How to Buy a New PC, Part 1



This article is for non-technical folks who want to buy an affordable new computer that will perform well for around three to five years.  How do you figure out which is the right new computer for you with all the confusing options available today?   While I can’t tell you exactly what to buy, I can show you how to greatly simplify your search.

=> In the next article (Part 2), I’ll go over guidelines for the minimum component configurations, including how much RAM to get, how big a hard drive, and so on.

So you need a new computer…


Very exciting, isn’t it?  But today’s computer technology is mind-boggling for the average person.

Which multi-core, hyper-threaded, obscurely-named processor to get with the new system?   The Core 2 Duo T6600 or the dual-core Pentium T4400?   The i5-650, the i7-860, or the i7-920?    Do you need a graphics card with a 512 MB GDDR3 and a 128-bit data path, or the one with 1024 MB GDDR5 and a 256-bit data path?   You might need an advanced degree in physics just to figure it all out.

But by applying a few basic concepts – and perhaps doing a little research — you can simplify the choices to two or three potential systems.

=> I’m assuming you have a reasonable budget to play with. If you feel that you must buy a true budget PC at the current time, then just go to your local trusted retailer or online computer vendor and pick a system!  Any modern computer will likely run circles around your old one.

Divide and conquer

Yes, it’s easy to be overwhelmed when you look at today’s computer technology, even for me – and I have thirty years’ of experience in technology!  But you can cut through a lot of the confusion by taking a divide-and-conquer approach.

Simply look at the purpose, budget, and desired lifespan for your new computer.   You’ll need a general idea of how you want to use it, how much you want to spend on it, and how long you want to have it.

Then follow a few simple rules. Chances are decent that you’ll end up with a system that will perform well for years to come.

Rule #1: Treat it as an investment

image34Your computer is what a business would call capital equipment: a physical item that delivers certain value to the business, has an associated cost, and has an expected lifespan.   If you just look at the computer as a big, expensive purchase today, then you may scrimp & cut corners – and the system you get may not live up to your expectations in three years.

To get the proper perspective, amortize the cost of the computer over its intended lifespan.  This may be a rather ugly, Latinate word with roots in death (a + mortire, meaning “to die”), but that’s exactly the point.  If you want the computer to last five years, for example, then divide the cost of new system (or any extra options or upgrades) by the lifespan to get the cost per time.

This big-picture view will make it easier to make the right choices and justify your investment.  You’ll see that an extra $100 on a faster processor, more RAM, or a bigger monitor amounts to barely pocket change every month.

Don’t handicap yourself from the start by being penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Take a strategic viewpoint if you want your new system to last.

Example 1:  You’re considering spending $1,000 on a new system.  For most people, that’s a lot of money.  But over a five-year lifespan, that’s $200 per year, $17 per month, or about fifty cents a day.   There are a lot of things you could do to save $17 a month, if you had to…  but how cool will you feel every day with an awesome new laptop?

Example 2: You’ve narrowed it down to an affordable desktop computer for $600. But you’d really like to future-proof it; Dell offers an upgrade to the “i7-860” processor for $149.  You’ve done your research and consulted your local tech guru, but this still seems like a large premium for a $600 system.    If you’re hoping for a five-year lifespan, then this extra $149 is only $30 per year, a $2.50 per month, or around a dime a day.  Choosing meditation over your Starbucks no-foam caramel soy latte for just one day will buy you about two months of the the premium processor.


Choose wisely in life

Rule #2: Set out your goals

What do you want to do with the system?   This is the first question you should ask, and it’s the one that can save you the most time and effort.   Knowing what you want to get out of a system immediately narrows down the field.

When you’re thinking about what you want the computer to do, remember to fast forward a few years and imagine what you might be doing in three to five years.  Streaming high-definition video content comes to mind, for instance.

Here are a few general examples, along with the category or class of computer you’ll need, in ascending cost order.   When you go to select a specific computer, you’ll start in the category that fits you (e.g. Multimedia PC).

  • Surf the web, read e-mail, do light document work: Budget PC. Browsing the web or editing documents are not demanding tasks for modern computers.  Almost any PC will do this with ease, from a budget PC to a netbook on up.
    Price range: $350 to $500    Examples: netbooks / budget desktopslaptops
  • Surf, docs, plus… watch video programming:  Multimedia PC. In case you haven’t heard, video is on the rise.  Within 3-5 years, we’ll surely see much more HD content available from providers like YouTube.  As more and more internet-connected personal computers are capable of displaying high-definition video, TV programming will make rapid moves online.  ;  see Hulu, etc.  “Multimedia PCs”  are equipped with better graphics cards and better audio, and generally be hooked up to a home theater setup.  Which is very cool.
    Price range: $500 to $1000   Example: Dell Inspiron 560
  • Surf, docs, plus…  high performance: Workstation PC. If you don’t really care about home theater and you do want a more powerful computer,  look at the workstation category.  These computers will be able to do more computationally intensive tasks, and typically have more memory, a faster processor, and often more expandability.  Workstation PCs are a very good future-proofed choice:  they do everything well and are more likely to perform well for quite a while.
    Price range: $650 to $1000
  • I want it all!  Performance PC. If you want a computer that can do it all, then you’re in the performance PC category…  bless your heart.
    Price range: $800 to $1500
    image54The other question you should be asking is: laptop or desktop?
    A laptop is a quintessentially modern choice. It has clear advantages: It’s wonderful to not be chained to a desk:  with a laptop, you can compute anywhere.   Think kitchen, couch, bed,coffee shop, library, hotel room.  But it also has distinct disadvantages:  you’ll pay a premium for a laptop, and lifespan in general is not as good as a desktop’s.
    The netbook is just a smaller, less powerful and less expandable laptop. It’s a great example of why you need to pin down your goals:  if all you need to do is surf the web, check your mail, and do light document work, consider a netbook.  But don’t expect it to be too fast, or to have as long a lifetime.

image60A regular desktop computer on the other hand – also variously known as a studio, mini-tower, or tower computer, depending on the size of its case –  will give you more performance for your dollar, as well as increased expandability and upgradability.   This is why desktops generally last longer than laptops, too.

=> The section at the end titled “Laptops vs. Desktops” compares the major pros and cons of each.   Generally, you will know in your heart whether you want a laptop or a desktop.  Go on…  look in your heart.

=> Laptop advice.  I personally would avoid laptops with HUGE screen sizes like 17” or 18”.   I’ve seen a few folks with these, and they just look too bulky.   Unless you feel compelled by a special need, stick to a standard 14” or 15” screen.

Rule #3: Expand your horizons

Invest in computers and learn to use them well. Technology is awesome and we’re lucky to be living in this age.  An investment in technology is an investment in yourself – and indirectly your family, friends, co-workers, and so on.   Get a good system that won’t be frustratingly slow in two years!


That’s the basic formula. A little forethought will make selecting a new computer much easier, and increase the chances that it will serve you well for a good number of years.

A quick recap:

  • Understand that buying a computer is a strategic investment. This will enable you to see the big picture.  Realize that an extra $100 or $200 for the right option is not really a lot over five years.
  • Know what you want to use it for. Among all the choices you’ll face, this will enable you to narrow down the field quickly and focus on a few select systems.   It will also help you get the proper advice from more technical folks.
  • Expand your horizons. An investment in a computer is far different from an investment in almost every other thing you’ll buy; get a good computer and explore!

image If you need a place to start, here’s your homework:

  1. Figure out purpose, budget, and desired lifespan. You should come out of this knowing the category of PC you want, e.g.. budget, multimedia, performance, etc.
  2. Narrow down the choices to a couple that are within your budget. Browse your favorite online vendor or local store; start your search in the PC category you’ve identified.  If you have questions about technology choices (you will), then do at least some light research on them: read any help pages offered by your online vendor of choice, and Google the technologies you have questions about.  You’re looking to triangulate a handful of strong, consistent opinions from folks who seem to know what they’re talking about.  If there’s no consensus, or few results, then either you’re asking the wrong question (rephrase it?) or it doesn’t matter.
  3. Optional but recommended:  bounce the final choices you’re considering off your favorite tech buddy. Do your homework first and pick a few decent finalists before asking, and typically people are happy to help and pleased that you thought of them.   DON’T ask silly, open-ended questions like “I’m looking for a new computer, are there any you can recommend?”  This is like saying “I’m looking for a car, are there any you can recommend?”     And if you get good advice from your tech, remember to follow up with a choice six-pack of handcrafted brew or a pound of premium coffee.

=> As one of those “techs” myself, I love it when people take the time to put their thoughts and candidate systems in an e-mail.  It makes it so much easier to come up with a good answer.  Recap your fundamentals, e.g. “my budget is $800, I want a multimedia PC, and I want it to last five years.”  E-mail your tech as complete as possible a description of your systems;  many online vendors these days will allow you to e-mail a wish list or shopping cart (Dell certainly offers this  option).  At the very least provide links to the web pages with the computers on them.

Have fun selecting your new computer and I hope this guide has been of help to you. If you have your own advice or there’s something you think I’ve missed, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

Laptops/notebooks/netbooks vs. desktops

This mini-guide should give you a decent idea of the major pros & cons of the two types of computer.

Laptop Desktop Comments
Portable Fixed location  
More expensive Less expensive Miniaturization has its costs
Runs on batteries No battery needed Lithium notebook batteries are good for around 2-3 years, tops.  It’ll cost you ~$100 to $150 for a new one.
Uses less power Uses more power A desktop might be around $50 more per year in energy costs.
Generally slower processors Generally faster processors Laptop CPUs are designed to save power but give up performance in return
Generally smaller and slower hard drives Excellent hard drive capacities Unless you take a lot of video, hard drive sizes are large enough today for most apps
Minimally expandable Can add expansion cards, memory, and additional hard drives more easily The expandability of desktop systems is typically related to the physical size of its case:  more room to put stuff.
Monitor is built-in Needs a separate monitor You may have a monitor that will work;  but consider a bright, large new monitor (at least 19”) as part of the investment.

imageReferences and more reading

Choosing a laptop vs. a desktop:

General system help:

  • Dell Computer Selector
    A very nice wizard-style approach.  Enables you to select system type (laptop or desktop), budget, and intended use.  Sounds familiar…

2 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Keith, love this post. Not only does it provide great information but you throw in some humor, nice. I would be curious to know what you think of MACs vs PCs? I am also curious about a smartphone. Any posts on Droids? I am with verizon so can’t get an iphone.
    Last question, how do I find your answer, does it come back to this page, or go to my page??? Still trying not to be a luddite. Wanda


  2. On the whole Mac vs. PC discussion, here’s my $0.02: what I have heard from users is that Macs are generally easier to use. Since I don’t use a Mac, I can’t testify… but I do have an iPhone, and with 25+ years’ experience in infotech etc, I can say without a doubt that it is the best-engineered, most easy to use device I have ever had. The downside is that you will pay a premium price for Apple technology. If I were you, I would search for things like “Mac vs. PC comparisons” and throw in terms like “ease of use” and so on: see what you find. Another idea is to visit an Apple store, talk to a rep (realize you will hear a naturally biased opinion), and play with a Mac. Put it all together with your budget and see what conclusions you come up with.

    On the Droid vs. iPhone: now it is I who am biased, since I have an iPhone. But this weekend I got to play with a Motorola Droid (on Verizon), and I can pretty definitely say that the iPhone is far superior at this point — and I’m talking about a 3GS. The scrolling on the Droid was jerky (ugly!). it has 4 buttons at the bottom (complex) instead of one on the iPhone (simple), and it has some strange desktop metaphor *plus* some windowshade-like pulldown for apps that, compared to the iPhone, seemed confusing.

    But I believe that phone is a first-gen Droid. You have a couple options: new Android-based phones are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain. You can wait for a cooler model (again, go to the store & play until YOU are satisfied) or wait for the iPhone to come to Verizon in January 2011. Personally, I think that Apple has really don’t a great job with the iPhone and — for non-techies — it’s the better choice at this point.


    P.S. Since you have a WordPress login, I believe comments/responses to your posts should be e-mailed to you.


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