Every so often, you’re going to need to shop for a new computer. Picking a new PC is one of the things I get asked to help with often. Folks will ask if I like a certain brand, or they’ll just state loyalty for a brand and want to stick with it. When I shop (with the exception of Apple, which has a unique platform), brand name is not really a consideration. In the Windows world, it’s all about the specs. Specs first, then price, then maybe, brand.
Perhaps I should have said that “form” comes first, then specs. Laptop or desktop – you probably had that figured from the get-go – and then you’re back to specs. Before moving on from form, let me plant this: A tablet PC can do what a laptop does, and a laptop can do what a desktop does, but not the other way around. Keep an open mind on form, and maybe give yourself some flexibility.
When shopping for a computer, start with the task at hand. What do you need this computer to do, and how well does it need to do it? (That is, do you mind waiting for your computer to do things, or do you want it to be as snappy as the computers in an action movie?) And how long does it need to be able to do it? (One year, or many years? A super-low budget computer, in general, won’t keep up with demands.) Is this computer going to have to do basic stuff, like a little word processing and surf the web, maybe store a few photographs? Or will it be doing more heavy lifting like bookkeeping, large spreadsheets, or maybe some photo or music editing? Is it going to be used for high-performance games? Or Computer Aided Design? Not everybody uses bookkeeping software, like Quicken or QuickBooks, but it’s not unusual either. Be aware, bookkeeping is demanding of computers. And unless you don’t mind running errands or otherwise filling your time between entries, bookkeeping is rarely going to run well on a lower budget computer. Likewise for advanced photo editing, music editing, or cutting-edge design or painting programs. These all tend to need more overall power to work well and keep up with your needs. If you’re a fan of multiple screens and need to watch the news on one monitor and track your stocks on another, that’s going to need more power too. When you have a handle on the how-used question, then you’ll be able to get an idea of what specifications your new machine will need to both meet your expectations and to keep up with your demands.
And What Are These Specs?
Things get complicated here pretty quickly, but in general you want to check the CPU make and model (don’t go “budget”), the amount of RAM (more is always better, less is always a negative), and the amount and type of permanent storage. In the long-term, the “hard drive,” solid state drives (SSD) are a selling point, but (at this writing in 2018) one that comes at a premium of higher price but generally, less capacity. Whether SSD or not, look at the capacity first. Generally expressed in gigabytes (GB) and terabytes (TB), respectively. One TB equals 1000 GB.
As a rule of thumb, look for a hard drive with 500GB or 1TB or larger. A hard drive with less than 256GB is just too small, and if you store any photographs, music or videos, 256GB is quickly going to fill up and bog down a computer. Regarding RAM, these are the active brain cells of a computer. The more RAM it has, the better it will be able to perform. Most Windows 10 computers come with 8GB or more. Technically Microsoft says it can run on less, but only if you’re willing to wait on your computer. Less than 6GB is, in my experience, just not going to cut it – 8GB or more is the target. Figuring out CPUs is the biggest hassle. There are literally hundreds of models, in tens of model lines, within just the two main makers. I use the website CPUbenchmark.net to help figure out if the offered CPU is going to be useful or not. For any model of CPU, this site will give a score for general performance. These days a score under 2000 is generally not going to be worthy. Higher, of course, is better. Once you’ve got your specs relatively settled, you can start shopping. You’ll quickly notice that all the brands have PC models that fit your needs. The warranties are the same, and most of the features are the same. Don’t let brand loyalty drag you away from a good deal.
Refurb or New?
I mentioned that budget computers won’t keep up with the demand of constantly advancing features in programs and websites. That doesn’t mitigate the need to stick with a budget. One way around this is to look at so-called “refurbished” computers. Every store has “refurbs,” even Walmart, Staples, Costco, and BestBuy. Not all refurbs are “used.” Look at the warranty. If it says that you get the same warranty as a new computer, chances are that it may actually be a never-used, never-sold computer! When a big-box store returns a pallet of unsold computers to the manufacturer, the manufacturer sends them back out as “refurbs.” There are some great deals there! Even if you’re an Apple user, the specs still matter to the task at hand. Think of the specs you need before you pick out your next computer.
Mike Pepper, The Computer Guy, has been providing software and hardware support in New York and Connecticut for more than 35 years. He can be reached at (845) 855-5824, or www.PawlingComputerGuy.com.