Computer Buying Guide – Updated December 2017
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 time for mom and dad to hop in the car and head out to Walmart, Costco, Best Buy, or the local computer retailer. Along with the stockings, trees, lights, and remote control cars, you have to make sure that this most expensive gift is right!
Clearly, there comes a point in time when we must decide to purchase a brand new computer as sometimes it’s just a matter of the old one is way too old. Many people take advantage of the sales at this time of year for personal or business, and that’s good to. For Christmas 2017, we’ve updated and cleaned out some stale stuff, and have taken time to make your new computer purchase a lot easier. Each time this is reviewed, we’ve updated the must-haves, scaled up or back on a few decisions, and yet made this easier each time.
Remember that nothing dictates the computer purchase better than what you have right now; how old it is, and what it is not capable of doing, and what 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.
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.
Options – Desktop, All-In-One, 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. Now, in your decision between laptops (or desktops) and tablets, that usage on the traditional computers have accounted for a majority of all web surfing activity (not including smartphones). Tablets account for about 5% of web-surfing activities, and have for over a year, which indicates that the tablet is not a serious machine for for web surfing activities, and if this core item isn’t ideal, then it won’t be ideal for learning or working, no matter what the tablet manufacturers would like to say.
There are considerations along the way for desktops, laptops, and tablets: First, the downsides of laptops… I’ve owned a dozen laptops over the years, and like them very much. At the same time, I use my desktop PC’s 75% of the time or more. My work system is a laptop right now, but I plug it up like a desktop 90% of the time.
Note that 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.
The ultraportable is a slimline laptop that is also beefed up in specs. I don’t talk about it much, but figure another $200 or so for the slimmest, lightest, and higher end looks. Factor a little bit more for increased durability if they are using exotic materials to keep them strong.
A desktop is more cumbersome, and you can’t take it everywhere you go. College students will like the flexibility to take to class or the coffee shop, and business users will usually need something to travel with. I strongly suggest that business people look into docking stations or port replicators, and expand into multiple monitors, external keyboards and mice, and use it as more of a desktop when you have the chance.
All-In-Ones are a neat category that bring the concept closer to each other, and we have the Mac to thank for that innovation. This is now a viable area, and as such, we’ll have to discuss that in the pricing. These are usually designed for appearance, rather than anything else, but I’m also leary of the concept of paying for an entire monitor each time we upgrade. Still, we do that with the laptops. This may be part of the industry holding on to people who like the simpler architecture, but we’ll see how it all turns out.
So I mentioned tablets, and let’s circle back to that exciting, neat range, and are a distinct option for some. The nice option is where people are choosing tablets as an interim replacement for their full systems, getting an extra year out of their existing hardware, and adding in the ultra-portable tool. Apple has pushed really 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 any kind of serious computing, you’ll need to plan on a keyboard option for another $100.
An ideal alternative to the tablets is a laptop that’s a 2-in-1, where the entire screen folds around and serves as a laptop or a tablet. They do run Windows, but some of the tablet like features they sport, such as digital pens, as well as the touch screens, make for a nice alternative. Be prepared to spend at the price of a gaming laptop, however.
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 hurt your hand. 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.
- Ultra-Low: For some reason, people are pushing the non-standard computers, the sticks that connect to your television, the underpowered gizmos that barely have enough to run Windows, and more. Run, don’t even look at these, unless you’re looking for a special purpose computer for yourself. Upgrade to the Minimum (shown below)
- Minimum: This price point is what I wouldn’t suggest anyone spend less than. Even still, this minimum price indicates that while it is new, it’s priced to move out the door to be replaced by another level of machine. This level, however, 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.
Methodology changes and pricing changes: I’ve changed how I figure people are buying gaming desktops and laptops, which has adjusted the price. Also, the price changes due to inflation, as well as common configurations, has markedly changed some items. Examples of the new Microsoft Surface, and Apple Macbook prices have driven some of these prices higher than previous years.
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.
Distinct Changes over Summer 2017: In each category, the low prices are lower, and high prices are higher. It feels like they consider the economy better, and think people are spending a lot more cash. There is also an apparent approach on the low end to sell you on the amount of options that are available up front, and then also push for up-sells. Desktops numbers have jumped in price, giving more power and upgrades, but the laptops have dropped and for the first time ever, the majority of the laptop pricing is equal or better than desktop pricing, pushed in part by a lot of options in the laptop world in the lower ranges.
Note that I consider Mac, Microsoft Surface 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.
Options – Windows, Mac, or Linux
This is the toughest question to handle, and it used to be a part of “The Ultimate Undecided Argument Series”: Classic Star Trek or JJ’s Star Trek? Stargate or Firefly? Steak or Vegan? We’re not here to draw lines and say you must choose a specific one… but there are some guidelines that may help.
Note that 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 the statistics nerds, the latest numbers are as follows:
|Desktop Operating System||NetMarketShare.com (worldwide)||Statcounter.com (worldwide)||Statcounter.com (United States)|
|Windows (all versions)||89.01%||82.74%||72.94%|
|Mac (all versions)||7.85%||13.23%||21.18%|
|Linux (and everything else)||3.05%||4.03%|
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.
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. Now, 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 just a little more by computer owners in the world than a year ago. It’s geeky (although some nerds use it too), cumbersome for some, and distinctly odd. The Chromebook may be one of few options in the stores for you, but it’s not really worth it.
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 9 out of 10 users of personal computers. It has the cheaper up-front cost by a margin, and has gained ground over last year, easily holding the spot as 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 only option to go. There are some privacy issues, but as many argue, the age of computer privacy may be all but dead. Windows 7 is gone, and with some of the last patches to come out, the Windows 10 privacy invasion was extended to Windows 7. Same as everywhere else. Just 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 6.42%, while this represents a doubling over 9 years ago, it’s far off the mark from last year, and struggles in the grand scheme of things.
- 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.
Options – Brand (or no 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 Asus, 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.
Options – CPU (the main chip or brain)
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? Here’s a list of them , and in each of the following examples “x” is a number, and with each, sometimes letters will follow.
- 1st Generation – I7-3xx or I7-4xx
- 2nd Generation – I7-2xxx
- 3rd Generation – I7-3xxx
- 4th Generation – I7-4xxx
- 5th Generation – I7-5xxx
- 6th Generation – I7-6xxx
- 7th Generation – I7-7xxx
There are chips that fall outside of this set of categories, whether from a competitor, or they are based on an older Intel architecture. I’m not keen on these options, as many people know of the Intel Core i3/i5/i7 concept, and this will affect any resale value that you might be considering.
7th Generation CPUs are what you want, and all of the 6th Generation is off the shelf. 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, you have a few options:
- Drop me an e-mail with the specific model numbers, and I’ll run a comparison check and get back to you.
- Look it up on http://cpuboss.com/
Key issues here:
- 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, it will run just fine for almost everything, but there is some speed concern.
Tablets live in their own world with CPU, so go for the latest and you’re fine.
Options – 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 minimal system comes with 500GB (or half a Terabyte) of hard drive space, and many come with more, 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 $80, but the speed is blazing. 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 or 16GB solid state drive… you want something that’s large enough to handle almost all of your applications on the SSD.
Options – RAM (Live Memory Space)
RAM used to be more important, and was a great way to increase 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 today on a new system should be 8GB or even 16GB of RAM, for any desktop, and 6GB to 8GB for laptops. If it has less, move on. With RAM, more 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 or even 8GB is a good starting point, if you get that now, you will want to upgrade later down the line to 16GB or more for more power. Check that the system can take that upgrade!
Options – 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 $75 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..
Options – Optical Drive
A dual-layer DVD writer used to be standard on every system, but this going away. What used to be common in all desktops has become either an after-thought, or included in. Premium systems will include this option for watching DVD’s or using your old media, however it’s become an optional item now. If important to you, you may wish to invest in an external drive connecting via USB for about $40.
If this is important to you, I suggest for most people to consider Blu-Ray, especially if you are sticking with the optical drive for watching and viewing movies, and 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. I expect this may be the last year that I suggest these.
Options – Screens
Your monitor is your interaction with the computer. It’s your view into the worlds of the games, videos, and the information that you find on the Internet. This is one area where we used to see a lot of people trying to save an extra few bucks, and it’s not the thing you should do.
- Desktop and All-In-One – What you can afford. Consider dual monitors for more “screen real estate” at a cheaper price. Two 24″ class widescreen monitors will cost you $200-250, 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.
- 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 the 15″ (with minor differences). 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..
Options – Keyboard and Mouse
Your system comes with a $7 keyboard, and a $4 mouse, if you’re lucky. The quality on these keyboards and mice are going to hold most people back. I strongly suggest that you consider an upgrade if you have the budget, because the creature comforts are what make your system personalized for you.
The keyboard is an important item for improving your typing speed. Having typed on those cheaper keyboards, and then using an expensive one in my home office, the Cherry MX 6.0, I’ll tell you that there’s a world of difference. Even at the office, where I have a Logitech wireless keyboard, I can tell the difference on this. When you type really fast, you can sense a distinct difference and that impacts your business work flow. Try out the other keyboards in your local computer shop, and see if the difference is worth it for you.
I use a specific Logitech mouse at home and the office, the M705. It’s a durable and yet slightly pricey mouse, but it has additional functions that I use in both places. It’s also highly reliable, and I’ve never had to replace one.
Options – 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.
Options – 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 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 10 years and it’s working, don’t buy a new one.
- 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.
- Battery Backups – Cyberpower is a sponsor.
- 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, buy 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 / port replicator – 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 – 10000mAH will give you a full charge anywhere, and they are cheap.
- 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.
- External Keyboards – These are a must for anyone looking to use a tablet in the professional realm.
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.
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.
We’ve been presenting this buyers guide for years. We find that it’s one of the references that listeners most ask about, and we try to take care to get every little bit right.
If you have any questions regarding this guide, contact us!