What Computer Should I Buy?

A friend at work–a reasonably computer-literate supervisor who’s never owned a computer–asked for purchasing advice the other day. Here’s my response, which could perhaps be useful to someone else.

What I’d buy:

An HP desktop or laptop with 4 GB of memory and a 200 GB hard drive. It might come bundled with an HP printer/scanner/fax, which you should take; if it’s not bundled, I’d buy an Epson Artisan 810 or equivalent/successor. Hire the Best Buy Geek Squad (or equivalent) to install, unless you can find less expensive help. Depending on specifics, this should cost anywhere from $600 to $2,000.

Internet:

If you’ve got a cable company, talk to them about adding an internet connection. If you’ve got a TV dish, talk to your phone company about a DSL connection–else buy a wireless modem from Verizon (or ATT, or Sprint, but Verizon generally works better away from cities). All of these options cost in the $50/month range, though you might do better with an introductory offer.

Another (more or less “free”) option is dial-up internet using your existing phone line, which is good enough for email but not for web surfing; I’m not sure who provides dialup nowadays, but they’re out there.

In an ideal world, the Geek Squad would set up this connection for you. But that requires coordination with your internet provider, which might be difficult.

Missing advice:

There’s nothing here about software (except the Office question, below), or email accounts; they’re potentially complicated topics and this note’s already way too long.


Further discussion:

There are too many options. My basic advice is to wander into Best Buy and ask them your questions. They’re salespeople, so don’t trust answers which seem wrong or self-serving, and if they differ from my advice ask them why. But here’s a little essay….

Gotta start with a couple questions:

  • Will an iPad (or similar device) meet your needs? (If the main expected use is email and web-surfing, or reading e-books, one might. Or might not.)
  • Will a netbook (my little red computer) meet your needs? (It’s cheap, but I’d have trouble recommending it as a primary computer.)
  • Will you need Microsoft Office? The reason this matters is that Office can be a significant part of your purchase cost (though the price has come down quite a bit recently, Office still costs in the $200 range). There are less-expensive substitutes, many of which I consider acceptable, but if you really need Office then you need it and I won’t argue about it.

Now some other questions:

  • How do you plan to use the computer? (Joan, among other things, uses hers to hunt down recipes and knitting patterns. One of my uses is following the news; another is sharing work with other baseball researchers. We both have e-book readers installed on our computers, though we actually read books on dedicated devices.)
  • Desktop or notebook? Desktops are generally less expensive than laptops, but are far less portable.
    • Think, too, about where you’ll store the computer/printer/whatever. Desks are useful.
  • Printer? My guess is you’ll need one. Figure $150, though you might find a cheaper one that’s acceptable. You won’t know if it’s any good until you’ve used it a while; I’ve had decidedly mixed results over the years. Free printers are worth about what they cost, in my experience.
  • Price range? Our work PCs would retail in the $800 range; going below that price will lead to compromises that you’ll notice. On the other hand, even a cheap computer’s more powerful than an iPad.

That said, some advice:

HP costs more than Dell, Dell costs more than Acer. All build acceptable computers, as do Lenovo, Toshiba, and Sony (all in the HP price range). I consider HP the best buy, but that’s an opinion, not a fact. If you buy a $1000 computer from any of these folks, they’ll have comparable specs. A comparable Mac would cost a couple hundred bucks more.

Windows is good enough. Apple’s a luxury brand, and not generally easier to learn or use. (Nonetheless, I love my MacBook Pro, and it’s far more reliable than our Win7 HP.)

Office Max sells HPs. Best Buy sells lots of brands, including Apple. The closest dedicated Apple store is in Grand Rapids. There are some independent computer stores around, but I don’t know anything about any of them. Buying online gives you more options, but only if you know what the choices mean.

As I understand it, Best Buy’s Geek Squad will help you set up a machine. Office Max likely has a similar service. I expect this costs money, but it might be part of the purchase price.

All manufacturers have nominally similar service plans, but you might (or might not) get better service from a local store (even a chain).

It’s worth wandering around the manufacturers’ websites. All have purchasing wizards that let you explore their offerings without committing to buy; you might learn things.

Don’t let anyone sell you Windows 7 with less than 4 GB of memory. Win7 will run in 2 GB, but you won’t like it.

Movies and music and photographs take up a lot of space on a hard drive. If you expect to store those, you need as large a hard drive as you can afford.

Internet connection (ISP): DSL (phone) and cable are pretty much interchangeable, whatever a seller might tell you. Both require a technician to run a cable, and both supply you with a box to connect the computer to the network. (Or your phone company will happily sell you a wireless modem like I use on the red box.) Actually making that connection is less difficult than connecting a television to cable.

Hope this is helpful, rather than confusing….


Comments are certainly welcome. Did I get anything blatantly wrong? Should I have mentioned a home network? What software might I have mentioned? (AV, probably.) What do you tell your friends about email?

And understand, please, that this doesn’t much resemble how I shop for a computer for my own use; neither does it track closely with advice I give my (retired Cobol programmer) sister when she goes shopping. This is advice intended for a novice, computer-literate, buyer.