Buying a new computer

Buying a new computer? Here are some things to consider.

Computers are old as soon as you open the box, and they can be considered outdated after only months. Technology advances too quickly, but even here in the U.S. we are a few years behind some other countries. Most people end up buying a new computer every couple years, but some wait 10 years. 10 years was the life expectancy of many Hard Drives (desktop and laptop), though this can vary greatly, but I've seen drives can give out in only a few months.

Windows 7 is what you'll find on new computers, and new applications are being designed with Windows 7 in mind. Windows XP and Vista are old operating systems, and Microsoft has been trying to kill XP (and now Vista) for years.

When considering a new computer the pros and cons must be weighed. There are countless things to keep in mind. I know from experience that a slow computer inhibits the learning process (along with a slow internet connection). A fast computer contributes to being able to access information and thus the learning process is improved. New technology works with relatively new technology, so most things will work with Windows XP/Vista/7. Older technology doesn't fair as well. This is especially true for Windows Vista, as Microsoft has decided that their new operating system need not be compatible with previous versions and older hardware. Windows 7 is much better behaved than Vista.

Security is a big concern, and Windows XP is not holding up very well under the pressure of viruses, spyware, and security vulnerabilities that malicious software designers. Even Vista is having a hard time keeping the bad guys out. Windows 7, however, has proven itself far improved in its ability to protect itself. You still need virus protection, but Windows 7 helps the virus protection do it's job instead of fighting with it.

Next, consider 32 verses 64-bit Windows. There is an important difference between the two. The 32-bit version of Windows 7 is limited to about 3.5GB of memory (RAM), the upper limit of 32-bit systems. However, the 64-bit version of Windows 7 can handle much more memory and has the potential to be much faster for it. (Remember memory is not the same thing as Hard Drive storage capacity.)

Older programs may not work with the new computer. Software that you are used to using may not be available on the new Windows system, or it might be available but as a new version that might have a different feel. Different as in moving from an old Ford to a new Isuzu, where the wipers and the light switches swap places, the seat adjusts from the side not the front, and other little differences that take some getting used to. If you have not seen Windows 7, I would suggest going to Fry's or your favorite computer/electronics store and check out the computers on display.

Many people like to stick with name brand computers, but my experience has been that name brands are not any better than off brands. Sony Laptops were quite fragile in the past, but appeared to improve their components so that don't break repeatedly any more. Lenovo, Dell, Compaq / HP are comparably durable, but they load a lot of proprietary drivers and extra (and useless) programs that slow your system down, which can be hard to get rid of if you don't know how. If you work with photos or any kind of graphics, you'll want to have at least 4GB of memory. Anything less, and you'll be sitting at your computer all day waiting for your pictures to come up (I'm exaggerating... but not much). If you're using software such as Photoshop then 4GB of memory (and more) is better.

There are the Quad Core processors that have come out, along with i3, i5, and i7, and if you're getting a new machine with Windows 7 on it, I recommend getting one with at least a Quad Core processor or i5. Although many applications cannot take advantage of the extra processors, Windows 7 can, and anything to speed up Windows will help!

You can keep your current monitor in most cases, but large flat monitors have become much more inexpensive you're better off getting a 21-24 inch screen. The extra screen "real estate" can be very useful. One drawback I've discovered with larger screens is the text can get very small. This seems odd and counter intuitive when you are considering getting a bigger monitor to compensate eyesight troubles. You'd expect a bigger screen that would give you bigger and easier to read fonts. By default, bigger monitors do not make the text bigger, just smaller. You have go into the Windows settings to adjust the size of everything on your screen.

Your old printer and scanner might not work windows 7. Check with the manufacturer (their website) for drivers. New printers should indicate if they can be used with Windows 7, so be sure to check on the box for details.

Warranties are a bit of a mixed nightmare. I have had clients that got warranties and have a hard time getting any benefit because of the fine print. The only good warranty that I've seen is a premium package that cost half as much as the PC. When the sales guy is talking to you about it, he/she will try to sell you on how great the warranty is but, in practice, is a real pain and only applies in specific situations. If you have trouble with your computer at some later date, and if you have data on your computer that you don't want anyone to erase or even have access to, then an extended warranty might not do you any good.

eMachines are much better than they used to be. eMachines, along with many other brands, use what is called Shared Memory. (Remember: Memory is not the same as hard drive space and is not storage of any kind.) Shared memory is a method of stealing the computers memory for use by the graphics card that is built into the computer. This means that any graphics, background, cursor, menu, or anything that shows up on the screen, is taking up valuable memory that the computer needs to do its job. Windows Vista and Windows 7 require a lot of memory. Once you start installing programs that automatically launch at start up, you'll watch as your computer starts to slow down, dramatically.

The HP/Compaq computers are generally good machines, but you do have to watch the speed and memory. If you picked up on the strange method of pricing computers, you're right to question its value. It's those little things that will jack up the price for no obvious reason. Faster components often mean more expense computers, and the inverse is often true.

I'm not sure how much hard drive space you're going to need, and it depends on how long you plan on keeping this PC and if the children will be using it. Games, graphics, and music take up a lot of space. Nearly all drives are more than 250GB, which is more than most people will need for a very long time. Size is one thing, but the hard drive speed is something else to consider. 5400RPM hard drives are slow, which will affect your computers speed, but for some people this might not really be an issue.

Getting a super-cheap machine works for the short term, but you'll most likely have problems early on and end up spending more money to fix those problem fairly quickly. This actually might work out for your budget, but keep in mind that $30 here, $80 there, and pretty soon you've spent $1000 without even realizing it.

Gaming on a computer is processor intensive. Graphical games work the processor even harder and often require graphic cards purchased separately to get the most out of those games: Halo, Guild Wars and World of Warcraft to name a few. What this means is that you need a lot of extra power for most of the modern games. If you want a computer for the kid's to play games then expect to pay a little more for it.