I am regularly approached by friends and neighbors who are seeking advice about buying a new computer. While i am very tempted to simply tell them to go buy a Mac and do not look back, most will (sadly) not take that advice. They'll be buying Windows.
I don't feel quite as sad about that as I did when we were in the XP area. While I definitely think a Mac is a far better choice for most folks, Windows 7 and Windows 8 are not horrible choices.
Many people I talk to don't really need a computer anyway: they'd do fine with an iPad or an Android tablet.
But, assuming that they really do need a computer, they'll have questions.
They want to know if they should upgrade or buy new, they want to know what to buy and where to buy it and, if they will be buying a new system, they usually have other questions about transferring their existing software. They want to know if Dell is good, if HP is a mistake and so on. I can answer some of that.
While I never mind spending time going over these things, I realized it might be helpful to have a document that covered the more common issues. I could then refer people to that and then answer any remaining questions later. This could save all of us some time.
This is that document.
Usually the answer is no. If the machine is relatively new and is only suffering from a lack of memory, boosting that could give a big performance boost.
If the performance is good and disk space is your problem, adding a secondary drive can be inexpensive and very simple. External USB drives aren't all that fast, but the installation is usually nothing more than plugging in the USB cable. Even adding internal drives is not beyond the capability of a reasonably mechanically minded person with a screwdriver - assuming this isn't a laptop.. even then, it might not be all that difficult. If you can find instructions on the Web that don't scare you half to death at first glance, you might be able to tackle this yourself.
If you have to pay someone else, many upgrades start to not make sense. The cost of labor adds too much to the bill even if the cost of the hardware isn't all that much. With some upgrades (such as new motherboards), there is much more to it than just swapping wires and cables - often new drivers have to be installed also. The time adds up and it doesn't take much to exceed the cost of a new machine.
There's no harm in asking, of course. Adding memory is a matter of a few minutes and a hard drive often won't require much longer. Those might be worthwhile, but beyond that you will usually find that it makes more sense to buy new.
Transfer old software?
The answer to this is "maybe". You might be able to just copy the old software to a new computer, but some software will require re-installation and still other will require you to buy new (or pay for an upgrade at least).
This is probably a good time to mention that most home users (and quite a few work users) really do NOT need Microsoft Office. Most home users can do quite well with Notepad, Wordpad or Mac Text Edit. Should someone send you an Office file, you can almost always open it with Google Docs or with a free Office replacement like Open Office.
Other than that, if you really need the software you currently use, you need to find out if it can be transferred to the new computer. There is almost always some way to make it work: for example, let's say you have an old piece of XP software that is known NOT to work under Windows 7. The more expensive versions of Win 7 support running XP in a "virtual" environment. Mac OS X can do the same thing and there are other options that may not require installing a full version of XP.
Before you spend any significant amount of money solving a problem like this, you should look to see if there is similar free or low cost software that would answer your needs. Often there is, and you may be able to investigate its features before committing to your new hardware.
Windows 7 and 8 know how to transfer Microsoft files, pictures, bookmarks, and many other things. If you are making the move to Mac, it's not difficult to accomplish the same thing manually, although there is commercial software to help and Apple retail stores also offer that service.
Transfer old hardware?
If you already have a keyboard and mouse you love or a perfectly good monitor, it is extremely unlikely that you cannot use them with a new computer (Windows or Mac).
Do keep in mind that an old CRT type monitor does use more electricity than the new LCD monitors. It's probably not enough to pay for a new monitor, but it is not insignificant.
Sell the old hardware?
Used PC's are often worthless or nearly so (even some laptops). Used Macs often still have value even when damaged. I just checked my 5 year old Mac at one of the sites you can easily find from Googling "Sell Mac" - even with a battery that won't last 20 minutes and a keyboard that is only 80% functional (I use a USB keyboard with it now), I could still get $280.00 for it. It's certainly worth checking.
I know, it's tempting to just sneak the old equipment into the rubbish. Where I live, it would have cost me $25.00 to properly dispose of an old fax machine. Fortunately, my daughter can take it to her town's center for just $5.00, but you might not be so lucky. You may have other options, some of which are free (EPA recycling list).
If you aren't smart enough to understand why it is important to do this, nothing I say will convince you.
Low price or quality?
There is a decent argument to be made for buying at the bottom of the market. If you buy cheap, you won't feel the sting of having a slow, nearly worthless computer three years later - you'll just go buy another dirt cheap replacement.
On the other hand, you do get what you pay for. Hastily assembled machines slapped together from the cheapest available parts may have odd software glitches that will annoy you. If you need to open them up for any reason, poorly fitting components may be difficult to reassemble and cheap plastic parts may break.
If you do buy new every two or three years, you will need to recycle and experience the hassle of transferring files and software that often also.
Going too far in the other direction is foolish. No matter how much money you spend, you have to expect that your machine will be junk or near junk after five years (but again, a Mac may not be). I think that somewhere in the middle makes sense, but this is a decision you have to reach yourself.
A note on RAM
Cheap computers almost always throttle back memory (RAM, not disk space) to the bare minimum. This is true even for higher priced systems like Apple - their least expensive offering will have the least possible amount of RAM. Insufficient RAM causes diminished performance, so if you do buy at the bottom, doubling the supplied RAM is probably not a bad idea at all.
Don't be fooled by seeing more RAM than you used to. For example, base Mac's used to come with 2GB and now come with 4. That doesn't mean that you don't need more; you still do. The new machines need even more RAM than the old; the 4GB is a bare minimum and you will be much happier with 8GB or more.
I suggest buying that RAM from someone like Crucial.com, by the way: much, much less expensive and usually very easy to install yourself.
Unless you are a gamer, even the slowest CPU found today is more than what you need. For the typical non-gaming use, CPU speed often doesn't even matter: it's everything else that is slow, not the CPU.
Of course if you are a PC game player or someone who builds large spreadsheets with complicated formulas, you might need a faster model. If you are like most of us (web, email), you probably don't.
Do NOT waste your money on 32 bit machines. Application support is dwindling fast. You won't find too many 32 bit offers left, but just in case: check to make sure you are getting a 64 bit machine and a 64 bit operating system.
How much disk space?
Unless you are extremely unusual, even the least expensive systems you can buy today will have more disk storage than you are likely to ever use. For example, a very large digital photo might consume 2 megabytes of disk space. A 100 Gigabyte drive (not large by today's standards) could store 50,000 of those.
You probably do NOT need to increase disk space.
This is a place where you can save money or spend it with abandon.
If you are buying a laptop, the quality and resolution of the screen will have a definite impact on price. If buying a stand alone computer, you don't have to buy the monitor from the computer manufacturer, which leaves you free to shop for the quality and price you want.
The question is simply this: how much quality do you need? There's an awful lot to consider when judging monitor quality (see CNET's "How we test: LCD monitors") but most of it comes down to your personal desires. For example, I have extreme astigmatism - even with corrective lenses, the world is a bit fuzzy to me. I don't really care how sharp and crisp the pictures on my screen are because the real world isn't sharp and crisp for me.
You might have a very different feeling about that. If so, you'll want to read reviews that concentrate on monitor quality and (if possible) you'll want to test drive (or test view) before you buy.
If you are buying a separate monitor (or monitors - dual or even triple screen set ups can be quite useful), remember that you can afford to spend a bit more because this purchase should survive several new computers.
However: the video adaptor in the computer has a lot to do with quality also. If you are the fussy type, you may want to upgrade that component in the computer. You do NOT have to buy that with the computer - after market graphics cards (non-laptop) are easy to install.
Again. this is personal preference. Some keyboards are "hard", some are soft, some click, some don't. You can get wireless keyboards, keyboards that light up, keyboards with built in trackpads.. but if you just take what comes with your new (non-laptop) system, it almost certainly will be low quality.
That may not matter to you. If it does, buying your new computer without the standard keyboard may not save you much (if they'll even let you buy it that way!), but it costs nothing to ask.
Mice are another area where wide choice is available. Some people love trackpads and touchpads, some hate them. I like my Apple "Magic mouse" but my wife does not. Wireless mice are nice, but the battery can be annoying when it runs out (hint: shutting the mouse off when not using the computer sure can help extend the battery life).
This is something I never think about at all, but it is very important to some. Obviously you can buy separate speakers, but you can also upgrade what will drive those speakers.
Floppy disk, CD, DVD
Many systems today will not have floppy disks. You can buy external USB floppy drives if you need this now and then and don't want to install one permanently (or can't, as in a laptop).
Almost all computers today will have multi-use DVD/CD devices that can read and write both CD's and DVD's.
The number and type of peripheral devices you have determines what ports you need. Most computers today will NOT come with serial or parallel printer ports, so if you need these for existing equipment, you'll need to either get those separately or (for a printer) perhaps use a network print server (that may also be a good idea if you have more than one computer).
USB ports can be extended with a USB hub. USB comes in different speeds, so check what you have vs. what you will need.
You may want to hook your computer to your TV. Does it have a VGA port or an HDMI port? Which does your computer have (you can use an adaptor to translate HDMI to VGA)? Will you be using your laptop with a projector? Output ports matter.
Laptop specific considerations
It's simple: weight, size, battery life. As to battery life, expect the manufacturer to offer the most optimistic estimate. Apple really surprised us with the iPad - users often get far longer battery life than Apple predicts, but in general you should take those specs with a big dose of skepicism.
By the way, you really might want to consider an iPad if you are thinking of a laptop as a second computer. These are not toys and they really can replace a laptop for many uses.
If you are buying a laptop just because you like to go out on your back porch or take the computer to the couch when watching TV, you may not care about size and weight as much as someone who is hopping a red-eye at the airport four times a week. Still, a 17" or larger laptop can be a bit clumsy.
Wireless? I don't think you can find a laptop today that will not have wireless.
Your cousin says Dell sucks. The neighbor insists HP is the only good brand. His brother says he is insane and that only Toshiba builds a good computer.
How many computers has your cousin ever bought? Check places like Consumer Reports instead.
The local computer guy
The local guy might sell a brand name, but can also probably build a "white box" computer. This will generally cost more than a brand name, but it can have advantages. You will get exactly what you want and need, no more and no less. The system is likely to have more chance of being upgraded in a few years and may be easier to work on physically.
If you need support, you'll be talking to someone you know and someone who knows both you and your computer. That can help solve problems more quickly.
You'll also be supporting a local business (if that matters to you - I think it should).
I probably forgot something. Feel free to ask in the comments.
Got something to add? Send me email.
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