Buying a new computer
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: July 27, 2022.
Buying yourself a new computer can be
a daunting prospect. There are literally hundreds of different models
to choose from and, what's worse, they all look exactly the
same! Compare the specifications and you'll find that looks aren't the
only thing they have in common: unless you know your Wi-Fi from your
Bluetooth and your
Linux from your Windows, you'll be hard-pressed
to tell one machine from another. It's hardly surprising that most
computer buyers make a few feeble attempts to compare a handful of
likely contenders and then just pick something more or less at random
based on whichever brand sounds most familiar. But isn't there a more
scientific approach to parting with your hard-earned cash? The best
thing you can do is make a list of all the features that really matter
to you, make a shortlist of half a dozen different machines, and then
see which machine ticks the most boxes. But whether you go for the
scientific approach or just trust your gut, here are some things to
think about before you fill your shopping cart and click "checkout."
Photo: How much computer can you get for your money? Desktop or laptop? Laptops are more convenient than
desktops if you don't have a lot of room, and use less energy, but they're easier to damage,
harder to upgrade, and cost more to repair.
What will you use it for?
This is absolutely the most important question when it comes to
buying a new computer. Most home users do little more than browse the
Web, send emails, word-process the occasional letter, download MP3 music tracks, and store and
process photographs from a digital camera.
For basic Internet (email and
Web) work and word processing, all you
need is a basic computer—you don't need anything fancy and you
certainly don't need to worry about getting the very latest model.
Processor speeds and drive sizes are
virtually irrelevant if you'll do nothing but Web browsing and sending
emails; even a 10-year-old secondhand laptop may be good enough
(though it might struggle to run the latest version of Windows).
If you'll be using your computer to manage music tracks on an iPod
(or other MP3 player), the most important thing you need is plenty of
disk space—but virtually any new computer will have more than
you could possibly need. Once, we would have talked about making sure
you had a big enough "hard drive,"
but many computers now use SSDs (solid-state drives, essentially flash memory chips)
instead of old-style magnetic disks.
(As a general rule of thumb, I suggest multiply
your iPod's storage capacity by 2–3 and aim for a
drive that size to ensure you have plenty of room for other things.)
When it comes to storing videos and digital
photographs, storage is rather more of an issue. But even if you buy a
computer with a hard disk that turns out to be too small, you can
easily add an external drive at relatively low cost to overcome the
problem. Alternatively, you can now buy USB flash memory sticks
that have as much memory as an average PC had just a few years ago—and they
make great portable backups. And you can always use
cloud storage (storing your
stuff on a third-party service like Google Drive, Amazon Drive, Dropbox, or similar) instead of keeping your files locally.
In short, as far as most home users are concerned, virtually any new
off-the-shelf computer will be able to handle what you want to do. The
only exception is people who like to play games (either alone or
online). If you plan to do a lot of that, you'll need a computer with a
fast processor—and the processor speed will probably override all other
considerations. If you're a games player, always buy the fastest
machine (the one with the highest processor speed) you can afford.
Laptop, desktop... phone or tablet?
Photo: Do you even need a computer anymore? Most modern websites—including this one—are specifically designed to show optimized mobile versions on smartphones, like this large-screen, high-definition Android "phablet" (a cross between a phone and a tablet).
Laptop computers have become ubiquitous since the mid-1990s.
They're brilliant for moving around the house from room to room
(sending emails in bed, working in the garden, or wherever you happen
to be), especially now wireless Internet access means you can be online
at all times without worrying about cables. But there are two key
things to remember before you dismiss a desktop out of hand:
- Laptops are guaranteed to make themselves obsolete every three or four years.
Unlike desktop computers, you can't easily upgrade components when you
outgrow them or replace them when they fail.
You can add more memory easily enough
(though there's usually a limit to how much), but you can't add a
bigger screen or a new hard drive without quite a lot of hassle.
- Laptops are much more flimsy (less robust) than desktop machines—ironic, given
how they have to put up with more abuse—and expensive to get repaired.
In particular, the keyboards on
laptop computers are not designed for industrial-strength daily use.
You'll soon wear out a laptop's keyboard if you pound it heavily for
8 hours a day and you'll find the cost of replacing it can be about
20–25 percent the cost of a new machine! If, like me, you spend your
entire life typing, and you prefer to use a laptop, the best thing to
do is to invest in an external USB keyboard
(maybe a wireless Bluetooth one for convenience). Plug it into your laptop and
use it every time you do a lot of typing. If you spill coffee on an
external keyboard or wear it out, it's a mere $10 for a new one; ruin
your laptop's built-in keyboard and you could face a bill of $200 or
more. If you find an external keyboard means you have to sit too far
from the screen to read it properly, buy yourself a stand for the
laptop and put the keyboard just underneath it (or use
a couple of telephone directories). If you get a small external keyboard, you might
find it will perch snugly on top of your laptop's existing keyboard without
causing any problems.
Even if you always use your laptop in the same room in your home
(mine is permanently sitting on a desk plugged into a printer, external keyboard, and so on),
that doesn't necessarily mean a desktop is a better bet. I often work
away from home so it's brilliant to be able to unplug the laptop in a
couple of minutes and take it with me; I couldn't do that with a
desktop. On the other hand, if you organize your files sensibly, you
can probably just copy your entire "My documents" folder onto a USB stick
and take that with you, and if you use a web-based email service like
Gmail or Yahoo!, you don't need to take your laptop with you at all.
On the positive side, laptops use much less energy than desktops, so switching to a laptop is a sensible
decision if you care about the planet. According to the
EU's Energy Star energy-efficiency labeling scheme,
a laptop uses just 50–80 percent of the energy you'd use with a desktop—savings that will really mount up
if you use your machine perhaps 8–10 hours a day, 365 days a year, for several years.
A few years ago, all you had to choose between was a laptop and a desktop. Now there are all kinds of
mobile devices too—and fast mobile broadband makes it possible to do things online on a mobile almost as quickly as you can on a desktop. If you do a lot of online reading but not a lot of typing, you might find a tablet serves you better than a laptop—and an ebook reader (such as a Kindle) could be even better,
since it's likely to have very long battery life. Conversely, if you like to work in all kinds of places around your
home and you do type a lot, a tablet might be too annoying (though you can add separate Bluetooth keyboards
to many of them, effectively turning them into laptops). If all you want to do is check your emails on the move,
do you even need a tablet? Maybe you'd be better off with a high-spec smartphone—particularly the kind
of large-screen phone sometimes referred to as a "phablet" (because it's, in effect, half-phone, half-tablet).
The bottom line is that it pays to give some thought to how, where, and when you'll use a computer before you
CD or DVD?
Most laptops now come with a multi-function audio CD-player,
CD-ROM drive, CD rewriter, DVD, and DVD rewriter—so you don't have to worry
too much about this. (You can always add an external USB CD or DVD
drive if you need to do.) The appearance of Blu-ray drives adds a new complication,
but don't worry about them too much unless you're a games player. Most of us can cope with a standard
CD/DVD reader and rewriter, which will come with most new desktops and
laptops. Compact discs and DVDs are going to be around for a while yet, even though, for a lot of us,
it's all about downloading and streaming now.
Photo: CD/DVD players are much less important than they used to be, but you might still find one handy if you like using your laptop as a portable movie player.
One area where laptops, in particular, have changed considerably
over the last couple of decades is in the size of their LCD screens and their aspect ratio.
Older laptops had much squarer screens; the latest laptops have widescreens so you can watch movies
from DVDs or streamed online. Don't worry too much about screen dimensions unless you plan
to watch plenty of movies on your computer. But if you're planning to do lots of Web work and you're buying a small
computer with a tiny screen, bear in mind that many, wider websites will display
with scroll bars (only showing part of the screen at a time)—and that can get a bit irritating after a while.
Photo: My last four (Toshiba Satellite Pro) laptops. The 1996 model on the left has a tiny screen and a really chunky (but amazingly robust) case with built-in power supply. This machine was literally built like a tank! Second along, we have a low-cost Toshiba from 2004. It has a much bigger screen and a huge touchpad and wrist-wrest. The case is also much thinner, but flimsier too. The 2007 model, third from left, is clearly designed to double as a DVD player. It has a widescreen display and the keyboard wrist area is much smaller. On the extreme right, the machine I use now, built in 2020, has an even wider screen, thinner body, and no hard drive: it uses
SSD storage (flash memory). Note that the photos are not taken to the same scale.
Computers used to be solitary machines you used in the comfort of
your own home without worrying about other people; now, thanks to the
Internet, and things like Facebook and Twitter, they're a much more social phenomenon than anyone ever
expected: 21st-century home computers are more like super-enhanced versions of 20th-century
telephones. That's why most computer users now expect their machines to
be online the whole time. If you're buying a laptop, and especially if you're
getting an older model secondhand, make sure it has a
wireless networking (Wi-Fi) card built in so you can use it all around
your home (you will need to buy a separate wireless
broadband modem/router or
a mobile broadband dongle as well).
Some ancient laptops still have built-in dial-up modems,
but they're much less useful than they were; it's virtually impossible to use the web
without broadband these days because most websites are deliberately designed to
make use of faster connections.
Photo: If you buy a secondhand laptop and it doesn't have a built-in Wi-Fi card, you
can always buy a PCMCIA adapter card (made by companies such as Netgear and Belkin). It's a bit bigger than a credit card and it
just slots into the side of the machine. If you're using Windows, the card should install itself automatically.
You can buy these cards amazingly cheaply on auction sites.
Ten years ago, the smartest way to buy a laptop was to get a two or
three year-old secondhand machine at a fraction of the cost of a new
model. Having spent a bit of time looking at prices on eBay, I get
a sense that you can currently buy a 2–5 year-old secondhand laptop for about a half to a third
the price of a new one. Bear in mind the drawbacks of going the secondhand route:
you can spend an inordinate amount of time on auction websites checking out the features
of secondhand machines and worrying about whether they're still up-to-date enough for your needs,
the reliability of the seller, whether the machine is
stolen, and all kinds of other things as well. A few years ago, I
would have advised students and people on low budgets definitely to buy
secondhand; now, it's harder to see a justification for
buying secondhand unless you're really pushed for cash. If you're
environmentally minded and interested in recycling, it's relatively easy to find refurbished,
ex-corporate machines on eBay; you might not save that much on buying a new model,
but you'll have the satisfaction that you've saved one more machine
from a landfill in India. Laptops are high on the list of items when it
comes to auction fraud, so make sure you buy secondhand machines from
reputable sources (ex-demo or reconditioned models are sometimes
available from official dealers). Some of the big manufacturers have
outlets for selling their own refurbished machines; some of the
big online stores (including Amazon) also offer refurbished machines
with short warranties.
One of your worries about buying secondhand may be that an older machine won't be able to run the latest
version of Windows. It's important to get this clear before you buy. If you purchase something old, can you
update to Windows 10 without making the machine so slow that it will no longer be day-to-day practical? On the other
hand, if you're a little bit technically adept (or willing to try your luck), you can turn this issue to your
advantage: a lot of people get rid of fairly new machines because they're no longer the latest thing
or they can't be bothered to update the operating system. Even if you can't run the latest Windows, you
will almost certainly be able to run Linux (and the more trimmed-down Linux versions
or "distros," such as antiX and Puppy, will even run happily on ancient, 32-bit, 256MB Windows-XP era laptops dating from the early 2000s).
So installing Linux on an older secondhand laptop (or getting a friend to do that for you) is a great
way to get a decent machine in a very affordable way (or to stop an older machine going to landfill,
if you're conscious about issues like that).
Windows, Mac, or Linux?
A few years ago, no one seriously considered buying anything other
than a Windows PC. Apple Macintosh machines were the preserve of
graphic designers and people in the creative world, but for everyone
else there was only one way to go: Microsoft. Following the rise of the
Internet (and the iPhone), things have changed considerably:
Macintosh computers are now more affordable and more compatible with Windows PCs than they used to be. If
all you plan to do is surf the Web and write the occasional letter or
essay, it doesn't matter
whether you use a Windows PC or a Mac. If you prefer the smart and
stylish Steve Jobs vision to the geeky utilitarian approach personified by Bill Gates, you can plump
for a Mac with no qualms—or fear.
Photo: A version of Linux called Ubuntu is the third most popular operating system
after Windows and the Mac operating system. Once it's up and running, it looks and works (to an end user)
in much the same way as those others. Fixing technical problems is more of a challenge, however.
Over the last few years, the appearance of Linux
(a freely available "open-source" operating system that shares
advantages of both Windows and Mac) has given computer buyers something
extra to think about. The beauty of Linux is that it costs little or
nothing so a computer that ships with a Linux operating system can be
considerably cheaper than the same model shipping with Windows.
That's one reason why netbooks (small-scale laptops like the Asus Eee PC) are sold at
such low prices. Although Linux is much more affordable than Windows,
you might find problems making peripherals (printers, scanners,
webcams, and so on) work correctly, though this
is less of a problem than it used to be.
If you're wondering which operating system to use, it might be worth bearing in mind
what's running on your smartphone. An Apple desktop computer will be a bit more compatible
with an iPhone, for example, and synchronizing your music library is a little bit easier
too, because iTunes runs on both platforms. But it's relatively easy to use any kind
of desktop with any kind of smartphone. I used to run a Windows desktop and an iPhone,
for example; now I have a Linux desktop and an Android phone. You can reasonably
expect everything to work with anything—and most of the time, you won't be disappointed.
Still confused? It's simpler than it looks:
- If you're a basic home user and you'll be Web surfing, sending
emails, writing letters, and storing photos, almost any off-the-shelf
computer will be fine for your needs. Don't worry too much about
processor speeds or drive space.
- If you'll be storing lots of photos or music tracks, make sure
you have plenty of drive space.
- If you're a games player, you'll need a machine with a fast
- If your machine will be used all round the home by different
members of your family, in different rooms, a laptop with wireless Internet is a good choice.
- If you work from home and plan to use a computer all day long, a
desktop is a better bet than a laptop—or use a laptop with a plug-in
keyboard (and possibly plug-in screen as well).
- If your computer hasn't got exactly the features you want, don't
worry. Virtually all machines have USB ports (for plugging in extra
equipment). Simply buy yourself an external mouse, keyboard, hard
drive, webcam (or whatever), and plug it in.
- If you're on a tight budget, consider a secondhand or
reconditioned machine. Be sure to buy it from a reputable source. Consider whether
the money you're saving is really worth the extra worry and hassle. Linux
is a great way to "revive" machines too old to run the latest version of Windows.