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12 Easy Step Guides

12 Easy Steps...

...To Buying A New Computer

Step #1

Buy for 3 to 5 years. There are few things more disheartening then buying a new computer, then seeing it drop 50% in price within the first 90 days. Similarly, it is disheartening to buy a new computer, only to find that it doesn’t have the horsepower to run the software that you need. Computer technology is evolving so rapidly today that both of these scenarios could happen as the high-end machines ramp up in production, and the low-end machines are superseded by the demands from updated software. My rule of thumb is to buy for about 3 years out, and then expect to use the machine as a secondary machine for perhaps 2 more years. This has you buying not the top of the line machines, but machines in the upper 1/3 in terms of horsepower and price. Such a machine will hopefully run current software like a champ, and run the next major update adequately (though not spectacularly).

Step #2

Pick your store. The type of store you buy from determines the type of service that you will get after the sale. The more important the computer is to you, the more important the level of service should be. Keep in mind, however, that service is expensive to offer, and it will impact the price. You cannot have the best price, the best product, and the best service all from the same provider.

A computer hobbyist that is technically oriented likely will shop only for price. Support really doesn’t matter, and they are likely to crack open the case right away thus voiding the warranty. A home user needs some level of support, but doesn’t need to pay to have a technician come to the home day or night. Rather, a superstore or a factory-direct mail order will do the trick. Small offices and home business users might have their income stream tied to their computer, and in this case, 24 by 7 support is a make or break factor. Smaller computer specialty stores with in-house service departments might be the best choice despite having slightly higher purchase prices.

Finally, you have the lease versus purchase option. It always costs less to purchase a computer than to lease it. Leases do, however, make sense for businesses that are tight on cash, or those that match revenue with expense. Small businesses can take advantage of a law that allows the full purchase price of equipment to be written off during the first year, up to a limit of approximately $18,000.

Step #3

Pick your platform. For most users, the question is Macintosh or Windows. For some specialized applications, Linux might be an option, as well as some more obscure choices such as Lindows, BeOS, or Solaris. If you are looking at one of these obscure choices, you know who you are and likely have already made your choice.

As far as Macintosh versus Windows, both platforms have nearly limitless amounts of home and business software. All common features and functions are available on both platforms. Most popular software works transparently across platforms (i.e., files created on one platform will be able to be used by the same name brand software on the other platform). Macintosh is a bit easier for new computer uses, and has the power of UNIX under the covers, while Windows is more widely supported by business Information Services groups.

If you have a piece of software that you need to run that demands one or the other platform, then that is your decision point. Beyond that, try both, and pick the one where you get along the best.

Step #4

Laptop or desktop. Years ago, laptops were expensive enough that only businesses could afford them. Today, laptops are still about twice as expensive as similar desktop PC’s, but the raw prices have come down to about where desktops were 2 to 3 years ago. This puts a nice laptop within reach of home users, and a must-have for business users.

Desktop computers lock you to your desk. But in doing so, you get a more reliable machine that is expandable and supports standard computer accessories. Laptops have mobility, but every add-on for a laptop is far more expensive than a similar item for a standard desktop. In addition, the mouse and keyboards are tiny and hard to use on a laptop. The common solution is to buy a docking station for your laptop, along with a full size monitor, mouse, and keyboard. This gives you the usability of a desktop, and the mobility of a laptop.

One caveat on laptops is that they are fragile. Especially the entry level models. The cheaper laptops should be considered to be portable on an occasional basis, and they could never stand up to the pounding of day to day travel. If you are going to take your laptop with you everywhere, you need to be looking at midlevel or the top of the line machines.

Step #5

Monitors. My philosophy is that I value my eyesight, so I am willing to invest a little more money to get a good video monitor. Don’t bother with the small monitors that are included in packages. Anything less than 17 inch diagonal makes you squint too much. The good news is that even the cheapest of the video monitors gives you a good image, while a few hundred dollars will buy you a superb monitor.

The question today is whether to buy a tube-type monitor or a flat panel. When you boil it all away, the flat panel displays still do not quite have the image quality of a good tube-type monitor. The image is good, but not perfect. Tube-type displays have their share of problems. They take up a lot of space, they give off lots of heat, they emit radiation, they get blurry with age, they flicker in certain lighting conditions, and the sides of the picture pull in as the components inside wear out. A flat panel display should not degrade as it ages. The one issue to look out for in flat panel displays are stuck pixels, which are dots that are always turned on, or never turn on. You can find them by opening a document that covers the whole screen. First, turn the document white and look for stuck black dots, then turn the document black and look for stuck white dots. Bottom line is to test the flat panel in the store before you bring it home.

I recommend going with a higher quality flat panel display due to the small footprint size and less heat given off.

Step #6

Printers. There are a number of different printer options, and the cost per page varies greatly. The key is to figure out what kind of printing you are going to do, and buy a printer that does the best job for your mix of printing.

The rage today is inkjet printers. They are very cheap, even for high resolution color printers. The issue, however, is that the ink is very expensive, the ink cartridges only last for a small number of pages, and you need costly special paper. Even with the inkjet paper, inkjet images are slow to print, they take time to dry, they will smear, and the paper sometimes wrinkles. This might be OK for school projects, but it doesn’t give a professional business image. I would suggest inkjet printers for folks who need to print in color with a low cost of entry (but not a low cost per page).

The laser printer is still the king for office quality output. Until recently, they were limited to black and white. Affordable color laser printers recently entered the market, but they are still on the top end of the laser printer price spectrum. Laser printers, and their cousin the LED printer, are more expensive to purchase, but the per-page price is very low. They print well on low quality paper, and superbly on high quality paper. I recommend a laser printer for anyone who needs to maintain a professional image.

Digital photography is really catching on, and some of the printouts from photo-specific inkjet printers are remarkable. If you want to print digital photos, buy the best photo printer you can afford, along with the proper photo paper and photo quality ink. Once you have it, only use it for photos, not for every day printing. It is too expensive on a per-page basis for routine printing.

Other printers, such as dot matrix, ribbon printers, film printers, and dye printers are either obsolete or only used in highly specialized applications. Avoid them unless you have a specific reason to have one. My advice is to get a laser printer for every day printing needs, and if you do digital photos, but a second printer just for photo work. An all-in-one device (combination printer, scanner, and fax) is a reasonable alternative to a laser printer as long as it is laser-based (i.e., not inkjet based).

Printers connect to computers in a variety of different ways. Older printers use the serial port, which is now dead technology. Cheaper printers use either the parallel port or USB port. This is fine for single user printers. If you want to share a printer across more than one machine, it is best to look for a printer that has built-in Ethernet. Windows does allow one to share a printer that is parallel port or USB attached, but it requires one PC to be the printer server, so it must be turned on all the time, and it may interrupt the user on that machine. It is best to off-load the job of networked printing to a network-based printer.

Step #7

Networking. Computers do not become fun until they are networked. Ensure that any computer that you purchase has a 10/100 Ethernet jack, preferably a 10/100/1000 Ethernet jack. You will use Ethernet for sharing folders, printers, and Internet connections among two or more machines. Even a single machine office will want Ethernet to connect to a cable modem or DSL adapter (note, some cable and DSL services want to install a card in your PC--never let them do this, you don’t want some cable jockey to screw up your computer).

The new rage is wireless networking. For home users, the buzzword is 802.11g high-speed wireless. For mobile users, the buzzword is Wi-Fi. They are basically the same thing. Desktop computers can be added to a wireless network by adding a plug-in card or an external module. Laptop users should ensure that the model that you are considering has either built in 802.11g and Wi-Fi, or at least has the antenna built in (but needs a plug-in card). It is hard to be mobile if you have to keep swapping out plug-in cards and have an antenna sticking out the side of your laptop.

If you do go wireless, make sure you enable the encryption option to keep others from tapping into your network. If you use a public Wi-Fi site, never use any computer services or websites that needs a password since others on the network can potentially sniff out anything that you type.

Step #8

Extended warranties. Nearly all computer dealers will offer some type of extended warranty. It almost never makes sense to purchase an extended warranty, except, perhaps, for the monitor. If your computer makes it through the initial warranty, it will usually go the full 5 years. Even then, repairs are not likely to exceed the cost of the warranty coverage. The point is that extended warranties are huge cash cows for the big box retailers. If they make huge profits from it, that profit comes from you, so it isn’t a good deal for you.

Support contacts are similar, but normally have some type of committed turn-around time for repairs. I would recommend support contracts to business users, especially if you lease the hardware. Despite support contracts being somewhat expensive and a cash cow for the vendor, your business is too important to be without one. If your computer dies, and your business goes on hold, you can lose far more money far more quickly.

Step #9

Notes for office users. Office machines get more wear and tear, so you are going to be looking less at performance and more at the quality and durability of the hardware. Laptop users need to watch out for flimsy cases; delicate doors, flaps, and latches; and loose parts and cables that are easy to lose. In general, office users should get bigger hard disks and larger memory sizes than what machines traditionally ship with. Business applications eat memory and hard disk like candy, and you want to be able to run several programs at once. It will be a bit expensive for laptop memory and disk, but it is worth it in the long run.

Step #10

Notes for home office users and hobby users. While this group doesn’t need the ultimate in computer performance, they do need flexibility. Home users tend to collect all kinds of gadgets, like scanners, digital cameras, photo printers, MP3 devices, etc. All of these items need a place to plug in. Look for lots of Firewire and USB ports, as well as sound, video, and S-video jacks. These jacks should be located on both the front and back of the computer. Permanent devices should connect in the back, while temporary hookups need to be conveniently located on the front.

Step #11

Notes for gamers. Games tend to need much higher levels of computer performance than business applications. Gamers should look for computers that have very fast backplanes (I/O bus speeds), fast memory chips, cutting edge video cards, and large video memory sizes. While these features are found only on higher end machines, they are critical for getting real time graphics and smooth animation. Sound is another key feature for game use, look for a speaker system that has a powered sub- woofer.

Step #12

Notes for Internet users. If you turn on any networking services on your computer, such as Internet access, printer sharing, file sharing, etc, it is possible that everyone on the Internet can see and use these services. In fact, this is very likely for cable modem and DSL users. If you plan to network your computers and you plan to use the Internet, it is absolutely essential that you invest in a firewall or an Internet sharing device that has a built-in firewall.

Made With Macintosh
Authored by John A. Weeks III, Copyright © 1996—2016, all rights reserved.
For further information, contact: john@johnweeks.com