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

A new computer is a major purchase and knowing what to get isn't easy. I continue my review of some of the important qualities to think about when purchasing.

In a previous article, What computer should I get?, I avoided answering the question directly because there is no single answer. Instead, I began to walk down the list of decisions that I found myself making as I had to answer that question for myself. This article continues down that path.

So far, I've discussed type, brand, model, weight and screen size as well as Mac vs. PC. Continuing down my list of priorities:

Memory

As I've mentioned elsewhere, the one thing that has the biggest impact on Windows' performance is the amount of RAM installed. It's the one upgrade that can have immediate payoff and can extend a computer's useful life. I recommend that you:

  • Get more than you think you need now

  • Make sure you can install even more later

In my case, I'm maxing out the RAM in my new laptop right away at eight gigabytes.

In general today, I wouldn't bother getting less than two gigabytes and I'd make sure that the machine was upgradeable to eight. As you can imagine, this recommendation changes over time as operating systems require and machines are capable of holding more RAM.

Processor

Processor speed seems to have leveled off lately. Maximum speeds seem to be hovering at around or just over the three Ghz level, although processor speeds around two Ghz are common.

What's new are the number of "cores". My current desktop machine has a quad core CPU, which means that there are effectively four CPUs or processors within the single CPU chip.

I now recommend that you at least get a dual-core processor and consider a quad. Dual core has immediate impact as it allows your PC to remain responsive, even if a single process is trying to use the CPU heavily. As software adjusts to the availability of multiple core technology, you'll see it start to have a significant impact in overall speed.

"Obviously, price is an important component for everyone."

The highest speed and maximum number of cores typically come at a premium price that isn't proportional to the increase in speed. So processor speed isn't something into which I invest a lot of money. I typically shoot for the middle of the available options on speed.

Most people look only at processor speed when selecting a system, and while it's important, it doesn't necessarily make as much difference as you might imagine. If you're browsing the web, for example, processor speed is almost irrelevant. It's your download speed that limits you. If your machine has a slow disk, that may make a larger difference for many applications than processor speed. And as I said earlier, having enough memory perhaps makes the biggest difference of all.

Hard Disk

The original version of this article had the following quote:

I haven't filled up the 20-gig drive on my old laptop and haven't filled up the 60-gig drive on my desktop, so clearly disk space wasn't a terribly important issue for me.

My, how times change.

My current laptop has a 500-gigabyte hard drive in it. No, it's not full, and I could do with the next step down that's offered: 320 GB. I'll probably opt for the 500 GB anyway. I've seen how disk space can fill up over time. My desktop has 2.5 terabytes of storage, and while there's plenty of elbow room, it's getting used.

For normal word processing, email, and internet browsing, the smallest available hard drives are often more than sufficient for most folks' usage. If you plan to have a lot of images or music, or if you do videos, then hard disk space becomes more important.

Wireless & Networking

I need wireless. In fact, I'd probably say that there's no reason not to get at least 802.11b/g wireless capability in any laptop these days. The incremental cost is low and the flexibility later can be significant.

What I've explicitly avoided is mobile broadband hardware included in the machine. These are the equivalent of cellular modems built into the PC. It sounds very handy, and I'm certain that it's a perfect solution in many cases. The problem that I see is that it does require a contract with a cellular provider, often for up to two years, and the hardware installed is often specific to that provider.

I much prefer to get my connectivity outside of my computer, be it a USB cellular modem, a portable WiFi hotspot, or open WiFi access where I travel. There's significantly more flexibility doing it this way rather than tying yourself to a specific cellular provider for a year or more.

In the wired world, PCs should be coming with gigabit ethernet connections in almost all cases. There's no longer a reason not to have this.

Peripherals & Other Upgrades

I tend to add very few additional components when I purchase a machine. I let my future needs drive what to purchase and more importantly when.

The peripherals that make sense for you will vary based on your expected needs. A CD or DVD burner, or an external USB drive is almost a must for backups if you don't have another approach already.

In general, USB interfaces are a good thing. While they're not a deal breaker (we're fairly low on the priority list, after all), more USB ports are better. At this writing, USB3 is just starting to appear. I'm not springing for it myself and I expect that, for the vast majority of consumers, we're still just a tad too early to make it a real recommendation.

Software

OK, I'll confess that I have an advantage here. As a former Microsoft employee, I have access to their current software at discounted prices through the company store, so I rarely pay for bundled software with my machine. That being said, because the system will come with an operating system installed, I would select Windows 7 Pro with media. Getting it pre-installed will save me the setup time.

Operating system choices are both easy and difficult: choosing the Windows 7 part is easy today, but which edition is often not very obvious. I personally recommend Windows 7 Pro because when I try to help people resolve issues, it has some utilities and capabilities that Windows Home does not. Windows 7 Ultimate just isn't worth it for the average consumer or even small business.

Try to get the installation media. If all that's available is "recovery" media, then make sure to use imaging software to take a snapshot of the machine's hard drives the day that it arrives. Then, this is your fallback reinstall-from-scratch image.

You'll often be offered security software pre-installed. I recommend declining it and installing any of the good, free alternatives immediately after you've received your machine.

Price

Computers and software are my career and hobby, so you might expect that I'd be willing to throw more money at a computer than some folks. As it is, I've run through my selections and then looked at the price of just under $2000 - for a fairly powerful road-warrior kind of machine that's not an unreasonable price (and surprisingly somewhat less than the machine I'd selected 6 years ago).

Obviously, price is an important component for everyone. There's no real rule of thumb that I can offer here other than to state that all of the decisions that lead up to this are trade-offs against the final price. Bigger, faster hard drives, more memory, name brand network cards, and so on all incrementally add to the price. It's one of the reasons why I like the Dell website for ordering; I can craft a machine to meet my needs and make trade-offs against my budget. Even if it's only a guide to configuring a computer you might purchase elsewhere, it's an easy way to see the impact of some of your choices and decisions.

(This is an update to an article originally published November 25, 2004.)

Article C2232 - February 17, 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?

17 Comments
Larry Osterman
November 29, 2004 4:59 PM

One caveat about processor speed for laptops.

Intel offers two lines of processors that appear in laptops, the centrino line and the P4 line.

Some laptops come with P4 processors, and are marked as significantly faster than the Centrino processor. Unfortunately, the faster processor comes at a significant battery-life cost. A non-centrino processor will suck a battery dry faster than a centrino processor.

So if you're buying a laptop, stick with the centrino processors.

AVELIN MALAMSHA
December 14, 2006 5:23 AM

You did a good job but still it seems as if you are not advising us to buy any pentium one,two,three etc.Shouldnt we?

Matt
July 22, 2007 9:36 AM

I am thinking of purchasing an Apple iMAC. Is it worth the $1600 i am willing to spend or can i use my money better elsewhere?

Paul Treneary
April 16, 2009 6:52 AM

Some great info on your website (I've just tweaked my TEMP folders to my newly partitioned T: drive - simple enough but I'd forgotten how!).

I hate to point it out, but whilst you cleverly worded some advice (ie the bit about how much memory to go for), I reckon it's time to take a look at some of those more specific figures.
Thinking about what I've needed to know recently, you could add details (or external links to save replication) as to how to build your own Windows XP install disc from the i386 folder for the very keen (I was very surprised it worked).
Anyway, an excellent, well worded, site that I'll be recommending to those people that keep asking me these sort of questions.

Kyle
August 15, 2009 1:08 PM

i would recommend the 13.3 inch Apple MacBook Pro they are at a reduced price now, even though they might be a little pricey they last for 7 hours on a full charge, they last for approximately 5 years, they are energy efficient, they can't get any viruses, they are very light-weighted even on the largest screen, the memory can be customized up to 4Gb and 8Gb, the hard drive space can be customized up to 500Gb, everything is very organized and they easily synchronize with other devices in a network, such as, printers and stereos, they can run both Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows, they can come with iWork and iLife which can run Microsoft files easily and they have up to 2.8 GHz of processing power.

Apple has legendary customer service as in they make their own computers so they don't send you to another company for a certain part.

Jim Green
February 17, 2011 5:19 AM

For PC's, My rule of thumb for amount of memory is to get at least TWICE what Microsoft says is minimum for the versions of windows you choose. I currently run 6GB in my desktop, and 4GB in my laptop. I rely on the CPU meter gadget in WIN 7 Pro to monitor how much memory is being used...so far, haven't even approached 100%. But, like you, I made sure there was room for more. Oh, and you might remind people that anything over 4GB is just "preinstalled spare memory" unless you are running the 64bit version of your windows OS.

Greg Bulmash
February 17, 2011 9:46 AM

The part you left out is the graphics adapter. Besides being able to drive various screen resolutions, you have two types of adapters -- onboard & discreet -- with two types of RAM -- shared and discreet. Depending on whether you want to do any 3D, high-end videography, etc., you need to consider which kind.

I'll leave it to Leo to explain the difference and why (or why not) to pick one over the other.

Lester
February 22, 2011 8:48 AM

Cheap isn't better. My last computer came with 8 gb of memory, but it was DDR2, which slows it down. It had a Q8200 CPU, again on the slow side today. It has a motherboard that only supports 3 gig transfer rate for the HDD controller, and I recently installed one that supports 6, hoping for a speed increase. I also installed a better video card only to discover that they had only included a 280 watt power supply. So by the time I upgraded that, I could have bought a better computer. I'll probably upgrade the motherboard, memory, and cpy someday. In the end I'll have a good computer, but it will have cost me substantially more than if I'd went for the better one in the first place. I've used Dell a lot and also other online services, but I'd almost rather pay more locally and know for sure what I'm getting in these areas.

GREG JACKSON
February 22, 2011 3:46 PM

Passing comment: And once you get the "perfect" pc as I did, there's always a cummy external factor that mucks it up. My wireless IP provider ($30mo 3Gbps) has growing pains and suffers bandwith problems. A Ferrari in a congested highway. Now I must go to cable at 3 times the price. Who could have known?

Jim H
February 22, 2011 4:54 PM

When upgrading RAM in a PC with Windows 7 ALL 32 bit versions of Windows 7 have a 4 GB RAM limit. The 64 bit version of Starter and home Basic is 8 GB. 64 bit Professional/Enterprise/Ultimate can go up to 192 GB of RAM. Of course, that's if your computer can accomodate it!

BTW: the information is from the manual Windows 7 Inside Out

Jim H
February 22, 2011 4:59 PM

Oh- I forgot Home Premium- the 64 bit has a RAM max of 16 GB!

Ron
February 22, 2011 7:38 PM

RAM, more is always better, but don't forget 32bit Windoze is limited to 3gb

Multicore is nice, but again, for "average user" they rarely do enough parallel processing to need more than a dual core machine. OS and Apps are not yet written to take best advantage of multiprocessing. Give it a few more years, 5 or so, before app code is optimized for parallel processing.

HD, I basically agree with your position. One new technology that is just coming into play now is SSD. Price of SSD is starting to reach point where it is reasonable for an OS/Apps only drive.

Jim H
February 23, 2011 9:00 AM

@ Ron. It's 4 GB, not 3 GB for the 32 bit limit. and you are wrong about multi core processing, especially in gaming. Most new games are written for multi core and suffer without it. I don't even think single cores are made any more except in bargain basement machines.

And as to "Windoze"- it's precisely stuff like that and the infamous "M$" that Apple fans delight in tossing about which turns me totally off to anything they make. In my years of PC experience -I've been in it since ASR 33 teletypes, 16 platter 500 MB drives, and 8" floppies- 90% of problems are created, enabled, or fall squarely on the humans operating the system. I have never had 99% of the problems that get parroted about Windows. I've been a biker all my life and I'm now approaching 60. I used to think Harley owners were the most arrogant people on the planet when it came to attitudes about their product of choice and their denigration of everything else. Now I believe it's most Apple people withtoo many linux users a close second. But that's just my opinion...

Snert
February 23, 2011 9:20 AM

Any computer will do what it's designed to do, compute. You, supposedly, get what you pay for. I max out my RAM first and refuse to worry much about dual core, quad core, and, in the future, octo-core CPUs.
I'm not a gamer, a high-tech fanatic or a 'gots-ta-have-the latest-greatest', I'm just an average keyboard Joe.

bill kennedy
February 24, 2011 5:00 PM

I am a very green new user with a lot to learn.
that is why this PGM is so valuable to me.
thank you.

Carlos R Coquet
March 8, 2011 9:47 PM

I have been asked the very same question many times and my answer focuses a lot less on memory and processor: I always say


"It depends on what you want to do and what you want to spend."


For many businesses, most computers will do. Surprisingly, machines for "non business" uses tend to require more "horsepower".


If you came to me and asked me "What car should I buy?", I would say "It depends on your situation. If you are single and have a good job, a Corvette might be a good option. If you have a family of 6, an SUV might be more appropriate."


For example, kids always say they need a machine to do their "homework". But, in reality, they will be mostly playing games and downloading movies and music. So, these "homework" machines will need very fast video cards and tons of storage space. As opposed to most business machines for which video speed will be less important (graphic arts excepted) and storage will probably be on a server.


Many of my clients run only a couple of applications. Nowadays, another aspect is important. Are you ready to relearn this and that? If you don't want to relearn Windows, don't get a brand new machine unless it available with whatever operating system you are already used to. Probably Windows XP.


Children always want "laptops" because they don't care what anything costs and "laptops" are "fashionable". However, notebook computers are not just more expensive to purchase, they are more expensive to own. Period. If you spill something on a desktop computer keyboard, you can replace it for $20 or less and you are back in business. If you do the same to a notebook computer it might damage the entire machine. Additionally, they are much more susceptible to theft and damage, such as if dropped. So, unless money is no object, consider carefully whether or not you or your child really need a portable machine.

YCG96
May 9, 2012 7:38 PM

Hard Drives: It is either capacity or reliability. If you need lots of disk space (presumably 500GB or more), you just need to find the cheapest computer with that much disk space (although it will probably have one like a 5200RPM 1TB hard drive). Otherwise, I recommend a much faster and more reliable hard drive such as a 300GB 10 KRPM or 128GB Solid State Drive.

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