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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)