An IT Guy's Guide To Buying A Computer
A special TechnoFile buyers' guide from an industry insider
By Christopher Bray
"…separating the useful information from the steaming BS can be tough"
I moonlight as an IT Professional when I'm not sitting on the couch playing games and eating Cheetos, and in early 2014 a relative asked for advice on buying a new laptop. I could have asked a few leading questions and then made a more tailored suggestion, but being an introvert with the verbosity gene, I just started writing. Before long my ramblings started to look like a generic buying guide, so over the course of an afternoon I let it grow into this guide.
Computers these days are very much like cars. Obviously not physically, but in the way they've evolved into a commodity that is peddled on specs that most people don't understand and really shouldn't care too much about. What's really important in both industries is finding the product that works for YOU. As an IT guy, I have a couple of servers in my basement that I run, maintain, play with, etc. It's how I keep my skills sharp, just like a plumber does his own plumbing or a mechanic fixes his own car. But I doubt many TechnoFile readers will want to invest the time and energy into doing that.
Having recently bought a new Smart TV, I know the pain of going into the store with some hard-researched information only to have the sales guy peddle you with stuff that you've never heard before and therefore can't refute easily. You assume he probably knows _something_ about what he's selling, but separating the useful information from the steaming BS can be tough.
Unfortunately I know of no way around this, so my solution is to research, then let the sales guy pitch his manure, then go back and read up on what he told me, enjoying a good laugh at some of the more ridiculous whoppers. For example, one sales-dude I talked to tried to convince me that Plasma TVs used to have backlights! Now I was pretty sure he was full of it, but not quite absolutely sure of myself - maybe I'd forgotten something or missed the news story where they figured out how to do away with them. So I let him blather, then went home and verified my suspicions. The moral of the story is nobody knows everything, and it's easy to get tripped up.
Nowadays all technology is changing too fast to keep up with, the computer industry even more so. Honestly, I gave up on keeping track of all the little details years ago - I'm a pro and there's still way too much! So what I am attempting to give you, dear reader, is a guide to HOW to approach buying a computer, without many specifics on WHAT to buy. This means I can't do all the work for you, but I can try to de-mystify a lot of it so when the sales guy tells you you need a quantum plane 4K display because anything less will be obsolete in 3 months, you can laugh in his face and go find someone else to talk to.
Still reading? Wow, you're a trouper! Unfortunately this won't be the shortest of articles, but then I'm trying to distill an entire industry into what's actually important. But I'll at least try to keep it from being too dull.
Who are you and what do you want?
Okay, so you want a new computer. The first and hopefully most obvious question you have to answer is, "what do you want to do with it?"Are you a massive gamer? Are you a streaming media junkie? Are you looking to put one together yourself, either to learn or because you like to do things the hard way? Do you want something you will never ever have to upgrade again?
Sorry, that last one's not likely to happen.
This guide is aimed primarily at the fellow who just wants to check email, surf the net, do some word processing and taxes. The gamers and the media guys can find all kinds of techie guides out there on how to build the ultimate rig, but for the average person these days, that's overkill; especially so since you can get an awful lot of mileage from older machines.
DO I REALLY NEED A NEW ONE?
So with that lead up, the next question is, assuming you already have a computer, do you even REALLY need a new one? Sadly the car industry has us beaten here: there's little chance that a computer from even the 80's, let alone the 70's, 60's, or earlier, will be useful today, no matter how well maintained it is. That said, I recently donated a desktop computer that I built 10 years ago; I had upgraded it a half dozen times since then, but it still ran Windows XP, had 1 GB of RAM, a 2 GHz-ish CPU, and a 60 GB SATA hard drive, and an 18"LCD monitor. By comparison, a cheap laptop bought today will have Windows 7 or 8, 4 GB of ram, a 500 GB SATA hard drive, and a 2 GHz-ish CPU.
The old PC surfed the net and did email and word processing and all that just fine, but it had outlived its usefulness as far my needs were concerned.
There are a few lessons to be learned from this. Okay, the machine I donated was high-end when it was new, and is noticeably below the specs of a low-end laptop today. Times and technology have changed. The old monitor alone cost me about $1300 at the time, and it was one of the first "affordable" LCDs. You can get a 24" monitor now for about $200 that will have a better picture in every measurable way. But that's not the point - for many purposes that old screen is still good enough.
First lesson: CPU. CPU speeds haven't really increased that much in 10 years. Not that today's CPU's aren't more powerful, but CPU speed these days is completely irrelevant for most people (they're all plenty fast). So is the vendor, for that matter - AMD and Intel have been duking it out for 15 years, and for 15 years they've been pretty much neck and neck. Intel is a little faster, AMD is a little cheaper, but we're only talking a small difference. The point is that the CPU is probably the least important factor in determining whether or not your computer is too old.
Second lesson: RAM. RAM roughly determines how many things you can do on the computer at one time. More RAM equals more stuff you can do without slowing down (to a point) or closing applications. Think of it like your physical desk: an 8x8 ft desk will hold a lot more papers at one time than a little lap desk for a laptop.
But if you're only working on one file at a time, you may not need a desk the size of a small elephant!
Windows XP needed about one GB to be nice and speedy (many people could get by with half that). Windows 7 and 8 need about four GB to deliver the same speedy experience without slowing down too often, but you can get by with about half that if you really need to. You can even squeeze Windows 7 and 8 into 1 GB of RAM (I've done it), though you'll find you can't do too much before they start to get bogged down.
So, bottom line, Windows 7 and 8 need about four times as much RAM as XP. With those rules of thumb in mind, you might find you can just upgrade your RAM (or you may not even need to, depending on your requirements), to breathe some new life into an older machine.
Third lesson: Hard Drives. You know those cute signs that say you can have any two of good, cheap, and fast? That doesn't apply to hard drives, thankfully which, for the most part, just keep getting cheaper, bigger, and faster.
Types of drives: When we say a hard drive is SATA (Serial-ATA), that is just the type of connector, and while there have been newer versions of SATA that get faster and allow bigger drives, SATA itself has been around a long time, so depending on the age of your current computer, there might be a good chance you could just throw a bigger or faster hard drive into an older machine (if your only problem is that you're running out of space or things are chugging a bit).
The big thing in hard drives these days is the Solid State Disk, usually just called SSD in the "lingo." These are little flash drives, basically the same technology as those little USB keys/pen drives/whatever your name for them is, only larger and faster (and SATA!). The entire laptop industry is moving to this type of drive because (a) they're low power, and (b) they're insanely fast, especially compared to the slow drives usually used in laptops.
Swapping your old hard drive for an SSD will make it feel like you rubbed cheetah blood on your computer! Of course the tradeoffs are lower capacity and higher price.
It isn't that I want to dissuade you from buying a new computer - I like shiny new toys as much as anyone - I just want to point out that, despite the amazing progress of the industry in many ways, in some ways today's hardware just isn't as much better as they want you to think it is. So if your needs are modest, you can often - with a few strategic upgrades and sometimes just an old-fashioned defrag and tuneup - breathe new life into older hardware and not have to shell out for a whole new box.
BUT THIS MALIBU STACEY HAS A NEW HAT!
Alright, so you've decided you want or need a new machine. Who doesn't like a new toy? Now what?
First things first: what form do you want your computer to take? The industry is changing, and in 2014, you can go with a Desktop, a Laptop, a Tablet, or even a Phone. All have advantages and disadvantages, and for many people it's not a choice of one but a choice of two or three.
And you might be amazed at just how much even a lowly smartphone is capable of these days! In fact, my iPhone 5 probably has similar power to that 10 year old machine I mentioned earlier. That tells us two things: first, the industry has advanced far enough to cram a $4000 machine from 10 years ago into my pocket, and second (as I said earlier) that 10 year old machine is still alive and kicking - but it's now in my pants!
I won't really delve into the whole phone-as-computer thing, because their screen size and storage capacity (not to mention relative price) make them quite a different experience from the other types of computer you can buy. So desktop, laptop, or tablet?
Tablets come in a range of sizes, capabilities, and costs. They aren't good for everything, but there are hordes of stories of people, even professional programmers, who have successfully replaced their laptops with tablets. They're smaller, lighter, more portable, have better battery life, and are often cheaper than laptops. You can even get a decent Bluetooth keyboard if you do a lot of typing and don't like doing it on the onscreen keyboard.
It can be difficult to get a handle on the tablet market because it's so young and so fragmented; just about everyone makes a tablet these days, though most of them are junk. Models range in price from the $200 Google Nexus on the affordable side, to the high end Microsoft Surface Pro (a full-blown micro-laptop with USB3 ports and everything) for somewhere in the $800-$1200 range.
And don't confuse a regular tablet with an eReader like the Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc. The eReaders have a black-and white e-Ink screen and are only good for reading books - though each of the eReader vendors also seems to make a high-end model that is a regular tablet: the Kindle Fire and Kobo Arc, for example.
The biggest names in tablets are Apple and Google, via the iOS and Android systems, respectively. Much like the Mac vs. PC thing on the desktop, there is a small number of Apple iPads and a million Androids from a million different vendors, including the semi-official "Nexus" that's designed entirely by Google. I can't honestly say one is particularly "better" than another, though the iPad has something like 80 per cent of the market and tons of accessories and apps, whereas the Android market is not only smaller but it's also extremely fragmented and that makes it hard to pin down which one model might be your best choice.
Your best bet in buying a tablet is to go to your local Best Buy, Staples, or other local computer shop and take a look at a few. Play with them, see how easy they are to use, ask some questions (especially about the return policy!), and only then decide what to buy.
If in doubt, I would suggest the iPad - its market share (aka you probably know more people with an iPad than an Android) and choice of accessories could make the difference between loving it and just being frustrated with it.
Be aware, though: the main things that make tablets challenging include needing an entirely different set of applications than a PC, a fairly small screen size and, most importantly, a severe lack of storage space. An iPad comes with a maximum of 64 GB of storage, but the most affordable model has only 16 GB. That's not a lot if you're doing creative things or "working."
Many Android tablets have an SD card slot so you can add and remove storage as needed, but the usual way around this shortage to use "the Cloud."
This seems like as good a place as any to segue into a discussion of this Cloud thingy everybody's talking about. "The Cloud" is really just another name for "The Internet," as in you store your files on the Internet rather than on your computer's own local hard disk.
There are tons of different services that will give you some space online, usually a little bit for free to get you hooked. Dropbox is one of the most well known, and they will let you use about two GB for free and if you need more you can pay for as much as you want. Other choices in the cloud storage market include Microsoft and Google.
What you get is a web page where you can upload and download any files you want, and there's usually some sort of application to make uploading and accessing the files easier. And since it's on the Internet, you can get at your files (be they business documents, spreadsheets, music, videos, or vacation photos) anywhere in the world you have access to the Internet. Took some photos on vacation in Singapore? Upload them to the cloud so the family can see how much fun you're having (it's very similar to Facebook in that sense). Rushed off to a business meeting in London and forgot your presentation? If it's on the Cloud it's just a download away, you can even do it on your smartphone at the hotel.
Like anything else, the Cloud is neither good nor bad. It's compelling because you can theoretically get your data from anywhere and you don't have to worry about your hard disk dying or losing that floppy disk (gasp!) or USB key. But many people are understandably hesitant because it means you're relying on some faceless company who probably has access to your stuff (even if they say they won't, they can) and, if you're in a place with no Internet (just crossed the border and you're not on your own cell carrier anymore?), you have access to nothing.
There was a time when the cheapest computer you could buy was a desktop PC. That no longer seems to be the case, as laptops have gotten so cheap as to often be cheaper than desktops. That said, you often can get more "specs" for your buck with a desktop.
If the ability to move your computer around at a whim isn't important to you, a desktop computer can give you a bigger monitor, more memory (usually) and a bigger hard drive than a laptop because they're not as tight on space.
Desktops these days come in two major flavors: the classic "tower" or the All-in-One. The All-in-one is just that - it's a big monitor with all the guts of the classic "tower" built into it so there are fewer cables to connect and less desk or floor space to occupy. The Apple iMac is the most commonly seen version of this, though many PC makers have started to follow suit. There is not usually a lot of room for upgrades with an All-in-One, save for the memory and hard drive, because they're built very much like a laptop, with everything custom-built to fit inside that thin chassis, and usually there are no expansion cards.
Opting for a "Tower" model with a separate monitor (sometimes you can still place them under your monitor rather than beside your desk) gives you the most options for upgrades and additions. This, like Classic Coke, this is the computer we grew up with; with some expansion slots to which you can add cards, "bays" for extra disk drives, and so on. You can swap out the CPU, the motherboard, add a bigger video card, and so on.
Except that nobody does this anymore. These days, the computer becomes obsolete faster than ever before. New video card? Why? You can play all your YouTube and Netflix content at full frame rate already. New sound cards? Same thing. Today's towers usually come with HD surround sound built in. Faster network card? Bigger hard drive? New card reader?
Why bother? Besides, just about everything you want to add or upgrade these days, except the RAM and hard drive, interfaces via USB, so why upgrade the tower's insides when you can just plug a new component in from the outside?
The All-in-One is still relatively new and doesn't have as much market or "mind" share, which means there isn't as much selection available - yet. And you can get towers with a smaller footprint so its takes up less desk space. There are even some funky little PC designs that can attach to the back of a monitor, making it just like an All-in-One. Those particular units are few and far between right now, and you usually pay a premium for them, but in five years they might be all that's left. Time will tell.
Choosing a desktop…
So how do you pick a desktop? If the specs don't matter much (and I've shown you that, for most people, they don't), what should you look for?
Look at the monitor first! Seriously - that's what you'll be staring at all day, so your best bet is to visit Best Buy or Staples and look at the monitors to find one you like. If it's an All-in-One, you're done! If not, then you can buy pretty much any old tower you like that fits your budget.
If you need a lot of disk space, look for one with a bigger disk. More RAM never hurts, either, but four GB is plenty for most people and anything over eight GB is probably a waste of money. Unless you just want bragging rights!
One other consideration with a desktop PC is the noise factor. Some cheap cases and hard drives have vibration problems, noisy fans or both. Some people are more bothered by this than others, and it's something that usually gets worse with age as fans get gunked up and hard drive bearings go - so unless it rattles at the store it's hard to know ahead of time. The best advice I can give is if it's a big but light case, it's more likely to be a problem.
Another important consideration is the keyboard and mouse. These choices are so subjective, so it's really up to you. Do you like a classic noisy clacker like a typewriter? Do you want something low profile? Need a number pad? Want wireless? Try a few and see what you like. Same goes for mice. The nice thing about a desktop is you can mix and match.
Finally, I'll touch on the optical drive: the CD/DVD/Blu-Ray drive. Physical media is a dying animal. Apple no longer sells any of its machine with optical drives and, while this has been slightly controversial, the writing is on the wall no matter whether you like it or not.
Most software these days can be downloaded. USB keys/pen drives/flash drives (or whatever you want to call them) are cheaper, have much higher capacity and are more convenient for transferring files than CD's or DVD's, so it's only a matter of time before nobody uses those disks any more for data.
Don't believe me? Look around and see how many computers come with Blu-Ray drives. Believe it or not, Blu-Ray is almost 10 years old now; it hasn't really caught on in PC's and it won't. PC's will probably still come with a DVD drive, so you can still install all your old software and copy (er, I mean watch) DVD movies. But I'll bet that in a few more years built-in drives will start to disappear altogether, replaced by the USB drives you can already buy.
One last thought for this section: You don't necessarily have to decide between a laptop and a desktop. Just about any laptop these days can take an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and a cheap laptop isn't much more expensive than a cheap tower - plus the laptop can be unplugged and toted around whenever and wherever you want. And even if you use it as a tower 90 per cent of the time, it has the advantage of having a built-in battery, so you don't need a separate UPS to save your work in case of power failure.
Laptops are outselling desktops by a large margin these days, mainly because they're so much more flexible and convenient to use and the price/performance is competitive enough. I don't even have a desk any more - I sit with my laptop on the couch most of the time (I know, it's probably the least healthy or productive way to work, but it's so comfy!). If I want a surface on which to work, I can plop the laptop down on the kitchen table, or a counter, or even sit it on a bookshelf if I feel like standing for a while.
For those reasons, for most people most of the time, I'd recommend forgetting the desktop and going for a laptop.
CHOOSE AND PERISH
Sorry, I recently watched Ghostbusters. That scene near the end where they're talking about choosing the demon's form popped into my head because we haven't yet dealt with an important question: Mac or PC.
For many this is a nearly religious choice, which is unfortunate because there are advantages on both sides. Also unfortunate is the fact that Apple kind of plays on their cult status, to their great profit, but it also turns off many people who might otherwise look at them from a more practical standpoint. Yes, Apple tends to be more expensive than PC's but that has as much to do with their lack of variety as anything.
What I mean is that there are only a few Apple models to choose from and there aren't really any low-end Macs. Every Apple computer comes with Bluetooth, a camera, a high-end and fairly high-res screen, much better than average battery life, some of the best keyboards and THE best trackpads out there, SD card slot, USB3, and so on.
If you go for a Mac, your choices are few, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, car companies don't have models tailored to every possible option and price point, where you can pick the $10,000 model, or the $11,000 model, or the $13,000 model and every price point represents a totally different model. Instead you have, for example, the Yaris, the Corolla, and the Camry - different cars for different needs and niches.
I'm not saying choice is a bad thing, but it can drive you nuts, too. So if price is the primary consideration then perhaps an Apple isn't the best choice - but if your budget allows, you should definitely check them out.
Apple's cheapest laptop as of this writing is the 11 inch Macbook Air for about $1000 Canadian, which gives you 128 GB of Solid State Storage (not a big drive, but it's fast!), four GB of RAM, and about nine hours of estimated battery life. My 13 inch has an estimated 12 hours of battery life and I can sit on the couch and work unplugged almost all day.
My final Mac comment is that if you do go that route there will naturally be a learning phase if you're new to the platform. It's really not that bad though - for the most part the Mac Operating System is intuitive enough that few people will have real trouble getting up to speed. The hardest part will come if there are apps you use that aren't available on the Mac. Even then, however, there are ways to run Windows apps on a Mac, up to and including the ability to scrub the Mac OS and just run Windows directly.
There is another type of laptop that isn't common yet but its price makes it interesting: the Chromebook. Chrome is Google's web browser, a competitor to Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Safari (it's currently my browser of choice), and a Chromebook is a laptop that only runs the Chrome Browser: no Windows, no Mac OS, just the browser. Obviously, not everyone can do all his stuff completely within a browser, and I'm not sure I'd want to be permanently locked into Chrome, but these units are in the $200 to $300 range, which could make them worth a look if money's tight and needs allow.
Now, in the PC world...
I've been using Windows 8.1 for a while. The only thing I really hate about it (and I do REALLY hate it) is that you have to use a stupid Windows Live ID (what used to be Hotmail) to log in, even on a local account. Windows 8 didn't have this; it's new and stupid in 8.1.
Other than that, Windows 7 and 8 are both decent systems, though from what I've seen and read 8 is a little faster and more stable than 7. The Metro tile thingy that replaced the Start Menu in Windows 8 is weird and kind of off-putting sometimes, but not necessarily bad. It's just different and I wouldn't go out of my way to avoid it.
Spec-wise, unless you want to play high end games or do some sort of engineering or design work, pretty much anything you can buy these days will be more than adequate. As mentioned earlier, the type and speed of CPU became more or less irrelevant for the average person a long time ago. To use a car analogy, as much as I believe you can never have too much horsepower, the 150 hp or so you get in most compact sedans may not be super fast but it is more than adequate for most drives.
Any new PC will probably have at least two GB of RAM, which is tons for surfing and emailing, and usually there'll be four GB or more. And the smallest regular hard drive I see available right now is 320 GB. Seemingly ironically, the cheaper machines often have more disk capacity because more and more mainstream and high end laptops are going with Solid State Disks (SSD's) which are more expensive and have lower capacity but which are amazingly fast and don't use a lot of battery power.
The most important thing is to find a computer you're comfortable with. It's like buying a car because you like its supportive seats. You're going to be using the keyboard, trackpad, and monitor all the time, so I'd (yet again) recommend hitting your favorite store and playing with a few. Remember, if you dislike a keyboard or mouse a little bit at the store, you'll hate it when you're using it all the time at home. If it's a laptop that spends most of its time on a desk, then you can always add a separate keyboard and mouse (not so much if you're moving it around a lot).
Incidentally this is the number one reason I paid more to buy an Apple: their hardware is the best out there, even if you format it and slap Windows on it.
Also pay attention to size, both screen and chassis. Even an extra half-pound can get really annoying if you're lugging a laptop everywhere, and some of the cheap ones have a huge bezel that might make it hard to fit in a carrying case. At the other end of the spectrum, some smaller screens might be harder on the eyes, especially if they're really high-resolution (the icons are too small). I personally find 13 inches to be the sweet spot between screen real estate and portability. Your mileage may vary.
I don't know that one brand is that all much better than another, and their warranties are mostly similar anyway, so find a unit you like and then do some research online to see if there are any particular problems with it. The biggest names are Dell, HP and Lenovo (formerly IBM), Samsung, Asus, Acer, and MSI. There are others too, but those are the ones I see most.
And finally, of course, there's the price. As always, you get what you pay for. Cheap machines will usually get you a big and heavy laptop that guzzles battery like there's no tomorrow. The cheapest usually have a 15 inch monitor, which is a nice size to view but not so nice to lug around or sit on your lap.
There's also a newer class of laptops called Ultrabooks that you can find for between $500 and $1000. They're a lot sleeker in design and usually look and feel quite nice. They're also supposed to be better on spec and battery life.
Then there are the more specialized PC's, such as gaming laptops, which are high spec and boast large screens, which means they sacrifice portability and price for performance.
There you have my approach to buying a computer. Forget the specs because they're mostly irrelevant for mainstream use these days. Instead, just figure out whether you want a laptop, a tablet, or a desktop, and then go and find something that you personally feel physically comfortable using.
That's all there is to it!
Copyright 2014 Christopher Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
We welcome your comments!