Monday, September 13, 2010

How to Buy a Computer for the Tech Newbie

Please note that this article is severely out of date.  I'm leaving it up for reference purposes, but a new one exists on the site.  Please head to and take a look!

Here I am planning out the articles I am going to publish to my blog and trying to decide what comes first.  As I'm looking at the various options a para-pro in the local school district calls me up and makes up my mind for me.  She's someone who's grown children would come home from school with their computers and she would get cable high speed internet only during the summer for them.  She's now found that she needs to learn how to use a PC for her job, and the only hardware she has is a old broken down PC her youngest built and abandoned at her place full of viruses.  She suddenly finds that she needs a computer and gives me a call.

Ok, so here is the low down on buying a computer.  Back in 1999 -2002 this was a major decision.  Computers were priced anywhere from $850 on up and you sill needed to add on the monitor and printer minimally if you were buying off the shelf.  The computer would be rated in terms of the processor, speed, amount of ram, hard drive space, other hardware features, and included software.  You would have to gauge whether the software you wanted would run on the hardware you chose by comparing the specs on the software to the specs on the box.  Not only that but after a year everything changed so much that by the next release of your operating system you might need a whole new computer to run it.

Now this really is not the case.  For the last three years or so hardware has become such a commodity that what came out three years ago is still on the market.  If you're looking to get a computer that can get online, type papers, edit video, and watch shows most anything out there will fill the need.  Truthfully unless you have a special need for a computer such as a home theater pc or a heavy duty gaming pc you can skip most of the specs you used to have to torture yourself with.  The trick now is knowing what you want the computer for, what your skill level is, and whether you want a desktop or a laptop.

Here is the dirt simple set of rules for buying a new computer:

I'm starting off with this one because the woman from the start of this story did just this, and I see many teachers do the same thing.  Basically they are looking to save money and figure the same wisdom that serves them well while buying a car will do the same in buying a computer.  The only problem here is that you really can't map the two.  Buying a used car is something most people understand.  There are many books out there a lay person can rely upon for assistance, and pricing guides such as the Kelly Blue Book to ensure you're not being cheated.  Unfortunately no such guide exists for computers.

Most used computers are from the time before hardware became such a commodity.  As such you might wind up overpaying for something that can't run most modern software.  Especially any computer that comes with Windows XP installed.  The biggest annoyance with used computers is that most of the time the seller never gives you the original software that came with the machine.  You'll get a computer that turns on and runs, but if the thing ever goes down from viruses or drive failure you have nothing to restore to.  The cost of a new hard drive and a copy of windows 7 as well as office is easily as much as a new basic computer if not far more.

Add to it that you don't get tech support from the original company and you quickly see why most used tech is either donated to schools who have technology departments to handle this type of thing or is simply recycled.

2)  What are you trying to do?
There are few tasks that need specialized hardware.  If you're not looking to use your new computer to knock someone's socks off in Call of Duty 4, or recreate your own version of Jurassic Park from scratch almost any hardware will do.  The main questions you need to answer are:

  • Are you going to be using your computer to talk with family in chat?  If so you should look for something with a webcam and microphone.
  • Are you buying this computer to work with anything special for work?  If so check with your IT person to find out what they require.  Take notes!
  • Do you listen to alot of music or watch a lot of videos?  You'll want really good speakers.  Speakers really are not optional anymore but are still sold separately.  Never trust a built in speaker in a monitor as they usually sound rather tinny. Always buy self powered units and remember you get what you pay for.  Good speakers usually cost $50-$300.  Just remember that unlike computer technology speakers have not changed much in the last 10 years so what you buy now will still work years from now.
  • Who is this computer for?  If you are buying a computer for a parent or grandparent who wants something to view photos of you or your kids with you might want to get something really simple to use like a Mac or a Ipad instead of a pc.
3)  Laptop or Desktop?
This is a simple question.  Are you looking for something you can take with you or something that you want to live at home and use in one location.  There isn't much of a difference between the two now anymore other than a desktop costs a bit less, and that it's easier to have a much bigger screen.  If you're looking for something you can throw in your bag and go you can go with a laptop or the new formfactors of a netbook or tablet.  Netbooks are laptops with a smaller screen, longer battery life, and no DVD drive.  Great for papers and internet surfing but lousy as media machines.  Tablets are a new type of device out there.  More of a consumption device like a kindle.  You can view photos, read books, surf the web, and read email, but creating things like documents is limited because you have no real input device other than the screen.

4)  Mac or PC?
Seriously this question is still around, but it's a more interesting one than it used to be.  10 years ago only the most die hard mac fans really wanted the platform because you were limited in the amount of software it could run..  The Ipod has changed this pulling the Mac along for the ride.  Now Macintosh computers can run their happy virus free OS alongside Microsoft Windows.  Meaning you can run anything you can buy.  I will usually recommend a Mac to people who are afraid of catching a computer virus and to anyone who wants a computer that just works without having to learn the ins and outs of a pc.    You will be paying a premium for a Mac desktop or Laptop.  The same PC hardware will cost anywhere from 50% to 25% the cost of a Mac, but for some the lack of frustration is worth it.  Now a Mac won't protect you from user stupidity.  You still need to remember to not give out your usernames and passwords when someone asks you for them.

5)  Software
I'm going to go in depth with software in my next article, but for now I'll give you the brief you need.  Don't limit your PC choice by the included software!  Most of the stuff that the manufacturers put on their machines is junk.  They'll include the microsft works pack with a year of antivirus and various other junk you don't need or want.  Most of the time you will be removing that software and replacing it with more functional alternatives.  Antivirus is one of the biggest ones!  You don't want a PC with Norton or Macafee.  My own experience with these two has been terrible.  Not knocking or slandering their products, but the problem is that they are so well known and popular that they are the targets to beat for virus writers.  You're better off with a free alternative such as Microsoft's Security Essentials or if you want to pay for a product NOD 32 is the best pay AV out there.

Here are some simple recommendations:  

If you want a desktop PC that will do the basics check out the EEE PC from Asus.  It's a solid piece of hardware that is inexpensive and covers all the bases.  I've included a monitor link below because this does not include a screen.

If you're looking for something desktop based that's all in one, check out the Asus EEETop PC line.  The monitor, PC, speakers, microphone, and webcam are all built into one unit.  This makes setup a breeze and a very friendly PC for everyone.

If you're looking for a full fledged laptop you can't beat what Asus has put out in the N61jv-x2.  Good power, good performance, built in webcam again and all in all a descent powerhouse.

If you're looking for a more price consious laptop look at the EEE PC netbook series.  The only thing to remember here is they do not have a optical drive.  As such they're better suited for web surfing, email, and college papers.

Finally if you're leaning towards a Mac option I recommend either a iMac for a desktop, or a iBook for a laptop.  The screen size for the iMac has two options, 21.5" and 27".  The iBook you will need to go to Apple directly to look at.

This concludes our little jaunt into purchasing a new computer.  Next time I'll cover software options in depth and how you can save major money here by exploring your alternatives!


In the months since I first published this article a new laptop has come out that more or less blows away my recomendations here.  If you're looking for a laptop that has the battery life and weight of a netbook, but the screensize, keyboard, webcam, and DVD drive of a laptop this is the ultimate machine for the general public:

This machine is based off of AMD's Zacate platform.  It was placed to blow intel's Atom out of the water in terms of price and performance and with this machine AMD has done it! I've purchased one for a friend and loved it so much I'm replacing other laptops in my home with it as they go out.

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