Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What computer should I buy?

All technology people get the questions all the time but during the holidays, year end and graduation time we hear it the most.  "What computer should I buy?"

We always have to follow that up with questions.  Purchasing a computer system is more like purchasing a car than most people realize.  You wouldn't just walk onto a dealership lot and pick any car the sales person suggested.  You need to get what meets your needs for features, size, style, driving requirements and budget.  Computers are the same way.

First, know what you want to spend.  Know what the maximum you want to spend is $500, $1000, $1500, $2000.  Pick one of those numbers.  You will immediately narrow down your choices.

Next, what do you plan to do with it?

  • Is it for home use, younger children, office workstation, school work, home business or maybe all of the above?  
    • In an office, do you need something that is for general administrative work or is it for an advanced user with all kinds of number crunching and custom applications in play?
    • Home computers vs home office computers can be used in very different ways today.  Do you want to use it to connect to your TV or will it just be used to manage accounting and business emails?
    • I recommend never combining everything on one machine - especially if kids are going to be running games and access websites (even ones designed for them) on the same machine you are trying to run a home business or work from home.  
  • Do you need to run specific applications on it for you school, work or business?  What do those applications require?  
    • If you just want it to create documents but not necessarily using Office tools it is a different requirement than one that requires MS Office applications.  
    • If you want to run applications from your company make sure you know what they require.
  • Do you need to move it from place to place regularly or occasionally?  
    • If you want to be able to move from place to place or take it on trips you obviously don't need a desktop but how light and small do you need your device to be? 
    • If you are going to leave it in one place it can be much more cost effective to have a desktop with more computing power than a laptop.
  • Is it something you mainly just want to use for email and Internet access?  If so, where will you want to have access to the Internet?  
    • Do you only need to connect to your single wired connection at your desk in the office?
    • Do you need to have wireless access but only to a WiFi hot spot signal?
    • Do you need mobile internet capabilities?

Now, we can review the choices within in those limits that meet your needs.  (I will assume the limit doesn't include all the taxes, shipping and accessories you may incur.  Just the price of the equipment.)

Below the price ranges, I discuss the various options available at each price range in more detail.

$500 Limit
The lowest priced iPad, most Netbooks and a few low-end laptops and desktops fit this price range.  

$1000 Limit
All the rest of the iPad and Netbook lines fall in this price range.  Several medium range Windows laptops and most desktops are in this price range, as well.  A few entry level Mac systems are at the very top end of the range.

$1500 Limit
Now, you have a lot more choices to work with on the list.  You can get some extensive choices in laptops, desktops and even some low end Mac machines.  At this point you can customize a lower priced machine to have more memory, disk or processing power.  In my opinion, this is the best price range to be in.  You aren't getting the best of everything but you are getting the best of some things and very good of others.  Make your choices based on how you want to use your computer.  Nicer screen for video and graphics, more memory for big files open or lots of programs running at the same time or maybe a faster processor to handle streaming video or extensive number crunching.

$2000 Limit
At this point you can afford most of the Mac computers but not all of them.  You can also afford the higher end windows laptops and desktops.  The All-in-One machines with Touch Screen capability are also usually in the price range.  You can exceed this limit on several Macs and Windows Gaming Computers, however.

iPad is the ubiquitous gadget of 2010.  The 3G models are certainly very mobile and nice for folks that are on the road frequently.  Most people I know with them are very surprised with just how much they use it and what they can do with it.  It isn't as much a geek gadget and some people initially believe.

If you are just looking for something you can sit on the couch and let everyone have access to the Internet, watch videos and even play games then an entry level iPad may be a good option.  There are plenty of Apps for them and they are very nice to be able to pass it around the den at night.  The newness will eventually wear off and everyone will share much better.  

Netbooks are like mini laptops.  They are generally much smaller in size, processing, memory and storage capacity generally around 10" screens/keyboards.  Today you can do all your email, document, presentations and spreadsheet processing plus financials in the cloud.  If those are your main reasons for purchase and you don't mind the small keyboard and screen these are great choices.  

There are many good ones with a variety of features out there.   Check closely for things like webcams, sound and connection options you may want.  The cheaper versions cut out some of those features.  The connectivity can be WiFi only or connected with mobile Internet capabilities.  Check out prices and features on Asus, Samsung and Dell models.

Laptops are what most people go with today.  If you want to be ultra-mobile, get a light weight one.  If you have to move it from time to time but not daily, get a more powerful one with larger disk, processor, memory, screen and keyboard.  Better yet, if you don't have to move it often get a larger one with a complete docking station set up and you will never miss a desktop at all.  Of course, you will pay more for a laptop than a desktop with similar features.  I still rely on Dell and Lenovo most of the time but I am starting to look more at Asus and Samsung.

Desktops are still the best deals on computers.  You definitely get more bang for the buck on the processing, memory, storage and expansion capabilities plus repairing a desktop is usually cheaper and easier than any other choice of systems.  I usually follow the Dell and Sony path on desktops.

There are some really nice All-in-One desktops that are a great combination of the size of a desktop with the style and once piece for everything laptop.  If you are looking for something to put in office for people to fill out forms or in the kitchen for the whole family to use, check out the All-in-One options.  

I have used a few of the Sony version and they are really nice.  Other vendors make versions, as well.  They are becoming much more popular than the stand desktops we think of above.

Macs are the Apple line of laptops and desktops.  Many people who only need the computers for Internet applications and a few built-in tools will find the Mac line much more to their liking.  For users who don't feel inclined to worry much about managing the computer and worrying about how it works, the Mac is perfect.  They do just work and are fairly user friendly to operate.  They are, however, much more expensive.  

When anyone asks me about getting one, I always tell them if they can afford one they should get one - unless - they need to use a lot of Windows based programs.  Yes, you can run Windows programs on a Mac, I know.  But, if the reason you are considering the Mac is for simplicity, the concept of running programs in a Boot Camp partition or a virtual desktop is not simple for the basic user.

Even after all this discussion there are so many more specifics that can be discussed but this is the starting point.  Find your place in this list and then work within those options.  You can find the best bang for your budget if you are willing to spend the time making some detailed decisions.

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