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Back to the December 2011 ITS Newsletter

December 2011 Holiday Buying Guide for Computers

By Ryan Coyle

It’s that time of year again and people are feeling jolly and spreading the holiday cheer. If you’re like many people you may be thinking of upgrading that aging computer of yours. Sure it’s served you well all these years but you’re thinking gee, with all these holiday specials, maybe it’s time to get something new. But what do you get? How do you choose? Desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone.. Argh. Well my friends, you are in luck. Let us give you a little guidance to help make picking out your next computer purchase that much easier.

The first thing you have to decide when looking for a new computer is what form-factor to choose. That’s just a fancy way of saying what style you want: desktop, or laptop. The most important thing to consider when choosing is to determine how you want to use it:

  • Will you be traveling with it? 
  • Do you want something to sit on your couch with? 
  • Is space a consideration? 

If the answer is yes to any of the questions above, then you probably want to look at a laptop. Prices have been falling on laptops over the years and you can get into one for significantly cheaper than you used to. If you’re looking for something stationary or that has a touchscreen, then a desktop will suit you better. Don’t be fooled by the myth that desktops are more upgradable than laptops. While that statement is true, you’ll never typically upgrade your desktop. By the time you’ll be looking at upgrading a desktop, you’ll be in the market for a new computer. Upgrade potential should not be a factor when you’re trying to decide what will work best for you.

Once you have decided what kind of computer you want, the next big decision will be to go with a Mac, or a PC. I won’t rehash what has been a heated debate over the years. The bottom line is that the differences come down to a few things:

  • Aesthetics – Apple has long been renowned for the sleekness and packaging of its computers. Shiny iMacs and MacBooks are pleasing to the eye. That’s not to say that some PCs also are very slick looking, but in general Apple gets the edge here
  • Compatibility – In this day and age, there is just about a Macintosh equivalent for every PC application that you may need. The lone exception is probably games. If you’re a gamer, I’d probably steer clear of Apple as most games do not run natively on the Mac OS.
  • Viruses/Malware – Hands down the amount of viruses that are written for Apple platforms is tremendously lower than what’s out there for PCs. That’s not to say that Macs are virus free, but their likelihood of infection is drastically lower.
  • Price – For all of their fancy packaging, you’ll pay about 20-25% more for an Apple product than an equivalent PC one. It’s important to know that the guts here are all the same these days. Apple no longer has any special or proprietary hardware in their machines. What you find in your typical iMac is the same thing that you’ll find in anything from Dell, HP or Toshiba.

The best news of all is that no matter what you’re looking at getting, chances are it’s significantly better than what you’re currently using. It’s just a fact. Every year computers grow in power exponentially. Things get cheaper and more powerful every year.
Once you have an idea of what you want you’ll have to look at what options you want. Here are a few recommendations, which may help you pick what you want:

  • Processor - AMD vs Intel, this was a hot debate in years past but AMD has fallen behind in recent years. These days you’ll typically only see AMD processors in value computers. Unless you’re really trying to save money, go with one of the newer Intel i-series processors (i3, i5 or i7).
  • Memory – Pretty much everything that you’ll see on the market today is going to come with a minimum of 4GB of RAM. Here is the trick with RAM: spend a few extra dollars to get anywhere from 6-8 GB. Adding additional RAM to your computer is the #1 way to keep it running smoothly for years to come. It’s a low-cost way to make sure that you get the most out of the life of your computer
  • Storage – Hard drive sizes have skyrocketed over the last few years. The amount of hard disk space that you can get for the little money that it costs is nothing short of remarkable. Almost any computer you get today is going to come with a 500GB hard disk which should keep even the most dilatant computer user happy
  • Video – Most lower end and value computers will come with an integrated graphics chip. As time has passed these integrated chips have become increasingly powerful and should be suitable for you, unless you’re a big time gamer. If that is the case, upgrading the video card on the computer you get should be your #1 priority. For everyone else, an integrated card should be more than enough.
  • Solid-State Drives – If you’re looking at some of the upgrade options on newer computers you may see them reference a solid state drive or SSD. These hard disks use flash memory like what you see in iPods, phones, etc. They offer numerous advantages such as higher reliability and greatly increased access speed. The downside is that for the amount of storage you can get with them, they’re still really expensive. They’re a really nice perk if you’ve got some extra money to spend on your machine but not terribly practical yet.
  • Monitors – Display sizes have also gotten insanely larger for a lower and lower cost. This is one aspect that I also recommend that you spend the extra money on. For the most part, modern LCD displays last forever. Spending a few extra dollars for a better display now will save you from buying another one when you decide to replace your computer.

The last thing you have to look at is who to buy from. On this front, I have more good news (sort of). In the end, they’re all the same. All of the components are made in the same place. For the most part, the features are all the same. The computer industry is very copycat. No one manufacturer has a distinct killer feature that sets it apart from all of the rest of the competition. If it has been successful for one company, chances are that you’ll find it in its competitor. Therefore you should base your decision on price and looks. Find something that fits in your budget and that you like to look at (unless you’re going to shove it into a cabinet, in which case just look at price). I hope this helps you with your holiday shopping and that you have a happy holiday and New Year!

Editor's note:  for additional information about buying a computer, including the Microsoft Office Work-at-Home license availability for employees, see the ITS Purchasing Computers webpage.