Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shopping for a New PC

In the early days of computers, buying a computer was easy.  The more you spent, the faster the processor was and the better you programs would run.  Although, back then that new computer might have set you back $5,000, so that part was not easy.  Today, computers are more affordable than ever, but it is also harder to pick one out.  This may be intimidating, but keep in mind, having options is a good thing.  Lets first talk about what to pay less attention to, and then we will look at what is good to focus on.  Keep in mind, great deals on computers are often on older technologies.  You may pay less, but it will not last as long.  A great value is key.

The things not to worry as much about

  • CPU speed (Ghz).  There are things to consider with your computer's CPU, but the clock speed is not one of them these days, so don't worry about the ghz.  In the world of multiple CPU cores, faster is not always better.
  • Hard drive size (GB).  For most people, even the smallest hard drive out there today will hold all of your files.  The exception to the rule is for Netbooks, but more on that later.  If you know you require a lot of space, then this might be a factor for you, but put it farther down the list as it may be a better option for you to go with the better computer and upgrade the drive yourself later.
  • Amount of Memory (RAM).  As long as this is at least 3 GB for a full computer, 1 GB for a Netbook, you should be fine.  Again, this can easily be upgraded at a later date.  As with the above factors, this could help as a tie breaker between two models, but it should not be a deciding factor.
  • Video Memory (VRAM).  More computer companies have started adversing this.  If you play high end computer games with 3D graphics, this comes into play.  Otherwise, ignore it.
  • Network Connectivity. All laptops and netbooks have WiFi and all desktops and most laptops have ethernet ports.  There are differences, but none that most people need to be concerned with.
  • DVD drive.  Unless you are looking for Blu-ray drive, nothing to see here.  Netbooks do not have one.
It's not to say that the specs are not important, but shopping for computers today is less about the numbers and more about finding what is best for you..  The truth is, most of the computers out there will do what most people need them to.  Yes an enthusiast such as myself pays a bit more attention to those numbers, but if you are looking for a solid computer that will last you for years, read on.

Things to Consider

The first question you want to ask yourself is what kind of computer you want.  Desktops are by far the most bang for your buck, but they take up more space.  Laptops are more expensive, take up less space and are portable.  Netbooks are less expensive and extremely portable, but are not very powerful and do not have a CD drive.  While there are some tips for all types of computer, each specific type has specific things to look for.

For all Computers:

  • The Manufacturer.  Not all brands are equal.  I prefer Dell and Asus, but there are many others out there.  If you have a preference, start your search with that manufacturer there.
  • The Price.  A no brainer here.  Again, look for a value, not just the dollar amount.
  • The Type of CPU.  While the speed may not matter, the type of processor a computer uses tells you everything about the age of the technology inside.  I prefer an Intel CPU over AMD as they are a much better value these days.  If the computer does not say Core i3, i5, or i7 on it, the technology is not the latest out there.  i3 is the most affordable while i7 is the best performer.  Netbooks should have Intel Atom processors in them.
  • Style and Color.  I know it sounds funny, but if it is going to be sitting out or on your lap, you should like how it looks.
For Desktops:
  • Accessories.  If it comes with speakers and a monitor and you need those, this is good.  If it comes with them and you do not need new ones, why pay for them.
  • Size.  Desktops should always have room for airflow around them.  If you do not have room for a full size tower, there are several slim options available.
  • Ports.  If you have a lot of accessories or need a specific type of connector, make sure that what you buy has these options.  Desktops have a huge variety of options here.  A good example of this is support for multiple monitors or a specific type of audio connector.
  • Separate video card.  If you or a family member plays games, having a separate video card, also called a GPU,  is important.
For Laptops:
  • Screen Size.  The screen size will impact the price, features and portability of the laptop.  A sweet spot is at 15-16 inches.  Any more or less and you will pay more, unless you get into the Netbooks at the smaller end.  Laptops with larger screens typically are more powerful as well as more expensive.  These are often called desktop replacements and can be a bit heavy to travel with.
  • Warranty.  If you travel with your laptop, consider getting a two or three year warranty.  Laptops are more expensive to repair and a bit more fragile.  Many companies also offer accidental damage protection to cover drops and spills.
  • Battery Life.  If you are a Geek on the go, it is nice to not always stop and plugin.  Keep in mind, the more powerful the computer, the shorter it will run on battery alone, so this can be relative to the specs of what you are looking at.
  • Keyboard and track pad.  You can replace a mouse and keyboard on a desktop, but you are stuck with what is built into the laptop if you do not use an external set.  Back-lit keyboards are nice for low light use.
  • The Screen.  You can look at all the numbers you want, but the best way to compare screens is to look at them in a store.  Most today are LED back-lit, so focus mainly on the resolution and whether or not you prefer the matte or glossy look.  
  • The Sound.  If you are planning on watching movies or listing to music, the built in speakers in laptops can be pretty bad, so you might want to give it a listen if that is important to you.
For Netbooks:
  • The ease and comfort of use.  Since they are so small, they are not always the most comfortable to use.  A poor design element can really set one apart from the group, so be sure to try before you buy.  Track pads are a big area that many of the netbooks get wrong.  If it is too small and lacking separate buttons, you may find it difficult to use.
  • The type of Storage Device.  Netbooks typically have two types of hard drives.  One is called a solid state drive and will be less than 100 GB.  It uses less power and has no moving parts, so it is a good choice for the person that is often on the go and does not need a large amount of storage.  Others have full hard drives that can hold more files.  Capacity is the only advantage that a full drive has.
  • Nvidia Ion.  Ion is a technology that gives netbooks a bit more in the video and multimedia department.  If you see this on a netbook, it is a very good thing.  Like with any extra power, it may come at the cost of decreased battery run time.
  • Any laptop items above.  A netbook is a mini and inexpensice version of a laptop, so the topics mentioned earlier still apply.  Keep in mind the point of a netbook is that it is inexpensive, so you might want to look at  a full laptop if you start getting too picky.  In many cases, a full laptop is a better value as it has much more under the hood.
Keep these tips in mind and you will do great.  I often look in the stores and then purchase my computers online.  That way you can often customize them a bit further, compare prices, and avoid high pressure sales people that may not always be focused on your best interest.  Never forget, a good value is always better than a good sale.

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