ABCs of Your Next Computer Purchase

Understanding changing specs can make buying a new computer less intimidating.

September 1, 2005

Every real estate professional will be in the market for a new computer, eventually. Working in an industry that increasingly relies on electronic communications and online marketing, you’ll likely have an ongoing need for computer equipment with more memory, more power, and more enhancements.

No matter how long it’s been since you purchased your last PC, the choices can seem overwhelming. It also can be intimidating to try to make sense of the acronyms, names, and numbers used to describe features in today’s computer systems. How do you know which features you need and how different components and options impact the computer’s performance?

To help you answer those questions, here are some key computer features to understand so that you’re better armed for your next purchase:

Operating system.


Once you’ve decided whether you want a desktop or portable computer, the next big decision is the operating system: Windows or Mac? The operating system, or OS, is the software that powers your computer system’s back-end operation. Although Macintosh computer users rave that Apple Computer’s OS X provides a more secure, intuitive, and easier-to-operate computer platform than Windows, it’s never gained the popularity or been given the software support that make it practical for most real estate professionals to use.

So, when you’re shopping, you’re more likely to be looking for a Windows-compatible computer, running some version of Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system. Windows XP is offered in Home or Professional editions. The basic Home Edition often is bundled for use on either a desktop or notebook computer and may be adequate for your needs. If networking and security are priorities for you, it may be worth the added expense of upgrading to the Professional edition, if it isn’t already bundled with the computer system. The additional security features in this edition can automatically encrypt sensitive data, and restrict access to certain files and applications stored on your computer. Another version of Windows XP, the Tablet PC Edition, is found on all Tablet PCs.



After the OS, another key feature to look at is the computer processing unit, or CPU, which is the mind of the machine where all data is processed and calculations are made. The different suppliers of CPUs include Intel Corp., Advanced Micro Devices Inc., and for a few portables, Transmeta Corp. Processors may be defined by both their name—Celeron, Pentium, or Athlon, for example—and their processing speed, such as 1.7GHz or 2.4GHz. You want the fastest processor you can afford; the faster the processor, the higher the number. For a notebook computer, mobile processors such a Pentium M or Mobile Athlon are designed for efficient operation while still conserving battery life.

Processors are continually evolving, so you’ll hear terms like dual core or 64-bit used to describe the latest CPUs. They represent the leading-edge technology, found in powerful high-end, high-priced systems. These systems deliver more power than most real estate practitioners currently need for everyday computing. Examples include Intel’s new Pentium Extreme Edition and the Athlon 64 X2 from AMD.



The memory capacity of a computer, expressed as RAM, determines how much memory space is available to the CPU for temporary storage of data during processing. Today, 256MB should be the minimum amount of RAM installed on any new computer system. SDRAM describes the standard type of RAM found in most PCs, while DDR SDRAM and RD RAM are faster types of memory that can make information available to the processor more quickly and efficiently, thereby boosting the performance of the entire computer system. Since RAM is relatively inexpensive, one of the cheapest ways to improve the performance of any computer, new or used, is to increase the amount of RAM available to the processor.

Hard Disk.


The size of the computer’s hard drive, now measured in gigabytes (GB), tells you how much information it can hold. The speed of the drive, expressed as a number like 5,400 rpm, indicates how quickly the drive spins and therefore how quickly data is written or available to the CPU. Look for at least a 40GB hard drive. If you work with a lot of digital photo images and other multimedia virtual tours, which take up a lot more space on your hard drive, you may want 80GB or higher.

Optical Drives.


Every computer user needs an optical drive, an internal CD drive, to at least be able to run software programs from CD disks. A budget-priced system may offer only a CD-ROM drive, while a CD-RW drive allows you to read and write to CDs. CD-RW/DVD drives write to CDs and read information stored on higher-capacity DVDs, while a DVD-R drive adds the ability to create your own DVDs and CDs.


There are two types of monitors you can choose from: cathode ray tube (CRT) and liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors, also called flat-screen monitors. With the CRT, the image and colors are created when a beam of electrons fired at the glass screen activate phosphor dots. In LCD screens, an electric current applied to a thick layer of liquid crystals produces the image. For desktops, CRT monitors cost less than comparably sized LCD monitors, but the trend is definitely moving toward LCD flat-screen monitors. LCD displays also are standard on all portables. All screen sizes are measured diagonally, in inches. New widescreen monitors have a specific ratio of screen height to width that corresponds to the format of movies, DVDs, and high-definition television. Screen resolution, expressed as pixels in a number such as 1,024 X 768, indicates the quality of the image seen on screen. The higher these numbers, the sharper the image.



Depending on the type of network you want to connect to, desktop users will want either Ethernet for connecting to a wired network or Wi-Fi wireless support. Wi-Fi is now a must-have with notebook computers so that you can access the Internet from Wi-Fi hotspots in the field. If this capability isn’t built-in to the notebook computer you want to buy, it’s worth paying a little extra for the upgrade. Look for Wi-Fi support that is 802.11g, which also is compatible with earlier 802.11b networks.

This is a basic overview of computer features you should know before you hit the market for a new computer. Even a rudimentary understanding of these features and what they mean will make it easier to sort through your options and find the right computer, no matter what type of system you seek.

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