Friday, September 19, 2014

What kind of computer should I buy?

Let's face it - there are a gazillion computers out there that you can buy and unless you have a geek on your shopping trip, everything is going to blur together.  Well, today is your lucky day - I'm here to provide you with the necessary geek tips to get through that shopping trip.

First Things First

When buying a computer, the very first thing you need to do, before you even THINK about looking at an ad or website, is figure out what you want to use the computer to do.  This is the prime determinant in what you're going to buy and I'm going to let you in on a little secret - if you're an average buyer, then you can have more options than others, including budget laptops.  Let's look at the types of users:

1) Basic User - This is the person who is going to surf the web, use e-mail, write up shopping lists, listen to music, keep finances, maybe even edit a few photos of the kids...that sort of thing.

2) Business User - This user is all businessy; he/she is going to be doing spreadsheets, basic graphics, running business applications.

3) Gamers - Gamers are in a calls all their own.  They require lots of power, lots of memory, lots of graphics capability.  This is the second most expensive category of user because, let's face it, you get what you pay for.

4) Power Users - The power user does not require as much power as the gamer, but pretty close.  Your typical power user is a higher end techie who has a lot of programs running at the same time, needs multiple monitors, maybe does software development, and so forth.  Computer engineers and software developers fit in this category.

5) Graphics Professional - This is the most expensive category of them all.  Graphics professionals demand even more out of their systems than the gamers.  These are the people who edit movies, design animation sequences, and use computer aided design (CAD) applications.  Gamers would love to have one of these systems but usually can't come close to affording them.

The vast majority of folks are either basic users or business users and these two categories are actually very close to each other.  Your basic user can get by with a laptop that has 4-8 gigabytes of memory, 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte of storage, and an i3 or greater processor.  The business user will  want to demand at least 8-12 gigs of memory, a terabyte of storage, and an i5 processor.  The optimal set up is one notch up for each.  If you're getting Windows 8, get a laptop with a touch screen as well; you can run Windows 8 without one, but the new graphical user interface (GUI) is designed for touch so why not grab the best of both worlds?

Desktop, Laptop, MacOS, or Windows?

The next question is desktop or laptop?  If it's just for you, consider going with a laptop.  It's the call of the 21st century - we are a mobile people.  Nothing beats having the ability to pack up and go.  That's something you can do when you're a laptop user.  If you're buying for the family, then the all-in-one is a great solution; all of the modern operating systems (Mac OS, Windows, Linux, etc) allow for multiple users on a single PC and it's best to keep your kids in the family room under your watchful eye.

That brings up another question - Mac or Windows?  (I'll throw you another wrench in a bit when I talk about tablets.)  If you're not tight on funds, a Mac may be the best choice.  Graphics professionals will nearly always use Apple's products, especially the new Mac Pro.  Basic users and business need to look at how much you can spend and how you want to link your equipment.  Windows is the standard for most users, but Apple has done some pretty neat things with their product line that merits a look.  Higher cost; yes.  Ease of use and interoperability; absolutely!

Although I started off with DOS (command line) and moved into Windows, I'm an Apple guy now.  (I actually started off on the old Apple II series back in the early 80s.)  I have an iMac desktop, a MacBook Pro laptop, iPhone 6 Plus (on preorder!), and an iPad.  I've used every OS platform on the market at some point but I've settled into the Apple ecosystem for one big reason --> interoperability.  Everything I do with my technology is linked via Apple's equipment and operating systems.  Whether it's making a phone call, e-mail, documents, messaging, or even shopping lists, I have the lot of it running through my Apple devices and can get to it from any one of them.  Apple's equipment is also high quality; it costs a little more but it comes with high value.  Even more important to me - Apple equipment just plain works.

For those of you consider other operating systems like the many flavors of Linux, ChromeOS, or others...these are really more for specialty types.  If you're reading this article for advice on buying a computer, then stick to Windows or MacOS.

Price Points

Moving back to the world of Windows and the many, many choices available.  Let's break these out by their price points.

The $250-$300 laptop is a true budget unit suitable only for the most basic of users.  This is typically an i3 or Celeron processor; has 4 gigabytes of memory; usually a 15.6", non-touch display; and a 500 gigabyte drive.  These are suitable for surfing the web, e-mail, basic word processing, and similar activities.  They'll be a bit slow and quickly outgrown by anyone but the simplest of users.  This is also where you'll find things like the "Chromebook".  Chromebooks are ok for a select group of users but for most users, you'll want to avoid these as they're just too restricted.

The $350-$500 laptop opens up the spread significantly.  These laptops typically sport an i3 or i5 processor or equivalent, 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte of storage, maybe a touch screen, 64 bit processor, and 4-8 gigabytes of memory.  This is where the typical, basic user will find a decent system but these laptops are still not quite the right choice for business users.

From about $600 up to $1000, you'll find yourself in a much better piece of equipment.  Although the specs will vary widely, this is where most users should really try to purchase their equipment, with business users typically looking closer to the $900-$1000 range.  These laptops will come with i5 or even i7 processors (or equivalent), 8 or more gigs of memory, a terabyte of storage, touch screens, and even added ports.  Basic users will be satisfied with these systems and even some power users, depending on what they need the PC to do.

As with all things, the amount you spend will typically reflect the quality of the item you purchase.

What About the Specs?

This is where we get down to the nitty gritty; the geek speak.  Once you've decided what kind of user you are and how much you can put down on your new laptop, the next decision centers on the power.

Processor - The processor is the brain of the computer and the more power you have here, the better the computer.  There are two dominant manufacturers of processors in the market today - Intel and AMD.  In consumer laptops, AMD has pulled a bit ahead of Intel at the moment, but either will work fine for most users.

Intel has three basic processors on the market today:

  • Celeron and i3 - These are slow, and the bottom of the barrel.
  • i5 - This is a dual core processor with decent speed and capabling of handling most users' needs.
  • i7 - This is the quad core processor and offers the best bang for the buck.

AMD offers similar processors with dual (E1) and quad core (E2) offerings.  They also have the A series of processors that offer multiple CPU and GPU cores - A6 (3/2), A8 (4/4) and the A10 (4/6).

The speed of the processor has become less of an issue today as well.  Most systems run at 2.5GHz or greater and so long as you stay in that general realm, you'll be fine both as a basic user and as a business user.

The further up the ladder you go on your processor, the better.  I'm a big fan of the i7 CPU, but an i5 will work ok for most folks.

(BTW - the "core" responds to how many processing units are on the chip.  In the old days it was just the one.  Modern computers have multiple processing units on a single chip courtesy of miniaturization.  In fact, we now have processors with both computing and graphics cores on the same chip!)

Memory - Memory stores the data the computer crunches.  The more memory you have, the faster the computer crunches that data.  If you have less memory, then the system swaps it out to the hard drive and that means slower operations.  The absolute minimum memory for a truly basic user is 4 gigabytes; you should shoot for 8-12 gigabytes though.

Display - The size of the display is a personal preference.  Laptops come in 11", 13", 14", 15.6", and 17" varieties (give or take a few tenths of an inch along the way).  I've always bought 17" displays because I like having the full keyboard and number pad, as well as the extra real-estate the 17" screen offers.  That said, my MacBook Pro is a 15.6" screen and it works just fine.  If I need more space, I simply plug a monitor into the laptop and use multiple displays at the same time.  (This is a feature supported by nearly every laptop on the market today.)

Displays also can be touch or non-touch and this is a big deal if you're running Windows 8.  Windows 8 was designed to be used with a touch screen and although the desktop is still there, it's nice to get the best of both worlds.

The quality of the image on the display is no longer such a selling point.  Most displays are perfectly adequate to task for both basic and business users.

Storage - You can never have too much storage BUT external storage is king; the storage on your system is really more about what you need to take with you when you're on the go.  500 gigabytes is enough for the average user and a terabyte certainly offers the growing room for most users, basic or business.

Wireless/WiFi - Wireless standards start off with 802.11 and end with a letter b, g, n, or ac.  There is usually some measure of backward compatibility as well.  If you can find one, a computer that supports 802.11ac is the latest and greatest, plus it will be backwards compatible with b/g/n.  In most cases, though, you'll find just b/g/n support.  Don't buy anything that doesn't support at least b/g/n.

The other part of this equation is the frequency that is supported.  2GHz and 5GHz are the way these are usually labeled.  Get a computer that supports both and avoid computers that only support 2GHz. Look for this when you buy - I found a great buy on a quad core laptop that had all the basic specs I needed for my home office Windows system and didn't even notice that it had a 2GHz only chipset.

Ports & Accessories - This is one area where manufacturers can really shine.  Every computer you buy is going to come with some kind of video and audio output, and probably two or more USB ports.  However, these are not all created equal!  A standard VGA port is nice to hook up another monitor, but a mini-displayport is better and even better than that is HDMI.  USB3.0 is much faster than USB2.0 (with appropriate devices, of course) and the USB3.0 port supports earlier standards so it offers the best all around option.  Firewire is great, SATA is nice but you're unlikely to use it.  Would you believe that most laptops no longer include a CD/DVD drive at all?  You'll want to think about that before you buy, but if you get one without, you can always get a drive that plugs into your USB port for about $20.

What about the brand?

Would you believe this really doesn't matter so long as you stick to the big companies?  Toshiba makes great budget laptops; HP and Dell have been the choice of business for many years; Samsung makes a great laptop as well.  On the desktop front, HP has been putting some very nice all-in-one units out for a while now and Dell, Lenovo, and Asus have all hit the market with good equipment too.  Of course, as I mentioned earlier, if you can afford it, you just can't go wrong with Apple.

Brand loyalty is a big deal for a lot of folks but I'm just not among them.  I've found that most manufacturers offer similar quality and it's really the hard core specs that you need to consider.

Bottom Line?

The bottom line is that you want to get as much power as you can for as much as you can afford to spend.  Here are the minimums I recommend:

Basic User - i5/A8 processor; 8 gigabytes of memory; 500 gigabytes to 1 terabyte storage; 64 bit Windows 8; 15.6" or 17", touch screen display; USB3.0 ports; 802.11 b/g/n with 2 and 5 GHZ support; any brand.  Average price: $600.

Business User - i7/A8 process; 12 gigabytes of memory; 1 terabyte storage; 64 bit Windows 8; 15.6" or 17" display; USB3.0 ports; 802.11 b/g/n with 2 and 5 GHZ support; Dell with various additional coverage (accidental damage, 3 year warranty, etc).  Average price: $1200.  (Note the business cost is a bit higher because of the extra protection/warranty that you buy.)

As I write this article, we're heading into the holiday season and there will be MANY sales on computers.  It's the best time to get a decent deal, aside from watching the ads every week during the rest of the year, searching for that one great buy.  Black Friday will have a bunch of laptop mark downs and store shelves will be overflowing with options.  It's a golden opportunity to take your new found knowledge on a shopping trip!

What else?

There are lots of "extras" you'll want to buy for your computer.  A wireless keyboard and mouse or trackball (Logitech; $50-$75), maybe a second display (go for as big a screen as you can get; runs about $125), an external CD/DVD drive ($20)....  These are all semi-essentials and really, choosing them is nowhere near as difficult as buying the computer itself.

For you laptop users, make sure you get a good bag to carry your laptop around.  I'm particularly partial to Swiss brand backpacks; they protect the equipment well, have ample storage for accessories, and a backpack allows you to distribute the weight across your back as opposed to carrying it on one side in a briefcase style holder.

You should also consider purchasing an external storage device or two.  For backing up your data, a USB hard drive like those offered by Western Digital (WD) and SeaGate are inexpensive choices ranging from $50-$150.  A 2 terabyte drive will be enough for most users.  The key thing here - back your data up and do so often.  If your external hard drive crashes, you'll be happy you have that external hard drive sitting there with a copy of everything.  You'll get great use from a USB "thumb drive" or "stick" as well.  These are even less expensive, running $10-$100 and storing anywhere from 8 gigabytes to 128 gigabytes of data.  USB thumb drives are great for carrying just about any data between systems, especially for business users.  They can be lost, though, so consider their use carefully.

While we're on the "what else" topic, everyone who uses a computer needs a basic office suite that includes a spreadsheet and word processing program.  The best known of these program suites is, of course, Microsoft Office but it's kinda pricey, even if you go with their Office 365 program.  Never fear, there are two free suites that are just as good and even support the Microsoft file formats for interoperability.  They are WPS Office and LibreOffice.  At the moment, WPS Office has pulled out in front and offers the best collection of features in a free office suite.  Before you cough up the cash for Microsoft's products, give these a test spin; you may never turn back.

What about a Tablet?

I'll close this article out with a brief touch on the tablet.  Tablets are all the craze and with good reason; they take portable computing to all new levels.  They're small, light, and fairly powerful.  Many of us have replaced our daily technology usage with a tablet, especially for surfing the 'net and answering e-mail.  However, they're just not quite yet ready to completely replace the computer for most users.  They're really more of a companion.  When you need to edit pictures, write a paper, work on a spreadsheet, or any of a myriad of other tasks that require the use of a keyboard and pointing device, tablets just don't quite cut it.  I'm pretty fast on the tablet; but I type WAY faster on a regular keyboard.  Every tool has its purpose and even though there are now tablets with USB ports, keyboard cases, and even the ability to wirelessly connect to a keyboard/mouse, they just don't have quite the same power as a full blown computer.

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