How to Choose a Computer
Last updated in May 2017
The following discussion highlights the major issues to consider when choosing a new computer. Need more help? Check out sites like CNET, PC Magazine, and Consumer Reports. And check our ratings of local stores to find outlets that can provide sales staff who can dispense sound advice.
Apple vs. PC
The differences between devices made by Apple and those made by other manufacturers (which for computers are commonly referred to as PCs) are much less distinct now than in the past. The major remaining differences are mainly in “feel”—the interfaces they use. If you’re thinking about defecting from PC to Apple or vice versa, try out each type’s 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 back and forth between the two families of devices, and some software packages 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 either type of computer, it might just be easier to stick with what you know.
While reliability is a major consideration when buying electronics, 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 Apple’s tech support than significantly more reliable products.
Because no large differences exist in the major brands’ track records for reliability problems, if you’re buying a laptop or desktop PC compare performance, features, and prices offered by several manufacturers. You’ll find that prices vary considerably for similar setups from well-known brands.
Portable devices have become so capable, convenient, small, and light—with no large price penalty—that they dominate computer sales. When shopping for a laptop, tablet, or hybrid design, consider the factors we discuss below with regard to speed, storage, and other capabilities, but also compare size and weight. While larger computers are obviously more cumbersome, smaller devices come with smaller screens and keyboards. You might opt for a slightly larger model—and put up with two to four pounds of extra weight—to avoid squinting and make typing easier. On the other hand, while flying coach you’ll find it impossible to use most laptops with screen sizes bigger than 16 inches.
Also compare battery life. Three to six hours is fairly typical; some laptops with solid-state drives now offer 12 hours or more. Because manufacturers tend to exaggerate battery-life estimates, and because users’ battery-life mileage varies according to the software they use and how bright they set their displays, check product reviews from your computing cohorts to get realistic assessments.
A computer’s brain is its central processing unit (CPU), processor, or “chip.” Processors are critical to computer speed. In ads you may see a computer that comes with a “7th Generation Intel Core i5 3.3 GHz” processor. Each generation of manufacturers’ chips is built with improved structure and logic to process information faster than previous generations. The 3.3 GHz (gigahertz) is the level of “clock speed” at which the processor operates. As this number increases, so does the processor’s speed. But because each new generation of chips uses more efficient logic and has a more efficient design that produces faster overall speed, you can’t compare chips from different generations by looking only at their respective processing speeds. For example, a seventh-generation Intel processor that operates at 2.4 GHz will run far faster than a fourth-generation Intel processor that runs at 2.6 GHz.
When comparing processing options, in addition to comparing generations and speeds, check how many “cores” you get. In a “quad-core” chip, the manufacturer essentially has bundled together four chips into one, which means it can churn through information roughly twice as fast as a comparable model “dual-core” chip that bundles together just two processors.
If you use your computer mainly for email, you don’t need to splurge on the latest generation of chip—an older-generation chip should be fast enough. But if you want to stream video, speed is more important. And even light users may have to keep their computers up-to-date to utilize many common programs—such as tax-preparation software—that 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 that’s much slower than one that you use at work or school, seconds will feel like hours while you wait for it to complete tasks.
For laptops and tablets, screen size and display quality have a moderate impact on prices. When selecting from among various sizes, remember that larger displays will make your device more difficult to drag around with you.
When considering display quality, if you plan to watch movies you’ll want at minimum an HD model (a high-resolution model HD [1920 x 1080]). These days even most entry-level models come with HD screens.
If you’re shopping for a monitor larger than 24 inches, compare prices of dedicated computer monitors with prices of TVs. You can connect either with an HDMI cable.
Most day-to-day computer work entails moving information to and from your hard drive. The size of hard drives is measured in megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), and terabytes (TB), with 1,000MB equal to 1GB and 1,000GB equal to 1TB. Most new computers come with hard drives ranging from 250GB to 1TB.
If you need a ton of storage space, you might have to sacrifice speed if you don’t want to pay extra for the very best thing. There are solid-state hard drives and conventional models. Because they lack moving parts, solid-state models offer faster speeds, use less power (which means longer battery life), and fail less often than conventional hard drives, but large-capacity solid-state drives are expensive. Many top-of-the-line computers now come with two types of drives: A large-capacity conventional hard drive wed to a speedy solid-state one.
You can check RPM ratings to compare speeds of conventional hard drives, but, really, unless you really just want a very basic model get a solid-state drive. You’ll be glad you did.
If you’ll be using your computer primarily to mess around on the web, send and receive email, and do other basic tasks, you won’t need much hard-drive space; even a “small” 250GB drive will have enough capacity for you. But if you need to store a lot of pictures, videos, movies, and other storage-hogging files, go big or get more than one drive. You can also expand your storage space by buying an external hard drive or subscribing to a cloud-based storage service. Both of these options are also convenient for backing up your files (which you’re regularly doing, right?).
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 (MB) and gigabytes (GB), which as with hard drives 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 the hard 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 and types of RAM, with the latest ones designed to operate faster and use more efficient logic than previous generations. What most of us need to know is that of the two types of RAM, DRAM (dynamic random access memory) uses more power but can store more stuff and costs less than SRAM (static random access memory) types.
Because buying additional RAM is usually an inexpensive add-on, it makes sense to purchase as much RAM as your system and budget allow.
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, don’t buy less now and plan to expand later; it usually costs less to buy RAM already installed at the time you buy your computer.
Graphical Processing Units
To display HD video and graphics-intensive games efficiently, computers shift the processing workloads of graphics from their central processors to graphical processing units (GPUs) designed specifically to process and display this information.
Like central processors, newer generations of GPUs are built and programmed to operate faster than previous ones. For example, new GPU chips can easily and quickly process 3D graphics and HD 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 been—and will continue to be—in the graphics and video areas, make sure you buy enough video processing capacity. Most central processors sold these days have integrated graphics chips and cards; get one with at least 4GB of memory dedicated to video. If you’re a gamer, buy a computer with a discrete graphics chip with 2GB or more of memory.
CD and DVD Drives
If you still use CDs and DVDs, make sure you buy a device that can read them. While most desktops come with combination CD-R/CD-RW-DVD drives, to save space many laptops don’t. But you can buy an external drive to play or record discs using any computer or tablet.
Good computers are designed to allow growth. Multiple USB ports are a must. The more devices you need to use simultaneously, the more ports you’ll need.
Desktop computers also have expansion slots which allow you to add cards or boards with additional capabilities, such as high-powered graphics cards. You’ll want at least three expansion slots; more slots provide more future flexibility.