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How to Buy a Computer

Buying a computer today is more complicated than it has ever been. The array of choices, not to mention the range of prices, is staggering. It’s little wonder that an impending computer purchase is often anxiety-ridden. In this short discussion, we will try to take some of the mystery and angst out of the computer-purchasing process by asking a few simple questions.

Who is it for?

There are lots of different ways to address this question, but for our purposes, let’s look at some major groups of potential users: students, adult home users, businesses and gamers. For starters, let’s eliminate gamers. They generally need the biggest, fastest and, not surprisingly, most expensive machines. Most gamers are also technically adept and so are beyond the scope of this article.

Students generally need a machine that is portable, reasonably powerful, sturdy and – ideally – covered by a good warranty or maintenance contract. Businesses have more complex issues to consider including standardization, security, software and support. These are also beyond the scope of this discussion and are best addressed with an IT expert. Home users — keep reading.

What do you want to do?

Most home users want to do email and web access, at a minimum. For many people, that’s most of what they will do on the computer. Other uses include organizing and editing pictures, watching movies, listening to music and working at home. Any of these applications can be done well with just about any computer on the market today. It’s only when you are doing compute-intensive work such as editing video or sophisticated photo editing that you need more power. Similarly for students, you don’t need a great deal of computer power unless you work in engineering or other scientific areas that require heavy-duty computing. An exception is people whose applications, such as editing and retouching photos, need a screen with lots of resolution.

Laptops vs. Desktops vs. Tablets

This is largely a lifestyle decision. First, “normal” computer or tablet? If most of what you do is watch videos or movies, play games and listen to music, and use the web, with a little email, a tablet might be right for you. They are highly portable and are great for these purposes. Where they are not as good as a mainstream computer is for creating content. If you do a lot of writing, create spreadsheets or presentations, or edit photos, a tablet isn’t much fun unless you get an external keyboard. At that point, you lose much of the convenience of a tablet and might as well consider a laptop computer.

Consider a desktop computer if you need a large screen and if you never work anywhere except your desk. Otherwise, a laptop is the way to go. Today’s laptops are as powerful as all but the most powerful desktops, don’t cost much more and they are more convenient. You can use your laptop in any room of your home or office and you can take it with you when you travel. For most people, a laptop computer provides the ideal mix of convenience, power and usefulness.

Windows (PC) vs. Mac (Apple)

While this choice is seen by some people as a theological one, in fact both choices are very similar. They do the same thing, just slightly differently. My best advice is to go with what you know. If you have been using Windows for years, it will be difficult to switch to Mac and vice-versa. If everyone in your office or school has a Mac, stick with that. It will be easier to get help than if you buy something different. For students, choose the system that the school uses and recommends, as that will make life a lot simpler. If you are a computer newcomer (are there any left?) many people think Apple is easier to pick up.

Another way to decide between Mac and Windows is price. Apple computers are more expensive than Windows computers. Actually in a comparison of machines with similar specifications, the premium for Apple is not enormous. On the other hand, there is a much wider choice of WIndows machines, and as noted below, there are many more choices at the low-cost end.


For a lot of people, this may be the major determinant. Unless your needs are more particular, you will find that there is a wide choice of mainstream computers available for quite reasonable prices. As I write this, Best Buy lists 3 new laptops under $300 and 18 under $400. This is consistent with prices from other major retailers. These are for machines from major brands like HP, Dell, Lenovo, ASUS, Gateway and Acer. For general use, especially at the lower cost end of the spectrum, there is not a lot of difference between the brands in terms of quality or value. If you are concerned about price, pick a price point you’re comfortable with and see what’s available at your favorite store.

So why are some computers so expensive, you might ask? You will pay a premium for things like faster processors (which most people don’t need and won’t notice anyway), larger or higher resolution screens, larger memory and larger disks. In laptops there is a premium for thin and light machines as well. You will always pay more for the absolutely latest models, kind of like buying a car. Many of the less expensive machines today are older models (e.g. 6-12 months!) and so are priced lower.


Once you pick out a computer, what else do you need? The main accessory most people need is a printer, since there are still times you need paper. For laptops, you might want a case or protective sleeve. Desktop computers almost always come with a keyboard and mouse, though you might want to buy your own replacements if you have particular preferences. Also, most desktops do not include a monitor, so you will have to buy that separately. A surge protector is a good idea for desktop computers, but you don’t need one for laptops or tablets.


Software is what makes the world go around, so you will need some to be able to do much. On tablets it’s call apps. There is plenty of really good free software, so you don’t have to spend a fortune. On the other hand, if you are doing any kind of business work, you will probably want to buy Microsoft Office, which is pretty much the standard used in most organizations. Beyond that, you can download just about anything you need. Plus, there is more and more software available in the “cloud” where you don’t have to actually install anything on your computer. Much of it is free.

One Last Thought

One last thought: computer technology continues to evolve quickly. Don’t expect a new computer to have the lifetime of a new dishwasher or refrigerator. Figure the you will want to replace your new purchase 3-5 years from now. While this may be frustrating, given the cost of computers, consider also that you will be able to improve on your choice in a few years!


Buying a computer doesn’t have to be a difficult task. You can find decent equipment for under $400-500. If you have particular needs, talk to an expert to help you find the system that is ideal for you.