How to Buy a New Computer

Should you get a laptop, desktop, tablet?  Tech Talker helps you decide on your next computer.

Eric Escobar
6-minute read
Episode #22

Today’s podcast comes courtesy of the Tech Talker Facebook page! Reader Sanaz (better known to her fans as the savvy House Call Doctor) wrote in asking about how to pick out a new laptop. Thanks Sanaz! What a great question!

Today I will be tackling the topic of how to look for and buy a new computer. First off, if you haven’t listened to my episode on what’s inside your computer, go check it out now as it will give you a much better idea about the some of the things I will be mentioning later in this episode. Go ahead, I’ll wait…>

Where Do I Start?

All right, so your current computer is a hunk of junk and you’ve been putting off upgrading to a new model for way too long. Well, let me break this decision process down for you to make it easy. The key is to make a list of what you’ll be doing with your computer. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will you be doing a lot of video and picture editing?

  • Would you like to be able to take your computer everywhere you go?

  • Will you be playing a lot of video games or just browsing the web?

  • Will you need lots of storage space on the hard drive?

  • Do you need to install many different programs?

  • Will you watch a lot of videos or movies?

Actually writing out how you will be using your new computer will help you to outline the features you want and more importantly, the price range you’ll fall into.

What’s the Right Computer for Me?

Now that you are armed with your list of requirements, let’s decide on the form factor of your new computer:

  • If you’re a very casual user who wants to check email, browse the internet, and watch a YouTube video every now and then, you might want to look at something like an iPad. It’s small, light, portable, functional, user-friendly, and really cool!

  • If you’re looking for portability, battery life, and a full operating system, you may want to go for a netbook or a MacBook Air. Sometimes the mobile devices like popular tablets may not support some of the software you need; netbooks and the MacBook Air give you great portability but have much more functionality then tablets and smartphones.

  • If you’ll be doing some more intensive work like video editing, but still want to remain portable, and have a larger screen, then a laptop is probably best for you.

  • If you want a huge screen, multiple drives and much more expandability, you’re probably looking at a desktop.

Phew! Okay so now that you’ve nailed down the form factor, you’ve got to make the decision whether you want an Apple operating system or Microsoft’s operating system as your base. I’ll go much more in depth about this decision in a future episode, but making that call will narrow down your options by a wide margin.

Check Out the Specifications

The next step is checking out all the specifications. This is undoubtedly my favorite part of the process, but I realize that for many people this is probably the reason they have held off so long on picking out a new computer. So how many cores, bits, gigabytes, and pixels do you need? Which drive should you get? How much RAM will you need?

Well let’s knock out the easy one. Check out my episode on solid state drives versus hard disk drives to see the pros and cons of each. Once you’re more familiar with these 2 options, you can decide on the right type of hard drive and the cost point that works for you.

Remember: Drive size is measured in gigabytes. And if you’re going for a SSD, opt for nothing lower than 60GB. If you’re choosing a hard disk drive, I would get at least 500GB. This will give you room to expand in the future.

Next is RAM, or your computer’s short-term memory. RAM is fairly cheap and it’s something that can almost always be added later into a system. For today’s computers, I recommend 4GB for good performance, but you can always cut back if you’re going to be using a smaller computer like a netbook.

Next, you will look at screen size and battery life. These are pretty much going to be based on user preference. Do you like a big screen, or a small one? But ultimately, your decision will come down to cost.

Now, the thing that gets most people when picking out a computer is the type of processor and the amount of cores available. A core is another processing unit on a computer, and it’s rare nowadays to find any single-core processors. Most are dual-core. Basically, the more cores, the better at multitasking a computer will be, and the higher the number of gigahertz the faster your computer will be. Right now, I have a laptop running with a dual-core, 2.6 ghz processor and it works great for videos, multitasking, and some light gaming.

However, for the standard compute user, speed is more relevant then the number of cores. But speed can also vary widely, anywhere from 2-4 gigahertz. This term gigahertz refers to how many calculations per second the processor can crank out. So 2 gigahertz is about 2 billion calculations per second. The processor is something that I would recommend investing the most cash into. If you’re buying a laptop, it would be extremely difficult to replace this piece after the fact. And even for desktops, I wouldn’t recommend the average computer user to go rooting inside their machine. My rule of thumb here is to get the best processor in your price range, and to even consider scaling back on your hard drive and memory so as to have more money to put towards a better processor. The big name brands are AMD and Intel. If you see something that says i3, i5, or i7 then this is an Intel chip.

Here’s a helpful link to compare AMD and Intel processors.

Hop in and Go for a Ride

All right, you’re through the worst of it now. You know what form factor you want and what specs you’re interested in comparing. Now it’s time to test drive. So go check out your local computer store and try out some computers. See how long each one takes to start up, open applications, and see how they perform in general. I’ve tried a bunch of computers that seemed amazing on paper, but just didn’t cut it when I actually put hands to keyboard. And the most important thing here is making sure that you like how the hardware works. My current laptop has a track pad that I didn’t like at first but absolutely drives me nuts now. I thought I would grow used to it, but I should have known better. If I didn’t like it then, I would hate it later on. Even if you are looking to purchase your computer online, I would still go check out some physical models because you never know what feature they may have that will be important to you after you try it.

Finally, it’s time to compare prices. This will be different for everyone, but some great sites for computer comparison shopping are Newegg, TigerDirect, and Amazon. And if you’re looking to buy a computer at a store, I suggest Costco because of their stellar return policy.

Here are your 5 Quick and Dirty steps to picking out an awesome computer:

  1. Make a list of what you will use your new computer for.

  2. Decide which form factor works best for you (tablet, netbook, laptop, or desktop).

  3. Compare specs of different models.

  4. Do some testing to make sure you’re comfortable with how the physical hardware looks and feels.

  5. Comparison shop online and in store.

This topic is a big one and I realize that many of you will have questions about specific aspects of a computer that I didn’t mention in today’s episode. If you think I missed something or want me to go into more detail about a certain topic just post it on the Tech Talker Facebook wall or shoot me an email at TechTalker@quickanddirtytips.com!

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.