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Computer Purchase Considerations October 11, 2009

Posted by twiznc in Services & Software Recommendations.
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Updated March 27, 2016

We are often asked for recommendations regarding which computer to purchase and what to consider when shopping for a new PC.   This article discusses (in detail) the issues to consider when shopping for a new computer including: PC or Mac?…  Which version of Windows is right for you?…  Which computer brand?…  Desktop, Notebook or Netbook?  We also cover CPUs, RAM Memory, Drives, Monitors and Printers.

PC or MAC– This is really a matter of personal preference.  We will say that PCs with a Windows operating system are far more compatible with more software programs and peripherals than are Macs, with Windows-based PCs making up around 90% of all of the computers owned by individuals and businesses.  Macs, while more expensive than Windows-based PCs and offering far less software and hardware compatibility, are generally regarded as more stable and dependable than a Windows PC and are less vulnerable to viruses and spyware (although they are NOT immune to infection).  Since Windows PCs are so dominant in the installed base of computer owners, the remainder of this discussion will focus on Windows-based PCs.

WHAT ABOUT LINUX? – Windows is by far the dominant PC operating system.  Linux is a free “open source” operating system offered in many different versions by various companies (Redhad, SuSE, Ubuntu, and Linspire are just a few).  Although Linux is being used more and more on servers, and is now being offered on low-cost netbook computers, it is rarely used by “regular users” on desktop or notebook computers.  Linux is often considered to be less “user friendly” than Windows; more difficult to locate, install and update device drivers for printers, cameras, etc.; and has far fewer “native” software programs available (meaning it could be difficult or impossible to run the software you want or need).   Click here for a more complete list of the disadvantages of Linux operating system.  Click here for an indepth comparision of Windows and Linux.  We strongly recommend that the average user stick with their preferred version of Windows rather than considering Linux.

WINDOWS OPERATING SYSTEMS – While Windows XP held on for quite a while, and some Windows 7 and Windows 8 users are putting off upgrading to Windows 10, Windows 10 is now the current version of Windows and most new computers come with Windows 10 pre-installed.  Windows XP is now a discontinued operating system, and running it will subject the user to serious security threats as no new Windows Security Updates are being provided by Microsoft.  Windows 7 came out in 2009 and was (and continues to be) considered a very stable and reliable OS.  Windows 8 was introduced in October 2012 to generally mixed reviews, but subsequent updates and upgrades improved it considerably.  Windows 10 came out at the end of July of 2015 and the general consensus is that it is a very fast, reliable and stable OS.

Microsoft is offering Windows 10 as a completely free (forever) upgrade to Windows 7 SP1 or Windows 8.1 computers through July 29th 2016 (those running Windows 7 without Service Pack 1 (SP1) will need to download and install the free SP1 Windows Update, and Windows 8.0 users will need to apply the free upgrade to Windows 8.1, before being able to upgrade to Windows 10).  The free upgrade will upgrade your existing Windows version (Home, Professional, or Enterprise) to the same version of Windows 10.  Not sure which version of Windows is running on your computer?  Click here to see which version of Windows is running on the computer you are now using.  After July 29th 2016 the upgrade will have a one-time purchase price of $119 for the Home version and $199 for the Professional version (MSRPs).  Not sure if you need Windows 10 Home or Professional version?  Click here to compare Windows 10 versions.  For home users and most small business users, the Home version should work fine.  For those users that need to join a Windows server domain the Professional version will be required.

Upgrading to Windows 10 is relatively easy and is performed as a “Windows Update” to your existing Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 operating system.  The installation process will include a compatibility check to determine if any of your software applications or hardware devices (printers, cameras, etc.) are not compatible with Windows 10.  Click here for Microsoft’s FAQ about upgrading to Windows 10, including compatibility issues.  Note that if you have problems with Windows 10 compatibility with any of your software programs or attached devices you should contact your tech support provider (hopefully Tech Wizards) for assistance in resolving issues or, if the issues cannot be resolved, you have 30 days to easily uninstall the Windows 10 Update and revert to your previous version of Windows without affecting any of your installed programs or data.

Most users who say they don’t like Windows 10 (or Windows 8) actually don’t like the Start button of those versions, which includes “tiles” and can be more difficult to navigate than the Windows 7 Start button.  We recommend that those users download the free (and completely legal, and safe) open-source app called Classic Shell; this will change the appearance and behavior of the Windows 10 (or Windows 8) start button to appear and act very similarly to the Windows 7 Start button.  Click here to learn more about the Classic Shell Start button and/or to download and install it.

64-Bit Versus 32-bit Versions of Windows  – Most new computers being sold today include Windows 10, which is offered only in a 64-bit version.  The main advantage of a 64-bit Windows operating system is that it can accomodate more RAM memory than can a 32-bit version, which is generally limited to 3 to 3.5 GB of RAM memory.  Bear in mind that that if you currently use a 32-bit version of Windows XP or Windows 7 and plan to upgrade your computer and continue to use very old peripherals (printers, scanners, cameras, etc.) with your new computer it may be difficult (or impossible) to find the 64-bit drivers required in order to use the older peripheral with your new 64-bit system.  Although most software programs designed for a 32-bit operating system will work on a 64-bit system, all hardware devices connected to a 64-bit operating system MUST have 64-bit drivers installed for them in order for them to work.  Click here for Microsoft’s FAQ regarding 32-bit versus 64-bit operating systems.

COMPUTER BRANDS – As a computer repair company, we find that all of the name brand computers are built with very similar parts, with similar overall quality, and with very similar warranties and support availability.  So we advise customers to shop around for the best deal they can find on a computer with the features they want, regardless of brand.

DESKTOP, NOTEBOOK, OR NETBOOK?– The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to purchase a desktop PC, a notebook PC or a netbook PC.

  • DESKTOPS – Desktop computers are far more flexible as far as peripherals that can be used with them, and notebook computers are much more limited when it comes to upgrading internal components.  Traditional “tower” style desktop PC cases offer many more upgrade options than the “small footprint” or “mini” cases now also available.
  • NOTEBOOKS – The performance capability of notebooks has improved to the point where mobile computers no longer lag behind their desktop counterparts.  So performance is really no longer a factor in this decision.
    • Notebook PCs remain relatively more expensive than desktop PCs (although their price has been coming down recently).  So you do pay a premium for mobility and small hardware footprint.
    • If you decide to purchase a notebook PC then the next decision to make is size.  Smaller, lighter notebook PCs are more convenient when traveling (although very small notebooks are considerably more expensive), while larger notebook PCs offer bigger screens (especially handy when viewing DVDs or for those who have trouble reading the text on smaller screens).
  • NETBOOKS – While a portable computer with a screen size of more than 12” is often referred to as a “notebook” or “laptop” computer, a lighter, less powerful portable computer with a screen size of less than 12” (usually 9” or 10”) and no internal optical drive is usually referred to as a “netbook” computer.
    • Netbooks are ideal for travel (small and lightweight) and are primarily designed for browsing the Internet (thus their name J) and accessing email, although they can perform other normal tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, etc.
    • Don’t expect a Netbook to have the same speed, power or complete functionality as a Notebook computer.  They will usually have less memory, smaller hard drives, and a less-powerful CPU than a Notebook or desktop computer and so are not well-suited for “heavy duty” software programs like video or image editing, CAD programs, or intensive spreadsheet or database programs.  They also usually do not include a CD/DVD drive (although an external USB CD/DVD drive can be connected to a netbook via a USB connection).
    • Don’t be tempted by the lower price or a Netbook without a Windows operating system installed on it.  While Linux or other operating systems lower the price, they are definitely not “user-friendly” for the average user (only true “geeks” should venture into non-Windows operating systems).

INTERNAL COMPONENT SPECIFICATIONS – This is a little “geeky”, but these are important considerations when shopping for a new computer.

  • CPUs (Central Processing Unit) – The CPU is the heart of a PC and will determine its’ speed and performance capabilities.  There are two major brands of CPUs: Intel and AMD.  For typical home or standard work usage, we recommend an Intel i3 CPU (or better).  The below links include more information, but it is “seriously geeky” and may not mean much to the casual user.
  • RAM System Memory – The total RAM memory of a PC is just as important as the CPU in determining its’ overall speed and performance capability.
    • Windows 10 – For most casual Windows 10 home users or standard business users we recommend a minimum of 4 GB of RAM memory and suggest 8 GB of RAM (the price difference is small, the performance difference if more significant).  Power users or those doing a lot of multi-tasking or image editing, or business users working with large spreadsheets or CAD designs will want 8-16 GB of RAM memory, while “gamers” may want even more.
    • Windows 8 – For most casual home users a Windows 8 computer will run fine with 4 GB of RAM memory.  Power users or those doing a lot of multi-tasking or image editing will want 6-8 GB of RAM memory, while “gamers” may want even more.
    • Windows 7 – For most casual home users a Windows 7 64-bit version will run fine with 4 GB of RAM memory, and a 32-bit Windows 7 operating system will perform adequately with 2 GB of RAM.  Power users or those doing a lot of multi-tasking or image editing will want 4-8 GB of RAM memory (no more than 4 GB for 32-bit operating systems).
    • “DDR3” memory is most common today, although some new computers are utilizing “DDR4” memory modules.  Any computer you purchase should have DDR3 or DDR4 memory (or better).
    • Don’t be concerned if the PC you want to purchase has less RAM memory than you need or want; RAM memory can easily be added after purchase and is fairly inexpensive.  You just need to be sure to purchase the right kind of RAM memory.  Tech Wizards can assist you with a memory upgrade.
  • Hard Drives – It seems hard drives are constantly getting bigger in size and costing less and less per GB of storage space.  Although any drive of 500 GB or more should be large enough for the average home user, if you plan to save a lot of music or photos on your hard drive then you should look for a PC with as large a hard drive as possible (up to 2 TB or more).
    • Most desktop PC hard drives will spin at 7200 RPM; most notebook hard drives will spin at 5400 RPM, although faster-performing 7200 RPM notebook hard drives are also available.  The faster the hard drive spins, the faster it will perform.
    • Some notebook PCs (and even some desktop PCs) are now offering “solid state drives” (SSD), which are similar to a USB “flash drive” in that there are no moving parts and are thus less prone to damage when a notebook PC is dropped or otherwise jolted.  Although SSD drives are faster than more traditional drives, they are not yet available with storage capacities as large as traditional drives and they are significantly higher priced than standard IDE or SATA drives (although as with all things electronic, their price continues to fall over time).
    • “SSD Hybrid” drives combine the speed of an SSD drive with the larger capacity of traditional HHD drives utilizing technology that makes these drives just slightly more expensive than traditional HHD drives.  Especially when upgrading your computer’s hard drive, you should consider an SSD Hybrid drive.
  • CD/DVD Drives – Most PCs purchased today (except a Netbook) will include a DVD Burner (able to write to recordable and rewritable DVDs).  These drives are backwards compatible with CDs and can read all CD and DVD disks. Better DVD burners will include “Dual Layer” recording capability (doubling their storage capacity compared to standard DVDs), and the latest technology (very expensive at the time of this writing) is a new drive format called Blu-ray Disc (BD).  Offering much higher storage capacity and HD video playback, Blu-ray drives are backward compatible with both DVDs and CDs.  As USB thumb drives continue to increase in capacity and usage, some newer computers may not include a CD/DVD drive, although an external CD/DVD drive can be added via a USB connection.

Monitors– If purchasing a monitor at the same time as your new PC, we recommend a screen size of at least 19”.  Prices for flat panel monitors continue to drop, and you should get as large a screen as your budget and workspace allow.  Bear in mind that unlike a television, the larger the monitor screen the more information you can see on screen.  For example, you will need to do less vertical and horizontal scrolling when viewing a web page, Word document, Excel spreadsheet or other large document on a 19” monitor than you would on a 17” monitor.  And a 2” difference in monitor screen size will make a significant difference.  To significantly increase personal productivity, many users are now choosing to use two or more monitors.  All versions of Windows have built-in support for multiple monitors.  All you need is the extra monitor (or monitors) and an extra video card (or cards).  Assuming you don’t need “CAD”-quality or high-end video gaming graphics, video cards are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased anywhere computer parts and accessories are sold (BestBuy, TigerDirect, etc., or online).  Today more and more computers now include a dual-monitor video card.  Click here to view our article that more fully discusses the advantages of multiple monitors and how to set them up.

Printers – There is a very wide array of printers available.  Bear in mind that, generally speaking, the less expensive a printer is to purchase the more expensive it’s ink and the shorter it’s useful life span.  Here we will limit our comments regarding printers to these…

  • Laser printers (both monochrome/black and color) have come down in price and, long term, are a much better value than ink jet printers.  Ink jet printers use expensive ink jet cartridges that must be replaced frequently and can dry out over time if not used regularly.  Laser printers offer a much sharper printout and use toner cartridges that last far longer than an ink jet cartridge, thus offering a much smaller “cost per printed page” and requiring replacement far less frequently.
  • If you decide to purchase a laser printer, but sure you purchase one that requires as few “consumable” part replacements as possible.  We recommend Hewlett Packard (HP) and Xerox laser printers for their durability, simplicity of use, and easily-obtained replacement toner cartridges and drums.

Click here for more Consumer Guides and Recommendations.

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