Computer Buying Guide – Updated Christmas Holiday Season 2015

This guide is updated twice a year, sometime around summer, then again during the Christmas Shopping Season (near Thanksgiving).

As we hit the Christmas (and Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, and general holiday) Shopping 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.

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Clearly, there comes a point in time when we must decide to purchase a brand new computer. Sometimes, it’s a matter of giving the right gift, and sometimes it’s just a matter of the old one is too old. Nothing dictates the computer purchase better than what you have right now, how old it is, and what it is not capable of doing, that the new computers can do. Sometimes, we are dealing with speed, while other things might be the programs that are no longer available. The purchase decisions that you are given the chance to choose from, 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.

Budget Point – Different ideas

Your budget is really, your budget.  Before we dive into everything, I’m going to note that there are many options, brands, distinctions, and more, so don’t be concerned about fitting your new computer into the sweet spot range.  There is no wrong answer or right answer when deciding budgets, so long as you aren’t going to drive yourself broke for no reason at all, and you’re not going to pinch pennies until they squirt out lemon juice.  In the business world, I’ve seen people use a figure of 2% of annual revenue for all IT expenses, but that’s not a hard and fast rule either.  You go with what’s best for you.

There are price points that I can suggest to you.  These are rough guidelines, and brand names will skew this, and so will the features.  It gives you a decent comparison for when dealing with knowing what a realistic price point should be.

Minimum:  This price point is what I wouldn’t spend less than.  A minimum price indicates that it’s new, and while it’s on it’s way out the door to be replaced by another level of machine, it’s still reasonable and appropriate.  Don’t go below this price point.

Sweet spot:  This will get you the best bang for your buck.  It’s not going to be the bleeding edge, but you’ll be spending enough to warrant a decent system for the lifetime ahead of it.

Loaded:  This is an area that has a few extra things thrown in for speed, for appearance, and for durability.  It’s not overly aggressive, and for some folks, it’s downright reasonable.  I spec business computers in this range, for the concept that the computers are getting extra usage, and time is money.

Overkill:  This is where you start throwing a lot of money for incremental improvements.

Disclaimer:  Examine what you’re using it for, and what really works out well for you.  These are guidelines, not hard and fast rules, that are easily debatable by many people inside and outside of the industry.  If you are in a brand name, and this pricing is a competitive standard or sale pricing, and you’re in this range, you’re safe.

Type  Minimum Sweet Spot Loaded Overkill
Desktop $400 $500-700 $900 $1450
Gaming Desktop $750 $1000-1200 $1500 $2300
Laptop $400 $500-750 $1300 $1700
Gaming Laptop $1100 $1300-1700 $1900 $2900

Note that I consider Mac, and various non-Windows tablets to be specialty items that exist outside of this entire pricing structure.  There’s sometimes no rhyme or reason other than a brand name, screen size, or cellular data capability that affects the pricing.

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?  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 1.5% of the computer owners in the world. It’s geeky (although some nerds use it too), cumbersome for some, and distinctly odd. You will have a hard time finding support, and you may wish you’d purchased an actual Red Hat instead (that’s a Linux joke).

Windows

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.  Windows, in some form, accounts for 89.85% 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 8.1 before you get Windows 8.1.  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. A check of some retailers just before posting revealed that Windows 7 is still available on new computers, and in a strong way. Other options include computers that are shipping with Windows 7, and with Windows 8.1, and you choose which you wish to install.  People who are purchasing Tablet or Touchscreen systems may like Windows 8.1 a bit better, but that’s about it.  Windows 8 and 8.1 account for less users than Windows XP users, as recently as October, and Windows XP is officially considered dead.

Windows 8.1 has not thrilled me, with it’s lack of user friendly features, and a user interface that appears to ignore the keyboard and mouse. I’m still resisting the advance forward, but I know that it’s inevitable that we will be moving forward when we get to Windows 10 in teh next year or so. If you go with Windows 8.1, 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

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.
  • 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 for those who wish Windows and Mac would work together on the same machine. This option is available with Parallels or VMware Fusion… which we believe is a very good workable solution for most users not in an ultra-intensive role.  It’s not perfect or ideal, but it does come with strengths.
  • 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.
  • Previous Mac owners (of course!).

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.  I will note, however, that as recently as May of this year, the desktop and laptop machines have accounted for a majority of all web surfing activity (not including smartphones).  This is an indicator that the mobile market as far as tablets are concerned, has not become a mature realm for web surfing activities.  Still, not everything that we do is on the internet, and the usage styles, accelerations, and other things that occur with tablet operating systems may skew this in one direction or another.

There are considerations along the way for desktops, laptops, and tablets:

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, while the price will run is about the same as a comparable PC, and the expected life expectancy of the thing is 3/4th’s 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 the name brands”, are not cheaper, and not better. If you are a novice, go for a brand name company with an established reputation for quality. In either laptop or desktop (in my order of preference from experience and reviews), Lenovo, HP, Dell 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.  If you want to discuss a particular brand name with me, give me a call or drop me a line.

Note: If you want a Mac, there is no other brand than the Apple.  The Hackintosh concept died off, and wasn’t worth the headache to anyone but the hardcore nerds back then.

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 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).
  • 5th Generation – I7-5xxx (with the x’s being numbers… note the 5 with three more numbers (and perhaps a letter) following).
  • 6th Generation – I7-6xxx (with the x’s being numbers… note the 6 with three more numbers (and perhaps a letter) following).

The 5th generation processors are only on the gaming laptops, and not what I would suggest.  4th and 5th Generation CPUs are fine, 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.  If you go with the AMD chips, you’re going to do fine, especially on a budget.

Tablets live in their own world with CPU, so go for the latest and you’re fine.

Notes:

  • Unless you’re running something highly demanding, you don’t need the chip that was announced last week, or even last month.  Again, 6th Generation Intels are here, but expensive, and not worth it. t wait. The 4th Generation Intels are the most recent reasonable, and 5th Generation works well on larger budgets.
  • 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 runswe.

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 for right now on Windows, unless you’re running some higher end stuff.  You may wish to upgrade later down the line to 8GB for more power.  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 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.  I suggest external drives after this.

Question 7 – CD, DVD, high-definition (HD-DVD or Blu-Ray)

A dual-layer DVD writer is standard on most machines now.  Blu-Ray exists, and some machines come with this.  It’s not something to avoid, but you may find you have less use for this, unless you’ve gone Blu-Ray in a majority of rooms in your home.  It’s not something to avoid, but I’m not embracing it 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.  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).  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, and even then, I’d move to a gaming laptop before an upgrade..

 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 – 4 to 6 Terabyte drives are cheap now, and it’s really not worth saving $15 to get a 1TB drive…
  • Printers – If you already have purchase a printer in the last 8-10 years and it’s working, don’t buy now.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.
  • Scanners – There are an assortment of good scanners out there, but many people are going for the All-In-One printers.

Desktops

  • 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.

Laptops

  • 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.

Tablets

  • 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.

Special Considerations

Gaming and Youth
Gaming considerations usually lean towards heavier graphics usage, as well as higher power CPU’s and RAM. We suggest 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 we do also 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!

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