Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

A new computer is a major purchase and knowing what kind to get isn't easy. I'll review some of the important things to think about when deciding.

It's nearly new computer time at the old bunkhouse. What to do? What to do? Laptop? Desktop? Mac? PC? Dell? HP? How many gigabytes? CD? DVD? It's been eight years for me.

This is an extremely common question and I get it frequently. In fact, I'll bet anyone who's the tech in the family or neighborhood gets asked this same question more often than they would perhaps want.

The problem, of course, is that there's no single answer. It depends on your needs and your budget. And as technology is ever-changing, it even matters when you ask the question.

I typically ask myself this question about every two years as one computer or another needs replacing or simply comes to the end of its usable lifespan.

Let me walk you through some of the things worth considering when it's time to get a new computer.

I'm starting to look for a new laptop. My Dell XPS Studio has served me well for two years; it even endured a lot of traveling. But a recent hardware failure and a couple of other short-comings pushed me over the tipping point.

With that as an example, let's run down the common things that you should be looking at as you make your decision.

In my order of priority (your order may be different):

Laptop? Desktop? Netbook? Tablet?

This is easy for me. I have both a desktop and a laptop, and the laptop needed replacing. Laptops are perfect for traveling, and my wife and I definitely do some of that. But the laptop also spends a significant amount of time quite literally on my lap. I often spend evenings in a recliner in our family room, using the laptop directly because it holds my email or using it as a remote desktop so I can access the computer back in my office.

While I have several computers, a laptop can often be a very reasonable "only" computer. If you just read email and surf the web, today's laptops easily have more than enough power to do what you need. If your computing needs require more power and you don't need portability, then a desktop may be a more cost-effective solution. Desktops tend to have the latest, fastest technology at more reasonable prices and they have space for easy expansion with additional equipment, such as disk drives, add-in cards, and the like.

"... my take is that every manufacturer has problems from time to time; none are perfect."

Netbooks and tablets, like the iPad, are additions to the number of choices that have actually become viable in recent years. The important thing to realize with these smaller and more portable devices is that you're often trading off things you can't do for that ease and portability. As others have said, these may be fantastic content consumption devices - reading email, surfing the web, even reading books and manuscripts - but they are more difficult content creation devices. Consider how you'd use the devices carefully and recognize that they - like many laptops - are inherently limited in their expandability.

I do plan to get an iPad or iPad-like device within the next six months, but it's in addition to my current collection of hardware.

Mac or PC?

I'm not about to incite a religious battle. In all honesty, either can be both a great choice or a horrible one. Once again, it depends on your specific needs.

As you might expect, my background is in Windows PCs and the vast majority of my tools and working environment are tailored around Windows - some are even Windows-only - so it only makes sense for me to continue with a Windows-based PC.

If you have an existing investment in software or experience or even just a comfort level, there's nothing wrong with going with what you know, be it Mac or PC. Factor in also the folks around you from whom you might be asking for help, or the work environment you might need your new computer to be compatible with. Migrating PC to PC, or Mac to Mac is much easier than making the technical and mental switch.

If you're just starting out - test drive! Keep those same factors in mind, but head out to a computer store or two and see which one feels most comfortable.

A final, fundamental difference that's worth noting: Macs are proprietary and available only from Apple. On one hand, that means that there are significantly fewer hardware incompatibility issues to deal with. However, there are often significantly fewer hardware and expansion options available. Depending on where you plan to take your computing, either of those could be seen as good or bad.

Manufacturer

I've used primarily Dell computers for some time, though my current desktop machine is from a local company (Puget Systems). Unfortunately, a good friend of mine some time ago experienced what he came to call Dell hell after experiencing a serious lapse in Dell's customer service when he had problems with the new laptop he had ordered.

My replacement laptop will most likely be a Dell, primarily for some peripheral component compatibility with the other Dell laptops I have here (there are currently three). Even with Dell horror stories, my take is that every manufacturer has problems from time to time; none are perfect. My experience with Dell in the past has been good.

Which manufacturer you choose or even whether you plan to buy on-line or in a store depends on your comfort with the manufacturer's reputation for both equipment and service, and your own ability to deal with problems that arise. Will you need lots of hands-on assistance to resolve problems? Then, perhaps a local computer store with on-site technicians for advice and support is the way to go. If you're comfortable diagnosing problems and possibly replacing components, then discount stores, online retailers or manufacturer's own online stores, such as Dell's, could be a good fit. And if you're a techie, you'll be happy ordering parts from all over and building your own - but then, this article's probably not for you. Smile

Specific Model

One of the lessons I learned from my friend's "Dell hell" is the subtle difference between Dell's Inspiron and Latitude lines of notebooks. In a nutshell, Latitudes are tougher and apparently last longer. Latitudes are often used in corporate settings. In fact, my last laptop at Microsoft was a Latitude that also served me very well. Since then, I've worked through three Latitudes in the last 10 years. I expect my next will be a Latitude as well.

What this points out is the importance of understanding the relative differences between manufacturer's different models. This can be difficult to ferret out from manufacturer's information and quite often the best way to find this out is by word of mouth; looking for online reviews and discussion forums, for example. Many online manufacturers and retailers now allow reader comments on their product sales pages and this can provide a wealth of real-world feedback. The only downside of any online forum is that every brand and every model will have its detractors. You'll need to evaluate the legitimacy and frequency of the complaints and even their relevance to your own situation.

Weight

Weight applies only to portable computers, of course. One of the lessons I learned from carting around my XPS Studio on my travels, including a lengthy trip to Australia and New Zealand, is that weight matters more to me than I thought. My next laptop will be lighter.

This is another of those personal decisions. The XPS was nice as it had a larger screen and perhaps a few more bells and whistles than my newer laptop will have. Others may want something even lighter still, if you're going to be carrying it all day long. If you're about to select a laptop, think seriously about how you'll use it.

Screen Size

The size of the screen has a strong correlation with both weight and price. Larger screens mean larger and heavier notebook computers as well as a larger price.

While the large screen on the XPS was nice, in my case, noting how I've used it for the past two years, the extra large screen turns out not to be as important to me as the weight. My laptop will have a 14-inch screen, fairly middle of the road. Because I do spend so much time at computer screens, however, I will spring for the highest resolution that will fit in that, and because I do occasionally do some graphic-intensive work, I'll also spring for the higher powered graphics adapter.

For your desktop machine, you should realize that the display that you get is a separate component from the computer itself and can be pretty much anything you want. Typically, bigger is better, as long as it fits in the space you have allotted for your computer. My desktop machine currently has three 27" monitors, for example (coincidentally also Dells).

Like the computer itself, make sure that the monitor is a recognizable brand name; do a little research online for reliability and reputation.

If you use your computer much at all, the screen is where your eyes will be pointed for significant periods of time. It's worth making sure that the display device you choose is one you'll be happy with for a long time.

Continued...

Next: Memory, hard disk, processor, peripheral choices and more in What computer should I get? - Part II.

(This is an update to an article originally published November 24, 2004.)

Article C2231 - February 16, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

20 Comments
Charlie
January 12, 2005 7:01 AM

I have a Compaq/ Hewlett Packard computer and I have to say they have excellent support. Its a mixed praise however in that I am now on the third printer in one year as the other two HPs have broken down but the good part is that in both cases they immediately send me a new one. Same with the CD player that came with the computer. It too broke down but they replaced it..

kelli
February 10, 2005 7:01 AM

like with cars u can get a lemon, i have had every type of PC on the market and for one that is already built for u DELL is the best, i still have my 1st DELL which is slow because it is 9 years old but it runs... i have two desktop DELL's & a laptop that i use every day which i love, they are so easy to work on and repair ...... i have a brandnew gateway that is junk i have two brandnew HP's that are junk anyone want them? lol and for DELL's customer service IT HAS CHANGED FOR THE BETTER!! so if u want a good pc BUY A DELL!


have a great day!

Mac
February 15, 2005 8:20 AM

Dell customer service...better? I don't think so. I'm on hold with tech support right now!! The first rep I spoke to had no solutions and *tried* transferring me to tech support. I got disconnected. Our company's Dell sales rep only cares about selling and failed to help us in returning one item from our previous order.
Their computers are solidly built, but if you have to deal with their customer service, avoid them like the plague!! It's not worth it.

wale fabiyi
October 18, 2005 8:34 PM

good day leo,
i'm a graphics person,i use corel graphics suite,adobe photoshop,macromedia director,macromedia studio mx and i love working long hours,so consideration has to be on battery power e.t.c,
what notebook/laptop do you recommednd me to buy, my budget is about Rm3500 which is about $950....also i love working online(internet),so the notebook/laptop has to be connected...also waht is the difference between a notebook and a laptop.

Unfortunately I think your needs outstrip your budget. I'd be hard pressed to make a specific recommendation. My advice would be to get your laptop with as advanced a graphics adapter as you can, because that's difficult to upgrade later. Then make sure that everthing else, like RAM, Hard disk and perhaps even battery life, can be expanded later as you're able to afford it. My Latitude is like that .. I don't have max memory, but I can easily upgrade when the time comes. I also opted for a second battery (this model allows you to replace the CD-ROM drive with a second battery) which may be of interest to you.

Laptop versus notebook is vague. I think of notebooks as smaller ... say under 5lbs, but there's no hard and fast rule or definition.
Leo
19-Oct-2005

Nickers
December 10, 2005 12:00 PM

Hello Leo
I'm looking for a fairly cheap but reliable PC, i was looking at some Dell Pc's and they seem to be what i'm after. What i need to know though is if they are easily upgradeable, as i will no doubt be doing so in the near future if i do decide to buy one...

Thanks a lot

The best way to determine what Dell's can do is to run through their customization page. You can see how far each machine can be upgraded. For example you might be able to order up to 4gig of ram for your computer... so only order 1, and you'll know you can upgrade to 4 later.
Leo
10-Dec-2005

Quiller
June 19, 2006 10:19 PM

Not to completely disagree with you, but if we're talking reliability and longevity AND notebooks, where's the shout-out to ThinkPad? They might hit the wallet a little harder, but the extra cost is worth it. They don't break, period.

sin cera246
July 5, 2006 7:42 AM

i just wanted to say i agree with earlier comments about dell's customer service - i think it should be renamed DELL's HELL indeed!. i live in the caribbean, i ordered my laptop twice and i still have not received it as yet. I had to be transferred a million times from america - bahamas - panama - where ever because my toll free number wasn't working and to make matters worse my sales agent went on vacation without even leaving a message on his voicemail, which means i was having all those problems with no sale rep to assist me. Well, i have just completed reordering the laptop, hopefully i get it soon. So i can be rid of Dell's awful customer service.

Terry Hollett
December 2, 2007 12:38 PM

I've had about a half a dozen computers since my first one, which was a 486sx. Then came a 486dx2, then P166, Compaq Deskpro (P200), then a P2-266 and P2-300 and recntly I got lucky at a yard sale and currently own a Compaq Deskpro which is a P2-400mhz with 192 MB RAM.

One thing they all had in common, they where all second hand and all I could afford. And its still my philosophy for buying computers now.

www.geocities.com/terryhollett2003/

Thomas Mitchell
February 16, 2011 7:37 PM

I have a gateway laptop that is less than 2 years old and it is already falling apart. Headphone jack broken, power jack wont stay connected, and it constantly overheats after being on only an hour and a half. The air intake and exhaust ports are very poorly designed. I will never buy another gateway again.

Barry Zander
February 22, 2011 9:36 AM

I've been using PCs since they were called "IBM Compatible," but this year it was time to upgrade my 6-year-old Dell Latitude D620. I asked experts I've known for years and who have used both PC and Mac, plus Asking Leo what was new at the Las Vegas show that might make a difference in the future. I have had excellent service through Dell's Gold Tech Support over the years, and I have the software and peripherals. But like switching from film to digital cameras, U.S. to Japanese cars, and other cataclsymic changes, I decided to move to a MacBook Pro. I'm now on the learning curve, which is traumatic. I'm confident that my advisors streered me in the right direction, but it's painful. The important points in making the change were that I don't have any PC-specific programs ... and my level of acceptance from my 21-year-old daughter has soared.

Satish
February 22, 2011 10:38 AM

Try also a Compaq. I bought a Compaq Presario A900 series in 2008 and have been using it around 10 hours a day for software development. I had upgrade to a 4GB RAM(maybe you can get that as free upgrade today) and Windows 7 Ultimate it has been by far the best machine I have bought in terms of toughness and durability.

However, other machines I would recommend having used them are Thinkpads and Macs. I have been extremely impressed by the stability of the Mac Mini and Macbook.

Sue
February 22, 2011 11:12 AM

I agree with your friend's "Dell's Hell" customer service. We've bought maybe 8 Dell computers over the past years and when our Dell desktop died, I immediately ordered a Dell - but this time from a tv shopping network because they had a 30-day return policy and the price couldn't be beat. Thank goodness I ordered from them! When a software install kept giving me script messages and a blue-screen delay on startup, I phoned their customer service. After speaking to several Dell service reps, the last one wanted to charge me $150 for a repair to a 2-week old computer. Rather than pay, I sent it back for free, and ordered a wonderful HP laptop with excellent customer support, more specs and longer battery. Buying from a "no-questions asked return" shopping channel was the best decision I ever made! Oh, and shipping was free and well as 6 interest-free payments.

J. Servis
February 22, 2011 12:29 PM

Hello Leo, Very informative article. Like you say, everyones needs are different, & I get this question all the time, and tell each person the same thing. When looking for a laptop/notebook in particular, do your reseach first. Look at the adds from the big box stores, then Google the model numbers for forums and further input. This will give some idea of the pro/cons on inexpsensive vs. more expensive. Then take into further account what purpose you will be using the machine for. The worst thing you could do is walk uninformed into the local big box store, ie Staples, Best Buy, Office Max, etc. They may mean well, but the help is mostly uninformed & just want to sell you something. The more expensive the better! You CAN get very good deals at such places, but know beforehand what you want, shop for the best price, & go in and buy it.
I myself have an H.P.Pavillion dv7 Loaded, laptop. It's huge, it's heavy, but it's what i need. I've had it going on 2 years now with not so much as a hiccup. In use 8 to 10 hours a day.
As far as my home base desk top, Dell XPS 400 that's been tweeked so much it's pretty much just a Dell case. But for a desktop I'd have to recomend Dell. Thanks for letting me ramble! John.

Ian
February 22, 2011 1:58 PM

Your deep background with Microsoft is obviously a huge investment - and your sharing it is appreciated.
I'm not a techie, but for 25 years have been learning as I use products - I still revert to DOS very occasionally when needed. The knowledge is is an investment too.
So I have stuck with PCs.
But the file wuauclt.exe is changing my mind. A couple of times a week it takes over my machine for an hour or so. No doubt there is a work-around.
Then a eureka moment struck: much of my knowledge, and added programs like Diskeeper and Registry Mechanic, are required because of defects or inadequacy in MS products.
So why not change to a MAC, despite them being proprietary and hence more problems with 3rd party hardware, as you mention? My wife has had a MAC for 3 years and needs none of this knowledge or these tools.
To sum up: if my knowledge is simply how to make a PC work as well as a MAC, why shouldn't I just buy a MAC instead?
BTW: what it the fix for wuauclt.exe?

Jim H
February 22, 2011 4:45 PM

I needed a new PC. My old Dell Dimension 8200 is just too old to run the software I would like. I had always had Dells previously but I found as I began to enjoy upgrading hardware, Dells were not conduicive to it. When I installed a (once) powerful video card the stock Dell power supply wasn't enough to run it. Because the power cord connector location and other parts were totally opposite of every other power supply on the market, it took a metal nibbler, files, and a set of metal shears to modify the case to fit an 850 watt power supply. I had to cut away everything but the mounting screw holes. I don't know if they are still that way. I couldn't install a better mother board after the computer became dated because the motherboard secures to a mounting plate and isn't made to be removed. Even the proprietary RamBus RAM memory it had when it was new was twice the price of every other RAM memory and it was quite a while before anybody but Dell sold it. There were also too few bays for what I ultimately used the computer for and my real desk top is still cluttered with a host of external devices that had no room to put in the case. Also, because of the way the mother board was installed and the connection points on the back panel, the guts wouldn't fit in another larger and better case! The moral of the story is if you are a gear head and like upgrading parts be sure to educate yourself on what's proprietary that can't be changed, what parts you will be at the manufacturer's mercy to buy, and what you can actually swap out that will work and actually fit.

An HP desktop I owned I found out after the fact would not accept a full sized video card. The case wouldn't go back together. Having to find a video card for its size rather than it video processing power limited my choices and was a heck of a lesson learned and a mistake I will not repeat.

For my new PC I went to one of the specialty companies that custom build computers. There are a number out there but after much research, two of the best are Digital Storm and Stealth Machines. I went with Stealth Machines because of they way you can talk to them and tell them what you do with your computer and they will recommend what you need to accomplish that. I spoke at length with Josef, the owner, and all I can say is I was very impressed. His reputation is well earned and deserved. There were parts I wanted that he said he'd gladly sell me if I wanted but that there were alternatives that were actually better that were less expensive. With his guidance I came away under budget and with way more computer than I expected. it's such a different experience from what I am used to I can't see me ever buying anything from a regular retailer again. While Stealth machines is more well known in the hard core computer gaming world (of which I am a proud member) they and the other companies also cater to the business and more regular PC user.

For anybody looking to buy a new PC I would recommend that you call one of these companies and talk to someone. You may be very surprised at what you can get for your money.

Ron
February 22, 2011 7:26 PM

"Next Business day" is no good if they don't have in-town service center

Manufacturer hardware quality and service reputation comes and goes. Unless you have a strong preference for someone, it is good idea to check online for current user reports about issues.

3x27" monitors!?! I'm totally lime green with envy! I tripped over the joys of multiple monitors when I accidentally discovered that my new laptop had an "extra" VGA plug.

Andy
February 23, 2011 8:18 AM

Two things I overlooked in the past, which I will definitely be paying more attention to the next time I'm laptop shopping is the all important battery life and the number of peripheral connectivity ports (usb, firewire, hdmi, card readers etc). One never knows the importance of these until it's time to add one more device or gimmick to the brood. I bought 3 laptops in the last 3 years, and I always wish I knew then what I know now.
This article is an eye opener. I look forward to reading Part 2.

Steve
March 16, 2011 6:06 AM

a PC is a tool or an appliance (its also a toy, but let's skip over that for now).

think of your 'fridge. is it big enough? Probably not. Was it when you bought it. Probably. Some people like glass shelves and some like wire shelves. Some like side-by-side while others prefer over & under. freezer on top or on the bottom. auto ice maker? water and ice available thru the door? white, Harvest Gold, or Avocado Green? I'd bet lots of folks don't even know *why* they prefer one option over another, they just do.

Will the 'fridge you pick today always make you smile when you open it? Probably not. But it will still cool your food (as long as it isn't a piece of junk). Same sort of thing with a PC (or as one poster reminded me "IBM compatibles").

John
April 28, 2011 2:40 AM

> - What is the best computer brand and why? I'm a big fan of Dell. My experience with them has been hugely positive. I recently bought a replacement computer off them (www.dell.ca) which yet again proved a real value for money.

james braselton
May 21, 2011 9:46 PM

hi there what about solid state computers useing solid state flash modules with no spinning hard drive

I think they're fascinating, and in certain situations quite worth it. However they are pricey, and I'd recommend that the average consumer hold off until the technology matures further.
Leo
24-May-2011

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