What Kind of Computer Should I Buy?

Students often ask for recommended specifications for a new PC that should get a Computer Information Systems student through our program. Here’s a list of the basic components we would currently recommend buying for a new system, based on the kind of work our students would need to do on a home PC.  Software and other additional program costs are also listed.  Used systems and laptops are also discussed.

Recommended components for a new PC as of February 2008

  • A name-brand motherboard with a warranty (e.g. ASUS, Gigabyte, Abit, etc.) that supports current hardware features. Ideally it should also support faster CPUs, so you can upgrade in the future.

  • 2.2 GHz or faster Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Athlon 64X2 CPU, using a fast local bus motherboard (ask your dealer).  You don't need the fastest CPU. You will want lots of fast RAM.

  • 2GB RAM - if RAM is cheap at the time, and you can afford it, get 3-4 Gigabytes.

  • 3.5” floppy drive. Nearly out of fashion, but still useful. A few courses still require assignments to be handed in on floppy disks.

  • A flash card reader that supports multiple card types. Card Readers are an inexpensive addition and come standard on most computers nowadays.

  • 160 GB or larger 7200 RPM or faster SATA hard drive (and controller if needed). Get a fast big drive - you won't be sorry.

  • A DVD-RW drive. Having your system fail on you at a crucial point in the semester can be very stressful. For this reason you will want to seriously consider an organized system to frequently backup your programs and data. DVD-RW drives can also burn CDs.

  • A good graphics card with at least 256 MB RAM (512 MB is better).  The a nVIDIA GeForce 7300 or better card is recommended.  Most motherboards come with decent graphics capabilities built in, so a separate graphics card can wait until you really need it.

  • 19” or larger LCD monitor.  If you can afford it, get a 22" widescreen LCD monitor. Do some careful shopping here, as all monitors are not equal. Test the monitor you will purchase by sitting in front of it and trying it out with various programs. Match your video card and monitor. Buy a good monitor - you will spend many hours in front of it.  You should be able to get a decent 17" LCD flat screen monitor for around $300.  Make sure the one you take home does not have any dead pixels.  Many warranties do not cover a few dead pixels.

  • Motherboards now come with integrated sound cards. However, speakers (quality and price depending on your tastes) are a necessity, as some CD-ROMs and web pages have instructional video clips with sound.

  • Network card/modem: 10/100 or Gigabit network cards are built in to modern motherboards. If you intend to get cable modem or ADSL Internet service, check with your proposed service provider to make sure that you are within their coverage area. If you are in a remote area, you may need to get a dial-up modem for communication over telephone lines.

  • Wheel mouse, keyboard, case and power supply. Optical mice require less maintenance. A wireless keyboard and/or mouse is an option as well. A case should have several extra drive bays, both 5.25”, and 3.5” for future expandability. A 450W or higher power supply is recommended, as it will allow for future expandability, as devices require more power. 

  • Power bar with surge protection. Try to find one designed for PCs with extra wide spaces for those little DC transformers used to power speakers, cable modems, etc. An uninterruptible power supply would be nice, especially if you live in an area subject to power outages.

  • Printer - an inexpensive black and white laser printer is recommended. Colour inkjet printers are nice for reports, but the ink cartridges are expensive. Factor in the cost of printer toner cartridges and paper to get the real cost over time.

While this is certainly not the cheapest system, it should contain sufficient CPU speed, RAM and disk space for CIS students’ needs for the next couple of years, and prove reasonably fast and pleasant to use. This takes into account (to some degree) the ever-increasing requirements that will be made on hardware by upcoming software such as new operating systems and programming tools.  

Lesser systems will still run most current software, but will usually run more slowly, costing you valuable time. If you need to spend less, consider suggest buying a slower, used machine, or a new system with less RAM, a slower CPU, and a motherboard that will handle a faster CPU. CPU prices drop pretty quickly, and you can pop in a faster one a year or so later. You can add more RAM at any time. If you buy a cheap monitor or small hard drive, you’re stuck with it until you replace it.



Laptops have become much more affordable in recent years and are an excellent way to take notes in class. If you plan to use a laptop as your main machine, expect to spend $1100-1500 and get a good machine. People tend hang on to laptops for a relatively long time, so make sure that you get a good one, as, beyond RAM and hard drive, they are relatively non-upgradeable. The recommendations for laptops are the same as for desktops, with the exceptions that a laptop processor should be 1.8 GHz or better, and laptop integrated graphics are typically acceptable.


Used Machines

Older, slower machines are better than nothing. Even a 1.4 GHz Pentium IV gives you the capability to type in code and reports at home. However, you may find yourself unable to run some software and operating systems, and will find the slowness very frustrating.  Buying extra memory for older systems can be more expensive. Also, in general, processors for older systems are difficult to find, limiting future expandability.


Money versus Time

An older or cheaper system will run more slowly, costing you valuable time. A cheaper system may also be less reliable. When you're recompiling a large program for the fourteenth time at 2am, you'll be glad you have more RAM and a faster system.


Protecting Your System - Network Security

If you are directly connected to the Internet, you need to be concerned about security. A router provides some security and allows you to share your Internet access with other computers in the house. Wireless routers are useful, but need a little extra attention to security settings.  You'll also want antivirus and anti-spyware programs (e.g. McAfee, Symantec, etc.), and a software firewall (built in to Windows XP Service Pack 2 and Windows Vista, or get ZoneAlarm for free).



Not factored into this equation is the cost of software. Most software you'll need is available through the University bookstore at a considerable academic discount to registered students.

Some Microsoft software (excluding the Office Suite) is available for free to students in particular courses in the CIS program, under our MSDNAA (Microsoft Developer's Network Academic Alliance) agreement. To acquire this software, one must first sign up or the program. The MSDNAA registration form is available here.

  • Operating system: in the 2008-2009 year, Windows XP Professional will be in the UFV labs, and is the recommended OS for home computers. Windows Vista, while not the best choice, is also acceptable.

  • Office Suite: you will need Microsoft Office Professional immediately. This includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access. The student academic price for Office 2003 is about $330.  Office 2000 or XP will also work if you have it (except for Office Suite courses CIS 100, CIS 110, and BUS 160, which are not part of the CIS program).
    Free, open source alternatives are available for most office programs. A listing is available here.

  • Languages: you may want to obtain Visual Basic.NET, C++ or Java development environments at some point.  Don't purchase these until you need to, as versions change, and some items may be free to qualified students under the MSDNAA.

  • Additional software may be recommended or required in some courses. Your professor will advise you on what software is necessary.

  • You'll also need a few simple tools for hardware and networking courses. Your instructors will tell you what you need.


Who Should I Buy a PC From?

You can often get the lowest prices from smaller companies that put together custom systems in-house for you. However, some of these companies (and larger ones) have suddenly disappeared in the past, leaving people with warranty problems and no service help. Smaller companies can also offer very good service.

As a CIS student, you will learn to do a lot of your own problem solving, so a lack of help needn’t be a serious problem - failed components with no warranty is. Ask about system return or replacement policy in case you purchase a "lemon" (it happens).

Larger companies tend to charge more for systems, but may provide better service, and be more likely to be around for the life of your warranty. You might also consider Internet computer stores like Dell and Gateway. Read Performance PC or The Hub (pick up one at your local library) for Vancouver prices.

Check vendors with the Better Business Bureau first, no matter whom you decide to purchase from. Ask your fellow students for recommendations. You can also check with the student volunteers in the Student Computing Centre, room D224.

This is simply free advice - ultimately the decision on what to buy and who to buy from is yours.

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