Buying a new computer should be a fun experience, but all too often it is a frustrating and confusing ordeal.  I will try to help take the guesswork out of buying a new computer by outlining what to look for, how much to spend, where to buy, and more.

How much should I spend on a new computer?

This is tough to answer because the cost will vary greatly depending on what you use a computer for and how long you anticipate keeping it around.  Here’s a very basic guideline on cost ranges:

PC

$400 and under – You will get a PC that can handle basic word processing tasks and internet surfing.  Pros – cost is pretty cheap for a computer and it will do a decent job at basic tasks.  Cons –   a cheaper computer will perform on the slower side, is not good for game playing or other intensive tasks, and will most likely need to be replaced within 3-4 years.  You get what you pay for.

$500-700 – A good range that will fit a majority of people’s needs.  In this price range you will be able to buy a decently fast PC that will handle everyday tasks well.  Pros – this range covers the majority of tasks the average person will use a computer for and will perform well.  Cons – Not as fast as higher priced computers, and you will see a slowdown in performance sooner than higher end computers.  Overall a solid bet though.

$800 – 1500 – You are getting a great PC in this range.  You will be able to get a super fast processor, lots of memory and storage, as well as other bells and whistles (great graphic cards, built in wifi and bluetooth, etc).  This is the range you want to spend in if you are a frequent gamer, or do other intensive projects such as graphic editing.  These computers should also last you a long time.

$1500 +  – This range of computers is for serious gamers, graphics designers, professionals, certain business use, etc.  If you are not sure if you fall into this category and need a computer this fancy, you don’t.

Mac

Macs are in a different price category than PCs.  The cheapest Mac you can buy is approximately $1000.  They then quickly go up to near $3000 for top of the line ones.  Here is my opinion on buying a Mac – don’t buy the cheapest one just to have a Mac.  If you are going to invest over a thousand dollars to have one, spend a few hundred more to make sure you are getting a faster, higher performing one that will last you longer.  After investing that much money in a computer, you probably expect it to last you for several years before needing to upgrade.  It is worth the money to buy a more expensive Mac in order to get better processing power and performance.  My personal recommendation is to spend $1500-2200 on one.  If that is completely out of your budget, spend the money on a PC instead, where you can get a great one for half the price of a Mac.  This is not saying Macs are not worth the price.  They are great computers, but are not for the buyers trying to meet a strict budget.

Lifespan

One note – I mention lifespan of a computer a few times.  In a very general sense, computers should be replaced about every 4-5 years.  You will of course want to replace sooner than that if you are a heavy user that requires the latest technology.  For just the trusty family-use word processing computer, you can stretch it to 5+ years.  After that amount of time, you run the risk of hardware components starting to fail, not to mention the technology will just be outdated and there will be faster and slicker options on the market.

What to look for when buying a computer

PC

The most important component to look at is the Processor.  Get the fastest processor that you can, as this will have the largest impact on your computer’s speed and performance.  If you are not sure what to look for in processors, the general rule is the higher the number, the faster it is.  Intel makes some of the best processors, and their current (everyday) top of the line one is the i7 processor.  If it fits your budget, get an i7 processor.  If not, the i5 is also a good one.  The i3 is the slowest of the group and will perform fine, but do not expect great speed or power from it.  AMD is another manufacturer of processors, and are generally a bit cheaper than Intel.

Processors also have more numbers to look for besides just the initial type (i.e. i7).  You will generally see a processor labeled as something like i7-3770, 3.4GHz processor speed.  This is where the rule of the higher the number, the faster it is comes into play.  An i7-3770 is faster than an i7-3550.  3.4GHz is faster than 3.0GHz, and so on.  Get the fastest you can within the budget you are working with.

The next feature to look at is the Memory (or RAM).  Again, the higher the number, the better.  The absolute minimum amount of memory I would say is acceptable now is 4GB.  Bump it up to 8GB if possible.  One good thing about memory is that is is usually easily replaceable/upgradable.  You can purchase additional memory after-market relatively inexpensively ($30-60ish depending on type and amount) and it is pretty easy to install.

The third factor to consider is the Hard Drive.  This has a two-part consideration.  The first part is the size of the hard drive.  The size determines how much storage space you have.  It is now becoming common to see 1TB drives being sold standard with computers.  This is usually way more than enough space for the average user.  I have honestly very rarely seen anyone who can fill a 500GB drive (again, assuming average users here).  You do not need more than 1TB of space unless you know that you will be downloading lots and lots and lots of movies, pictures and music.  For fun reference, on a 1TB drive you could store 250,000 songs, or 400 movies, or 1,000,000 pictures.  Don’t fall into the trap of buying a much bigger drive than you need, as that is just wasted money.  If you do find that you are running out of space down the road, there is always the option of either upgrading the hard drive, or purchasing an external hard drive that you can move your data over to (and if you have that much data, you are backing it up on another drive anyway, right?).
The second part to look for in hard drives is their speed.  A 7200RPM drive is faster than a 5400RPM drive.  Higher number = faster rule applies here too.  An SSD (solid state drive) is super fast and very awesome, but quite expensive.

Beyond those main three components, the other things you want to look at are features that fit your computer needs.  Here are some features to look out for:

  • CD/DVD/Blu-Ray Drive – Most computers come standard with a CD/DVD R/RW drive.  This means you can play CDs or DVDs, as well as burn music, videos and documents onto them.  Blu-Ray drives are not very standard, so you will have to find a computer with one or purchase one after-market if you want one
  • USB ports – All computers will have USB ports.  What you want to look for is does the computer have enough ports to accommodate everything you plug in (i.e. mouse, keyboard, printer, iPod, etc).  Make sure to get plenty of ports.  It is also a good idea to make sure there are at least a few ports on the front of the computer that are easily accessible.  This way you can quickly plug in a phone charger without having to dig behind the computer to find the port.
  • Webcam (for laptops) – If you plan on doing online video chatting, look for a computer with a built-in webcam.  If buying a desktop computer, you will need to purchase a separate camera.
  • Built-in wifi – Most laptops have built-in wifi, however many desktops do not.  If you plug in your desktop to the internet via an ethernet cable, then you do not need to worry about wifi.  If you need wireless on your desktop, look for a computer with built-in wifi, or you can always buy an adapter that you plug in to a USB port.
  • Graphic cards – If you are a heavy gamer or watch a lot of high-def movies on your computer, look  for a computer with an upgraded graphics card.  This will make your images clearer and they will run more smoothly.  Another note, if you are getting a top-of-the-line graphic card, make sure you have a nice monitor too that can display higher resolutions.
  • Size (laptops) – If you will be carrying your laptop around a lot, you might want to look for one that is lightweight.  A smaller screen size (15″ or under) might work best, as that size fits easily in a backpack or bag, and the weight is usually pretty light.  Larger screen laptops (17″+) are nice for the big screen viewing area, however they are more awkward to carry around.  They work better if you keep them in the house and just move from one room to another, instead of transporting to many places.

Mac

Many of the Mac rules follow the above PC rules.  Get the fastest processor and most memory you can for your budget.  Try to aim for 256MB-512MB flash storage, and 8-16GB of memory (RAM).  If you can swing the i7 processor, go for it over the i5.  The higher the number, the faster the processor, so a 2.7GHz processor is faster than a 2.4GHz one.
If looking at laptops, my opinion is to skip the Macbook Air and go for the Macbook Pro.  The Air is nice and light and portable, but you can get better features in the Pro version.  I am a big fan of the  Macbook Pro Retina Displays myself.  The screen images are crystal clear and beautiful to look at.
The Retina display models do not come with an ethernet port or a CD/DVD drive.  This makes the computers thinner and lighter.  You will most likely not miss either feature.  You connect to the internet via wifi, and most CD/DVD content is available for download online now anyway.  But, if you find yourself needing an ethernet port or CD drive, you can purchase them separately as standalone devices that plug in to a USB port on your computer.

Operating System

The latest available operating system (Windows 8, Mountain Lion, etc) will come pre-installed on the computer you purchase.  This is acceptable in the majority of cases.  If you do not want the particular version that comes installed, for instance you want Windows 7 instead of Windows 8, you will most likely have to special order the computer that way online, either from the manufacturer or from a retailer that will do the ‘downgrade’ for you.  You can also always purchase the operating system you want and have someone install it for you after-market, however this will cost you extra money for the purchase of the OS as well as installation fees if you pay someone else to do it.

Other Devices

One other device to purchase, if you do not already have one, is an external backup drive.  This is a device that costs roughly $50-80 and plugs in to a USB port on your computer.  You use it to back up your computer’s files (documents, music, pictures, etc).  Your files stay on your computer, but you put a copy of them on the backup drive.  This way, if your computer hard drive ever dies – and it does happen on a not too uncommon basis! – you have a copy of your files someplace else. Since everything is digital now, this is extra important.  Photos are not replaceable so you don’t want to chance losing those.  And, people spend a lot of money on songs and movies, so why waste that money if your hard drive crashes and you do not have a backup.  There are also cloud-based backup options out there, meaning your data is stored on a server elsewhere instead of needing a local backup drive.  Cloud-based options are great too, and most require a monthly service fee depending on how much space you utilize.  The point is, make sure to back up your data one way or another.  If you have not backed anything up in a long time, go do it right now before you have a chance to regret not doing it.

Software

You will likely need to purchase some software to go with your new computer.  One popular software package is the Microsoft Office Suite (which includes Word and Excel).  Many computers will come with a 60 day trial pre-installed, but after that time has elapsed you will need to purchase a full product.
Another software item needed is virus protection.  Again, many computers will come with a 60 day trial of some anti-virus software pre-installed.  My recommendation for anti-virus software is to go with Microsoft Security Essentials.  It is a free download provided by Microsoft, and I personally think it is as good as any paid subscription out there.  It runs lighter on your computer too, and does not bog it down with heavy scans.

Warranties

Most stores, both online and brick and mortar, will try to sell you an extended warranty for your computer.  It is up to you if you think you should purchase an extended warranty or not.  I never do myself.  Most computers automatically come with a one-year warranty from the manufacturer.  If your computer has a mechanical defect within the first year, they will warranty the product for you at no cost.

If you travel with a computer a lot and it is at higher risk for having problems, or if you have kids that do not treat computers delicately, it might be worthwhile to purchase a covers-everything extended warranty.  Otherwise, there are a few things you should consider before purchasing one. First, check if your credit card offers any type of extended warranty protection.  Many American Express credit cards automatically extend a warranty on a computer purchase, at no extra cost to you.  Second, check the terms of the extended warranty.  There are many things that will not be covered, including damaged caused by you, any type of liquid damage, software or virus problems, etc.  If a warranty is honored, some companies require you to ship the computer to them for diagnostics and repair, then return it when ready.  When you have to ship a computer out, you could potentially be without it for a couple of weeks.  Companies will also not guarantee your data will be backed up when repairing the computer, so if they have to install the operating system, your data could get wiped out.

I’m still confused

If the the above information leaves you confused or still at a loss for what to buy, my advice is to call up your local independent computer repair person.  Give them the price you want to spend, as well as any specific requirements, and ask for their recommendation for the best computers for that budget.  They should be more than happy to recommend some options for you, and will usually do this for free, especially if you are already a customer.  I don’t really recommend walking into a big-box store and asking the local high school kid for what computer they recommend.  They will try to sell you more than you need and tend to talk up features that are not as important.

Where to buy a computer

You can usually get the most bang for your buck by ordering a computer online.  At the very least, do your research online before purchasing to make sure you have located the best deal.  A computer with the same specs can vary a couple of hundred dollars from place to place, so it is worthwhile to search first.

Two websites that generally have good deals are TigerDirect.com and Newegg.com.  Sometimes ordering directly from the manufacturer can net you a good deal too.  Other times, big-box stores such as Best Buy, Office Max, Frys Electronics, etc. will have a deal of the week that offers a better price on a computer than you can find online.  The trick is to do your research ahead of time so that you know where to get the best price.

Computers can be tricky (PCs anyway, this does not really apply to Macs), as each store may carry a brand of computer that has a different model number than a very similar computer at another store.  This makes cross-comparing difficult.  My recommendation is to write down a list of features/specs you want in your new computer.  Then, go online and look at what computer makes/models are offered with those particular specs.  This is also useful if you want to go in a brick and mortar store to make your purchase.  You are much better off if you go in with a list of specs in-hand, then find the computer you want based off of that.  If you wait for a store employee to make recommendations, you are taking the risk that they will try and up-sell you on features you do not need, or in some cases even downplay what you do need and sell you less of a computer than you might want.  It is the rare store that actually employs a knowledgeable and experienced computer person that will take the time listen to your needs and make a perfect recommendation, without any type of up-selling or commission-seeking.

If you want to purchase a computer in a brick and mortar store but are doing the research online ahead of time to choose your model, there is a trap to look out for (I’m looking at you Best Buy).  Some stores will have a huge online inventory, but only a fraction of those computers are actually available in-store for purchase.  A glance at Best Buy’s website shows they have 484 computers available, but only 20 are available in-store (so 464 are available online-only).  This means there is a good chance the computer you find online through their website is not immediately ready for you to walk in the store and get.  The store will usually ship an online-only computer to the store for you, but it may take 5-7 days to get.  Just beware of this in case you are needing to get a computer more immediately.

I hope you find this information useful, and good luck on your computer purchasing!


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