Before you run Higgledy-Piggledy (That’s a Technical term for Amok), out to BestCircuitShackMart for computer accessories there are a few things you need to know about what you already have. Specifically, you need to know what version of Windows (or Mac) you have, processor speed, amount of RAM, amount of free hard drive space, and what kind of ports you have available. (The following advice applies to PCs running Windows only.)
You can learn most of this by right-clicking on the “My Computer” icon on your desktop and selecting “Properties” from the resulting menu. (If you can’t find “My Computer”, on your desktop, click “Start”, then go to “My Computer” (just “Computer” on newer versions of Windows) on the Start menu, right click, and select “Properties”.) This will give you a box that will tell you what version of Windows, the processor type and (sometimes) speed, and the amount of RAM on the system.
To find out about your hard drive, double click “Computer”, right-click on the “C:” drive, and select “Properties”. This will give you a pie chart of used and free space on your main hard drive. Look at the back of your computer and note what ports you have unused. Most external accessories will use a USB port. There may be some on the front of the computer as well.
Write all this information down on a piece of paper and bring it with you when you shop for accessories.
When you look at accessories in the store, there will always be an area on the box or package called “System Requirements” or sometimes “Minimum System Requirements”. Read these carefully and compare them to what you have written down. Remember that they are Minimums. The accessory will work if you just meet the requirements, but maybe not very well. If you exceed the minimum system requirements by a comfortable margin, the accessory will probably work much better. Many boxes also have a “Recommended System” list; this is what they think will give optimum performance of their gadget. Again, remember that these are minimums.
A surge protector is a vital accessory for a computer. Get the best you can afford, at least 1500 Joules, preferably 2000 or more. If you have dial-up or DSL Internet service, get one with phone jacks and use them. If you get Internet from Cable, get one with cable jacks. You don’t have to worry about system requirements here; Power is power, unless you’re in another country.
Closely related to the surge protector is the Uninterruptible Power Supply, or UPS. This device often includes a surge protector, but it’s main feature is a large rechargeable battery and very fast circuitry that will switch to the battery during a power failure, giving you a few minutes to save your work and perform an orderly shutdown. You do not want to plug anything into the UPS other than your tower and monitor. Other things such as printers will only drain the battery faster if there’s a power failure. UPS units are rated in Volt-Amps (VA); the larger this number, the longer the time you get after the power fails. Most units will give you some idea on the package of how much time you’ll get, based on your computer type and monitor size and type. Typical times are between 5 and 10 minutes. Some include software to make managing the save and shutdown automatic. Not everybody needs a UPS, but if you’re doing critical stuff on your PC, they’re worth looking into.
Keyboards, Mice and Speakers are the easiest accessories to buy, because they will work with almost any computer. Speakers come in powered and unpowered types. Some may be USB powered. For a desktop computer, get the AC powered ones, not the battery powered ones. You’ll have to find a place on your power strip to plug them in. For a laptop, get whichever type fits your usage pattern. Speakers are plug and play – no software is needed as long as you have an audio out (sometimes called line out) or headphone jack on your computer.
Other accessories include memory card readers (plug and play with any late model computer), various adapters for adapting serial and parallel ports to USB, and USB hubs (used to multiply the number of USB ports).
Computer cables are a lot like home theater cables; The stores will try to convince you that the fancy gold-plated ones are so much better, but they all work about the same. You should always use the shortest cables that will do the job – USB cables, for instance, are not guaranteed to be reliable in lengths over 10 feet.
Things such as digital cameras, mp3 players, and the like aren’t really computer accessories, but like anything else that you want to plug into a computer, make sure you read the system requirements.
This post has been adapted from my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now! Click here to read all about it.
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