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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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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