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

A major purchase like a computer for a loved one can be very difficult. I'll review a few areas to consider when purchasing a computer as a gift.

What computer should I give?

In a recent article, What computer should I get?, I discussed the criteria I used as I decided what computer to purchase for myself and what criteria you might consider for yourself.

But what it it's not for you? What if you're looking for a computer as a gift?

Things get more difficult, that's what.

Buying a computer for someone else is difficult. In a nutshell, you're trying to gauge both their ability and their needs. And, for some of you, your own availability to help.

Ability means simply: just how technically proficient is your intended recipient? If they're a computer geek, well, they'll appreciate the thought but they'd probably rather select their own computer, thank you. If they're moderately proficient with computers, able to install and diagnose software and hardware for example, then selections from online or discount computer retailer might be appropriate. However if their technical expertise is limited and you're not available to take up the slack, then it may make more sense to purchase a computer from a local retailer with local support.

Need is really more about what you expect they'll use the computer for and how they'll use it. Computers have so many options and configurations, it's important to get something that your recipient will actually use and appreciate.

Here are some common criteria to look at:

Do they already have a computer? And are they happy with it?

If they have a computer already, make sure that what you get is compatible. This is most important in the Mac versus PC decision. The best way to offend many Macintosh users is to try to give them a PC, and vice versa. The same thing is true with many features - for example if their computer is networked, then you'll want to make sure that your gift can be compatibly networked as well.

Do they have some external requirements?

By this, I mean does their school or their work require a certain type of computer or certain types of functionality in order for the computer to be useful? Once again networking often falls into this category, but depending on the situation this could also include operating system version, installed applications, or perhaps the ability to support a USB or Firewire accessory.

Is portability a concern?

Or put another way: do they need a desktop or a laptop? Most students and many business people these days will appreciate a laptop that they can take with them, but it'll be more costly and perhaps less powerful. For others, a desktop will be more appropriate because of the things they'll want to do with it.

How will they use it?

If your recipient is a new computer user or is just going to use their computer for surfing the web and reading email, then a low-end computer can do very well. In fact, for new users I'd avoid spending a lot of money - basic functions such letter writing, email, and the web are easily handled by machines costing well under $1,000 these days. If their interest never increases beyond that kind of use, then they'll be happy for quite some time. On the other hand if they suddenly start to get interested and think of all sorts of other things to do with their computer, they may outgrow the machine. However at that point their needs will allow them (or you, if you're still in a giving mood) to determine what the appropriate next steps might be: upgrades or replacements.

I want to put in a special caution here for gamers. If you're considering purchasing a computer for someone who'll use the computer for playing high-end computer games similar to those found on dedicated game consoles, you'll want to put extra thought - and money - into three areas: processor speed, computer memory, and perhaps most of all, a high-end video card. Computer games often push the envelope with respect to these items, so a little research might well be in order.

Which components can be replaced?

A computer system is actually a composite of several components. If you purchase a laptop it's an all-in-one affair. But for desktop systems, you're typically also purchasing a monitor and speakers, the system will have some of its functionality provided by replaceable expansion cards, and it will of course come with a keyboard and mouse. As an example, high quality monitor (say an LCD flat screen) can be kept and used with any new system that your recipient might upgrade to in the future. That might be an investment they'll appreciate now. On the other hand, if you're not sure about their future computer use, it might make more sense to go the inexpensive route, and then upgrade the monitor or other components at some later date when the computer's usefulness has been proven.

What else are you signing them up for?

This is easily overlooked, but you could put your recipient into a position of having to shell out money on a regular basis. It's one thing to have a computer, but how will they connect to the internet? This might not be an issue ... perhaps they already have connectivity at home, at school or through work. But if not, someone will need to take some extra steps to establish, and pay for, that connectivity and their email account.

Finally, for actual specific computer characteristics, I'll recommend What computer should I get? where I walk through the decision process for myself. Reviewing that process with an eye to your potential recipient will help define the specific characteristics of your planned gift.

I expect that I may have raised more questions than I've answered, but ultimately, that's a good thing. There's no such thing as "a computer" - it's a selection to be made out of literally thousands of choices. The better you can understand the needs and the implications, the better your gift will be received, the greater a chance it has of actually being used, and the longer it will last.

And as I said ... if your recipient's been thinking about it already, it might often be wisest to let them choose. In fact, if you're uncertain, I'd even recommend it.

Article C2233 - November 26, 2004 « »

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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.

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