Buying a computer system/Buying a first computer.


QUESTION: Bobbert,

I've decided it's time to get with the times and buy my first computer. Here's what I'll be using it for: Surfing the web, reading and writing e-mail, (and the occasional letter#, paying my bills on-line, managing my bank accounts, down loading my CD's onto my i-phone, #and updating my i-phone,for that matter), occasionally buying things on Amazon, making hotel and airline reservations, etc. and occasionally watching a DVD. Mostly basic stuff. After reading questions and answers from this site, I think most fairly low-cost computers would be suitable for me. Would you agree?
I would also like advice on what things to specifically look for and what things I should avoid. What are the most important options that I should be willing to spend a little more on and what things are all "hype"? And my last question: Assuming I'm not going to be dragging it around with me, would a desktop model be more bang for my buck rather than a laptop?

I know everyone's needs are different so I just need some general guidelines so I know where to start.

Thank you , David

ANSWER: Yes you are correct - most modern computers will be suitable for you. The only thing I'd say is a definite "look for" feature would be to ensure the new machine includes a DVD drive (many newer laptops omit this feature to save on weight; you can add an external drive, but it would be easier to buy a machine with an internal drive in principle). The web surfing features will require an internet connection, but generally should be no problem for a modern machine.

As far as desktop vs laptop - I would agree with the desktop choice as it will return better performance for the money, be repairable down the line, and be ugpradeable down the line, while a laptop generally is designed to be replaced rather than repaired; if mobility is a prime concern, that trade-off is more or less necessary, but if mobility is not an issue, a desktop is a better choice.

As far as specifics - beyond the DVD drive, there's nothing that stands out about your requirements that needs specialized consideration. Depending on your budget though, you might also ensure that more advanced features are included, like a more powerful graphics adapter (to allow the machine to play videogames), or a printer/scanner, or multiple monitors (to improve productivity), etc. But none of this is specifically required. Additionally, you should remember to include some sort of speakers or headphones for DVD playback.

As far as where to purchase the machine - generally I suggest Dell and Hewlett-Packard as their warranties and customer service tend to be top-notch. However, if gaming isn't a primary concern (or if you use a game console), and given that you mention already owning Apple devices, an Apple computer wouldn't be a bad idea either (and their service and quality is good as well). For example the iMac would be a complete all-in-one solution (monitor, computer, etc), and would integrate well with the iPhone and similar devices (this isn't to say a Windows computer cannot work just as effectively with an iPhone, but if you're already used to Apple hardware and software, it may be a more "natural" transition).

If you have further questions, feel free to ask.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Bob, Thanks for the info. I have 3 follow-up questions.

First, I will NOT be playing any video games. They're not my thing. Just give me solitaire and I'm good to go. So may I assume that I don't need a more "powerful graphics adapter"? Is that something that is only for playing video games? Or would it be useful for some other purpose?

Second, can you suggest any essential/useful software. Again,I won't be using this for an office. When I refer to "managing my bank accounts", I'm basically just balancing my checkbook and checking my balance.

And lastly, I will be buying a printer/scanner. Can you give me any general recommendations on what to look for? Would most low cost printers fit my modest requirements?

I appreciate your taking the time to answer my questions. I feel like now I know where to start.

Thanks, David

ANSWER: In response to your questions:

1. Yes that is a correct assumption - whatever "base model" graphics adapter the system includes will be perfectly fine for your needs. If you end up wanting multiple monitors, you may need to upgrade the graphics card for that (if you go with an integrated graphics chip, like Intel's graphics adapters, they generally will only support one monitor), but you can get by with a relatively inexpensive ($30-$40) upgrade card and be perfectly served.

2. I'd suggest OpenOffice for word processing and spreadsheets (it's free), and you might consider Quicken or QuickBooks for financial applications, but many banks offer relatively comprehensive online suites for maintaining your accounts (I'd ask your bank basically - they may already have the features you want or need as part of their online banking, or they may have a specific third-party application they suggest because it can "plug in" to their online system).

3. Look for printers that have relatively inexpensive ink; avoid printers where the replacement ink costs more than the printer costs. HP has a number of printers that satisfy this, labeled as things like "OfficeJet Pro" - expect to spend around $100-$150 on a good printer, but it will more than pay for itself when you aren't spending $100/mo+ in ink just to do light printing.


---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Bob Thanks for the info. So I've gone to the Apple store and Best Buy and and have started reading up so here are some more questions. Why would I or anyone want/need more than 2 or 3 USB ports on 1 computer? What's with the new "touch screen" with the new Windows 8? Is that considered something that would be an advantage/disadvantage for me or is it just a gimmick and depends on personal preference? And what's up with the new "all-in-one" computers? Basically, aren't they just a big laptop but the screen and keyboard aren't connected? And on almost all the computers I've looked at, are huge screens (20+ inches) something the average person would want? They just seem huge.

Concerning you previous answers:  Thanks for mentioning about looking to see if it has a DVD drive. I did notice that several laptops didn't. I asked the clerk and he said I could always buy a seperate external drive but that does seem like a hassle.

And at the Apple Store almost all the computers were more expensive so I'll probably stick to a PC.

And lastly, I would never want multiple monitors so I won't need a graphics card.

Thanks for all the help. I hope you don't mind all the questions.


Re: your questions

1. USB ports aren't very expensive/complicated for manufacturers to add, and over the last few years USB has become the dominant form of connecting peripherals (you may remember computers from the 1980s and 1990s that relied on a myriad of connectors, and different kinds of devices had different kinds of connectors). It isn't uncommon for a desktop to have 4 to 8 USB ports, and it's generally a convenience for the user; don't fear, you aren't being charged a substantial premium for that (and you'd be surprised how many devices you can find to fill those ports!).

2. Touch-screens have been around for a while; Windows Vista and later support touch input, but Windows 8 has certainly improved support and added more features. Whether or not the feature is a "gimmick" is hard to say - it certainly isn't required for a desktop or laptop computer with a full keyboard and mouse, but if you're using a tablet (like the Microsoft Surface), it's invaluable. This, however, is a feature that will add considerably to the price of a new machine - if it's not something you see yourself using, I'd say pass on the feature.

3. "All-in-ones" are roughly what you've described in terms of internal hardware, yes. The primary goal is space-saving - instead of having a tower and additional monitors, it's all one unit that can sit on your desk or table. Often you do pay a small price premium for this hardware, but if you don't need complex processing power, the space saving and simplicity can be a nice feature. Given that you're not likely to need very high performance hardware, an all-in-one might be something worth considering, if the price isn't a problem. Vizio and HP have some nice all-in-one machines, alongside the genre-defining iMac. See here:

HP looks like the least expensive option, while Vizio and Apple are both going to come in upwards of $1000. Again, it really comes down to aesthetic preference as to whether or not the all-in-one is for you; a conventional desktop and monitor is just as capable, and in many cases has more options for hardware upgrades down the line, but if the aesthetic of an all-in-one appeals to you, they are just as competent (the one advantage they have over a laptop, is that they always have wall power and generally more interior volume to support better cooling, which is a big plus).

4. Larger screens are just a trend over time - very old computers (from the 1980s) frequently had 15" or smaller screens, modern systems have bigger screens; just sort of the way things have evolved. Monitor prices have gone down considerably though, and there are advantages to having a larger monitor (better productivity and multimedia content is more enjoyable (you have a bigger display to watch movies on)). I'd say there's nothing wrong with a big monitor for a desktop; on a laptop it often means more weight and more power consumption (which means shorter battery life), but keep in mind that going much over 24" will usually incur a hefty premium. Multiple monitors can be a way to save some money while still having a large work area (for example, a 30" WQXGA monitor will cost you around $1200, while a pair of 24" 1080p displays will run you around $400; they have roughly the same number of total pixels and can display roughly the same amount of information as a result), but again this is usually a feature that we'd see as more valuable for business or professional users, where they need to have a large number of applications open at once. For a home user, a single monitor is usually just fine. I would ensure that you purchase a monitor that is appropriate for your needs, and that is of high enough resolution to support modern applications; for a desktop this means something around 1280x1024 or higher, and for a laptop around 1366x768 or higher (there are some newer applications that require a minimum resolution of 1024x768; while monitors this small (or smaller) are relatively rare, some do still exist, so it's worth noting that). If you're really serious about movies, for example if you think you might be adding Blu-ray or HD playback to the machine in the future, a 1080p display may be worth the investment.

5. Yes, Apple hardware does tend to run a bit more. This is really a "brand tax" - there's generally no advantage in terms of the hardware itself relative to a Dell or HP or Lenovo machine, however if you like OS X, Apple hardware is the only real option (just something to keep in mind for down the road; if your goal is to save money, I'd absolutely agree with you about getting a PC).


Buying a computer system

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I have nearly two decades of experience in IT, computer repair, and related fields and will attempt to provide the most solid, brand-agnostic advice when it comes time to purchase a new computer, or upgrade an existing machine. I can answer anything from the seemingly basic to the downright complicated - and will do my best to provide this information in a clear and concise manner.


I have been an enthusiast of PC's for many years, and can answer questions about the purchase/use of a new computer or the purchase, installation, and use of upgrades for existing computers. There probably isn't a whole lot related to the home computer that I haven't seen over the years.

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