Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Buying Advice: Computers

It's one of the most frequently asked questions I get. "What computer should I get?"

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW FIRST:

As everyone should know by now - any computer you buy TODAY, right now, is instantly out of date. Technology flows at a pace much faster than the market and consumers can absorb -- which makes it very difficult for companies to attain any market leverage for any significant period of time. That's partly the reason why there is significant parity among computer companies these days.

There's a couple of things you need to know about any computer you're going to get. If you get more than 5 YEARS out of it - you've done good. For laptops, if you get 2-3 YEARS out of it - you've done really good. (more on laptops later) Why only 5 years? Because we're not buying a durable good like a refrigerator or a stove or a TV here that's supposed to get some decent life out of it. Computers are pretty fragile devices - and susceptible to heat, movements and power fluctuations. Even if you take really good care of your computer stuff -- anything over 5 years is really good.

So what do you look for first?

Actually - the question falls back on you: "What are you going to do with the computer?"

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OVER 80% OF USERS OUT THERE NEED JUST THE BASICS.

Some word processing, ability to check email, download pictures, maybe do some video work and surf the web. Clearly you don't need the top of the line, but in order to reach that 5 year target, we need a computer that can at least last that long. One of the guides I use are the prices of the computers across the spectrum.

There is no compelling reason WHY anyone should get a top of the line computer system. (period) Even for gaming because most games are optimized for older computers anyway. You'd be better off spending that money on a souped up graphics card or more memory.

That's why I promote the "middle of the road" way of computer purchasing. With top of the line out of the question, you also don't want to purchase a bottom priced computer because (spec wise) they won't last 5 years like we want it to. Where you want to focus your attention is in the middle of the road computer prices as they represent your typical 5-year computer system. More than not, these computers will do nicely for most users that want to extend the life of their computers as much as they can.

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WHAT SPECIFICATIONS AM I LOOKING FOR

Gigahertz, megahertz, dual core, quad core -- holy heck!! Don't get bogged down with the verbiage. Don't get bogged down in the chipset. Keep an eye on the price tag - remember the middle of the road advice up above? The same is true here. But there are only a couple of things you should look out for: memory and hard drive space.

Ideally you want as much memory and as much hard drive space as you can get. But look at how much you're paying for the extra memory and space. If it's a small amount (under $150) it'll be a good deal. Upgrading your memory doesn't cost that much and installation is generally straight forward. You can have your computer memory installed for cheap. At bear minimum - you should seek 2GB of memory.

Hard drive space is a little different. Upgrading a hard drive also requires the re-installation of your operating system - which take more time and hence, more money. In the alternative you can get an external hard drive and use that for your data, photos and video. There's some draw backs to using external hard drives, but that's for another blog entry. If possible, try to get at least a 200GB hard drive with your system.

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THE OPERATING SYSTEM MESS

When it comes to the basic software that runs our computers, the operating system -- everyone is stuck with Microsoft Vista unless you're lucky enough to be in the mac crowd or geeky enough to venture into Linux. When it comes to Microsoft, in my honest professional opinion - I wish they would've stayed with Windows XP. It was a great operating system that worked with every piece of hardware you could've had.

But with the advent of Vista - and the cataclysmic amount of problems it towed with it -- it lost its luster very quickly. One would expect that with a new operating system you could expect the same performance, if not better. In the testing I conducted with a myriad of programs - I actually found my performance significantly decreased to the point where these programs are so bloated when they run the computer is bogged down.

Unfortunately - there's no much choice.

Windows 7 is due out in the next year or two - but users will remain cautious not to jump the gun like so many did with Vista. These operating systems are substantial memory hogs -- which is why it's essential for you to consider starting off with no less than 2GB of memory.

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WHAT ABOUT MACINTOSH COMPUTERS?

Before I made the switch to Windows, I was an avid Macintosh user. I started using them back in 1989 in college and loved them. Really great solid computer systems and very easy to learn. So why did I move over to Windows? It became a question of applications. The availability of programs has always been a problem because software companies would have to dedicate two sets of programmers for both operating systems.

But times have changed for Mac users. While there are still inherent differences between the programming of both operating systems, there are better programs that attempt to bridge the Windows world over to the Macintosh experience. Overall, these programs do a pretty decent job at it. It's important to note that some of the more robust programs that require a great deal of resources (games, video and graphic applications) may have some difficulty running in the cross platform using VMWare or parallels. There's no easy way around that - which is why I can't make a total switch to macintosh unless I'm willing to sacrifice all of the applications and programs I currently employ. That's a hefty investment on top of a new computer system.

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PORTS, ADD-ONS AND OTHER STUFF

You can obsess about the number of USB ports are available or the number of Firewire ports if you want. The 80% of folks out there will want at least 3-4 USB ports and maybe a firewire. USB ports are good for hard drives, cameras, scanners, printers and some video cameras. Firewire ports are good for video cameras and some hard drives. You can get some computers that have a spattering of different reader cards for digital cameras - if that works for you.

Something to keep an eye on - is whether or not the computer comes with a monitor. You're likely to get a flat panel LCD screen with most computers these days and they start around $150-200 if you were to buy it solo. You're probably not going to find one cheaper -- so if it comes with an LCD screen -- get it. Do you need anything larger than 17 inches? In most cases - probably not, but if you're looking at a small differential in price with similar specs on your computer system -- get the upgraded monitor.

But stay away from package deals with ink jet printers. For more information as to why I stay away from ink jets -- see my other blog entry on buying advice for printers. Ink simply isn't worth it.

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LAPTOPS...

Ahhh, the convenience. The ability to do our computing on the road, in our job, in our house -- having all of our files right there with us when we want them -- all sounds like a great idea. Unfortunately the problem goes back to issue I raised at the start - where these computers are generally very fragile. Even if you baby them -- they're still prone to problems as they age. Hard drives can fail, the LCD monitor screen can suddenly quit, they can overheat -- etc.

My rule of thumb when it comes to laptops: NEVER use them as your primary computer. As fragile as they are -- you'd need to adhere to a consistent and reliable backup process. I employ my laptops to be an extension of my computer work - so that I can eventually come back to "home base" with it and sync up my data later. This is where thumb drives and external hard drives come in particularly handy.

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WHAT ABOUT ANTI-VIRUS AND SPYWARE PROGRAMS?

There are a number of options out there and some of the applications aren't worth their weight in gold. It's important not to get deceived by the likes of Norton and McAfee anymore. They've become incredibly bloated and can bog down your system in no time. They try to tack on so much garbage that it makes your computer run very slow. There are some free options out there in the form of AVG, Avast for anti-virus and Spybot Search and Destroy for spyware. These free options do pretty well, but there's the golden rule of computing:

"Most users are wholly responsible for the viruses they get..."


Viruses land on our machines for the following reasons:
- Your computer doesn't have all of the necessary updates (Windows, anti-virus, etc)
- You visited sites that installed malicious stuff behind the scenes
- You opened emails that you shouldn't have
- Exploits that are contained in other programs that haven't been patched by you or by the companies that designed the software

The best way on how to avoid a virus and other malware is to practice safe computing. With all of the scams and phishing crud out there -- it's important to stay up on warnings from other users to make sure you don't get scammed or damage your computer.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

It's important to accept the fact that we're all going to have to invest in new computers and applications every 5 years. We simply can't avoid it. If you're still running on Windows XP, you'll probably have to buy a new printer and other hardware. As frustrating these computer companies have become, the reality is - the industry will keep turning over new products and programs as fast as the market can handle. So - aim for the middle, get the deals you can and practice safe computing!

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