Before making any major computer-related purchases, think carefully about
what you want, what you really needand especially what you dont need.
Get advice from experts. Several websites, including CNET and PC Magazine,
provide excellent computer and software buying advice, along with useful
product overviews by editors. Consumer Reports also rates various models
of desktop computers, laptops, tablets, printers, monitors, scanners, and
some types of software. And big sellers like Amazon provide hundreds of
reviews by consumers who have already purchased products youre considering.
Also seek out advice from salespersons at local stores. Our ratings of
area computer stores, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find
retailers that employ sales staff that can helpand steer you away from
stores where they cant.
When comparing major brands with no large differences in their track records
for reliability, focus on differences in price and features.
The best way to find out whether a product meets your needs, of course,
is to take it home and use it. Many online stores allow one-month trial
periods for hardware and let you return the product for a full refund if
you just dont like it. (Online stores have much less liberal return policies
for software.) Local stores may have more restrictive policies, so ask
about current return policies at any store youre considering. Ask specifically
about restocking fees that may apply if you return equipment after youve
Once you decide what you want, its time to shop for price. If youre considering
an Apple product, youll find zero price variation (unless you buy used).
But, for most other manufacturers, there is substantial price variation
between brands and considerable price differences for specific models from
store to store.
There isnt as much store-to-store price variation for computer products
as there is for other types of products. But some outlets do charge as
much as 20 percent more than their competitors for the same products. Among
the local and online stores our researchers shopped, we found that Amazon
offered the lowest prices (see Table 1).
Pay with a credit card, especially if you buy online. The Fair Credit Billing
Act outlines procedures that enable you to refuse payment for credit card
purchases for merchandise that is unsatisfactory or undelivered.
Please reject extended warranties. For the vast majority of consumers,
these warranties are bad deals.
We dont know how we got to this point. Or whether its evolution or devolution.
But somehow, in order to maintain peace, every member of our households
needs his or her own computersometimes more than one.
Because new technology places new demands on computers and their operating
systems, seemingly constant replacement or upgrades are necessary to keep
everybody happy with their digital devices. Pictures, music, and video
require lots of storage space. Streaming video requires faster and more
efficient processors and video cards. Even if you dont care about these
features, because software increasingly relies on complex graphics and
animation, you will eventually need to replace or upgrade your computer.
Unfortunately, purchasing or upgrading computers isnt easy. In order to
have something to sell to a wide range of buyers, computer manufacturers
offer a dizzying array of optionsfrom desktops to laptops to netbooks
to tablets to hybrid designsand several models with a wide range of capabilities
(and price points) within each type. Getting what you needand not paying
a lot extra for stuff you dont needrequires careful planning and research.
Well point you toward resources that can help, including our ratings of
the service quality and prices offered by retailers.
Start by deciding what you want and needand ruling out what you dont
want and dont need. Fortunately, theres lots of help available: Several
websites, including CNET and PC Magazine, provide excellent computer and
software buying advice, along with useful product overviews by editors.
Consumer Reports also rates various models of desktop computers, laptop
computers, tablets, printers, monitors, scanners, and some types of software.
And big sellers like Amazon provide hundreds of reviews from consumers
who have already purchased products youre considering.
Also seek out advice from salespersons at local stores. Our ratings of
area computer stores, shown on our Ratings Tables, will help you find
retailers that employ sales staff who can helpand steer you away from
stores where they cant. (See below for more information on choosing the
There are dozens of decisions to makedesktop vs. laptop vs. netbook vs.
tablet; Apple vs. PC; size, weight, and battery life; speed; video performance;
storage and memory capacities; expandability; and more. Below, we review
the major choices.
Also research compatibility issues before you buy peripheral devices (displays,
printers, scanners, etc.). Dont buy anything unless you have seen it work
with a device similar to yours, have convincing evidence that it will work
with your computer, or have an ironclad guarantee that you can return it
(with no restocking fee) if youre not satisfied. Many dissatisfied consumers
spend hundreds of dollars and many hours fiddling with a new purchase only
to find that they cant make it work.
The following discussion highlights issues to consider when choosing a
new computer. We focus on PCs, but many of the issues are also applicable
Apple vs. PC
The differences between Macs and PCs are much less distinct now than in
the past. The major remaining differences are mainly in feelthe interfaces
they use. So if youre thinking about defecting from PC to Mac or vice
versa, try out each types devices and software, performing the types of
tasks you expect to do most.
Your primary concern will be compatibility, because it may be inconvenient
to move work from a PC to a Mac or vice versa, and some of the software
and some types of related equipment will work with only one type of computer
and not the other. Also make sure you and your family can run the same
programs at home that you run at your office and that your children run
at school (Apple is a leading supplier of computers to schools). And if
you or a family member has a lot of experience with one type of computer
or the other, it might just be easier to stick with what youve got.
A major consideration when buying electronics is reliability. Surprisingly,
Consumer Reports large-scale surveys of consumers typically find minimal
differences in reliability among the major manufacturers (although Apple
consistently outscores the competition in this area, its higher scores
likely have more to do with users high satisfaction with Apples tech
support than significantly more reliable products).
Because no large differences exist in the major brands track histories
for repairs, focus on comparing brands on price and features.
Laptop computers, netbooks, and tablets let you take your work with you.
Portable devices have become so capable, convenient, small, and lightwith
no large price penaltythat they now dominate sales.
When shopping for a laptop, netbook, or tablet, consider the same factors
you would consider for a desktop with regard to speed, storage, and other
capabilities (see below). But there are other considerations. Size and
weight are issues, of course; larger computers are obviously more cumbersome.
But smaller devices also have smaller screens and keyboards. You may want
to spend a bit more for a slightly larger modeland put up with two to
four pounds of extra weightto avoid squinting and make typing easier.
Another issue with portable devices is battery life. Three to six hours
is fairly typical; some laptops offer 12 hours or more. Because manufacturers
tend to exaggerate battery life, check product reviews from users to get
Central Processing Units
A computers brain is its central processing unit (CPU), processor, or
chip. Chips are critical to computer speed. In advertisements, you may
see a computer that comes with a 4th Generation Intel Core i5 1.6 GHz
processor. Each generation of manufacturers chips are built with improved
structure and logic to process information faster than previous generations.
The 1.6 GHz (gigahertz) is the level of clock speed at which the CPU
operates. As this number increases, so does the CPUs speed. But because
each new generation of chips uses more efficient logic and has a more efficient
design that produces faster overall speed, you cant compare chips from
different generations by looking only at their respective processing speeds.
For example, a 4th-generation Intel Core processor that operates at 1.6
GHz will run much faster than a 2nd-generation Intel processor that runs
at 2.66 GHz.
New software and technologies are constantly pushing chipmakers to produce
the next generation of chips, which come out every couple of years. Because
new software and operating-system features take advantage of these new
speeds, a typical user can feel that his or her computer has become obsolete
If you use your computer mainly to type letters and for email, you dont
need to splurge on the latest generation of chipan older-generation chip
should be fast enough. But if you work with streaming audio and video,
speed is more important. And even light users may have to keep their computers
up-to-date to utilize many common programssuch as tax preparation softwarethat
are continually redesigned with graphics and other features to make them
more user friendly but require chips with higher processing speeds. Also,
if you buy a computer thats much slower than one that you use at work
or school, seconds will feel like hours while you wait for it to complete
Random Access Memory
A computer uses random access memory (RAM) to hold some of the data it
is working with and some or all of the data needed to run programs it is
using. RAM is measured in megabytes and gigabytes, which indicate how much
data the device can store in memory.
The more RAM your computer possesses, the more tasks it can perform simultaneously,
which speeds operations. If it has only the minimum amount of RAM a program
requires, only the most commonly used parts of the program may be in RAM
all the time, and less commonly used parts will have to be fetched from
a disk drive when needed. That fetching takes time that could be saved
if more of the program is held in RAM. Lots of RAM can also limit the headaches
of frequent freeze-ups and failed programs that occur when the computer
runs out of necessary memory resources.
As for processors, there are various generations of RAM, the latest ones
designed to operate faster and use more efficient logic than previous generations.
As of this writing, the latest generation of RAM was DDR3, with the DDR4
generation due out soon.
When choosing a computer, pay close attention to the amount and type of
RAM included. Because buying additional RAM is usually an inexpensive add-on,
it makes sense to purchase as much RAM as your system and budget allows.
No matter how much RAM you get, make sure you can expand your computer
if you outgrow your current RAM needs. But if you know you will need a
certain amount of RAM soon, dont buy less now and plan to expand later;
it usually costs less to buy RAM already installed at the time you buy
Graphical Processing Units
To display video and graphics-intensive games efficiently, computers shift
the processing workloads of graphics from their CPUs to separate chipsgraphical
processing units (GPUs) designed specifically to process and display this
Like CPU chips, newer generations of GPUs are built and programmed to operate
faster than previous ones. For example, new GPU chips can quickly process
3D graphics and video. Most new GPU chips are coupled with high-end video
cards, which essentially act as RAM devices dedicated to graphics. Because
advancements in home computing largely have beenand will continue to bein
the graphics and video areas, you may as well buy a computer with a newer
GPU chip and a video card with a capacity of at least one gigabyte.
Most day-to-day workcomposing, calculating, editing, etc.entails moving
information to and from your hard drive. If youll be using your computer
primarily to view Web pages, send and receive email, and perform other
basic tasks, you wont need much extra hard-drive space; most new computerseven
entry-level modelscome with enough capacity for you.
You can expand the amount of storage space by buying an external hard drive.
External hard drives are also convenient for backing up files from your
internal hard drive.
CD and DVD Drives
Most laptops and desktop computers come with combination CD-R/CD-RW-DVD
drives. These drives can play and burn CDs and play DVDs, but you may have
to pay more for a drive that lets you burn data to DVDs.
Keep in mind that because tablets and some netbook models sacrifice CD
and DVD drives to save space, youll have to buy an external drive to play
or record discs.
One issue with DVD drives is compatibility. If you want to play Blu-ray
high-definition discs, youll need to buy a special player/recorder.
Good computers are designed to allow growth. Your computer should have
at least five USB ports with connections conveniently located on several
sides. Additional ports give you the flexibility to expand your system
with various peripheral devices.
Desktop computers also have expansion slots which allow you to add cards
or boards with additional capabilities, such as high-powered graphics cards.
Youll want at least three expansion slots; more slots provide more future
For most users, size is the predominant aspect of monitor choice.
For laptops and tablets, screen size and display quality have a fairly
large impact on price.
But desktops with large monitors dont cost too much more than smaller
entry-level models because price differences between 14-, 15-, 17-, 20-,
and even 24-inch monitors have shrunk significantly in recent years. If
youre considering a monitor larger than 24 inches, compare prices of dedicated
computer monitors with the prices of TVs.
There are other devices you might wantprinters, scanners, microphones,
cameras, camera chip readers, and many more. Learn more about such devicesand
much more about the devices we have touched on herefrom friends, websites,
store salespeople, and other sources.
Youre more likely to be satisfied with what you buy if you find a good
store, or stores, to work with.
A good store can advise you on which devices and software will serve you
best, how to get started using products, and how to solve problems.
But maintain a degree of skepticism when discussing your options with salespeople.
Remember, its a salespersons job to sell you merchandise, that the store
must carry that merchandise, and that the store makes more when you spend
more. But you can still learn a lot. Make note of salespeople who answer
your questions clearly and make you feel at ease. These are good people
to buy from because you may have more questions after the purchase.
Our Ratings Tables show the results when we asked area consumers (primarily
CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers) to rate computer stores they
had used inferior, adequate, or superior for advice on choice and
use of products, staff attitudes and atmosphere, ease of looking at
and testing products, and other questions. For each store or chain that
received at least 10 ratings, our Ratings Tables show the percentage
of surveyed customers who rated it superior (as opposed to inferior
or adequate) on each question. (Click here
for further discussion of our survey and other research methods.)
Our Ratings Tables reveal considerable variation in customer ratings.
For example, Office Depot was rated superior for advice by only 36
percent of its surveyed customers; Best Buy was rated superior by 46
percent; Micro Center by 58 percent; and Apple Store by 89 percent.
Although the quality of a stores advice and information are important
considerations, check out impartial websites like CNET, PC Magazine, and
Consumer Reports. You can also learn a lot from manufacturers websites
and from reviews posted by fellow consumers on the websites of large online
sellers such as Amazon.
The best way to find out whether a product really meets your needs, of
course, is to take it home and use it. Many online stores offer a one-month
trial period for hardware, which enables you to return the product for
a full refund if you just dont like it. (Online stores have much less
liberal return policies for software.) Local stores may have more restrictive
policies, so ask about current return policies at any store you consider.
Ask specifically about any restocking fees that may apply if you return
merchandise after youve opened boxes.
Even experienced computer users who dont require much advice and assistance
should check our Ratings Tables for how surveyed customers rated stores
on reliability (standing behind products, delivering on time, etc.).
Once you decide what you want to buy, you want to pay a good price. If
youre thinking about an Apple product, youll find zero price variation
(unless you buy used). Apple products have historically been more expensive
than their competitors, but that difference is no longer clear-cut. Within
the PC family, significant price differences exist among manufacturers.
Prices of computers from little-known manufacturers are sometimes 25 percent
or more below comparable devices from big-name companies. And, by shopping
around, you usually can find considerable price differences for the same
brand and model from store to store.
If you find a better price elsewhere, you certainly dont have to buy from
a store that gave you advice. Buying from a store that has been helpful,
however, will make it easier to ask for advice on additional equipment
you may later need. Also, a store that has provided good presale advice
is likelythough no sure betto help you with problems that arise when
you start using your new purchase.
Unfortunately, we cant compare prices for even non-Apple computers because
different stores sell different computers with different prepackaged configurations.
And its difficult to compare prices for specific models because it is
often hard to find identical models at any two stores because thousands
of models are available. But we were able to shop prices for software and
some types of standalone hardware items, such as printers, monitors, and
external hard drives. Our researchers (without revealing their affiliation
with CHECKBOOK) shopped prices for seven software titles and 11 hardware
models from the stores listed on our Ratings Tables and a sample of
large online mail-order outlets.
Table 1 shows how each outlets prices compared to the average prices quoted
by other surveyed stores for the same mix of items. A price comparison
score of $102, for example, means that prices at this store were, on average,
two percent above the average for the same items for all surveyed stores.
Table 1 shows that, unlike most of the subjects we cover, only moderate
store-to-store price variation exists for computer equipment and software.
But some outlets do charge as much as 20 percent more than their competitors
for the same products. Among the local and online stores we shopped, Amazon,
with a price comparison score of $84, offered the lowest prices.
Table 1Comparing Prices at Local and Online Store
|Micro Center ||$98|
|Best Buy ||$99|
|Fry’s Electronics ||$101|
|Apple Store ||$103|
|Office Depot ||$103|
|Krex Computers ||$106|
|FOOTNOTE:1 For each store, our price comparison score is intended to suggest the price a customer might expect to pay for items that would cost $100 at the “average” store. The score is based on prices gathered by CHECKBOOK researchers who shopped for 18 items; scores are based on at least three prices.|
Table 2 shows the range of prices for the items on our shopping list. As
you can see, for some items we found big store-to-store price variation,
but for others we found almost no price variation.
Table 2Low, Average, and High Prices Quoted by Local Stores and Online Stores for Computer Products
|Kaspersky ONE Universal Security 2012 ||$49.99 ||$88.66 ||$99.99|
|Adobe Acrobat XI Standard for Windows ||$269.99 ||$297.88 ||$309.84|
|The Sims 3: University Life Expansion Pack ||$37.57 ||$40.71 ||$45.99|
|HP 20" LED monitor ||$111.99 ||$119.10 ||$124.42|
|Seagate Expansion 2TB USB 2.0 desktop hard drive ||$99.99 ||$104.99 ||$109.99|
|Logitech C310 USB HD webcam ||$29.99 ||$46.55 ||$54.99|
|Adobe Dreamweaver CS6 for Macs ||$374.98 ||$392.56 ||$399.99|
|Microsoft Office: Mac 2011 Home & Student Edition ||$115.99 ||$133.70 ||$139.99|
|Mac Super Drive 8x Extreme USB double-layer DVD+RW/CD-RW drive ||$71.99 ||$79.50 ||$89.99|
|HP Photosmart 6520 wireless printer ||$105.68 ||$122.97 ||$149.99|
|Apple wireless keyboard ||$62.24 ||$68.68 ||$72.99|
|Apple mini DVI to DVI display adapter ||$17.31 ||$22.01 ||$27.99|
|Intuit Quickbooks Pro 2013 ||$139.99 ||$216.20 ||$249.99|
|LaCie 1TB Rugged Superspeed USB 3.0/Thunderbolt portable hard drive ||$149.99 ||$216.05 ||$249.99|
|World of Warcraft: Mist of Pandaria ||$19.99 ||$40.58 ||$51.99|
|Targus Laptop Chill Mat for screens up to 17" ||$22.00 ||$45.61 ||$49.99|
|Epson Perfection V600 Flatbed photo scanner ||$187.76 ||$222.30 ||$249.99|
|Logitech MK520 slim wireless keyboard & mouse ||$40.49 ||$54.99 ||$60.44|
At checkout, many electronics and computer stores will urge you to buy
an extended warranty on your computer-related purchase that usually extends
your warranty for an additional one to four years. Extended warranties
are profitable for the stores, and salespeople get a piece of the action,
too. We recommend against buying them unless paying to repair or replace
your device would be a financial catastrophe. (To read all the reasons
why extended warranties are bad ideas, see our Extended Warranties
Dont buy from an online seller unless you are familiar with computers
or can get assistance from someone who is; you may need a store to demonstrate
products for you and help you set them up. Without help, it may take you
many hours to determine whether your installation is wrong or the product
Buy only from companies that sell equipment with full manufacturers warranties.
Buy only from companies that offer at least a one-month, total satisfaction,
100 percent-money-back guarantee.
Buy from companies that have been advertising regularly for a year or more.
The biggest risk of online buying is that a company will take your money
and go bankrupt; thats less likely to happen if the company has been around
Pay by credit card. The Fair Credit Billing Act outlines procedures that
enable you to refuse payment on credit card charges for unsatisfactory
or undelivered merchandise.
If you decide to buy a computer (rather than peripherals) online, choose
a well-known brandunless you are familiar enough with computer equipment
to be comfortable taking it apart and replacing internal components. On
the other hand, unknown brandsdelivered with 30-day, 100 percent guaranteescan
offer big savings if you know what you are doing.
Carefully research any product before you order it, so you can specify
exactly what you want.