Just to put this up front: This article has nothing to do with the age-old Mac vs. PC argument. Macs are great. So are PCs. Assuming you already decided on a PC, read on…
Several times every year someone asks me what kind of non-Mac computer they should buy. When I got the question again the other day, I thought it was time to put the answer online.
The first thing to consider is what you plan to do with your computer. If it will be just for “everyday” computing such web/email/word processing, then you don’t need much in the way of graphics processing or power. If you plan to use graphics- or compute-intensive programs or do much gaming, then you’ll want to spend more for a higher-end computer.
With that in mind, following are some things to consider regarding getting a new computer:
Price: Looking online at the sites for major computer retailers, any laptop in the $500-800 price range will be perfectly fine for everyday computing. You could even get a cheaper one, but then you might need to replace it sooner. If you want to get a desktop computer, you could maybe get away with spending a little less. For more intensive computing, you’ll be in the $1000-1200 range.
My personal philosophy is to get the best computer you can afford, as it will last longer. I focus on laptops in the $2K+ price range.
Lifetime: Go into your purchase with an idea of how long the computer needs to last. For me I plan to get a new computer every 3 years, but if all you do is everyday computing, you could get away with every 5 years.
Laptop vs. desktop: Which to get depends on how you are comfortable working. Wouldn’t it be nice for you to be able to have the computer with you whether you are at home, work, or traveling? With a laptop you can catch up on email in the living room while watching TV. Either way, all these notes apply whether you get a desktop computer or a laptop.
Brand names: Do not get a brand name that you do not recognize. As far as brands go, Lenovo and HP are top of the line, ASUS and Toshiba are fine too. I personally avoid Dell, and would stay away from refurbished and “all-in-one” computers. My favorite high-end laptop these days is a Sager, and I gotten several (4? 5?) from Xotic PC. They will custom build your dream machine. Don’t be put off by their focus on gaming: The gaming computers are the fastest and most powerful consumer computers around.
Warranty: I strongly urge you to get an extended warranty that will cover the computer for its lifetime. I always get these warranties on computers (but not other electronics) and I’m usually glad I did.
Size/Screen: If you are getting a laptop, plan to travel a lot with it, and have any concern about the weight, then stay away from the 17″ models (unless you are interested in gaming). If you get a desktop computer, then a nice big screen is nice to have. (I use use a 15.4″ screen at the highest resolution I can get.)
Processor: I personally prefer Intel processors over AMD – but either will work fine.
Hard drive: A hard drive that is 500GB is plenty – no need to pay for bigger unless you plan to store lots of photos and videos on your computer. If you do, then 1 or 2 TB would be nice. The standard speed these days is 7200 RPM – that’s fine. I’m intrigued by SSD technology, but think it’s still too expensive to be worth it. You only need one hard drive. (However you also need to think about backups…)
RAM: 4GB of RAM is a minimum and is plenty for everyday computing. If you plan to use your computing for compute-intensive tasks or gaming, go for 8GB. If you have the budget, this is the area worth spending more on if you plan to do anything beyond the everyday with your computer.
Network: Make sure your computer is network ready – has Ethernet/wireless… (but frankly I think 100% of the computers for sale these days already have this.)
Graphics: Graphics is an area of rapid technological growth… the laptop you bought three years ago will have noticeably poorer graphics performance than the laptop you buy today. For everyday computing, you don’t need to be concerned with this. If you are into gaming, 3D modeling, or Photoshop/Illustrator use beyond the casual, then spring for extra graphics processing power. Look for ATI or nVidia brand graphics. These days there are also systems with integrated graphics (built in to the motherboard) + an additional graphics card, then the system can switch when it needs more graphics power. This is great for laptop users as it conserves battery life.
Software: Have them pre-load your computer with the latest version of Windows. If you want spreadsheets and word processing, you can also get Microsoft Office – but you can get a perfectly good equivalent for free, called LibreOffice. (I love the concept of LibreOffice — but if you will need to share documents back and forth with people who use Microsoft Office, then you might need Office. The files ARE transferable, but there are some hurdles that you might find frustrating.)
Virus Protection: Do not go out there bareback! Different people like different virus solutions. Personally I prefer Kaspersky, but whatever you choose, plan on spending $50-100 per year on virus protection and keep it up to date.
Refurbished vs. New: As long as it is from a reliable source and the company offers the same warranty coverage that you could get on a new computer, then refurbished computers can be a good option. I would only buy a refurbished computer from a reputable source.
The moral of the story
Especially if this is for your work, get the best computer you can afford so that it will remain a good tool for you throughout its life. Skimp on features now, and it will seem obsolete just a year or so down the road.
Postscript [May 2013]:
The above post was written before the age of Ultrabooks and Convertibles and Windows 8. Because the industry is ambling toward a prevalence of the touch interfaces, the prices for Ultrabooks without touch are coming down. And according to this PC Magazine article, they have better processors and screens and are more durable than their “heavier” predecessors.
As for operating system on an Ultrabook. with no exceptions, the people I’ve heard opinions from on this have said that Windows 8 is ONLY very useful if you have a touch-enabled device. Stick to win7 if your new laptop or Ultrabook does not have touch. Conversely, if you go with a touch-enabled device — which, 3-5 years from now that’s almost all you’ll be able to find on the market — then you need Win8 for that.
And finally, if you want a really inexpensive solution and you mostly use Google Docs, email, and web-browsing — a Google Chromebook may be your best bet. However I would only recommend this for kids, students, and the most casual computer users… definitely not for the businessperson.
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