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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 12 Issue 2
February 2018
Buying a New Computer in 2018? Read This!


New computers are faster, lighter, lower-power, and higher-capacity than ever before, but the fundamentals are still important:
  • Don't buy a new computer until you (or someone you trust) have assessed your needs and your budget. Would repairing or refurbishing your current computer be a reasonable option? Could you simply be having software problems? Or is it clearly time for a replacement? What are the pros and cons? What's your timeframe?
  • In addition to the cost of the hardware and any extended warranties, be sure to factor in the cost of any new software that you'll need, the time it will take to unpack and set up your new computer, install all the software that you'll need, copy over all of your data, connect your internet, email, printer, scanner, etc., set up your backup, and then confirm that everything works.
  • What is your plan for your old computer, keyboard, mouse, and printer? Will you keep them as spares? Give them away? Try to sell them? Donate them to charity?
  • If you're getting rid of your old computer, don't forget to protect your privacy by erasing your old computer's data, or extracting (and keeping or destroying) the internal hard drive.
I also recommend that you read my earlier newsletter on this topic:
http://www.kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2013/2013_11_29.html - "Buying A New Computer? Read This!"

While a few technological things have changed in the past 4 years, the basic considerations haven't.

Your needs are important

My advice below is for the average home or business user's needs, given today's technology. My goal here is to make you aware of the likely choices and the most important issues.

While almost any new computer will probably satisfy almost any user's needs, I strongly recommend that you not buy a new computer without doing your homework first. It would be terrible to discover days or weeks later that it's missing a critical feature, or has too little storage for your needs, or can't handle a particular web site or piece of software or hardware device that you need to use but whose requirements you overlooked.

This means that you will need to develop a list of the features that matter to you, and then look closely at any prospective computer to determine whether it actually meets those needs. If you don't know how to assess your needs, get someone who you know and trust to help you.

Also, do not let anyone rush you into a purchase, no matter how "good" the deal is, nor let them dismiss your needs by telling you "It'll be fine, just buy it." It's better to buy the right computer that fits your needs than the cheapest computer that doesn't.

The big decisions

For most users buying a new computer, the biggest decisions usually are:
  • Microsoft Windows or Macintosh?
  • Desktop or laptop?
  • New or refurbished or used?
  • Buy from a local store or order online or by phone?
  • Pay more for an extended warranty?
  • and for a Windows computer, which brand?
The most important general features and considerations when buying a new computer

Here are the most important features that all computers have, along with my advice:
  • Internal hard drive capacity: Look at your current computer's internal drive and note how much space you're currently consuming, and then choose a new computer with an internal drive that has more capacity than that in order to allow for future growth. Typical sizes are 500 gigabytes (500 GB) and 1 terabyte (1 TB = 1,000 GB).
  • Internal hard drive type: There are currently three types -- Rotational, SSD, and Hybrid. Rotational drives have been around for decades. They have motors that spin "platters" and magnetic "heads" that read and write data. Solid State Drives are newer and have no moving parts, so they're faster, smaller, use less power, and generate very little heat. They're like fast, large-capacity flash drives, but since they cost 5 to 6 times more per unit of storage than rotational drives, when companies design a computer with an SSD, in order to keep the overall cost down they will often put in a lower-capacity drive. Hybrid drives combine a Rotational drive with an SSD and decide internally which data to store on one drive vs. the other. They represent a compromise between capacity, cost, speed, and complexity.
  • RAM (memory): 8 gigabytes (GB) is probably fine for most users today; more can be helpful depending on your needs. Many computers have their RAM in "slots" so you can increase the amount of RAM later if you need to, but some computers (including newer Macintosh laptops and smaller iMacs) have RAM that's soldered onto the motherboard, so it cannot be upgraded later.
  • Number of USB ports: More is better, since this is how most peripherals connect to your computer. Laptops often only have 1-3 USB ports, whereas desktop computers can have 4 or more. If you end up with more USB devices than ports, for most users a powered 7-port USB 3.0 hub is adequate. How many USB devices do you have?
  • Type of USB ports: Look for a computer with at least one USB 3.0 port, which will run a USB 3 device (like an external backup drive) faster than plugging it into a USB 2 port. USB 3 ports are usually labeled "SS" (for "SuperSpeed"), and USB 3 cables (and some ports) usually have blue plastic in the connector on the computer end. Beware of computers that only have newer "USB-C" ports (sometimes called "Thunderbolt 3"), which will require you to buy an adapter in order to plug in any USB 2 or USB 3 devices.
  • Ethernet port: If you need to use a wired internet connection (not wireless), or if you want the option to use one in the future, then your computer should have a built-in Ethernet port, which may also be called a CAT5 or network port. Otherwise you'll have to buy a USB adapter (or internal card) to add an Ethernet port.
  • CD/DVD-RW drive: If you need to read from (or write to) CDs or DVDs (to install software, transfer photos, play music or movies, etc.), then your computer should have a CD/DVD-RW drive. Built-in drives are becoming less common, especially among laptops and Macintosh desktops, so you may need to buy an external drive that will connect via USB.
  • Video port: If you use an external monitor (usually required for a desktop computer, optional for a laptop), then your computer must have at least one video port. Typical choices are VGA, DVI, HDMI, Thunderbolt, DisplayPort (DP), and Mini DisplayPort (MiniDP or mDP). It's best to have the same type of port on your computer as on your monitor to avoid having to buy an adapter. Some computers have multiple video ports, giving you more options.
  • Extended warranty: Most new computers come with a limited 1-year warranty, but you can often buy an extended warranty, which can add additional years, coverage for accidental damage, on-site service, longer phone support, and other options. This can be a good choice if you can't afford out-of-pocket repair costs or if it gives you peace of mind, but some consumer advocates advise against them because of the generally low likelihood of having a problem, much less one that's covered. Your homeowners' or renters' insurance might also cover your computer, so talk to your insurance agent. However, fire or theft or loss may be covered, but repairs may not be. Also, residential (personal) property policies don't typically cover a computer used for business, but your insurance company may offer additional coverage that does.
Other general features and considerations

Here are some general features that all computers have, along with my advice:
  • CPU (central processing unit): For the average user, paying more for a faster or higher-level CPU will probably make no noticeable difference, so choose the cheapest option.
  • External speaker port: If you need to (or would like the option to) plug in external speakers or a headset or headphones, make sure it has a speaker port.
  • External microphone port: If you are planning on using a regular (not USB) external microphone or non-USB headset, make sure it has a microphone port.
  • Combined audio jack: Some computers (often laptops) have a combined speaker/microphone port. If you already own external speakers or a microphone or a non-USB headset, make sure it's compatible.
  • Keyboard: Do you already have one that you like? Does one come with the new computer?
  • Mouse: Do you already have one that you like? Does one come with the new computer? For a laptop, will you use its trackpad, or do you prefer a mouse?
  • Video card: This probably makes no difference to most users, so choose the cheapest option.
Features specific to laptop computers

If you're buying a laptop, you should also consider:
  • Internal screen size: This is a diagonal measurement in inches, and is closely related to the laptop's overall size. Typical choices are 11", 13", 15", and 17".
  • Internal screen resolution: This is the monitor's width and height in pixels. Typical resolutions include 1366x768 and 1920x1080. Within the same number of inches, higher resolution means that it has more pixels, which means that more information will fit on the screen. That reduces the amount of scrolling you have to do, but everything will look smaller. Newer-style monitors tend to have a 16:9 "widescreen" aspect ratio (width vs. height) to match modern movie and HDTV formats, whereas older-style monitors have a 4:3 aspect ratio to match the traditional 35mm motion picture and television formats.
  • Touch screen: Some laptops have touch-sensitive screens, so you can click, double-click, and click-and-drag with your finger (or a stylus) by touching the screen. It's more direct and intuitive, but may be tiring to your hand and arm and thus less ergonomic.
  • Tablet mode: Some laptops with touch screens let you swing the monitor 360 degrees around on its hinge until it's flat, like a tablet. This disables the keyboard so you don't accidentally "type" anything, and then you operate it by touching the screen.
  • Dimensions with lid closed: The overall width, depth, and thickness might matter to you if you have a specific carrying case that you want it to fit into.
  • Dimensions with lid open: The overall width, depth and height might matter if you have a desk area that it needs to fit into.
  • Weight: A laptop with a rotational drive and CD/DVD-RW might weigh 5 or 6 pounds, and one with an SSD and no DVD drive may be 2-3 pounds less.
  • Keyboard: Do you need a numeric keypad? Does the size or spacing of the keys matter to you?
  • Backlit keyboard: These are not very common, but they're useful if you work in low-light settings.
  • Built-in wireless card, webcam, speakers, and microphone: These have become very common, but if you need them, be sure to confirm that they're included, as well as any special features that you require, e.g., dual-band wireless card (2.4Ghz/5Ghz), high-resolution webcam, stereo speakers, etc.
  • Battery life: It's usually expressed in hours, which is important if you travel or spend time away from a power source. Expect it to decline over the next 3-4 years as the battery ages.
  • Spare power supply and power cable: This can be useful if you often take your laptop away from your desk, and you want the convenience of not having to unplug this cable every time.
Features specific to Macintosh computers

When buying a Macintosh, you'll probably see models with these features:
  • Retina display: This is Apple's high-resolution built-in monitor, which is standard on many iMac (desktop), MacBook, and MacBook Pro (laptop) models, as well as iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watches.
  • Touch Bar: This is Apple's replacement to the row of function keys on the higher-end MacBook Pro laptop models, introduced in November 2016. It's a touch-sensitive strip across the top of the keyboard that displays buttons that change according the context.
I wouldn't pay extra for either of these features by themselves.

Operating system

If you're buying a Windows computer, you will probably get the Windows 10 operating system. Windows 7 is still available directly (and as a "downgrade" on some Windows 10 computers), but since Microsoft's extended support for it ends on January 14, 2020, which is less than 2 years from now, you might as well go with Windows 10.

If you're buying a Macintosh, you will probably get either Mac OS X 10.12 "Sierra" or 10.13 "High Sierra."

Either way, if your new computer will have a newer operating system than your old one, you should review every piece of software that you use to find out whether it will still work, or whether you will need to get a newer version, or whether you will have to replace it with something else. Do the same for your printer, scanner, or any other equipment that you rely on. This is especially important if your old computer is a Macintosh running Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard" or earlier.

Accessories and other issues

Buying a new computer is also a good moment to consider replacing or upgrading certain accessories, including:
  • Surge suppressor or UPS: Surge suppressors can slowly wear out over 3-4 years, reducing your protection. If yours has been in service longer than that, buy a new one and label it "Replace me in 2022," 4 years from now. Most UPS units have a built-in surge suppressor, so the same advice applies.
  • USB hub: Spend a little more for a USB 3.0 model if you have even one USB 3.0 device, like your external backup drive.
  • External backup drive: Disk drives can wear out over 3-5 years, so consider buying a new one.
  • Flash drives: In my experience, USB flash drives can last for years, but may suddenly fail with no warning. If you rely on a flash drive, consider buying a spare or two. Over the past few years their capacities have skyrocketed and their cost per unit of storage is lower than ever, including flash drives with the USB 3 interface.
  • Ergonomics: Review how your computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. are arranged on your desk, along with the type of chair you use and how your working space is laid out.
Before you make a final decision

It can be difficult to predict your future needs, so depending on your budget it's reasonable to buy a computer whose capacity and features are a little higher than your current or projected needs.

Do your homework. Google the specific computer's make and model that you're considering, and add the keyword "review" to look for other people's opinions and experiences.

Remember that it's difficult to see what's not there, so confirm each item on your list of requirements as you read about each prospective computer. If you notice that the computer's description does not mention an important item, dig deeper. Look for "details" or "technical specifications" or "tech specs," or call the manufacturer and ask. Don't assume that it has what you need.

Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

Did you miss a previous issue? You can find it in my newsletter archive: http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

Your privacy is important to me. I do not share my newsletter mailing list with anyone else, nor do I rent it out.

Copyright (C) 2018 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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