Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 7 Issue 11
November 2013
Buying A New Computer? Read This!

To read this issue on my web site, please visit:
http://kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2013/2013_11_29.html

Whether you're shopping for a bargain on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) or Cyber Monday (the Monday after Thanksgiving) or at any other time of the year, there are a number of things I recommend you think about before buying a new computer.

First things first
I recommend asking yourself these questions:
  • Motivation: Why do you want to buy a new computer?
  • Repair vs. Replace: Is there a problem with your current machine? If it's slow or has a software problem, have you had it looked at to see if that can be solved? If it has a hardware problem, have you looked into having that repaired? It can often be cheaper (and less disruptive) to repair instead of replace.
  • Purpose: What will you want to do with your new computer? Email, web sites, bookkeeping? Watch TV and movies online? Create and edit digital videos? Run a business?
  • Laptop vs. desktop: Do you need the portability and compact size of a laptop? On the other hand, a desktop computer will be far less portable but will probably cost less and be easier to repair.
  • Peripherals: What will you be plugging in to your computer? An external or second monitor? Mouse, keyboard, printer, scanner, backup drive, flash drive, speakers, smartphone, tablet, headset, webcam, digital camera, video camera? What types of ports will it need to have (USB 2.0, USB 3.0, audio, video, network)? How many?
  • Do you have a brand of computer you prefer?
Features to look for in a new desktop or laptop computer
When shopping for a computer, I recommend planning in advance. In general, I suggest looking for a computer that has:
  • RAM: 4GB (gigabytes) or more of memory
  • Hard drive: 500GB or more of storage; for now I suggest avoiding machines with solid-state drives (SSDs) as their primary internal storage - they're faster but more expensive, and this technology also raises security concerns regarding its ability to be securely "erased"
  • Built-in CD-RW/DVD-RW drive: Almost always worth having
  • Processor type and speed: For most users this hardly matters, so don't pay more just for a newer or faster processor alone.
  • Internet connection: Wireless (Wifi) is definitely useful for a laptop, and can sometimes be handy for a desktop, but for both types of computers I always recommend having an Ethernet port (for a wired connection) because wireless isn't always a reliable option.
  • Number of USB ports: More is better! If you have more USB devices than ports, you'll probably need to get a USB hub.
  • Type of USB ports: USB 3.0 is the new, faster standard, replacing USB 2.0
  • Warranty: Most computers come with only a 1-year warranty, so you should think about buying an extended warranty, especially if you're buying a laptop (which is more likely to be dropped or damaged, and can be more difficult to repair) or if your ability to pay for repairs is limited, or if you can afford it and it brings you peace of mind to have better coverage.
  • Built-in video output port for an external monitor or projector; if you already own a monitor or projector, try to match one of its input ports (VGA, HDMI, DVI, etc.) to the output port on the computer you're buying, otherwise you'll need a converter or adapter.
  • Built-in camera card slots: These give you the convenience of plugging your digital camera's card directly into the computer (so you can transfer your photos and videos from your digital camera) vs. having to plug your camera or a separate camera card reader into a USB port.
  • Bluetooth: This newer cordless standard gives you the option of "connecting" Bluetooth cordless mice, keyboards, headsets, speakers, printers and more to your computer.
Laptop Considerations
If you're shopping for a laptop computer, I also recommend that you consider the following features and issues:
  • Internet connection: A built-in wireless (Wifi) card
  • Built-in webcam (most also include a microphone)
  • Built-in speakers and microphone
  • Size of built-in screen: The stated size (typically 13" or 15" or 17") refers to the diagonal measurement in inches, but that's not the whole story. Older laptop screens had an aspect ratio of 4:3 (height vs. width), but newer ones tend to be 16:9 or "widescreen," making them shorter and wider than older models.
  • Size of built-in keyboard: It directly corresponds to the size of the built-in screen. Do you need a larger one (and the numeric keypad that probably comes with it)?
  • Ultra-thin/lightweight laptops: Be careful before buying, because these models often don't have built-in CD/DVD drives, Ethernet ports (wired internet), smaller keyboards, fewer USB ports, etc.
Laptop accessories
These are the most common and useful laptop accessories:
  • External mouse: Useful if you don't like using the built-in trackpad/touchpad
  • External keyboard
  • External monitor: Can give you more "room to work" and boost your productivity
  • Spare power supply: Useful if you need to travel and don't want to extract the power cord from your tangle of wires, or if you might forget to bring it
  • Carrying case
Windows
If you're planning on buying a Windows computer:
  • Operating System: While it has many improvements over previous versions, Windows 8's new user interface can be very confusing, so for most users I recommend getting Windows 7 Professional instead. You may well have trouble finding computers with Windows 7 in a retail store, but you'll easily find Windows 7 machines if you order online.
Macintosh
If you're planning on buying a Macintosh computer:
  • Operating System: All new Macs now come with OS X 10.9 "Mavericks." If your current Mac runs OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" or an earlier version, be careful! Some of your current software may not work on a new Macintosh. See http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2011/2011_09_29.html - "Don't Let Apple's "Lion" Bite You!" for more on this.
  • CD/DVD drives no longer built-in: As of this writing, only the MacBook Pro laptop without the "Retina" display still has a built-in CD/DVD drive ("SuperDrive"). All other current Macintosh models (MacBook Pro with Retina display, iMac, Mac mini, and Mac Pro) no longer have built-in CD/DVD drives. (The ultra-thin MacBook Air laptop never had one.) If you're buying a new Mac that does not have one built in and you need one, be sure to buy an external USB CD/DVD drive.
Tablets and Smartphones vs. Computers
Devices like iPads and iPhones, as well as Android phones and tablets can do an amazing variety of things, including many things that a regular computer can do, but they're not perfect replacements for a computer or laptop. For example:
  • Such devices only connect to the internet via wireless or the 3G/4G cell phone network, which means you don't have the option of a wired connection in situations where you can't use wireless.
  • As of this writing they can't run many mainstream programs, including Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook).
  • Adobe Flash technology (used by many web sites and games) is not supported.
  • You can't read or write CD or DVDs.
  • You can't directly connect a USB device like a flash drive or printer.
There are ways to work around these issues, some more awkward than others, but my advice would be to consider these devices as secondary accessories, not replacements for a regular computer.

Final suggestions
As you go through this process, I also recommend:
  • If a vendor has a "consumer" vs. a "business" class of computers, the business machines may offer better hardware, warranties, and support at prices that are not much more than the consumer models. I've seen this when buying machines from Dell, so it's certainly possible with other vendors.
  • If you have a nearby computer store you can visit, it can be useful to try out a potential new computer in person.
  • Don't forget to do a final backup of your old computer before switching over.
  • If your backup method uses an external hard drive, buy a new one for the new computer. You'll probably get a faster, higher-capacity one at a lower price than you paid for your previous one.
  • Buy a new surge protector, and retire your old one - it's probably worn out.
  • What's your plan for backing up your new computer?
  • If possible, keep your old computer around for a few days or weeks just in case. After that, what's your plan for thoroughly cleaning out your data and donating or disposing of it?
Conclusion
  • Don't buy a new computer if you can solve or fix the problems with your current one.
  • Don't rush into a purchase, especially if the price looks too good to be true. Be careful, do some planning, and make sure you get the features you need.
  • It's unlikely you'll be able to replace your computer with a smartphone or tablet, but they are useful accessories.
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.