Buying a Computer

The “but which one” question is very difficult. Many people will ask anyone with any sort of computer experience what to buy. The problem: no research has been done on the buyer's part. Treat the purchase of a computer like you would a car. It is a major purchase. But beware, just as in a car search, when shopping for a computer, you will find both helpful and concerned salesmen and shady and uninformed salesmen. You should be prepared with knowledge to buy a computer that is usable now and for the future.

Buying a Computer: Basic Questions - Part 1

Start with the basic question.

1. Do I buy a laptop (mobile) or a desktop (stationary) computer?
Laptops can be moved to any location and are great for the traveler that needs to work on it. Also if it has a wireless card attached it can connect wirelessly at places like a coffee shop or a library. With a laptop you are buying convenience and you will get less power than a desktop for the same money.

Desktops are cheaper and you get more for the money. They are also more expandable and generally have larger screens than a laptop. However you are pretty much stuck with a desk or some other devoted area.

2. What type of system should I buy? Macintosh or Windows (also called PC)
PCs are inexpensive and have more software available. Most of the world uses PC’s but they are not as easy to use and have more problems with spyware and viruses.

Macs are very reliable, easier to use and rarely have problems with spyware and viruses. Macs are more expensive and programs can be limited.

3. What is this computer for?
Basic use, meaning checking your email, searching the internet, writing documents, keeping track of finances, playing some games, basic editing of your photos, listening to music.

Moderate use, meaning the above plus more intensive photo editing, playing online video games like Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, creating hefty Web pages or some video editing.

Intensive use, meaning the above plus anything graphic intensive like advanced film editing or something processor intensive like analyzing all the data the SETI program receives.

Narrowing your Search - Part 2

At this point, you should have narrowed down your search. Now lets look at the detail.

1. All computers come with ways of either installing or removing information, for purposes of storage or mobility. These are called drives. There are many choices of drives so read carefully and choose just the ones you will use. It is not always true that more is better.

Floppy or 3 ½ Drive: This was the main way of storing or inputting data for years. This is now old and not that useful. If you need it for a specific use, you will have to pay extra for the floppy drive.

CD-R and DVD-R Drives: The drives below fall under two types, combination and no combination drives. Read carefully.

CD Drives can only read (play or view) information on a CD.

CD-R Drives can both read and record (burn) information. They can store up to 700MB or 80 minutes of audio.

DVD Drives can only read information on CD and DVD

DVD-R Drives usually can read and write information on CD and DVD. They can store up to 4700MB or 4.7GB

Ports
There are two types of ports (plug-in areas) that are common to almost every computer made today.
USB 2 is the standard. This port is used for everything from a flash Drive (removable storage like a floppy disk) to a lighted fake aquarium. Any accessories that you buy will most likely be USB 2, for example a digital camera.

FireWire is another port that is not as universal (usually Mac only) but faster than USB 2.

2. One of the more confusing aspects of buying a computer is the vocabulary. Memory can mean two separate things.
Storage memory, or hard drive space, usually measured in gigabytes. Simply put, this is how much your computer can hold. The current range is between 40 GB’s to 160 GB’s. The more you are going to store, the more space you will need.

RAM is the amount of memory the computer can use to power its applications, kind of like gas for cars. The more gas means the more cars you can run at one time. The minimum ram on a new computer should be 256 megabytes.

A quick reference for how much memory is taken up by certain things.

Memory                
Becomes  
Item                                                             
Memory used
1000 Bytes 1KB Email message 15-45KB
1000 Kilobytes 1MB Basic letter 600-900KB
1000 Megabytes 1BG Quality digital photo 1.3MB-14MB
1000 Gigabytes 1TB Small movie 100MB-4GB
1000 Terabytes 1PB All the books in the Library of Congress 20TB
1000 Petabytes 1EB What Google has indexed on the Internet 1.8-5PB
1000 Exabytes 1ZB All of the printed material on the planet 5EB

 

Checklist (pdf)

So, you want to buy a computer . . . checklist.

• Do I buy a laptop (mobile) or a desktop (stationary) computer?

( ) Laptops

( ) Desktops

• What type of system should I buy? Macintosh or Windows (also called PC)

( ) PCs (Windows)

( ) Macintosh

• What is this computer for? (Check the ones that apply)

( ) Basic use, meaning checking your email, searching the internet, writing documents, keeping track of finances, playing some games, basic editing of your photos, listening to music.

( ) Moderate use, meaning doing the above plus more intensive photo editing,playing online video games like Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, creating hefty Web pages or some video editing.

( ) Intensive use, meaning the above plus anything graphic intensive like advanced film editing or processor intensive like crunching all of the data a major company would get.

Drives

( ) Floppy or 3 ½ Drive

( ) CD Drive

( ) CD-R

( ) DVD Drive

( ) DVD-R Drive

• Ports

( ) USB

( ) FireWire

• Memory

( ) Hard Drive between 40 GBs to 160 GBs

( ) RAM should be 256 megabytes and up

The Buying Process

Just knowing and understanding what the important parts of a computer are is not enough. A good consumer is an informed consumer. I suggest going to some retail stores and actually get your hands on what we are talking about. Bring a Notebook and jot things the salesperson is speaking about. Tell them what you are going to use the computer and see what they recommend and why. Also reading everything you can get your hands on is a good idea. Buy a couple of magazines to see what they are praising and rejecting out there. Talk to friends or co-workers and ask what they bought and are they happy with choice they made? All of this is a lot of work, but you will feel more comfortable with your decision when you are done.

Where to buy or How to buy?
Now that you have decided what to buy, it is time to decide where to buy it. Do you buy it at a place that you have bought other electronics like Best Buy or a department store? Should you buy online where you might get a better price, but you cannot lay your hands on the machine? The two ways of buying a computer are below along with the reason for and against.

Online Store vs. Retail Store

Type of store PRO CON
Retail store
  • Being able to tryout the computer
  • Salespeople to answer questions
  • Instant gratification, have it now
  • If there is a problem, bring it back to the store
  • High pressure salespeople
  • The staff is not always well-informed
  • Pain to compare one store to another
  • Too easy to make a purchase without doing the research
  • Generally more expensive
Online store
  • Generally less expensive
  • Tons of information at your fingertips
  • Easier to compare several sites at once
  • Forces you to think more
  • No high pressure salespeople
  • Cannot have it instantly
  • Can be a long wait to speak to a person
  • Cannot tryout the computers
  • If there is a problem, you will have to send it back

Where to buy the computer:
The list is in order of best to worst according to Consumer Reports (December 2005). If any store or site received a “worst” mark in any category, it is not listed here.

Retail stores Online stores Manufacturers
  1. Micro Center
  2. Office Depot
  3. Circuit City
  4. Fry’s Electronics
  5. CompUSA
  6. Best Buy
  1. Amazon
  2. PC/Mac Connection
  3. Costco
  4. CDW
  5. PC/Mac Mall
  6. TigerDirect
  7. Circuit City
  8. Best Buy
  1. Apple
  2. IBM
  3. Dell
  4. Compaq/HP
  5. Toshiba
  6. Gatew


What to buy

Highest recommended computers According to Consumer Reports (December 2005).

Type Price Windows Models Price Macintosh Models
Desktop $550 Emachines T6410 $1,500 Apple iMac G5
$610 Compaq SR1010Z $800 Apple eMac Combo Drive
$870 Dell Dimension 3000 $780 Apple Mac Mini
$1,640 Hp Pavilion a1050y
$1,150 Compaq Presario SR1010Z
Laptop $750 Dell Inspiron 2200 $2,000 Apple ibook 14”
$1,105 IBM ThinkPad r51-2883 $1,200 Apple Powerbook 15”
$700 Toshiba Satellite M30 X-S181ST
$1,655 Dell Inspiron 700m
$1,450 IBM ThinkPad G41-2886


Links

Find out what computer is right for you (quiz)

Retail and online stores
Micro Center
Amazon
PC Connection
Mac Connection
Costco
CDW
PC Mall
Mac Mall
TigerDirect
Office Depot
Fry’s Electronics
Best Buy
Apple
IBM
Dell
Compaq/HP
Toshiba
Gateway
Emachines

Researching before you buy
www.Shopper.com
www.Mysimon.com
www.Consumerreprots.com
www.Bizrates.com

Don’t just throw your old computer away!
Donate it to a charity or a school or try the websites below
www.Greenerchoices.org
www.Freecycle.org

 

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