Computer Purchasing Guide – Updated August 2012

This guide is updated twice a year, sometime around summer, then again just before Christmas. As we approach school season, there are some considerations that have been adjusted downwards, and others that have been pushed upwards. As always, if you have any questions as to your purchasing decision, our team is available for you. Call or e-mail us, and we’ll help you decide.

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There comes a point in time when we must decide to purchase a brand new computer. Right now, that decision may be coming due to the new school year, or perhaps another reason. It doesn’t matter really. The decisions to be made are significant. From your operating system to the amount of memory you need, to the size of your screen, we’ve got some answers for you.

 

Question 1 – Windows, Mac, or Linux
This is the toughest question to handle, and it used to be a part of “The Ultimate Undecided Argument Series”… Star Wars, or Star Trek? Battlestar Gallactica or Babylon 5? Chocolate, Vanilla, or Strawberry? Chicken or the Egg? We’re not here to draw lines and say you must choose a specific one… but there are some guidelines that may help. Still, before you choose something other than what you know already, you should experiment in the store or with a friends system for at least a couple of hours. You may find that you are best sticking with what you have already.

First, the one you’ve likely heard about, but more likely, never used.

  • Linux – Only if you have very little money, and are willing to completely sacrifice your support options in the hopes of saving money for a few lattes. OR, if this is your 5th computer, but then again, why buy it? Use your oldest computer as a test bed for Linux and experiment away… when you’ve grown tired of it, you can go back to Windows or try a new Linux distro. All combined versions and flavors of Linux are used by about 1% of the computer owners in the world. It’s geeky (although some nerds use it too), cumbersome for some, and distinctly odd. You’ll have a hard time finding support, and you may wish you’d purchased an actual Red Hat instead (that’s a Linux joke).
Now, let’s get to the tougher question that most people need to deal with… Windows vs. Mac. It used to be easier, but recent advances in bringing the Apple brand name into homes, and advances using things like virtual machines (that run Windows under Mac) have changed the environment some.
Windows
This applies to a large amount of people in computers. It accounts for about 90% of the users of personal computers and over 85% even when you include tablets and other devices. It has it’s strong points, ranging from support being available almost anywhere, software availability, and even hardware customization.
  • Support is available at most major stores, including some support at Apple stores.
  • Availability of software is a key issue for most folks, as well as the availability of free software.
  • Upgrades to hardware are simple, and the units are designed for ease of upgrades. Still, many folks don’t upgrade their hardware often, so that may not be a deciding factor for you.
  • The initial purchase is distinctly lower than the Mac hardware.

(A very distinct note here…  make sure that you get a system that will support Windows 8, if you are interested in it.  It’s a little more than a month away, but that means that some salesmen are struggling to find sales… which means better deals for you right now.  The upgrade is already included in the price, and you just have to wait for the actual release of the software, then you can install it.)

Mac OS X
Some users may find that they wish a Mac. The following are examples of people who would be well suited to check out a Mac OS computer.
  • Previous Mac owners (of course!).
  • Graphic arts, photoshopping, video, the Design industry, etc.
  • Folks that know that the software they are looking for is available on a Mac, and not a PC.
  • New users to the computer world that have support for the Mac. Make sure that you don’t have something that you can’t find support for easily, and locally.
  • Youth at colleges that allow for Mac’s, and Mac’s are prevalent… but this is a user preference issue.
  • Folks who are looking to expand their computer experience, and have tried the Mac’s out at the store or with a friend. If you are adventurous and like working on your own to discover things… this is a distinct option. The upside is that you can also check out VMware Fusion / Parallels… which we believe is a very good workable solution for most users not in an ultra-intensive role.
These are not hard set items, just guidelines… let us know your thoughts on any of this.
Question 2 – Desktop or Laptop

While it used to be an easy suggestion for us to make, we’ve now decided that this is really now up to you.  In the consumer world, more laptops are sold than desktops, and the portable  route is the definite trend.  There are considerations, however:

First, the downsides of laptops… I’ve owned just shy of a dozen laptops, and like them very much. At the same time, I use my desktop PC’s 75% of the time or more… A laptop is vulnerable to all sorts of abuse that your desktop will never see. Additionally, it’ll run at least 20% more than a comparable PC, and the expected life expectancy of the thing is 2/3rds of the time of a desktop. The screen options for some users may not be suitable, so plan ahead and review screen size for comfort before you purchase.

The upsides, however, include portability, and being able to take your computer at a moment’s notice to someone who can help you. A desktop is a little more cumbersome, and you can’t exactly take it everywhere you go. Picking up a laptop and taking it with you to a neighbors house to show off pictures of your recent vacation is awesome (but don’t overstay your welcome!). College students will like the flexibility to take to class or the coffee shop, and business users will usually need something to travel with.

 

Question 3 – Brand

Choosing a brand is something that is sometimes more of a preference than a “must-do”. From past history, I’ve had good luck with some brands, and not so good luck with others. So-called “white box” vendors, the companies that make them for you “cheaper and better than Dell”, are not cheaper, and not better. Go for a company with an established reputation for quality. In either laptop or desktop (in my order of preference from experience and reviews), Dell, HP, Toshiba, and Sony all make very nice computers that will last you a while. There are nuances between each brand, however. Dell has distinct strength and reliability for a good price, and HP has made good decisions in the nuances in the speed of the components, while Sony is more expensive but well built and stylish… so explore as you feel comfortable.

Note: If you want a Mac, there is no other brand than the Apple. We strongly recommend against the Hackintosh sellers out there, as their long term viability is unsure.


Question 4 – CPU (the main chip)
The power of your CPU is distinctly subject to the whim of your budget. Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 (2nd and 3rd Generations) are the lead standards by which others are comparing themselves, and is a wise choice. Make sure that you are comparing the 2nd or 3rd Generation CPUs, and not the older first generation.  How can you tell?

  • 1st Generation I7-3xx or I7-4xx (with the x’s being numbers… and sometimes a letter will follow… so a numerical 3 digit identifier)
  • 2nd Generation – I7-2xxx (with the x’s being numbers… note the 2 with three more numbers (and perhaps a letter) following) )
  • 3rd Generation – I7-3xxx (with the x’s being numbers… note the 3 with three more numbers (and perhaps a letter) following).

If you go with the AMD chips, you’re going to do fine, especially on a budget. Avoid older CPUs, unless your budget just can’t handle it. Don’t buy the latest and greatest super-chip either. If the cost of the CPU is bogging down the price your computer, it’s not worth it.

Notes:

  • Unless you’re running something highly demanding, you don’t need the chip that was announced last week, or even last month.  The 3rd Generation came out in April, so it’s still kind of fresh.  The 2nd Generation is perfectly fine for most people.
  • Due to differences in the operating systems, the Mac OS can handle a chip that is a little bit less powerful, so long as you are not running Windows using Parallels (etc). If you run Windows on the machine, however, it will run at the slower chip speed).

 

Question 5 – RAM (Memory)
All computers run faster with more memory to work with. The quickest and easiest answer… Right now, choose 4GB of RAM, on either XP or Vista (if you really want the old stuff). 4GB is fine on Windows 7 or 8, unless you’re running some higher end stuff. Now, if you want 64-bit Windows 7 or 8, then you will want to go to 8GB, and if you want 8GB, you have to have 64-bit. If you’re running less memory, this is one of the first places to improve any computer.


Question 6 – Hard Drive (Storage Space)
Hard drives are crucial to storage, but even low end computers are coming with sufficient hard drives for your average person. Unless you are doing video editing, you won’t likely need more drive space before your computer needs replacing. Even if you’re dealing with a lot of MP3’s… you can fit 10,000 songs into about 40GB. If you’ve got more than this much music, you already know you’re obsessing, and can think about a larger hard drive.

 

Question 7 – CD, DVD, high-definition (HD-DVD or Blu-Ray)
A dual-layer DVD writer is standard on most machines now, and will be about all you need. Blu-Ray is still (3 1/2 years running) an expensive option that most people don’t go with, as they don’t have Blu-Ray discs, and it’s suggested that it’s not worth it quite yet.

 

Question 8 – Video graphics card
On your budget machines, you can go with integrated or “shared” graphics, but they chew into your RAM. Gaming and video will be slower, and you’ll really need a separate card. If you’re spending over $600 on a desktop, or $800 on a laptop, then you need to get a decent card. You want NVidia or ATI, nothing else. Don’t spend more than $100 on a video card without knowing specifically that you need it for sure (from the specs on a specific video game package).

 

Question 9 – Screen size
Desktop – What you can afford. Consider dual monitors for more “screen real estate” at a cheaper price. Two 19″ widescreen monitors will cost you a little less than a 24″ widescreen monitors, but give you a combined display area of 32″ wide, instead of 20″. The sweet spot is dual 24″ monitors, and anything more is overkill.

Laptop – The smaller the laptop, the smaller the screen. If you want a light laptop, without the drives, that’s small, you’ll have to have a small screen. The standard size is 15.4″. If you want all of the extras, like a DVD drive, floppy drive, and so forth, you’ll get a larger screen. Don’t bother with the larger 17″ screens unless you’re looking for the power and aren’t traveling much. If the laptop is merely to save space on a college student desk, perhaps the 19″, but that’s overkill anywhere else.

Note: The resolution is an additional factor to take into consideration. If you have a smaller screen, you will wish to compare the available optimal resolution against other screens of the same size. A higher resolution means items may appear smaller, however you will be able to fit more items onto the same screen.

 

Question 10 – Cache, Front Side Bus, Memory Speed
Don’t worry about these specs. As your computer price goes up, these specs will follow. They are good for comparing oranges-to-oranges, but these are usually not options, so much as features.

 

Special Considerations

Gaming and Youth
Gaming considerations usually lean towards heavier graphics usage, as well as higher power CPU’s and RAM. Benny suggests that you choose something that is capable of running the three most powerful games that the recipient will play. This may involve a specific video card, and it may suggest additional memory.

Youth who are not heavily into gaming can work with most of the normal options, but Benny does suggest that you keep the computer in a public area, and monitor usage. A malware software package is a must for everyone, but youth are more daring, and really need the protection.

Senior Citizens
Steve Keske notes that Seniors are finding themselves more involved in computers and technology these days as well. Screen size is a must for those who are moving into reading glasses, and will distinctly make the experience more pleasurable for Seniors. Special keyboards are also available with much larger letters, and a variety of mouse options exist for those with arthritis. Ergonomics are a factor as well, as seniors may not be able to adjust their body as easily for certain specialized keyboards, desk placements, etc. Plan the purchase carefully, and if it’s a gift, offer lots of help.

Special add-ons that are extra special for seniors are External Hard Drives for storing precious family memories, important family documents, and more. Media card readers are almost standard, but if you don’t have one for your media card type in the system, just pickup the reader for $15.  Printers and scanners are always useful, and don’t forget a webcam can be used to keep Grandma connected with the grandkids!

If you have any questions regarding this guide, contact us!

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