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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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