Whether you own a computer tower, a laptop or a tablet with touchscreen, computer hardware never ceases to evolve. The market in the UK grows each year, so that almost every household now owns some sort of electronic device.
In additional to the peripherals that are part of the basic user interface with your PC, such as a monitor, keyboard and mouse, there are other accessories that you might find useful when dealing with computers.
Here is a selection to help you decide what you need for your home office and what to purchase for your online IT courses the next time you enter an electronics shop.
Your Data Output Device: The Printer
Whether you choose Epson, Brother or HP, you have a wide choice of printers at your disposal.
Though printers were once very expensive, these days you can find printers for very little money. The cheapest start at about £30, though obviously there is a rub: though the printer is cheap, the ink cartridges - which mysteriously empty much more quickly in the cheaper models - are fairly onerous.
Fortunately, there are companies that make cartridges to fit the most common printers for less than half the price; some even re-fill them if you send them in.
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For private use, we recommend inkjet printers: micro-droplets of ink are projected onto paper to print out anything from text to JPGs and TIFFs. Today, most printers are fairly silent and reasonably fast. Of course, the price affects various functions, such as the clarity and brilliancy of pictures, speed of printing, two-sided print options…
Print quality is measured in DPI: the higher the value, the lower the pixelation. For a simple text document, 600 dpi is sufficient; for a picture in a halfway decent quality, look for a printer capable of at least 1200 dpi. So consider carefully how you will be using your printer before going out to buy one.
A good speed is about 10 pages per minute, but this will vary depending on whether you are printing in black and white or in colour, text-only or a picture.
There are also combination scanner-printers out there that can multitask (starting at about £40). They can:
- Print documents and photos
- Scan documents
- Photocopy in black and white or in colour
- Send and receive faxes
- Read flash drivess or USB sticks and print pictures directly from them, without passing by the computer
Warning: though some modern printers are wi-fi compatible, others need a cable, which is not always included! Make sure you ask about it in the shop and let someone help you find a USB cable of the right length and type (or look carefully at the product description when shopping online).
Laser and LED printers
In the past, you could also find needle printers if you wanted to save on ink, but these are almost never used any more as they are loud and slow. But now you can get a colour laser printer that lets you print high-quality pictures with very little ink. They are also much faster than inkjet printers. The only downside is their cost, meaning they are mostly used by companies and professionals.
LED printers are laser printers’ new rivals as they offer a very high print quality (600-2400 dpi).
What about 3-D printers? With them, you can print three-dimensional objects in a special kind of plastic http://www.techradar.com/news/best-3d-printer. They are fairly slow, needing up to ten minutes to print a single small figure; several hours for more complex things.
But even private 3-D printers are still very expensive: they cost anywhere between £200 and £800 - and do you really need one?
Your Input Assistant: the Scanner
You might want to consider digitalising all your family pictures, or need to send a signed document by e-mail, or import pictures from a book into a PowerPoint presentation. This is where a scanner comes in handy.
Today, there are a lot of two-in-one printer/scanner units out there, but you can also buy separate scanners starting at £40 with high-resolution machines for up to £200.
The first scanners were manual: you had to swipe them over the documents by hand. They are now obsolete, having very poor resolution and being difficult to use.
Feed scanners are used for fax machines and business scanners with a document tray that pulls the individual pages through automatically.
The most common models are flatbed scanners: you place your document flat onto a glass under which the scanner head goes back and forth:
- A light is shone on the document
- This light is reflected by the document onto sensors
- The reflected light is filtered according to the three basic colours (red, green, blue)
- A microregulator re-calibrates the colours
- The scanner head moves forward to capture the whole of the paper, line by line
- The digitial information is re-created pixel by pixel to produce a document in JPG, TIFF or PDF format.
Just as for the printer, a minimum resolution of 200 dpi is recommended to get a good image on your computer screen.
Some flatbed scanners also scan slides and negatives.
You can also try portable scanners, often used by medial professionals. Fast and compact, you slip the document through it to scan. Count about £40-80 for a portable scanner.
A Webcam to Communicate With Your Friends
When staying in touch with family and friends, don’t forget the camera!
Though it’s often integrated into the computer monitor, you can also buy a separate webcam for more flexibility or better resolution.
A webcam is simply a small digital camera which, with the help of software that is usually already uploaded onto the camera or is available as a download, allows you to send real-time images from almost anywhere on Earth. It’s useful for video conferences, whether in the office or at home.
With a webcam you can:
- Take pictures
- Record videos
- Take part in video conference calls, via Skype for example.
If you decide to buy a separate webcam, pay attention to its resolution, image stability and microphone quality to have decent sound and image quality. Basic models start around £10 but professional-level models can go over £80.
A good way to stay in touch with the office from home, or say hello to family members living half a world away - or even take online IT classes, learn Java programming or take singing lessons online!
The Headset: A Must For Gamers
A headset is a piece of equipment integrating both a microphone and an earphone. It’s very useful for professional gamers, call centre employees or anyone who has to talk and do something else at the same time, such as IT troubleshooters, coders, graphic artists who want to talk a client through changes in real time, or even a student taking online coding courses etc.
For online gamers, it allows them to communicate with other players while playing the game. Like a gaming mouse, it isn’t indispensable for casual gamers, but it makes playing more comfortable and professional gamers wouldn’t dream of doing without!
It generally has two jacks: one for the microphone and one for the earphone.
A good-quality headset will cost you about £30-50.
Move Your Data Around: USB Memory Sticks
A USB stick is a data storage device. You can transfer all the data you want to take with you (pictures, music, videos, files…) to a USB stick so it can be read by a different computer.
It’s easy to use: simply insert it into the USB slot on your computer, then drag-and-drop, or copy-and-paste any files and data you like onto it. USB keys are compact and easy to slip into a purse or wallet.
USB sticks use flash memory and have very few mechanical and electrical components, making them quite shock-resistent. They have storage capacities ranging from 2 GB to 2 Terabytes, but remember that they are better adapted to use as temporary storage than as a permanent data storage unit or data backup. If that is what you are looking for, get an external hard drive instead.
Depending on its storage capacity, USB sticks cost anywhere between £3 (for only 2 GB) and £700 (for encrypted USB 3 flash drives with 128 GB).
External Hard Drives: A Good Backup Solution
Most PCs have an internal hard drive that allows you to store data on your computer. But just in case your computer crashes, it’s a good idea to backup your data by regularly copying it onto an external hard drive.
In addition, it is a good way to expand your memory capacity if your hard drive memory is limited. There are office hard drives and portable external hard drives.
Office or business external hard drives (not to be confused with cache memory or shadow-RAM) can weigh several kilos and are not really portable, though they can be transported. Their memory capacity varies from 750 Gigabytes to 6 Terabytes for prices ranging from £60 to over £100. They often need an external power supply in addition to their connection to the computer.
Lighter (about 200g), portable external hard drives offer 500 GB to 2 Terabyte memory for prices ranging from £20 to about £70. A simple USB connection is enough.
There are also multimedia hard drives that not only allow you to save files but also play them by plugging them directly into a TV screen or an entertainment centre. Make sure the multimedia hard drive has an HDMI connection for better-quality images.
Other Gadgets and Accessories
Novelty mousepad, printer table, wireless keyboard, label printer, DVD burner, screen protector, office chair… there are enough office gadgets out there to personalise your computer and your workspace any way you like.
Computer and marketing specialists understand that and are constantly proposing more or less useful gadgets and merchandise. From film merchandise to gimmick USB gadgets, it’s up to you to decide whether or not your really need a USB rocket launcher or a Darth Vader mousepad…
See our Beginner's Guide To Computers.
Discover the History Of Computers.
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