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How to Buy a Computer: A Basic Buying Guide

Written by Matt Jabs - 32 Comments

How to Buy a Computer: A Basic Buying GuideSo you’re in the market for a new computer, eh? If you’re like roughly 95% of the population, then you probably know far less about the process than you’re comfortable with — and that’s why I’m writing this guide… My goal is to help the “non-techie” crowd get themselves a good deal on their next computer.

Why listen to me?

As I mentioned in my free windows PC maintenance article a few months back, I’m an Information Technology Manager (a.k.a. “computer guy”) with 10 years experience. I both buy computers and consult with others on their computer purchases on a regular basis.

Since I am regularly asked what type of computer people should buy, I figured that writing up the basics in this article would be a great way to point others in the right direction… So here goes.

Note: This article is not meant as the be all, end all of computer selection guides. Rather, it’s intended to be a simple, basic guide to help people answer a few common questions and point them in the right direction.

Use saved money – or don’t buy

If you don’t have enough cash on hand to cover your purchase, do yourself a favor and just keep using the machine you’re currently using and keep on saving. I strongly advise against financing a new computer! I don’t care how bad you want it, and I don’t care if they’re offering 0% financing. If you don’t have the money saved, then don’t buy anything!

What will you use it for?

Are you a video editor? Buy a Mac. Do you travel a lot? Buy an ultra-light laptop. How you USE your computer should guide you in your purchase of a new device. Determine several main purposes for the machine, and make sure your purchase matches your purpose.

Are you shopping with your needs in mind, or has clever marketing and/or a desire for “coolness” tricked you into thinking you need something that you really don’t need? As you think of more features you’d like, refer back to your primary uses to determine whether or not you really need a specific feature.

Desktop or laptop?

With the exception of a few specific situations, I say get a laptop. Why? They’re mobile. Period. Besides, modern laptops are just as powerful as most desktops, and have plenty of computing power for 90% of computer users (myself included).

Unless you will be gaming and/or leaving your computer stationary at all times, then get a laptop. Trust me… You’ll be happy you did.

Should I get a Mac?

How will you use the machine? If you will be using the computer for a very specific, Mac-centric purpose, or if you want a VERY high quality machine (and don’t mind paying for it), then a Mac may be just what the doctor ordered. Buy a Mac if any of the following or true:

  1. You need a Mac for your line of work.
  2. You want a computer made up of very high quality hardware.
  3. You REALLY want a Mac and you’ve budgeted for it.

Other than the reasons listed above, there’s not much reason to buy a Mac over a PC.

Which brand name is best?

Honestly? Nowadays most of the major computer brands are comprised of similar quality hardware and workmanship for similar prices. Some technicians may disagree with me and choose to play brand favorites, but not me. I say go with Dell. Or HP. Or Toshiba. Or Apple. Or whatever floats your boat.

The bigger question is… Which model should you get? Each brand offers entry-level, mid-range, and high-end machines. Take into account your primary uses, along with your available budget, and get something that fits.

Will it still be a good two years from now?

Great question! The best way to protect against an obsolete system is to anticipate your needs while understanding a few basic hardware fundamentals. Beyond the obvious… Here are a few of the strategies I use to ensure I get my money’s worth out of a new computer system:

  1. Hard drive. Get a fast one — 7200 RPMs. This is perhaps the most important selection you can make. Hard drive speed is quite often the bottleneck for overall computer speed these days. As far as space goes, your needs will vary widely with your usage, but don’t skimp.
  2. Processor. For most users, a mid-level processor will be just fine. I would recommend avoiding low-end processors in hopes of saving a few bucks. Likewise, avoid the bleeding edge unless you’re a power user with a legitimate need.
  3. Memory. Go with at least 4GBs of RAM. If you run Linux (e.g., Ubuntu) you’ll be fine with much less, but if you run a modern version of Windows or Mac OSX, then 4GBs of RAM is well worth the investment.
  4. Screen and video card. Make sure your new computer can deliver the desired multimedia functions you have in mind. This goes back to the earlier question regarding your primary uses. Ultimately, you’ll probably want to land a computer with a widescreen display and high definition capabilities.
  5. Battery life. Again, this is specific to laptops, but do yourself a favor and ensure your battery life is at least in the 4+ hour range.
  6. Weight. My laptop has a 15.6″ screen, yet it weighs less than 5 pounds. Make sure you consider how much you computer should weigh relative to the likely uses, as well as the amount of time you’ll spend hauling it around.
  7. Backlit keyboard. Don’t laugh… I JUST bought a laptop, and this is the biggest miss I made. Don’t think you’ll need a backlit keyboard? Well… Just trust me and get one. You won’t regret it.

In closing…

Be sure to allot equal time to planning what you need, deciding how much you can afford, and picking out what you want. And please don’t overlook your primary uses while in search of the latest bells and whistles.

Did I miss your question? Ask it in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.

Published on April 29th, 2010
Modified on July 14th, 2010 - 32 Comments
Filed under: Consumer

About the author: is a thirty-something IT manager and blogger who wants to help himself and others get out of debt. He writes about personal finance and debt-free living at Debt Free Adventure.

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32 Responses to “How to Buy a Computer: A Basic Buying Guide”

  1. 1
    Nickel Says:

    I’m a Mac guy, so YMMV with this advice, but… I typically buy the second fastest processor for the model I’m looking at. If you look at the pricing structure, there’s usually a premium for the very fastest model, so I step down one notch from there. Also, for memory I typically max out the machine that I buy, but I do it myself. I buy RAM from an after-market vendor and pop it in when it arrives. You can save a good bit of money doing this.

  2. 2
    John Says:

    In terms of processor speed I have to say the budget processors are really very solid nowadays. Without question get at least a dual-core CPU, and the extra cost for 3-4 cores is usually not that much, especially if you go with an AMD CPU.

    Separate graphics cards are not necessary for 90% of users. If you are doing gaming(spider solitaire doesn’t count :P ) then read some reviews on different graphics cards, find out what kind of performance you can get at your monitor’s resolution with the games you want to play, then buy according to your budget.

    I usually buy mid-high end components because I use them for distributed computing projects like Folding@Home and Boinc. If you have a reasonably modern computer and you leave it on alot, I urge you to check out these projects and contribute your un-used CPU/GPU cycles to a great cause!

  3. 3
    BG Says:

    I used to build my own desktops from the chasis up. Now-a-days it is not worth it.

    I recently bought a cheap HP, that came with a dual-core 64-bit AMD X2 processor, 6GB RAM, 500GB hard-disk, built in a/b/g/n wireless, DVD-burner, etc all for $500 last year. Then I upgraded the video card with an Nvidia Geforce 9800GT (you can get one for less than $100 on NewEgg.com now), and importantly, also upgraded the power supply with a beefier Antec 550W. The entire thing was done for less than $700 and it will not be obsolete for years.

    Once it does become obsolete, I have the option of upgrading the processor, more RAM, faster disk, etc in the future — or just start over with another cheap box…

    Windows 7’s Experience score for this rig is:
    Processor: 6.0
    Memory: 7.1
    Graphics: 6.8
    Gaming Graphics: 6.8
    Hard Disk: 5.9

    Always look at the experience scores for comparisons, ignore the ‘overall’ score if you intend on immediately upgrading the part that causes the score to be low. The overall score is just the value of the lowest component. In the above, my graphics scores were the lowest (probably 4.x or so), but I knew I was going to upgrade the video card so I ignored that part for my purchasing decisions.

    Another factor: when buying cheapish desktops, go with AMD 64-bit that supports AMD-V if you plan on running virtual machines. Cheap Intel machines have the virtual extensions disabled so you can’t run a 64-bit guest — personally I never buy Intels…

  4. 4
    Red Oscar Says:

    I’ve been running GNU/Linux since 2002 and Ubuntu since Dapper Drake (June 2006). I find it interesting how people think they have to upgrade their hardware and pay for a new operating system and many of the applications every few years.

    I’ve been running most of the same hardware for over 7 years now (upgraded hard drive and DVD drive a few years ago) and it shows no real signs of being obsolete anytime soon. A 2.0 Ghz processor and 2GB of ram is more than enough for most people’s needs. In my humble opinion, I think most people feel the need to buy a new computer only because their operating system gets so messed up.

    Thank goodness for the GNU/Linux crowd!

  5. 5
    Brent Says:

    Check if you have any type of employee purchasing plan for specific companies. One of my employers had one with Dell and another with HP. I saved about $150 when I bought my computer. Just be careful. Some companies direct you to their special “discount” section where the prices are inflated so you aren’t saving any money. In these cases, make sure you compare the discounted computer with an equivalent non-discount computer.

    Furthermore, always check bargain, deal, and price watching websites first to see what discounts and free upgrades are being offered. The large computer brands are always offering some sort of deal (like a free RAM or disk upgrade). However, don’t let free upgrades pressure you into buying a computer because there will always be deals like this floating around.

    Finally, look at coupon websites before checking out. You might get lucky, find a coupon code, and be able to knock off another 5% or get free shipping.

  6. 6
    BG Says:

    #4 Red Oscar) I agree, old boxes are more than capable enough to run Linux. My employer is pretty cheap when it comes to hardware, so all my machines run Fedora (at work). However, the latest linux distributions don’t support the acceleration capabilities of old on-board graphics cards — it will run, but I don’t even get 2d acceleration. This is because the old Linux drivers don’t work with the new X servers…so don’t believe the hype that old hardware will just magically run with Linux — you will spend countless hours trying to get full graphics capabilities, suspend/sleep/hibernate on laptops, and many other things to work. This stuff _just_work_ with Windows.

    Server / development machines: I always run linux.
    Desktop machines: I never would use linux.

  7. 7
    Josh Smith Says:

    I like this advice, especially the 3 bullet points about buying a Mac.

    My only suggestion is that unless the laptop comes standard with 4GB or it’s on sale — buy it on your own and install it.

    You’ll save some cash and if you can operate a toaster you can change the Ram on most modern laptops.

    You may have just inspired me to do a post on ram buying. Thanks!

  8. 8
    Chuckles Mcgee Says:

    I sort of disagree with the “high-quality parts” talk regarding the Macs. There’s no doubt that Macs offer “high-end” performance parts, but “quality” seems to suggest a high level of rugged durability which I simply don’t see in the Mac line. I’ve seen so many beat-up, broken down Macs that I don’t have reason to believe they’re any more of a “quality” brand than Generic Computer. My Lenovo has withstood four foot drops onto concrete floors while running, coffee poured onto the keyboard and has come out just fine. Plus most major manufacturer’s PCs can be specced to equal or beat any Mac, typically at a lower price. Macs sure do look pretty though.

  9. 9
    David Says:

    1. Do you recommend waiting for SSD Hard Drives?

    2. Do you recommend buying an extended warranty?

    Thankfully I bought Apple Care for my old iBook G4 because the hard drive crashed three times!

  10. 10
    Matt Jabs Says:

    @David: Unless you specifically need one, I say wait until the prices of SSD drives come down. I always buy either a 2 or 3 year on-site warranty. DO NOT BUY mail in warranties, unless going through the hassle of shipping it out and waiting a month doesn’t bother you. I use price (and my budget) as a guideline as to whether I get a 2 or 3 year warranty.

  11. 11
    Tom Says:

    I agree with you advice regarding brands for desktop PCs (it doesn’t really matter). However, I think in laptops there is a significant difference in quality among brands. IBM/Lenovo, HP, and Apple are a cut above the others. I have had many bad experiences with the quality of Dell’s laptops. I would not recommend them to anyone.

  12. 12
    Steve Says:

    Are laptops now priced (almost) the same as desktops?

  13. 13
    Jeremy Says:

    You can probably get the backlit keyboard even after the purchase. I made the same mistake with a Dell laptop and was able to get it a couple months later.

  14. 14
    Tom Says:

    @Steve Per unit of performance laptops are always more expensive. It’s harder to jam the same hardware into a smaller box and then deal with all the heating issues that arise.

    If you’re playing cutting edge games a desktop is usually a smarter buy. Otherwise you probably won’t notice the difference.

  15. 15
    rzrshrp Says:

    I don’t understand the usesfullness of the backlit keyboard part though.

    I rarely look at the keyboard but I’m a touch typer so I guess this is a weak point because not all people are.

    If you need to see a key in the dark, wouldn’t light from the screen adjacent to it shed enough light on it?

  16. 16
    jim Says:

    THe vast majority of users are going to be just fine with any basic cheap computer from a major OEM. Unless someone can tell me specifically why they NEED something better then I think they should just buy the entry level $500 laptop or $400 desktop off Dell or HP’s website.

    While I agree 7200RPM drives are better than 5400RPM drives I wouldn’t consider that a ‘must have’ for everyone or spend much more for that feature alone. e.g. if I go look at Dell laptops I see the cheapo models start at $400 and have 5400RPM drives only but if I want 7200RPM then that feature isn’t offered in models cheaper than $650.

    I don’t think backlit keyboard is essential either. Is that for people who can’t touch type and work in the dark a lot??

  17. 17
    Nickel Says:

    I’m on the backlit-bandwagon. I work in the dark a lot (writing on the couch while my wife watches TV) and it’s very helpful. Yes, the display casts some light, but I keep the brightness turned down when working in the dark so that’s not a great solution.

  18. 18
    Steve Says:

    If a laptop is always more expensive, why would someone buy a laptop if they don’t need the features it provides?

    “Per unit of performance” is only relevant if there is a performance floor, e.g. the cheapest laptop costs the same as the cheapest desktop but is slower.

    It’s possible the laptop premium has remained constant in percentage terms while the absolute premium has declined (as the absolute price of all computers declined). So in absolute dollars the additional features of a laptop vs. desktop have declined.

    Like the 7200RPM hard drive question, this seems like a blanket recommendation. But I guess I’m not the target audience. :)

  19. 19
    H Lee D Says:

    Does the relative virus security of a Mac factor in?

  20. 20
    BG Says:

    #18 Steve) If you don’t need portability, then you don’t need a laptop. Laptops will always cost more, as Tom said, because you are cramming stuff in a tiny enclosure that only weighs 5 pounds. A desktop has a large cavity with big fans for cooling, the components don’t need to be super-advanced because power-draw is not a concern (you are not running on batteries), and a host of other reasons.

    If considering a laptop, then investigate ‘net-books’ and other similar devices that are computers, but are designed for simple tasks. A Desktop/netbook combo is probably cheaper than a laptop and you’ll get a lot more horsepower from the desktop than a laptop, plus the netbook will be even more portable than a laptop.

    Just my $.02

  21. 21
    John Says:

    Laptops are perfectly fine for most people. Someone who has never owned or used a laptop doesn’t really understand the value of being able to take off with it. You can take it on vacations to store pictures, entertain kids. You can take it with you to the kitchen or living room, use it for dictionary while playing scrabble. they also use less power than a desktop. Laptop parts run at lower power levels to reduce the heat load and have more power management features. Even if you leave it on a desk 98% of the time, it’s still nice to have a laptop.

    I’m not a fan of Mac so maybe I’m biased, but they just seem very overpriced to me for no discernible benefits except for the few Mac-specific niche programs that are out there. There are security flaws in all OS’s. User education and vigilance is by far the best anti-virus. I used Vista for 1.5 years with no extra anti-virus with no malware troubles at all.

  22. 22
    Moose Says:

    I think disk speed is overrated. If you’ve got 4G of RAM, you shouldn’t be loading data from disk very often.

    My priorities when I buy are :
    1) Processor (harder to upgrade, esp. in a laptop)
    2) RAM
    3) Ports (USB, Video out card reader, PCI — depending on the need)
    4) Disk space and speed.

  23. 23
    jim Says:

    “Does the relative virus security of a Mac factor in?”

    Personally I wouldn’t consider the difference in virus prevalence a big enough factor alone to warrant the extra cost of a Mac. Cheapest Macs are about 100% more than cheapest PCs. Just use a good security software and apply common sense. Or use Linux on a PC which is generally as less likely to have virus as Macs.

    But be clear there is nothing speciall about the technology keeping Mac’s from being “immune” from malware other than the simple lack of such programs targeted at the Mac platform. Same goes for Linux really.

  24. 24
    rumi Says:

    Ruling out Macs as just a piece of fancy hardware is a little short-sighted in my opinion.

    One important thing that the article omitted was security. Macs and Linux based PCs are far likely to be affected by malware than Windows boxes. It is important to consider the added cost of anti-virus software that PCs running Windows must incur.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that Macs generally offer much better performance than many PCs. This is because the OS is optimized for the underlying hardware.

    Personally, my recommendation for a PC would be to buy a mid-range laptop and use Ubuntu or another Linux distribution on it. Linux for the desktop has come a long way and on top of being fast, secure, stable, and user-friendly it is also free. If you’re thinking of buying a new computer because your current PC is running slowly, I would suggest that you try installing Ubuntu on it first. I’ve used it to resurrect many old PCs. You can run all your Windows software on a Linux PC using the Wine emulator or virtual machine software.

  25. 25
    Michael Says:

    “…because your current PC is running slowly, I would suggest that you try installing Ubuntu on it first. … You can run all your Windows software on a Linux PC using the Wine emulator or virtual machine software.”

    You’re mixing two mostly true but incompatible issues here.

    1) Linux may give you a speed boost over Windows, true
    2) You can run Windows software in Linux via Wine or a Virtual Machine, true

    But if you think you’re going to run your windows apps in Linux AND get a speed boost on your old computer, you’re fooling yourself and others.

    I’m mostly a Linux guy (7ish years), but recommend Macs to family members and friends. Macs give me the least support requests in the long run.

  26. 26
    The Biz of Life Says:

    Pretty good article. Macs are way overpriced in my opinion and not worth it. The best PC brands for reliability are Asus and Toshiba, the worst are HP and Gateway. The average user is generally better off buying one step down from state of the art because it is a much better deal financially. I run Linux on all my PCs, had enough of Windows problems, and won’t pay the Mac premium. Anyone who is a little tech savvy can configure a Linux machine to look and behave like a Mac for nothing more than the cost of the hardware. Linux is great for breathing new life into older machines too. Mint is a good Linux distro for beginners. I prefer Debian based distributions.

  27. 27
    Will Says:

    Have to disagree with the analysis concerning the purchase of a mac. Recently made the switch to Apple and I’ve been shocked at the things that I simply accepted as a “norm” of computer use (such as frequent restarts, crashes, and defrags) that simply aren’t required on my Macbook.

    Apple has a $99/yr service called one-to-one that provides personal training on your computer, and I’ve loved it! Because of one-to-one had the opportunity to take the photos that have been simply sitting on my computer (or on a cd) and turn them into a photo album that my wife hasn’t been able to stop showing off.

    If you want a reliable computer, that has a fantastic support system (through the apple store as well as through their icare phone support), as well as a lower cost of ownership, go with a mac!

  28. 28
    David Says:

    I disagree about a few points. For one thing, Macs no longer have clearly superior hardware–they have in some respects cheapened while others have often improved, meeting in the middle as a rule. Whether the “Mac Tax” is worth paying is more a function of the operating system and its superb integration with their hardware.

    For another, if the processor selected is not capable of 64-bit operation, or if the operating system you choose is a 32-bit version, then four GB of RAM is excessive, as it cannot all be addressed. Three GB would in that case be every bit as good as four.

    For a laptop, too, I would avoid 7200 rpm disks unless battery life is not a concern. Heat can be a problem with these as well.

    As for brands–a major difference which you left off is the widely varying qauality of warranty and support. Toshiba, for example, makes very nice laptops–but in my experience, their support totally sucks. Dell can be a major challenge as well, if a problem is more complex than the support people can read off a screen–assuming you get one whom you can understand. Generally, if you buy through their small business site, you get a better level of support than through the general consumer group there.

    If, like me these days, you happen to live or travel extensively overseas, also pay attention to the brands that offer international warranties. I will soon buy a machine, probably an ASUS. They have a two-year warranty that is good internationally. Many other brands have shorter warranty periods than this.

    Those who think that PCs are less dependable than Macs should try Linux. It is at least as stable as the Mac on the Mac’s best day.

    If you stick with Windows, though, I would definitely go for either a dual or quad-core processor. You’ll need that simply to run the security software you shold be–including a good firewall, anti-virus, and anti-malware program as a minimum.

    Finally, my present laptop is also a 15.6 inch model. I’m replacing it this Summer, probably with a 13 or 14 inch machine having an ultra-low-voltage CPU, to get maximum portability while still having a good keyboard and the exceptional battery life available in this configuration. I’ll use an external DVD player, as I see no reason these days to carry one around when not necessary, especially as they are fairly fragile. If you look around, an ultra-portable like this can be about three pounds or so, including a fairly sizable battery. Battery life can go eight to twelve hours on these, too, so you can often use them all day without having to lug around a charger.

    Of course, what do I know–I was only a computer consultant for a bit under 35 years, but I try to stay current with the “latest and greatest” innovations since I still have a few clients who consult me regularly. I have worked every facet from OEMs, the Fortune 50, and even at the retail level selling machines to business for a time.

  29. 29
    Will Says:

    To address a few points made in the previous post:

    1.) Not sure if this was directed at Macs, but all of the processors are 64-bit and any mac bought in the current or previous generation have Snow Leopard, which is also 64-bit.

    2.) Not everyone’s going to want to deal with the inconveniences of Linux. While installing software has become easier on Linux machines, it’s entirely too distro=dependent. Distros? Why should someone worry about instructions based on the distro their using? Many things in Linux still have to be performed at the command line. This is a seriously limiting factor that will scare away most computer-users who simply want their computer to “work” and not be changed into “computer people.”

    Again, Macs will be a better buy for many people: Those tired of the frequent crashes, defrags, and virus/spyware scans that are a part of everyday use on a Windows/PC; People who want to enjoy the stability of Linux (Mac OS X, the current Mac OS, is Unix based) without dealing with the inconveniences of a command line, or distro-dependent installs, or shoddy support from hardware vendors; Anyone who’s wished they had someone to show them how to use their computer, whether it be for basic use all the way to editing video.

    TLDR: Every current-gen Mac is using current, 64-bit technology. LInux isn’t yet a good choice for most consumers because it’s more complicated than it needs to be and it isn’t well supported. Apple provides reliable hardware/software, great support, and a learning resource for users at every level of expertise.

    To the article:
    I should’ve mentioned that I completely agree with the idea of getting a laptop over a desktop. My family has a desktop, but we’re using it less-and-less in favor of our laptops. Mostly we enjoy the freedom to work where we want to that we’re able to enjoy with our laptops.

    But what do I know?

  30. 30
    David Says:

    @Will,

    The Mac is by no means invulnerable to viruses and various malware. Now that it is more popular, it is becoming a bigger target–and the recent “black hat” hacking contest showed how easily compromised it can be.

    I am aware that present Macs are 64-bit. As are the majority of PCs being shipped, in fact.

    As for your comments about Linux, very little if anything has to be done from the command line today. I was amused at your comments, since I installed the Kubuntu version that was released several days ago only yesterday, and it was a painless install on my four-year-old laptop. Things have changed a good deal since the “common wisdom” about Linux was formed a few years back. That said, the command line on the Mac can also be extremely helpful from time to time, although few Mac people are well versed in its use.

    As I said, the Mac has superb integration between the OS and the hardware, but of course you pay through the nose for that integration.

    As for support, that too is changing fast. Apple remains among the best in that regard–but, again, you pay for that as well.

    I am by no means anti-Mac–in fact, that is one option for my new machine coming up in a couple months. However, if I get one it will be set up to dual boot with Linux, as there are some things in the Linux world that are either not available for the Mac, better than comparable Mac apps, or far less expensive (most Linux apps are, after all, free). Since I am essentially retired, the budget has to come into the calculation as we have other priorities. Since I can buy a comparable PC for as little as half as much as the Macs cost, that also plays a part.

    You would be well advised to stay on top of the security situation with your Macs, as they don’t have some of the normal UNIX-style protections in favor of ease of use.

  31. 31
    Matt Jabs Says:

    FWIW, I run Linux (the newly released Ubuntu 10.04) on my new laptop (a Dell Inspiron 15z.) In my office I run a Windows XP machine, an iMac, and a Linux webserver (using the command line exclusively – no gui.) I just finished up a 3 months stint of running Windows 7 Home Premium on my new laptop while waiting for the Ubuntu release… I prefer Linux whenever possible. Windows 7 is okay, but it is just entirely too resource intensive (hog.)

  32. 32
    tammy Says:

    my question is what programs come on a laptop comaq and what programs do you have to buy and install yourself? am i buying something i don’t need to purchase?norton virus for 69.99 and micro soft student home for 119.00

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