What should I look for in a computer?

Buying a computer can be a stressful decision. There are so many factors that it can feel overwhelming. Over the years I’ve helped many people pick out computers for themselves, as well as tried to make the best decisions for myself. In fact, I have to hold myself back when hearing people pondering computer purchases in MicroCenter from butting in and ticking off the Sales Rep.

Rather than annoying the reps down at my primary computer store, let me give a couple of my tips and thoughts here.

What size screen should I buy?

For me the perfect screen size for a mobile laptop is 11.6″. Looks a lot bigger than my old 10.1″ netbook but still light and portable. This by far is the best hybrid size for something between a laptop and a tiny netbook. It will feel small for gaming sometimes, so you might want a 15.6″ if that’s your emphasis. Much bigger and you’ll be carrying around a brick that won’t fit in a lot of bags.

Should I buy a solid state drive?

The speed is nice, and no moving parts means they’re harder to damage, but a conventional 500GB SATA drive will probably serve you just fine. Consider the solid state if you are resting the laptop actually on your lap and you have restless leg syndrome.

Do I need an optical drive (CD/DVD burner)?

Depends. I have a netbook that doesn’t have one as my primary “on the go” computer and I don’t miss it. But at home for backups and the like, it pays to have at least one computer with an optical drive. Externals work but can be fussy about their power settings, and one drew power in such a way that it messed up the power on my USB ports. If you do backups only on flash or hard drives, then maybe you don’t need it, but optical discs are still great long lasting backups. No matter what, in my experience a CD/DVD burner stops working (fails discs) after 3-4 years.

Does Windows 8.1 stink?

Not really, though it may take some time to configure it to what you’ll actually use. I never use the metro screen, and set my computer to boot straight to the desktop. Check out my tips for how to make Windows 8.1 work for you.

Which Brands?

I like ASUS and Toshiba. I have purchased Acer and they can be great for a budget. Avoid Dell and HP.

How much RAM?

4GB will be fine. 3GB is probably okay too. Don’t overspend to get 8GB, you can always buy the chip later.

Dual or Quad core?

My netbook is a dual core and works great, but if the quad core isn’t a whole lot more, it’s probably the way to go. For basic use both are fine.

# of USB ports?

Three or more is best, though you can always buy hubs if you want. Two seems like too few (my old Toshiba laptop only has 2).

How much should I spend?

Laptops last between 3-5 years typically (good ones maybe longer). Unless you are a high end gamer, graphic designer, or video editor, don’t spend more than $400. $300 is probably a good budget though you can get good machines even cheaper.

Warranty?

I heard good advice on Car Talk the other day; if you feel like you’re an unlucky person, buy the warranty. Otherwise be happy. It should have a 1 year manufacturer’s warranty in case the computer is a lemon.

Anything else?

Test the keyboard and pop the CD/DVD tray (if applicable) before buying. If possible see the thing in person rather than buying online. Take someone with you who knows more about computers if you’re unsure. Don’t rely on the sales rep, but be nice and give them the commission for fetching the one you want. Buy a USB wireless or bluetooth (if supported by your laptop) mouse. Maybe buy a sheath\sleeve if you don’t have one but thrift a laptop bag (you can get one for $1-3 instead of $40).

Questions and comments are appreciated.

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1 Comment

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One response to “What should I look for in a computer?

  1. I bought a computer once. It was awful. I’m lucky to have a brother who builds them. 🙂 Great advice, Ben!

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