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Buying a computer

Updated 3 May 2008

One of the common questions we're asked is "what should I look for in a new computer?" It's understandable as the jargon and specifications can bewilder the experts.

Mac versus Windows

We've focussed on the Windows systems here. But the Mac is a good alternative for many users. We discuss the Mac versus Windows as a separate issue. The hardware specification remain largely the same between the two systems.

Laptop versus desktop

If you need portability or are respected in space, then a laptop is the way to go. If neither is a concern then buy a desktop and spend the extra money on more memory. We've previously looked at buying a laptop.

It should be noted too that a laptop's specifications will differ somewhat from a desktop computer. While we recommend a 320Gb drive for a home desktop computer, a similar home laptop may only have 160Gb. Given portable computers aren't usually used for gaming and graphic design, the lesser video specifications are a major cost saver.


The most overstated item in a new PC is the CPU. The latest and fastest processor is by far the most expensive, yet the average home user won't see a great difference between it and a slightly slower model. Unless you are really crunching numbers, it's worthwhile saving a few bucks on the processor and spending more on the memory.


The motherboard is the heart of the system, as the name implies everything plugs into it. Techies get excited about motherboards, their chipsets and all manner of features, for most computer users, it doesn't matter. We recommend just making sure it has built in ethernet, sound and lots of USB ports.


Memory is the most common item skimped on cheap PCs. The bare minimum you should buy is 2Gb. Memory is very cheap so adding more is always a good investment.

Hard Drive

Again, hard drives are another area computer manufacturers skimp. New desktops should have at least a 320Gb SATA drive. We also like Seagate brand as they offer a five-year warranty.


Video is going to be the most contentious point item on Windows Vista. Vista changes the way windows uses graphics and the new system will rely a lot more on the graphics card. You should not contemplate buying a system without 256Mb Graphics RAM.

DVD Burner

A CD/DVD burner is now an essential on a home computer. Now that the price difference between DVD and CD burners is almost nothing, it makes no sense not to get a DVD burner. Make sure it's a dual layer burner so you get the full 8Gb.


Most systems now come with sound built in and for most home and small office users this is fine. If you want better quality sound, then you'll need to specify a sound card. Cheap speakers, or speakers built into monitors, are also fine for most users.


If you have a video card capable of DVI, then get a DVI monitor. If you want to save money, you can use your existing monitor, in which case you will probably need a VGA connector.


Almost all systems come with a ethernet port built-in. While many homes won't be sharing printer or folders, they will connect to the Internet and an ethernet port is the most reliable way to plug into broadband. Even if you aren't on broadband now, make sure your new computer has ethernet, if you are buying a laptop, make sure it has wireless networking.

Other plugs and ports

One thing about computers is that you will want to plug things into it. Our view is you can't get enough USB ports, a desktop should have at least six USB ports with two at the front for easy access. Firewire (IEEE1394) is becoming more common which is handy for video cameras and iPods.

A trap if you are plan on connecting an older printer or devices like handhelds are the lack of parallel and serial ports. These ports slowly going the way of the dodo, but you'll need them if you have an older printer. If you do intend to plug in existing equipment, make sure you get a system that has the right plugs.

Keyboard and Mice

It's easy to spend a fortune on flashy mice and keyboards. We find most people that do never use all the flashy features, so don't go for the super expensive. A standard keyboard and mouse is fine, get cordless if that suits your setup.

Operating System

If you are buying a Mac, then there is no argument and the merits of various Linux flavours is way beyond the scope of this website.

For Windows users the choice is not so straightforward. To be blunt, we don't like Vista and we don't recommend it. If you can get a system with Windows XP then do so.

It is getting harder to find XP equipped systems, so if you find Vista is your only choice then we urge you to buy Vista Home Premium or Business. Vista Home Basic is too basic and Vista Ultimate is a rip-off.

Brand Name versus No-Name

This argument often degenerates to almost Mac versus PC level, the simple fact is both have attractions and draw backs. Brand names offer the security of a big brand but often let down customers with poor value for money and shoddy after-sales service. No-names are often cheaper, but are sometimes lacking in quality and there is a risk the shop won't be around six months later.

System Disks

One area big name often skimp is by not supplying the operating system disks. Some provide "system disks" others don't provide anything but a "hidden partition" to restore the system. We don't like any of these and you should buy a brand that provides the original Windows XP and driver disks.

We cannot make this clearer: System disks are evil. If you find the system you like only comes with these things, then look elsewhere.

If you do buy a computer that comes with no disks at all you'll find there is a system disk creation program on your device. You must run this and create those disks at the earliest opportunity.


For many consumer electronic items, extended warranties are just a profitable extra for retailers. In computers, a three warranty is essential. It will add around $300 to the price, but in our view it is money well spent.

Make sure the warranty is a manufacturer's warranty. Some warranties are provided by third party organisations. These third party warranties are not good value.


Software is the whole reason you buy a computer. Without software, a computer is useless. While the software you need will vary with what you want to do with the computer, there are some basic things that most people will do with a computer.

Email and web browsing

All operating systems have these functions built in. You don't have to buy new software to do this, but we would suggest using Firefox, which is a free download, to surf the web.

Office Software

Most people will want to write letters and many families will need presentation software for kid's assignments. Microsoft Office is the standard, but the range of options is confusing. If it's too confusing, then there are alternatives to MS Office.

Our recommendations

On our specs page, we keep an up to date list of the specifications for desktop and portable computers. Print out a copy when you go shopping.

If you need a tech to help you copy data or setup the new machine, we can help you across Australia.

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PC Rescue Pty Ltd
Suite 236, 4 Young Street Neutral Bay NSW 2089
©Technology Publishing Australia, 2008