Buying a computer system/Laptops

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QUESTION: I was considering  buying a lap top computer to hopefully expedite work I do on my PC when I'm away from home. I need it to play movies and run word processing and office type programs. If possible be able to run 3D model editing softwares with ease. No 3D animation or anything too  dynamic. Just single figures. I don't know if blueray players are now cheap but that might be a plus. But for sure be able to play and burn  dvds. The reviews for most laptops I've seen that cost less than $600 are less than impressive. And I have the concern that for laptops unlike PCs it might be tough or impossible to replace parts when they break. Any suggestions for shopping and for particular laptops I might consider? $600 is really my maximum budget. I might want to add some type of insurance to it too. Also Windows 7 would be prefered over 8.

ANSWER: First of all your concern is entirely founded - laptops are generally designed to be replaced rather than repaired, and upgrading or swapping hardware is generally not possible (most everything is directly soldered to the mainboard). If that's a limitation on what you need, a laptop may not be a good choice.

As far as the rest:

- Most systems under $600, as you've observed, are going to be bottom-of-the-line equipment where cost trumps all other considerations (like battery life, performance, build quality, etc) because of how competitive the entry-level price point is, and the limits of what manufacturers can accomplish with such a small budget.

- Blu-ray or DVD-RW optical drives are becoming increasingly rare for mobile computers; in general you'll have to rely an external drive (and they do exist for both Blu-ray and DVD). If you're looking at Blu-ray with the hope of viewing movies, realize that playback of AACS protected discs (that is, commercially manufactured Blu-ray and HD-DVD software) is imperfect on PC platforms, and will require relatively expensive 3rd-party software to even enable. It will also lean heavily on the system's CPU and GPU to decode and display, which will eat into battery life fairly substantially depending on how often you use the feature.

- 3D modeling or rendering will be very limited on even a relatively competent laptop, but on an entry-level model you will be stuck with basic integrated graphics and whatever it is capable of providing you. If you need something certified for AutoCAD or Maya or similar you should look at a "mobile workstation" from Dell, HP, etc which will likely cost considerably more than $600 but will include more appropriate hardware. The price-to-performance against a desktop workstation will still be inferior, and you will hit a performance ceiling much more quickly than with a desktop/deskside machine (not to mention that as you increase performance, you will necessarily increase weight/size and decrease battery life as well as the machine has to accommodate the additional graphics hardware, cooling, and so forth).

- Those considerations aside, office programs and email communication would be no problem for more or less any modern computer, from the most meagre netbook to the most powerful deskside multi-processor system. Those tasks could also be fairly easily handled by more modern hardware devices like a smartphone or tablet, depending on how intensive word processing or other office applications you need to run (handling huge spreadsheets or building entire slideshow presentations isn't something I'd suggest on an iPhone, but dealing with your email, social media, and so forth should not be a problem at all).

- Getting Windows 7 may or may not be possible; while you can still purchase the operating system as an individual piece of software, many manufacturers have switched to Windows 8.1 outside of commercial/professional hardware. If you purchase a system with Windows 8.1 Pro it will include what are known as "Downgrade Rights" that should allow you to switch it to Windows 7 (see here for more: http://www.microsoft.com/oem/en/licensing/sblicensing/pages/downgrade_rights.asp).

- By insurance, what do you mean? (and let me forewarn you that I am not an expert on insurance or liability)

I don't mean for things to sound so bleak regarding laptops - I'm simply trying to illustrate their limitations in a realistic manner. Despite the popularity of "portable computing" these days, an AC-powered desktop or deskside workstation remains to be the best choice in terms of price-to-performance, and overall performance and upgrade/repairability features. Mobile devices have the advantage of being mobile, but at the cost of performance and features. Given the changes/advances/etc in smartphones and tablets, I generally would not suggest a laptop for "casual" use (like checking email or light web browsing) as a smartphone can generally accomplish that task just as well, and will generally have better battery life and is easier to carry around all day. If you have specific mobile computing demands, like needing to demonstrate architectural plans while in the field, then a higher-spec'd "mobile workstation" would be an appropriate choice. It will, however, still likely be limited compared to what you could accomplish with a conventional desktop/deskside workstation.

Regarding what manufacturers to consider - I would suggest Dell and Hewlett-Packard; I would avoid any Acer Group products (Acer Group includes E-Machines, Gateway, Acer, and Packard Bell) as their customer service/support is generally very poor, and the hardware itself is also often poor. You may also look at Sony, however the capabilities of their offerings seem to be relatively inconsistent (that is, at times they will have very good value-for-money products, and at others they will be relatively more expensive than their competition; it is for this reason that I tend not to suggest them as readily, or follow their hardware as closely). If you can wait, there are generally back-to-school oriented sales that begin in late July and run through September as students return to class, and you may be able to get at least a slight discount on hardware.

If you have any further questions, need clarification, or so on please feel free to post a follow-up.

-bob




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

QUESTION: Why would disc burner drives be becoming more rare in laptops? Aren't they trying to make them more useful? What if I limited my demands to word processing? I don't care if it is a laptop that is as much as 1/2 as heavy as the screen, keyboard, and processor of a desktop computer. If it has 50gb storage and a usb port I can transfer  movies as files and play them with image file software instead. Is that in the realm of possible? Any thrifty portable computer makers working on something for the basics? I don't want touch screen or internet or any bells and whistles.

ANSWER: Disc drives tend to be large power consumers, as well as relatively bulky - they are becoming less common as a means of improving power efficiency and making systems smaller. In general, physical media is also on the way out for a lot of things.

As far as an inexpensive system for word processing, Internet connectivity, and so forth, you should have no problems finding such a system from Dell or HP for around your $600 mark (those tasks tend not to be extremely demanding). Look at something like the Dell Inspiron 5000 series, and again keep an eye out for back-to-school sales as they come up.

-bob


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

QUESTION: $600 just for word processing is way to expensive. Under $200 makes more sense. I said I "don't" want internet. My desktop computer cost $600 and that was breaking the bank and it does everything. I'm thinking I should buy a portable Dvd player and see if smart phones have large keyboard accessories.

Answer
Unfortunately, you won't find a brand-new laptop for under $200 (the absolute bottom of the barrel will put you at around $350-400 plus any applicable shipping/taxes - $500-600 is a more reasonable budget for a basic/average machine though (which will be fully capable of the bulk of tasks a personal computer could ever need to do, excepting very demanding 3D graphics and some professional-level applications), as the bottom-of-barrel systems generally are the result of dramatic corner cutting, not thrifty design). You also won't find one that doesn't include network connectivity (and it wouldn't be saving you money to exclude that feature even if you aren't using it - networking hardware is a standard integrated component of all modern chipsets; it may, however, improve battery life to have that component disabled when it isn't being used and the system isn't on wall power (this is especially true of any sort of wireless connectivity)). As I said previously - you will pay a price premium for the portability (e.g. the same performance as a desktop will cost more than a desktop); whether or not you personally view that as a reasonable value proposition is another worthwhile consideration - that isn't a distinction I can make for you.

A portable DVD player, by contrast, can be had fairly inexpensively - many options are available under $100. Within a $200 budget, portable Blu-ray becomes a very real possibility, if you're so inclined (it would likely serve no advantage for DVD playback, but would add Blu-ray functionality). Do note that such a device will be entirely limited to playback of DVDs, CDs, and (potentially) Blu-ray discs. You could alternately roll that functionality into a smartphone or portable media player if you have access to your content as digital files or streams (e.g. you have your music or movies ripped, or have access to a service like Hulu). Doing everything from such a small device would be highly portable, but may not be as efficient as using a desktop workstation, depending on your specific workload and workspace needs.

Regarding smart phones, tablets, and so on - adding a keyboard is generally straight-forwards as with a desktop or laptop computer (at least for modern devices), although it is usually connected wirelessly.  For example, Amazon produces a Bluetooth compatible keyboard for Apple devices, see it here:
http://www.amazon.com/AmazonBasics-Bluetooth-Keyboard-iPhone-Black/dp/B005EOWBKE

If going with the smartphone option (assuming you're purchasing a new piece of hardware), keep in mind both the hardware purchase price, as well as the total price of the associated service contract in comparison - as the expression goes, there is no free lunch (many phones or devices advertised as "free" will have their cost absorbed into monthly payments on some level).

If you have any further questions, or need clarification, feel free to post another follow-up. Do note that the AllExperts software will artificially limit the number of follow-ups to your question, and if that happens just resubmit a "new" question to continue (that is, I am not imposing any limit on follow-ups, it's just a software limitation).

-bob  

Buying a computer system

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Bobbert

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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.

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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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