So you want to buy a computer? AWESOME!
Last update 8/2/2012
So you’re going to get a new computer, eh? Awesome! Buying new stuff is a lot of fun. The idea behind this post is to hopefully give you a good idea of what you should get, what certain terms mean, and when to know you’re getting snowed by a salesman.
If you’ve ever gone into a store looking for a computer and had a salesman go 'But it’s got 8 GIG! This is the one you need’ and not had any idea what he is talking about – then this thread is for you.Patience is a Virtue
The biggest mistake I see people make on a regular basis is deciding today that they need a (new) computer, then going out this weekend and buying one. As a consumer the most valuable tool you can have is time and patience – this applies to pretty much any product you are buying: cars, houses, computers, blenders, whatever you want. Being able to say 'eh, I’ll wait for a better deal’ is the ultimate upper hand when working with a salesman or vendor.
To give you a good idea, I really needed a good laptop for my wife. I waited 6 months before I found what I wanted. I found it at 12:30 AM randomly when my boss sent me a link when he was up all night doing some maintenance and was wasting time waiting on something. It was a $1500 laptop on sale for just about $700. I added a case for 30$, so for $730 I got a $1500 laptop with a case. That’s about the best deal I’ve ever gotten on a new product (read: not refurbished/used). It also took me 6 months to find it. Those deals exist; it’s a matter of waiting.
Most of my friends/relatives don’t listen to me and don’t get a good deal. How good of a deal you get is going depend on how long you’re willing to wait and how often/much you’re willing to search and price compare.What do you need it to do?
This is a part where a lot of people stumble. They’re quick to ask me what computer they should get, and when I ask this question they look at me puzzled as if to ask, “You mean there isn’t just one computer that is the ultimate computer to buy at any given time?”
No, there is not just one. The best computer for you to buy is the one that does what you need it to do without being overpriced. That’s my mentality towards most products. You not need a $2500 mac book pro loaded up with video editing software if you’re a 60 year old grandma who just wants to check email and search for coupons, therefore that’s not the best computer for you to get.
Think about what you want it to do, and then use some logic to determine what you’ll need. Are you going to be doing a lot of video work, or scientific work that would benefit from using a GPU to crunch numbers? Then you probably want a nVIDIA quadro card on the computer. If you’re going to be playing video games then you probably want a nVIDIA GeForce. If all of that sounds crazy intense to you then you probably don’t need to pay for any graphics card
We’ll get into the specifics later in the post, but keep that going in the back of your mind while we continue on. Apple vs Microsoft vs Linux distros
Let’s knock the easy one out of the way first – linux distros. If you’re looking at buying a computer with a linux distro on it then the only part of this thread that might even be helpful is the hardware vendors and specs section; although I suspect you know as much as I do in both areas.
Apple vs Microsoft – oh yes, the ultimate computer debate. I’m going to try my hardest to give you the most objective advice here.
First off – anyone who says one is better than the other is someone you’re best off not paying attention to. There are vicious zealots on both sides of the aisle. Be wary of them, their stupid is bound to rub off on you if you get into a conversation with them about their favorite product. I’m serious. I’ve watched people completely contradict themselves 6 months down the road because they’re just blind zealots who changed sides.
Let’s talk about apple first since they’re probably the more interesting one to discuss.Apple
Apple is many things – one thing they are not is a company that makes crappy stuff. Sure, they miss the mark sometimes, but by and large they make quality products. There used to be an issue with things not working on apple – hence it being a hard platform to justify purchasing; this is no longer the case. You can get pretty much everything on apple that you’ll need. It is always a good idea to double check with any specific software you need to use to see if it works on apple before making the switch.
Some things to note about Apple:
First off, their products are overpriced. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, it means you’re paying a premium to own hardware that apple put together for you. You can buy the exact same hardware for cheaper from any other vendor – but you wont be able to get Apple’s OSX operating system on there (if you’re capable of that then PM a guide all the ones I’ve tried failed miserably :\ ) Just don’t kid yourself – you’re going to pay more for the same hardware, and you’re going to pay for service pack updates (although there are rumors that Microsoft is moving to a similar model… we’ll see).
Second off, Apple products have a workflow. Meaning to accomplish a task, you need to do it the way Apple designed it to be done. This is the opposite of pretty much every other Operating System out there – Apple’s way is the only way. There are good things about this – it has less chance to break since it’s designed to be done one way, also you’re likely to find good help on it since there isn’t any other way to do it. There are also bad things about this – if Apple picked a back-ass-wards way of doing it then guess what, you’re going to have to do it the back-ass-wards way
. As a Computer Science major who works in as a Sys Admin, I find most of the ways Apple picked to do things back-ass-wards
But you may not.
This is the part that I hate about Apple – they lock you into their workflow. This is where people start going 'oh but it’s so intuitive’ but you really have to ask yourself – Do you think it is intuitive because they found an intuitive way, or do you think it is intuitive because they told you it was intuitive and gave you no other way?
Think about that for a few minutes…
Third, their products work together really well. You’re likely to have an easier time with a mac book pro, iphone 4s, apple airport router, apple tv, I’m sure they make a printer too, ipad, and whatever else and hooking them all up together. This shouldn’t surprise you – they’re designed by the same company, they should work together… But you’re going to pay a premium on every single item
You can easily wind up doubling or tripling the cost of your setup because you went with the most expensive item at every step by buying Apple.
Fourth – Apple build their accessories to be proprietary. You cannot just go to the store and buy an adapter – you’ll have to buy an Apple adapter. And yes, it’s going to cost you much more than a regular adapter, but the regular ones wont fit :/.
Fifth, and finally – there’s a reason their zealot users thump their chests with slogans like 'It Just Works’. Apple has a reputation (which, in my opinion, is not deserved) of 'working better’ or 'more often’ or 'without errors’ than their PC counterparts. But there’s a little secrete as to why this is, and it actually paints Apple kind of crappy if you really understand it. Apple has a lock on the hardware setups for all of their devices – your choices are very limited (as in almost non-existent) when purchasing their products. Don’t want an Intel i series processor in your new computer? Then Apple is out of the question because they don’t make a computer without that processor. I can go on and on with the hardware… The bottom line is this – Apple designs their operating system to work with a very, very small subset of hardware pieces compared to what is out there. Therefore they have fewer problems – they’re designed specifically to run on these hardware combinations.
Microsoft, conversely, runs on (pretty much) infinitely many combinations of hardware pieces – the number of potential conflicts and problems is compounded by this. This is why Microsoft OS’s have a bit of a more difficult time than Apple (more on this later), but at the end of the day Apple devices have problems too… Don’t be sold by the idea that Apple products are perfect. They’re not. And every time you start ranting about them like a zealot (on either side) there’s a good chance someone in the room, who knows more than you about computers, is laughing at you. Whether that matters to you or not is up to you…Microsoft
Microsoft is actually getting ready to release windows 8. It is windows 7 with a bunch of tablet features added to it. If you aren’t buying a tablet there’s not much of a reason to wait – and there’s not much a reason to upgrade. I will because I get it for free due to my job, but I wouldn’t pay to upgrade – at least not yet. That said if your compute comes with Windows 8 there’s no reason to panic or downgrade. Just get used to the differences, you’ll be happy you did (I think the new start menu is kind of neat). Windows 8 will also allow you to run apps (like your phone) and if you have a windows phone you can sync those apps which is neat.
Microsoft has done a lot to improve its user interface thanks to Apple and its success in the consumer market. I don’t really have much to say about Microsoft, I imagine most of you are familiar with it. Windows 7 is pretty solid, so don’t be afraid of it.
There was a big debacle, called Windows Vista. The problem had two causes. The first being that Microsoft released an OS that wasn’t quite ready – get used to it, it seems to be the model for software development these days
. Second, the hardware vendors bullied Microsoft (irony++) into lowering the hardware requirements 'certifying’ machines to be 'vista capable’ even though they shouldn’t have been. The two combined to a failed operating system. Windows 7 is nothing like Windows Vista because both issues were addressed. I’m hoping Microsoft has learned their lesson and neither ever happens again.Conclusion:
Get the OS that does what you want it to do without breaking the bank. I can build a windows laptop that will run circles around the top of the line mac book pro, for significantly less cost. I’ll repeat: buy what makes the most sense for you without breaking the bank. Stay away from the zealots; they are idiots, and you don’t want to associate with idiots, right?
Go to the Apple store and play with a mac. They want you to, thats how they sell them! Don't be afraid to spend an hour or two there. Check it out before you decide you do/don't want one. Make sure it will do what you want. Make sure the price makes sense for you.
The rest of this is PC/Microsoft oriented because… well… you don’t really have many options if you go with Apple.PC Vendors
So you have a choice – go with a premade computer or build one yourself. When it comes to laptops the later isn’t really an option… but for desktops it is. It used to be true that you’ll get much more for less by buying the pieces and building it yourself – this is no longer the case. Save yourself the time and a possible headache and get one that’s already built, and customize the options you want. You’ll also avoid issues of mismatching hardware and creating problems.
There is an exception to the above paragraph – if you’re trying to build a ridiculously decked out desktop for some hard core stuff then you’re going to be much better off building it yourself. They put a premium on those products, much like Apple products, and you can avoid that premium if you build it yourself. Just make sure
all the hardware you buy is compatible; not just plug wise, but spec wise. If you buy the best processor and a motherboard with an 800 MHz FSB you’re going to be sorely disappointed (and stupid). (if you don’t know what 800 MHz FSB means then have someone else who does spec out your computer
There are tiers in the vendors. The tiers are broken apart based on quality, reliability, and customer support. Before we get into the specifics let’s be clear on one thing – most people talk about one being better than the other. Outside of the tiers, they’re all equal. People are basing this stuff on their experiences. I’m an HP person – I despise Dell and have had nothing but problems with them (from consumer to business to server grade, all the way down the line), but I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with HP. And for every person like me you can find one that can say the opposite – they love dell and despise HP. It’s all about experiences.
Each Vendor then has tiers of products – consumer and business line. The business line is typically more expensive (not by much, but a little) and (shocker) typically more reliable. The other part is most of them separate their Business Line vs Consumer Line support teams…. The business line is always better than the consumer line. That extra 100/200/300 dollars means a bit better quality hardware and a bit more intelligent person on the other end of the phone when you call with a problem – whether it’s worth it to you is your decision. I don’t buy consumer end products though; take it for what it’s worth.
So, let’s get to my subjective listing of vendors.
Tier 1: Dell, HP, Sony, and Lenovo.
Dell and HP are interchangeable, but if you want my opinion HP is better (see above, lol). Sony makes nice stuff, but they come with a premium that is hard to justify. Sony makes an awesome 13 and 14 inch laptop which is perfect for air plane travel, you may want to check those out if that is a concern for you. They used to be the only ones who made those.
Lenovo is only in this category because their PC line is the one they bought from IBM – The thinkpad line – and that line is absolutely amazingly built. Their prices are (for the most part) on the Tier2 level, which is kind of nice.
Tier 2: Acer, Asus, Toshiba, Gateway, MSI, and pretty much everyone else.
That’s not to suggest you cannot get a good Tier2 product – you can! You just need to be aware of what you’re getting – a product line that hasn’t been around very long, at least not long enough to earn a reputation that’s deserving of being in the tier 1 and commanding the tier 1 prices. Just breaking it down for you, it works the same way with cars Hardware Vendors
There used to be a very competitive market in the hardware field. It was Intel vs AMD for processors, and ATI vs nVIDIA for graphics cards.
To be clear – I’ve gone back and forth over the last decade and a half, as have the companies. They used to be so competitive that the 'best’ one to buy switched ever 6-10 months. Unfortunately that has changed
AMD bought ATI and that seems to have been the start of AMD’s downward slide. AMD processors are now garbage, and their bulldozer architecture that was supposed to put them back out in front of Intel for the first time in like 5 years was a complete and utter failure - http://arstechnica.com/business/201...benchmarks-are-here-and-theyre-a-catastrophe/
They’ve since announced they’re backing off the desktop/server processor line and focusing on mobile/ARM processors. So… be wary of any laptop/desktop with an AMD processor.
ATI has followed a similar path since being acquired by AMD (shocker, eh?). Their drivers are getting worse and worse, and the quality of their cards are following suite. Be wary of computers with AMD graphics cards.
Intel processors (the I series) are the best bet. I3’s are hard to recommend – they’re good on battery life for laptops, but they’re pretty crappy. If battery life is a concern get an i5 – I have an elite book with an i5 and get 3 hours with a standard battery. If battery life isn’t a problem, and raw horsepower is, go with the i7.
I definitely recommend nVidia cards for anyone who needs a graphics card – GeForce for video games and other consumer-oriented stuff, and quadro’s for workstations (3D artists, video editors, game designers, and scientists who need the GPU computation).
When it comes to any other piece of hardware it starts getting convoluted. There are a lot of manufacturers all down the line. Look up individual reviews where you can. Crucial is the memory manufacturer I recommend the most if you’re looking for memory.Specs to pay attention to
The Gigs! It has to have lots of gigs!
The specs you should currently look at:
Processor – this is the most important. See above about intel – get an i5 or i7 or you’re going to be disappointed. This is where computations are done – it is important. The GHz rating is how many operations per second the processor can do. Hertz, in general, means 'per second. So 1 GHz is 1 billion operations per sec (this isn't exact, but it's close enough for most.) So the higher the GHz the more 'powerful' it can be. Most come between 2.2-2.8. At this point I doubt the typical consumer is going to notice much of a difference.
Memory – Also called RAM (random access memory). This is where the computer temporarily loads programs/data so that it can manipulate it. The hard drive is for permanent, long term storage – memory/RAM is for manipulation and use. The more memory you have the more programs/data you can load into it. Memory is quick and important. But… memory is cheap and easy to upgrade. Don’t be sold on paying much more just because it has 8 Gigabytes instead of 6. 4 is the minimum, but for 40-80$ you can double it. Find out how much memory the computer will physically hold, and what the max is, and find out how much to upgrade it.
If you need quality memory then you need to look at the 'timings' of the ram. Most people aren't going to be concerned with this, but those who want to learn - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memory_timings
Hard drive – the size of hard drives today are ridiculous. A 750 gigabyte hard drive is not much more useful than a 500 gigabyte one – few people ever use that much space. What’s more important is how fast the drive spins – given in RPM (revolutions per minute). The faster it spins the quicker your computer can retrieve data from it or write data to it. 5400 is the standard for a laptop hard drive, 7200 is pretty nice. Solid state is the best you can get (NO MOVING PARTS!) , but they’re much more expensive and they can’t hold nearly as much data. What makes the most sense depends on what you use – if you’re going to store 10 years of videoing your child every day you’ll probably want a bigger hard drive.
Side note – hard drives fail all the time for one simple reason. They’re the only remaining computer part that has mechanical (read: moving) parts. If anything happens, they become toast. A piece of dust can destroy a hard drive if it gets in there. Back your data up – you never know when something is going to break inside the drive.
Video cards are mentioned above.
FSB – Front Side Bus. It’s the pathway between parts on your computer. The faster the front side bus, the more data that can move at any given time between parts. If you buy a bad ass processor, lots of memory, and a top notch graphics card, but skimp out on the motherboard and get one with a low front side bus, then all that data your awesome processor is crunching will take forever to reach the memory to be stored
In short, this is the spec most people have no idea about and get burned on.
You cannot upgrade this after the fact. You must pay attention to this when you purchase your computer.
Read more here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Front_side_bus
Cache – Hardware cache, not software cache. On the specs sheet it’ll be listed as like L2 (level 2) cache. This is the ultra-fast memory location where the computer stores data from memory so that it can be accessed quicker. The bigger this is, the faster your computer will be. This is another area where people get burned. You want the cache system on the motherboard to be as large as they possibly can.
You cannot upgrade this after the fact, you must pay attention to this when you purchase your computer.
Read more here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L2_Cache
There are more – but if you master knowing what you’re looking for in these areas then you’ll buy a computer that you’ll be happy with for a long time.Where to buy
I recommend looking for deals at:
They update it daily. This is where I got my wife’s laptop from. Sometimes the deals suck, but if you watch it for a few weeks you’re bound to find something that meets your needs for a solid price.
I’ve been using this site for the last 12 years or so… They used to be awesome, but as of lately I’ve been having problems with them. I’m not ready to not recommend them or not use them, but I’m being pushed away… I’ll update if I decide they suck.
Those two sites aside, you’re best off just searching through bing or google shopping:
You’ll need to know what you’re looking for. Use newegg, or the vendors site (HP, Dell, Sony, etc), to get a model number. Then throw it in google/bing shopping and find the best deal. Seems to be the best way to do it these days. Be careful of who you’re buying from, but you should be ok.