What to Look for When Buying a New Computer

So you’ve decided it’s time to purchase a new computer and picked up the circular in the Sunday newspaper only to be met with a dizzying selection of merchandise highlighting features and specifications that only an engineer could understand.

In an effort to make that choice a little less daunting here are a few guidelines that should help you get the right device without agonizing over the decision.  In fact, you can narrow the field down very quickly by starting with a few simple categories.

  1. Apple or Microsoft – While Microsoft has dominated the computer landscape for as long as most people can remember, Apple’s appeal has skyrocketed in the past several years by producing elegant, functional and easy to use products.  Both brands have their advantages and disadvantages so it is important to understand these in order to make an honest comparison.  For example, while Macs integrate easily with other Apple devices within your network (e.g., iPhone, iPod/iPad, etc.) it is often challenging to operate them in a mixed platform (Windows and Macs) or corporate environment due to fundamental differences in the operating systems.  Although Macs are generally faster and less prone to many of the maladies that seem to plague PCs (viruses, the “Blue Screen of Death”), they are much more expensive to purchase and repair (if you do buy a Mac the extended service plan is a must).  Finally, even though most Mac software is well designed and quite intuitive, it can be frustrating to switch if you have been using Windows your whole life.
  2. Desktop, Laptop or Tablet – The traditional argument in favor of a desktop is that you get more — a faster processor, bigger hard drive, larger screen — for
    less.  With a laptop, you trade that price advantage for mobility and although tablets are represent the pinnacle of portability their current functional limitations make them more suited for leisure and entertainment use.  In  general, since any new desktop or laptop will meet the needs of most people for
    email, Internet, and basic office productivity, you should weight any specific  requirements more heavily in your final decision.  For example, photo and video editing benefit from the faster processors, higher performance graphics cards and larger (or multiple) monitors found on desktops.  However the convenience of watching Blu-Ray movies by connecting a laptop to your television can eliminate the need for a standalone player.  Anyone with young children probably already knows the hypnotic effect created by a tablet with a few well-chosen applications.  Ultimately as hardware prices drop the necessity of an either/or decision becomes less rigid with many people deciding to own one of each.
  3. Price – You should expect to pay $400-$600 for a nicely configured Windows desktop (with another $125 if you need a monitor) and comparable laptops tend to run about 25% higher (but you avoid the expense of purchasing a separate display).  Double or triple those figures if you are considering a Mac.  Price differences are usually based upon the quality of the components (e.g., Intel vs. AMD), the size or “form-factor” of the unit (with smaller or all-in-one units costing more) and the general reputation of the manufacturer (Apple at the top and value brands like eMachines at the bottom).

With few exceptions, any Mac or Windows consumer computer will be able do most tasks that a home user or small business requires. So don’t get caught up comparing specifications that won’t be noticeable to the average user.  Remember, the difference in computing power between a 2.4Ghz or 2.8Ghz processor is not relevant to 99.9% of consumers.

This article was originally published in the Technically Speaking column of the June 2012 issue of I’On Life magazine.