Computer Buying Guide – Updated Summer Season 2016

This guide is updated twice a year, with the first being in summer (at back-to-school time), then again during the Christmas shopping season.

Now it’s back-to-school time, and we’ve added new items, cleaned out some stale stuff, and we’re on board to making your new computer purchase wonderful.  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, which 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 overly 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.

I have price points that I will suggest to you, based on what you are seeking to find.  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.  This gives you an idea of what to spend, based on your needs.

Minimum:  This price point is what I wouldn’t spend less than.  A minimum price indicates that while it is new, it’s priced to move out the door to be replaced by another level of machine.  Yet, this level is still reasonable and appropriate for some people.  Don’t go below this price point.  This will be a basic system, workable for daily home life for the next 3-5 years, but will be a no-frills system.  Don’t expect to play the latest games or run a business on this level.  It’s meant for word processing, internet, some YouTube, and so forth.

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.  It’s higher this time around, but there are some neat items that you can purchase above this level that will still gain great returns, without breaking the bank.  I’ll talk about those later.

Loaded:  This is the leading edge 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 the bleeding edge, where you start throwing a lot of money for incremental improvements.  There’s something called the law of diminishing returns, and you just passed it.  It’s still something to consider for people who are into some forms of CAD, specialty software, or there’s something special that you want out of a laptop that nobody else can offer.

Disclaimer:  Examine what you’re using it for, and what really works out well for you.  These are guidelines, not hard and fast rules, which 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 $300 $400-900 $1000 $1400
Gaming Desktop $750 $1000-1800 $2000 $2600
Laptop $300 $600-1200 $1800 $2400
Gaming Laptop $900 $1250-1800 $2050 $2700

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?  Overnight Power On or Off?  Firefly or Stargate Universe?  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.

By the numbers, what people have purchased over the past 10 years, has changed a little, but not much at all.  According to NetApplications.com, in November 2007, Windows accounted for 96%, Apple Mac for 3.5%, and Linux for the remainder.  Yes, today, Apple and Linux have risen, but not tremendously.  I’ll cover those numbers when we get to each operating system.

First, the one you’ve likely heard about, but more likely, never knowingly 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 a computer to use Linux? 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 2.3% (July 2016) 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. Keith and I could spend hours going back and forth on this, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a Windows fanboy, but simply a realist of the numbers of comfort for most users.  Windows, in some form, accounts for 89.79% (July 2016) of the users of personal computers.  It has the cheaper up-front cost by a margin, and simply has held its’ ground as the overwhelming market leader.

This applies to a large amount of people in computers.  It has many 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.

Distinct notes:  Windows 10 is the route to go for most people.  There are some privacy issues, but as many argue, the age of computer privacy may be all but dead.  Windows 7 is still out there, but you’ll pay a small amount extra to get a system with Windows 7, and I’m not convinced it’s worth it.  Make the jump now.

Mac OS X

Advances in the Apple brand name have brought awareness into all of our homes.  Many people have worked with the Apple brand in their smartphones or tablets, or at least have seen them in usage by friends or neighbors.  Further advances using things like virtual machines (that run Windows under Mac) have changed the environment some.  With a market share of 7.87% (July 2016), it represents a doubling over 9 years, however it still struggles in the grand scheme of things.
We devote some of our time here at Computer Talk Radio to the Apple world, because I believe that there is something to be said for competition, for the underdog, for having choices.  While Keith would say that everyone should run a Mac (he is a Mac professional, after all), I can definitely say that there are at least a good number of examples of people who should buy a Mac OS computer over Windows.
  • 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.
  • People into the graphic arts, Photoshopping, video, the Design industry, etc.
  • Situations where the buyer knows 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.
  • Users in environments that are otherwise dominated by Mac’s…
  • 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 more than just a 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 neighbor’s 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 still quite 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. Apple is pushing hard in this sector, and they have a leg up on the competition.  Ups and downs exist everywhere with the tablets, so I suggest the name brands; Apple iPad (and mini), Samsung tablets, with a nod towards Kindle only 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 option for another $100.

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 email.

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).

5th and 6th Generation CPUs are what most people want.  If you go with the AMD chips, still, you’re going to do fine, especially on a budget.  If you are trying to compare an another CPU to an Intel CPU, drop me an e-mail with the specific model numbers, and I’ll run a comparison check against a few references, and will get back to you.  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.

  • Unless you’re running something highly demanding, you don’t need the chip that was announced last week, or even last month.  6th Generation Intels are here, and good, but nothing major has been released lately, so we’re good.
  • 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 just fine.

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

Question 5 – 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) of old fashioned hard drive, 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.

Key component to look for here is upgrading to a Solid State Drive.  Many systems are not coming with them, HOWEVER, for a small fee, you can add one in.  The hardware for a 250GB SSD drive as your primary should run about $75-$100, but the speed is amazing.  Take the original hard drive that comes with the system, and make that your secondary drive for storing your music, and other things that don’t need the speed.  It should take a tech less than an hour to make this conversion for you at purchase time.  Don’t get the systems with an 8GB solid state drive… you want something that’s large enough to handle almost all of your applications on the SSD.

Question 7 – RAM (Memory)

RAM used to be more important, and was a great way to increase some speed.  Almost all computers run faster with more memory to work with, but there’s a point where you’ve got enough and more isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference.  For simple upgraders, I’ll always point to this as the first stopping point for improvement.  If you’re running less than 8GB memory, this is one of the first places to improve any computer.

For a new computer, what’s the quickest and easiest answer?  The minimum choice is 4GB of RAM, for any system out there.  If it has less, move on.  8 to 12 to 16 is better, with the knowledge that computer programmers are continually making their programs bigger.  You’re buying a little bit of room now, to avoid headaches in the future.  While 4GB is a good starting point, if you get that now, you will likely wish to upgrade later down the line to 8GB for more power.

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 into heavy gaming. If you’re spending over $650 on a desktop, and it has a separate card, then that’s good.  Integrated graphics (or shared graphics memory) should not be in any system over $650, and you’re getting ripped off if that’s the case.  There are two major brands for the gamers…  NVidia or ATI (purchased by AMD).  There are some caveats about custom systems, and add-on cards, where I caution that you should not 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 8 – Screen size

  • Desktop – What you can afford. Consider dual monitors for more “screen real estate” at a cheaper price. Two 24″ class widescreen monitors will cost you $300, and give you a combined display area of 40″ wide, and be wonderfully viewable.  Dual 24″ monitors really is the sweet spot for productivity, and personally, I love.  For almost everyone else, anything more is overkill, and even though I use 4 monitors at the office, only 2 are primary.
  • 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 15.6″. 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.
  • 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 9 – DVD or Blu-Ray

A dual-layer DVD writer is standard on most desktop machines now.  The big thing is that laptops and especially ultrabooks, are getting rid of them.  Of course, 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.  Where this used to be a must have in any computer, this is now an optional component, and even in desktops, we’re going to see this disappear.

Question 10 – Cache, Front Side Bus, Memory Speed

Don’t worry about these specifications. 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 week’s 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…  make sure that it’s USB 3.0, the latest standard.
  • Printers – If you already have purchased a printer in the last 8-10 years and it’s working, don’t buy now.
    • For business, the laser printers are more expensive up front, 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.
    • For students, either option is good, with the ability to do color without breaking the bank.
  • 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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