12 Easy Steps...
...To Buying A New Computer
|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and the low-end machines are superseded by the demands from updated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).
|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
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
|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
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.
|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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
|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.
|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.
|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-
|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.