen-ninety-four") ports on PCs as "FireWire" ports, too. FireWire devices include external hard drives, digital video cameras, and the like, where high speed communications between devices are a must.
Well, that's it! If you are still confused, don't feel bad. BIG Books explaining computers are a growth industry, and we don't expect you to become an expert in just a few pages. This paper was intended to get you started. Come in and talk to us, we are here to help.
The Computer Depot
Sales • Services • Support
200 Davis Center
Burlington, VT 05405
Please note: the Depot does not support nor is affiliated with any of the external web sites cited in this document.
Last modified May 24 2013 10:19 AM