To many people, buying a new computer feels almost as overwhelming as buying a car. There are so many models, so many options, and so much unfamiliar terminology — and enough money is involved — that just thinking about it hurts. We understand, and we sympathize! But we’re here to tell you it’s really not that bad.
The first piece of good news is that if you haven’t bought a computer in a while, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the prices. You can get a quite capable laptop for around $500 and desktops for even less. You might decide to spend more for particular reasons, but the starting point is lower than many people realize.
Next, almost all new computers for sale today have a fast enough processor (aka chip or CPU) and enough memory (RAM) and storage space (hard drive capacity) for the average user. In other words, despite all the technical terminology, you really can’t go too far wrong. The worst trouble you’re likely to get into is spending a little more money than strictly necessary.
Most people use personal computers to do pretty basic tasks. They read and send email, browse the internet, create documents and perhaps manage pictures and music. These tasks are not very demanding for any modern computer. As long as you don’t have specialized needs (generally, as long as you’re not an avid gamer or a videographer), almost any computer on the market will work for you.
Therefore, the primary aim of the advice we offer below is to prevent you from overspending and to help you avoid any computers lurking on shelves that will be outdated too quickly.
Our second goal is to help you think through the features and options available so that you are able to choose the machine that best fits your personal needs and preferences.
The Quick and Dirty
If all you want are the quick and dirty specs to look for, here you go:
- a minimum of 4Gb of RAM
- a hard drive of 250Gb or more
- a reasonably modern processor (aka chip or CPU). The processor choices change almost weekly, but as of this writing, any of the Intel i-series chips will do just fine (i3, i5 or i7), including prior-generation i-series chips. As of 02/2020, AMD’s Ryzen chips are also very good.
You don’t need to worry too much about operating system versions; Apple makes fairly regular OSX updates available at low cost and with minimal disruptions, so whatever version you purchase will usually be fine, and if not, will be easy to upgrade. Windows 10 is the only option for a Windows computer, and it’s really quite good.
There may be bells and whistles you care about, but if you choose a machine with these basic specs, you won’t suffer major buyer’s remorse.
If you want to think things through a bit more, here are the main points we think an individual buying a computer for personal use should consider. It is, of course, more generic than the advice we would give to an individual client, but we think it’s a good starting place.
Decision #1: Mac v. Windows
We are mostly Windows people. But we use Macs too, and we like Macs a lot.
If you are a normal, home computer user, and what you mainly want is to browse the Web, get your personal email, keep a calendar, do some word processing, and futz around with music, photos and maybe some video — and if you’re not committed to Windows for some reason and you don’t need to keep cost to an absolute minimum — buy a Mac. That’s right: buy a Mac. They’re great machines, and if they’re right for you, you should get one.
The two reasons to pick a Windows machine instead of a Mac are: 1) because you need or prefer Windows; and 2) because you are not willing to pay Apple’s premium price. You may want to go to an Apple store and try out a Mac. The staff is almost always helpful and knowledgeable. (And no, we don’t have any kind of kickback arrangement!)
When we talk about whether you are committed to Windows, we mean either that you’re already familiar with it and prefer to avoid having to learn something new (a perfectly legitimate reason), or that you rely on specific software that is only available for Windows (there is software that allows Macs to run Windows programs fairly easily, but it’s still not quite as convenient and can add to the cost). If your office uses Microsoft Outlook heavily, for example, then a Mac might not be a great fit.
On the cost front, Windows machines are usually cheaper. Mac fans sometimes point to the package of excellent software that comes bundled with Macs to explain the price difference, but some of the difference is also due to Apple’s insistence on superior (and beautiful) hardware. Whether an Apple is a good deal will depend on what you need or care about; for example, Apple cares a lot about battery life, so their laptops have good battery life and are priced accordingly. When you buy an Apple laptop, you pay for good battery life whether it’s a priority of yours or not. If you’re shopping for a Windows laptop, you can choose from a much broader selection and therefore can usually pay only for the “extra” features that you care about.
On a different cost-related point, it’s worth noting that neither Macs nor Windows machines come with standard office software (think Word, Excel and Powerpoint): if you need a copy of Microsoft Office, it will be an extra expense for either type of machine. (Spending money on office software isn’t always necessary, though: you may be able to keep using the software you already have, or you may be happy with free software such as Libre Office or online services like Google Docs).
Hardware problems represent a relatively small percentage of the problems faced by most computer users, but just like car shoppers, a computer shopper is wise to consider reliability. Mac hardware and Windows hardware are generally equally prone to failure, but Macs are on the whole a bit harder and more expensive to fix when they do fail. However, Apple is the one computer company that gets consistently good marks for customer service, and their extended warranty is a genuinely wise and cost-effective purchase for many people. (One of the key distinctions between Windows machines and Apple machines is that Apple builds both its hardware and its software, creating a tightly integrated package that the company can support fully. In contrast, the Windows operating system can run on thousands of different pieces of hardware, none of which Microsoft controls.) Another hardware difference between the two is upgradability: Windows desktop computers generally offer lots of flexibility; Macs don’t. (Laptops in general don’t offer much upgradability).
Whether you choose a Windows machine or a Mac, your next decision is: desktop, or laptop? If you know that you need to take your computer with you from time to time, you almost certainly have to buy a laptop. (There are some niche “desktop” computers that are small enough to throw in a bag, but you will still need to lug around a mouse and a keyboard and you will need to connect to a screen at your destination). Note that the days are long gone where you had to have two computers, a powerful “main” desktop and a less capable laptop for traveling; most people can get all the capability they need in a laptop and will save themselves a lot of aggravation by keeping their computing life on one machine. Just because you have a laptop doesn’t mean you have to use a tiny screen and keyboard all of the time: it’s easy (and reasonably inexpensive) to plug in a larger keyboard, a nice mouse, and/or a big screen and make your laptop just as comfortable to use as a desktop would be.
At the other extreme, if you want to play modern, graphics-intensive computer games, or to edit a lot of home video, you probably need a desktop, because a laptop that can handle those demands well is likely to be prohibitively expensive. Or, if you absolutely can’t imagine wanting to move your computer around, you might as well save some money and buy a desktop.
The majority of people fall into neither of those camps, however, and do have a choice. There used to be a huge price difference between desktops and laptops, but the gap between an average laptop and a desktop is much smaller now. Increased portability, however, definitely does cost more. So if you’d like to have the option of portability, the only question is how much portability you want and how much you are prepared to pay for it. While a weight difference of a pound or two can be surprisingly meaningful for someone who totes a computer around all day every day, the occasional traveler may not care enough to spend up for a lighter machine. Likewise, a frequent air traveler may really value long battery life, while the kitchen-to-bedroom traveler may find the wall socket nearby is just fine.
In the end, exactly how much more money you will have to pay for a laptop depends on the features you decide to buy. Below is some guidance on the compromises and workarounds involved.
- Ergonomics. Out of the box, a desktop will usually be more pleasurable to use. The screen will be bigger, and the keyboard and the mouse will be more responsive. But as mentioned above, if you are prepared to spend some more money (as little as $10 for a keyboard, $100 and up for a big screen), you can have all of the ergonomics you want at your desk and still have a computer to take on the airplane (or into the backyard). In other words, this is a money issue, not a functionality issue.
- Storage (Hard disk). Modern laptops come with decent-sized hard drives (i.e. 160Gb or larger). But if you plan to store lots of music, photos or videos, you will want a larger hard drive, which will drive up your cost more in a laptop than it would in a desktop (miniaturization is expensive). You can augment your laptop’s hard drive with an external hard drive, but that’s another box to keep track of or lug around, and access to data stored on an external hard drive is a bit slower than to an internal drive. On another topic, you should look out for a type of hard drive called an SSD (solid state drive). SSDs are increasingly popular, especially for laptops, since they are a lot faster than regular hard drives and have no moving parts, making them much less fragile. SSDs are still distinctly more expensive per unit of storage, but price is absolutely the only reason not to buy an SSD.
- Optical Drives (CD/DVD/Blu-ray). No difference. Pretty much any optical drive you can buy for a desktop you can also buy for your laptop (at a price). Some laptops come without built-in optical drives, to save on weight, but you can buy inexpensive external drives that plug in if you want one.
- Memory (RAM). Laptop memory is more expensive than desktop memory, so laptops tend to come with less. Aside from an SSD, the amount of memory is the specification most likely to affect the performance of the laptop in a way that is noticeable to an average user — to a point. While the jump from 4Gb to 8Gb can sometimes make a noticeable difference to your experience, you are quite unlikely to notice the jump from 8Gb to 16Gb unless you are the kind of person who keeps lots of programs open at the same time.
- Processor. Laptop processors now fall into two general categories: a) low-power processors that save on batteries and b) higher power processors that are little different from the processors in desktop machines. The first type is fine for email, word processing, light spreadsheets, playing music, watching videos, and browsing the internet. But if you plan to do any photo or video editing, or if you are one of those people who likes to have a lot of programs open at the same time, the lightweight processors may vex you.
- Graphics. Unless you go really high end or really low end, any laptop will have good enough graphics for anything except modern video games. If you plan to hook up an external monitor, make sure the laptop has the type of video output your monitor will require. Unless your monitor is pretty old, HDMI will usually work. Some really old video equipment (projectors often seem to fall into this category) may only have VGA ports, and only some laptops still offer that. The new DisplayPort standard is gaining some traction as it can support higher resolution than HDMI (4K video and above). It is still a high-end option, and more commonly found in the Apple/Mac ecosystem.
- Upgrades. You may be able to add some more memory to a laptop, but that’s about it. Desktops are much easier to upgrade.
- Repairs. Laptops are harder and more expensive to repair. Unlike desktops, their parts are not standardized, so you’re likely to be stuck buying more expensive replacements from the laptop maker. And there are scenarios in which you’ll essentially be forced to replace the whole machine rather than just the offending part (for example, if a laptop screen goes kaput, it may not be cost-effective to replace the screen even if the operative guts of the machine are still working fine).
- If you want a Mac: Go to your nearest Apple store, or visit apple.com. There aren’t many choices, and you can’t go wrong. The choice is generally a pretty clear equation: more money = more computer.
- If you want a Laptop: Laptops vary widely in their physical design, and little things like the feel of the keyboard can be surprisingly important, so it is often helpful to visit a store and check out some laptops in person. If you live in the Boston area, the Micro Center in Cambridge has a nice selection. If you really want to save money, though, check out the stock of refurbished (or “recertified”) laptops at Newegg, PC Connection and TigerDirect. These laptops are supposed to come with the original manufacturer’s warranty (though it’s worth checking), and often offer substantial savings.
- If you want a Desktop: Here, online shopping is easier, as desktops are largely interchangeable. Try configuring your desired computer at Dell’s online store, www.dell.com, and then shop around a bit if you’re inclined (you may want to try HP, and we’ve had good luck with browsing Newegg for a broader selection of manufacturers). We’ve been pleased with Dell over the years, but opinions vary. Their customer service, while far from perfect, is generally reasonably good, and their prices are generally competitive. But there are other good options too.