Woman looking at her laptop while drinking coffee

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Think you might need a new computer? Whether you’re starting school, your old PC is starting to fail, or your laptop is just slowing down and not responding the way you’d like anymore, you’ll probably know when it’s time to start the shopping process.

I just bought a new computer, and having recently explored the market, I figured I would take you through some of the things you need to think about if you’re in the market for a computer yourself. There’s more choice in the computer market today than there ever has been, so it’s important to take the time to find the one that really meets your needs.

Before we get into what you need to look for to find the right computer for you, when is the best time to buy one?

Best Time to Buy

The best time to buy really depends on your situation. If your computer is broken and you need a new one for work, school and taking care of your entertainment needs, you really don’t have time to wait around and be choosy. If you can afford to wait, the best time to buy a new computer is probably when the new models come out.

If you’re looking to save money, manufacturers of laptops and desktops often drop the price on the previous year’s model when the new model comes out. Many of these refreshes are minor performance boosts that the average person won’t notice. If you’re looking for a decent analog, take a look at a recent smartphone announcement. Many times, the upgrades are the difference between the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8, rather than the big jump to the iPhone X. You can often get a better bargain on an older model without necessarily sacrificing on capabilities.

If you’re the type of person who wants the latest and greatest, it’s a great time for you to buy, too. In addition to getting new features, you’re ahead of the curve, so your new computer will be supported with software upgrades for a longer period of time than older models, which should increase its life span.

According to Consumer Reports, the best time to buy is between April and May or September and October. If you like a particular brand, you can always check out the company’s release schedules, keep an eye out for press releases and sign up for promotional emails.

Budget

You should have a good idea of your budget upfront because computers can be expensive. It’ll help to have a realistic idea of what you need in a computer first, too. Computers designed for high-performance games are going to be fairly expensive. If you just need a word processor and a web browser, consider going with an iPad and a decent Bluetooth keyboard. You could also look at a Chromebook to use with Google Docs.

From a reliability standpoint, whatever computer you end up choosing, you likely don’t want the cheapest model. With computer performance, the adage that “you get what you pay for” really is true, although you don’t have to buy the most expensive one, either.

If you’re buying a computer for school, check whether the school offers student discount programs through a manufacturer. Frequently, all you need is a .edu email address. Most colleges and universities offer this, and it’s increasingly offered by high schools. It’s also worth noting that a lot of businesses have business-to-business deals with major computer manufacturers to offer their employees discounts.

Of course, gaming and typing aren’t the only uses for a computer. There are a lot of things in between. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what you should consider when comparing computers.

Buying for School or Work?

If you’re buying a computer for school or work, there may be some special considerations.

If you’re enrolled in college now or will be next fall, certain programs may have recommendations or even requirements regarding what type of laptop to buy. This helps ensure any necessary specialized software can run and makes it easier for the school’s tech support to diagnose issues. So check with school advisers before making a purchase.

If you’re in a field where the work doesn’t necessarily end at 5:00 and need the flexibility to be able to log in from home, it may be helpful to consult your IT department to make sure whatever laptop you buy will work with remote access and other purpose-built software you may need, in addition to suiting your personal computing needs.

Laptop and Desktop Operating Systems

Although today’s operating systems all work similarly to one another (at least from the user’s perspective), there are differences in features and the way commands are executed. The two big operating systems for desktops and laptops are Windows and macOS. Google has also recently started working with computer manufacturers to offer ChromeOS, which essentially turns the computer into a version of the company’s Chrome web browser.

If you like your current operating system software and have integrated the keyboard shortcuts into your workflow, it may be worthwhile to find a computer with that operating system or its successors in order to avoid the learning curve.

You may also be limited to a specific operating system if you have specialized software needs. For example, if you edit movies in Final Cut, that’s only available on a Mac. Make sure you know any software you need will work on your new computer.

Tablet Operating Systems

If you use an iPad, it’ll come with iOS, the same operating system used on an iPhone. Other tablets often use some version of Google’s Android operating system. Note that not all Android apps work on iOS and vice versa.

Form Factor

Next, think about the form factor (the physical size and shape) of your computer. Do you want a tower-based desktop, a laptop, a two-in-one or an all-in-one?

Tower-Based Desktops

PC

Image: Lenovo.com

Computer form factors based around a tower may seem somewhat bulky in the age of laptops and tablets, but if you’re a hardcore gamer, a professional video editor, etc., this may be the way to go.

Tower PCs offer expandability. You can swap out graphics cards, processor chips and other upgrade components. For example, this Area 51 model from Dell’s gaming brand Alienware features enough slots for the user to put in up to five hard drives.

In many cases, a desktop is cheaper than a laptop with similar specifications because it costs more to miniaturize the technology for a laptop.

Many desktops are often still configured with optical drives for CDs, DVDs and even Blu-rays. This can’t be said about many of the laptops that come out now.

The cooling on PCs is also often better because there are more holes for heat to escape through. Properly cooled PCs are more reliable over time. If you’re using the processor and graphics card intensely, it’s possible to use liquid cooling as well.

Desktop pros:

  • Lots of ports
  • Easier to expand storage and swap out components
  • Optical drives
  • Better cooling capabilities

Desktop cons:

  • Stationary and hard to transport
  • Monitors are often sold separately

Laptops

Laptop

Image: Acer.com

Laptops are extremely portable, as they fit into a backpack or briefcase.

They can be powerful enough to handle many games and movie editing, in addition to allowing us to binge-watch Netflix in bed at 2:00 a.m.

The downside is that upgrading the internals often isn’t possible. If you’re lucky, there’s a second hard drive at most, as in this Acer model.

Optical disc drives add bulk and often aren’t included. In the era of digital software and easy downloading, this may not be an issue, but depending on how you plan to use your laptop, it might be relevant to you.

To make up for the lack of internal expandability, look for a laptop with plenty of ports for hooking up accessories like external hard drives and disc drives. On the other hand, maybe you don’t need all that. Plan accordingly.

Laptop pros:

  • Versatile and portable
  • Don’t need a separate monitor

Laptop cons:

  • Limited upgradability after purchase
  • Portability dependent on battery life
  • A similarly capable desktop is usually cheaper

2-in-1s

Laptop

Image: Microsoft.com

Some devices have a laptop and tablet form factor built in, like the Microsoft Surface and Lenovo’s Yoga line.

The nice thing about 2-in-1 devices is the flexibility they offer. You could be typing an email one second and then flip it over the next second and start drawing on the screen with your finger or a specialized pen.

Sometimes the screen/tablet portion is detachable from the keyboard and trackpad, meaning you can take them anywhere and watch movies or play games on the touchscreen.

The downside is that all the computer parts are crammed into that tablet. There’s often no room for things like additional hard drives or memory – particularly if they detach – so these can be underpowered compared to laptops and desktops. They also aren’t usually upgradable, and you may need specialized keyboard cases with extra ports. If you end up buying one, be sure it works with your device model.

2-in-1 pros:

  • Tablet portion is detachable for a smaller form factor, adding flexibility
  • Often comes with a pen for drawing
  • Good battery life

2-in-1 cons:

  • May be underpowered compared to other computers
  • Durability may be an issue because of the detachable parts

All-in-Ones

PC

Image: HP.com

An all-in-one PC is a modification of the desktop form factor. Instead of having a tower, all the components are built into the monitor, taking up less desk or shelf space.

Many manufacturers offer several PC options in this form factor. This is also the design style of choice for all of Apple’s iMac desktops.

These tend to have big, beautiful screens to hide all the hardware within. On the downside, because all the hardware is within the screen, it can be hard to get at the parts to do any upgrades, so be sure to get a computer with the tech specs you want upfront.

You also might have fewer ports than you would on a tower PC, which may or may not be a deal-breaker for you.

All-in-one pros:

  • Takes up less space than a tower
  • Big, beautiful screens

All-in-one cons:

  • No upgradability after purchase
  • Potentially fewer ports than on a tower

What to Look for in PC Components

Next, there are lots of ways to evaluate the options for your computer’s internal guts. This list isn’t comprehensive, but it’ll give you an idea of some of the things to look for.

Processor

The marketing material surrounding computers frequently tells you how many “cores” something has. But the most important thing to remember about processors for the average person is how fast they are. Let’s briefly discuss how to read processor speed.

Modern computer processor speeds are measured in gigahertz (GHz), which tells you how many billions of calculations are completed every second. When you look at processor options, you’ll see two different numbers: the speed that the computer will run at by default and “the overclock speed.” For example, I just purchased a fairly high-end laptop. The processor speed is 3.8 GHz, but I can overclock it up to 4.4 GHz if I want to squeeze the most performance out of it. So be sure to compare both speeds when you’re looking at computer models.

Hard Drive

When it comes to hard drives, there are two types of drives in today’s computers, and many computers come with both.

Solid-State Drives (SSD)

The solid-state drive has seen increased use in the last decade or so. The big advantage of these is that they’re very fast, enabling you to do things like boot a computer or load large and complicated programs faster. The disadvantage of these is that you can only write new data to them so many times. It’s also relatively expensive to reach the higher capacities offered by more traditional hard drives.

Spinning Hard Drives

Traditional spinning hard drives are often bigger and used for data storage. They’re slightly slower than SSDs, but they offer more capacity for all your data. With that in mind, people often put their operating system and programs on an SSD and documents and data on an internal or external spinning drive.

RAM

When it comes to having many programs, windows and tabs open at once, speedy RAM can be your best friend.

RAM helps with your computer’s ability to handle multiple tasks at once. There are different RAM standards, like DDR4 and DDR5. In general, the more updated your standard is, the better. The other things to take a look at are the speed of the RAM and how much of it you have.

Graphics Cards

Many processors have integrated graphics now. If you’re going to be gaming or editing movies, it can be helpful to take a look at the dedicated graphics cards that can be included in machines that are purpose-built for that sort of higher performance. There are lots of considerations here, but the short version is, the higher the model number, the better.

If you’re interested in knowing more, learn what to look for in a graphics card.

Screen

The first thing most people think about when looking at a screen is the resolution, but there’s so much more to consider.

Depending on the size of the screen (measured in the number of inches across one diagonal, from corner to corner), you can get your screens in various resolutions. One very common one is 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels), but you can get screens that cover a variety of resolutions, depending on the aspect ratio. When looking at aspect ratios, widescreen is 16:9. You can also get the more traditional boxy form factor of 4:3.

If you’re going to be working with graphics or movies, you should also consider the color gamut of the display. Make sure it supports the color profiles you regularly use in your work.

If color is important, OLED screens have deeper blacks for truer color accuracy. If you’re going to be outside with your laptop regularly, it may be worth spending the extra money on an anti-glare option.

Touch and Stylus Options

Many laptops now come with touchscreen options similar to phones and tablets. If you find this interface to be the most intuitive way for you to use a computer, you may choose to make that a priority.

Touchscreen laptops also may give you the ability to switch to a tablet form factor and draw on the screen using a stylus. If you’re an artist, this may be important to you.

Ports

Ports are important because they can make up for missing internal capabilities. They allow you to connect extensions, like a Blu-ray player that plugs into a USB port.

In general, USB 2.0 is slower than USB 3.0. You’ll be able to distinguish USB 3.0 ports because they’re light blue. There are also USB-C ports. These are cool because you don’t have to make sure your device is plugged in right side up, as the plug is reversible.

Finally, thunderbolt ports are based on an Intel standard and work directly with the processor to deliver the highest possible speeds for reading and writing files and data across devices.

Other ports you might look for are HDMI ports for hooking up to TVs and other external monitors as well as an ethernet jack for the fastest internet speeds. Wi-Fi is great, but nothing beats a physical connection if you really need the speed.

Odds and Ends

If you’re going to the store to look at computers, check out the keyboard and, on laptops, the trackpad and make sure they feel good. If you work with spreadsheets and need a number pad, you might need to buy an external USB one.

Many computers also now come with webcams and fingerprint sensors for biometric security. These are great if you can get them to work, but I still recommend memorizing your password.

Those are just some of the things to consider when deciding on a new computer. If you’ll be upgrading your computer soon, don’t forget to back up your data.

What do you look for in a new computer? Let us know in the comments below.

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