Computer Purchasing Guide – Updated August 2014
This guide is updated twice a year, sometime around summer, then again just before Christmas. As we hit the Back-to-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. Contact us, and we’ll help you decide. —– 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.
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. This applies to a large amount of people in computers. It accounts for about 90% of the users of personal computers. 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 want Windows 8 before you get Windows 8. Many people are choosing the Windows 7 machines, and getting a good discount for that option, and I strongly suggest Windows 7 for most people. Tablet or Touchscreen owners may like Windows 8 a bit better, but that’s about it.) Windows 8.1 hasn’t made a distinct impression upon me, and while I’m still resisting the advance forward, I know that it’s inevitable. If you go with Windows 8, you will be disappointed without a touch screen. There are work-arounds, and tricks and neat things that will work, but it’s simply not as powerful without the touchscreen. Look at the All-in-One options for the systems if you go this route.
Mac OS X
- 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.
- 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.
These are not hard set items, just guidelines… let us know your thoughts on any of this.
Question 2 – Desktop, Laptop, or Tablet
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. Tablets are new and exciting, and are a distinct option for many folks. Many customers are choosing tablets as an interim replacement for their full systems, getting an extra year out of their existing hardware, and moving towards this ultra-portable tool. Ups and downs exist everywhere with the tablets, so I highly suggest the iPad (and mini) and the Samsung tablets, with a nod towards Kindle if you are already in the Kindle infrastructure. If you are looking to save a few dollars, don’t be tempted by the no-name brands… because there’s no such thing as “almost as good as” in this world. One thing to note, if you are using a tablet for serious computing, you’ll need to plan on a keyboard replacement.
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, Lenovo, and Acer, all make very nice computers that will last you a while. There are nuances between each brand, however. Lenovo has rocked the world with outstanding pricing and sales volume, and should stick around for a long time. Sony, a long-time member on this list for high-end computers that look and operate great, for a price, has exited the market. Note: If you want a Mac, there is no other brand than the Apple. There is something called Hackintosh, and there are still sellers out there, but it’s not worth the headache.
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 (3rd and 4th Generations) are the lead standards by which others are comparing themselves, and is a wise choice. Make sure that you are comparing the proper generation of CPUs, and not older generations. 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).
- 4th Generation – I7-4xxx (with the x’s being numbers… note the 4 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. Tablets live in their own world with CPU, so go for the latest and you’re fine.
- Unless you’re running something highly demanding, you don’t need the chip that was announced last week, or even last month. 5th Generation Intels are coming, but don’t wait. The 4th Generation Intels came out last July and September, so they are still kind of fresh. The 3rd Generation is perfectly fine for most people, but only for a decent discount.
- 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… The minimum choice is 4GB of RAM, and 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 jump to 8GB, and if you want or even more RAM than that, do it. For simple upgraders, I’ll always point to this as the first stopping point for improvement. 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. The average budget system comes with 500GB (or half a Terabyte), so no worries here. 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 (many years later) an expensive option that most people don’t go with, as they don’t have Blu-Ray discs, and I still suggest 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 $750 on a desktop, and it takes an upgradable card, then go for it. On laptops, you can sometimes upgrade the card as well, but I suggest that you reserve this only for if you really know you can do it and need it. 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.
- Tablet – This is all about the trade-offs of comfort in size versus comfort in reading. I personally like the full-size iPad screen, but the smaller iPad mini screens rock as well. Older folks, or people with vision problems may wish for the larger screens. Youth from the age of about 5 to 25 are going to be just fine with the smaller screens.
- 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.
Question 11 – Extras
You can spend a fortune on a computer, but just like a car, there are certain items that everyone should be reviewing in the purchase process. I’ve got a number of favorite suggestions for anyone that’s looking to purchase anything that I’ve mentioned in this weeks show. All Standard Computers (tablets are separate)
- External Hard Drives – 3 Terabyte drives are cheap now, and it’s really not worth saving $10 to get a 1TB drive…
- Printers – Laser printers are expensive, but the inkjet only exists today for the photo printer options. If you’re talking about someone who’s a shutterbug, go for the inkjet, otherwise, a laser printer is the only direction. If you already have purchase a printer in the last 8-10 years and it’s working, don’t buy now.
- Scanners – There are an assortment of good scanners out there, but I like the stuff from Hovercam. It’s portable enough to slip in next to a laptop, and it rocks.
- Battery Backups – APC or Cyberpower
- Cable management – Keeping the place looking nice is important.
- Extra cords for accessories – The desktop computer still serves as a good hub for your technology, so make sure that you can hook up everything to it.
- Carrying case – The basic black case is still around, but there are a number of nice options with character these days. Protection is a must, so don’t get the cheap flimsy stuff, but something that’s solid.
- Extra Battery – If you are traveling more than twice a year, you will want this crucial accessory. Try to get the salesperson to wheel and deal and throw something like this in to close the deal. I’m finding this is a frequent closing tool for them.
- Docking station – If you have a desktop location, an office at home, someplace where you’ll be using this more as a desktop, then get the docking station and monitors, as well as a keyboard and mouse, and make it feel far more like a business destination than your kitchen table.
- Carrying case – These range from simple to luxury, durable to waterproof, and so forth.
- Portable battery – 4000mAH to give you a full charge anywhere.
- Extra charger – Just like a laptop, you never know if you’ll need a charger away from home.
- Apps – Figure another $50 in apps, especially if this is a gift… an Apple Store or Google Play gift cards are a must for starting the recipient off right.
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. If you have any questions regarding this guide, contact us!