What to look for in a new computer
If you’re buying a new computer, you probably want something that’s fast, uncluttered, and maybe something that’s nice to look at too. When comparing computers, manufacturers throw a lot of statistics and features at you that may look like a great package, but if you want to pull off a good deal, you need to make sure you can focus on the important things and ignore all the promotional garbage and filler they use to try and distract from other possible shortcomings.
Focus on the Features that Count
Processor Clock Speed, and Processor Cache
Better memory improves multi-tasking and performance. Clock Speed is expressed as a frequency, such as 2.40 GHz. Processor Cache is in the neighbourhood of 4MB of 6MB for a powerful beast. Good desktops can hit 2.93 GHz, probably better before long. You can compare a vast number of CPUs here. Keep in mind that some of these are made for servers, and aren’t something you would get in a desktop.
Not to be confused with hard disk space – this is a huge factor in how many processes your machine can handle, and how intense those can be. Programs like Excel and Photoshop, as well as many games, consume a lot of RAM. If you don’t have enough RAM, your computer must write data to disk, which hugely slows things down. I’m talking orders of magnitude. RAM is important. Make sure you have at least 2GB of it. And don’t worry about all that Shared Dual DDR2 SDRAM etc stats they give you. Ram performance and branding is not something to get carried away with, just make sure you aren’t getting swindled with some 512MB RAM POS.
You might not think it, but if your video card sucks, it can and will drag down your entire system. This isn’t just for people who play the occasional game or movie. Software nowadays gets so fancy with user interfaces that it can demand a lot from your graphics card, and if you settle for something poor now, you’ll find yourself buying a new one before your machine’s time is up, so check your video card against this list and make sure you aren’t being sold a bottom-feeder.
It rarely occurs to us, until we buy a bargain $600 laptop and it comes to you with only 2 USB slots for your printer, iPod, external hard drive, external keyboard and mouse, and that little USB Christmas tree you like to plug in on the holidays. Whoops. You could buy a USB splitter, but then everything has to share the already abysmal speed of a single USB slot. Make sure you have enough to suit your current needs plus one, or you’ll be frustrated.
Screen and Keyboard
Make sure they’re big enough for your taste. It’s hard to downgrade to a lower resolution screen after you’ve been using a 19 inch widescreen. Also ask yourself whether you would like a num pad on the built in keyboard. I know I can’t look at a laptop without one.
I’m just going to get this out of the way. I’m sure you knew this, but just in case – having Microsoft Windows does not mean you have Microsoft Office. Whether you like it or not, you’re probably going to have to dish out an extra hundred bucks for Word, Excel and Powerpoint if you need it. There are many free alternatives to this software, but sometimes alternatives won’t do. When comparing two computers, see if it’s included in the package. Keep that in mind when comparing the prices.
The Operating System
Computers come with operating systems installed. Make sure it’s the one you want. Sometimes, when buying a windows machine, you can choose between the different versions of the operating system. If you’re lucky enough to get this choice, your best bet is almost always to go with the most basic version.
Just look at the different versions of Windows 7. The basic ‘Home Premium’ is $120. It has everything you need. The ‘Professional’ Edition is an extra $70. What do you get?
- The ability to start the operating system in ‘XP’ mode. This is useless clutter. Almost any program running on one windows system can run on later versions. You can even run programs in compatibility mode just by right clicking on them. Having an alternative boot mode is a weak feature that you will never use.
- You get bundled network software called ‘Domain Join’. This is the type of bloatware that you would want to remove from your system the moment it arrived.
- A feature to back up to a network machine. This is something anyone can set up with a number of free softwares.
Now, add another $20 to the sticker price (‘Ultimate Edition’), and you get security bloatware called BitLocker, and 35 languages pre-installed. That’s it. Complete waste of space and money. All things you can replicate for free. Stick to the basics, built on it with software you choose if you need more features.
Don’t waste money on useless features
120GB? 250GB? 500GB? 1TB? Desktop machines are sure to offer you a wide range of built in Hard Disk Space sizes, probably at increments of $300. Sure it’s always good to have more space, but unless you plan on pulling out the hard drive and moving it to each new computer you buy, you’ve just wasted a ton of money on disposable memory. Instead of blowing it all on a bigger Hard Drive, buy an external hard drive. Especially if looking at desktops, an external hard drive is no less convenient, can store all that garbage you can’t be bothered to organize, music, pictures and movies, and even better – once you change computers again, you don’t have to worry about transferring over all your personal files. So for your desktop, buy the smallest hard drive, and save your money for an external.
Do you have a DVD player at home? If yes, then ask yourself if you really need your computer to be able to play BlueRay. I’m not going to lie, you probably will want to burn CDs and DVDs at some point in life to try to get some data from point A to point B conveniently, but these CD drives are far from an important feature in machines. Guaranteed that if you stick pretty much any CD in any computer, it will be able to read it, so just buy the cheapest one that you can get and don’t worry about whether or not you have ‘lightscribe technology’ allowing you to label specialty CDs at burn time!
Media Ports (CF/SD/MMC/MS/etc… Card Readers)
If you have a camera, or phone, or other device that uses these things, then I can guarantee you, 100%, that they have a USB cable you can use to attach the device to your computer and pull off/put on any files you want (probably without having to install any software). This feature is a minor convenience, and if you are given the option to dish out money for this feature – don’t. Furthermore, if it’s a main selling point of machine you’re looking at, snub your nose at it. You know better now.
If you can’t tell the difference between 128 kbps and 320 kbps mp3 audio files, then don’t bother spending an extra $100 on the ‘Xtreme Titanium’ brand.
Security (Anti-Virus) Software
When you go to customize a PC, you’re always offered a 30-day trial of some software for antivirus. If you get the chance, ask for none at all. It will just bloat your computer and be a pain to remove, unless you pay for it in which case you could do much better. Remember that you’re paying for hardware, and maybe an operating system. Figure out the software separately. Download your favourite free antivirus software (Such as AVG, Avast, or Avira) the day you get the computer, as well as anti-spyware (Spybot S&D) and you’ll be just as safe, if not safer, than if you entered into a messy yearly contract with McAffee or Norton.
Internet Service Providers, multimedia software, specialty software, and other bloatware
You will inevitably be bombarded with promotional packages and offers to buy into different Internet Service Providers. You’ve been managing your own internet for years I’m sure, and it has nothing to do with buying a new computer. You don’t need trial versions of every photo editor, media player, and express online backup service sponsoring Dell/HP/Toshiba. Make sure you dismiss everything in this category, including the inevitable ‘Send me offers’ option (which is certainly selected by default).
Fax Modem? No. You don’t need one.
Hybrid TV Tuner with Remote Control? Buy a TV! I’ve seen people try to do it before and I really, really think that you do not want to try to turn your computer into a TV.
Online Data Storage? Don’t bother. Uploading data is slow, you’re better off backing up on an external hard drive, and there are plenty of free services that let you access your files from remote machines.
This is a sensitive topic. Warranties are where manufacturers cash out on their customers. It’s a good way of raking in two to five hundred dollars without actually giving you anything. Just be aware that in the long run, you save a lot more money by not buying into warranties for anything, and by taking care of your gear on your own. You will find that unless there’s a serious hardware issue, there’s very little you can’t solve with a fresh install. Keep your OS CD in a very safe place, and capitalize on your own knowledge and independence if and when the time comes.
For more information, see also Lifehacker‘s Definitive Guide to Making the Most of Your Netbook or their Five Best Netbooks article.