A Practical Guide to Computer Buying Pt 1: Wants vs Needs

So you’ve cleaned your computer’s software, and things still aren’t good.  You might have a hardware problem, or maybe your hardware is just not capable of running the most recent software.  It’s probably time to buy a new computer.

Buying a computer can be daunting just because of the sheer number of options.  And when faced with the innumerable manufacturers, models, and variants, my friends and family invariably come to me to pick something for them.  Now, I’m not going to pick the best laptop here, partially because tech changes so fast that this post will be outdated in a week.  Instead, I’ll help you understand what features you need, want, and should avoid to narrow down the pool.

So without further ado, here are the questions I ask people when they ask me what I recommend for computers.

1) What are you using the computer for?

This helps gauge what kind of performance you’ll need out of the computer.  If you’re just checking emails or doing some light web browsing, you won’t notice the difference between a decent, mid-range computer and THE ULTIMATE GAMING RIG OF 2018.  You will, however, notice the difference between mid-range and ultra-budget.

What will the computer mostly be used for?

Now, this is a bit of a trick question, because unless you’re buying it as a video / photo editing workstation for your job, or you’re using it to run computer simulations for engineering school, 95% of its life will be used for simple web browsing and word processing.  Here, I try to make the distinction between “must haves” and “would be nice”.

A basic computer that can check email and write documents can also do photo editing and 3D CAD, just … a little slower.  Even still, the “slowness” will only be seen in heavy computational loads.  Yes, top-of-the-line components will make things like transcoding, rendering, and simulating faster.  But if you do those as a hobby rather than your job, is it really worth that extra money to shave a few minutes off a task that you do only a few times a month?

What are the hobbies you plan to do with the machine?

This category decides what component upgrades to prioritize with what budget you have left.

If you’re looking at games from 5 years or older, the graphics built into the CPU is probably good enough, especially on higher-end CPUs, and you can spend your money on other things.  If you plan to do modern gaming, unfortunately there’s no way around it: a discrete Graphics Card is a must.

Contrary to popular belief, a (regular, gaming-grade) Graphics Card will do next to nothing for engineering work.  Believe me, I went through it.  I ponied up the extra $300 for one at the beginning of Engineering school, and none of my CAD programs cared.  The fancy GPU acceleration features I was hoping for required a specially certified graphics card, and they only certify workstation-grade cards (nVidia Quadro, or AMD’s FirePro) that show up in really expensive workstation laptops.  That said, image processing and machine learning both sometimes make use of any card you throw at it, so it might be worth looking into.  Otherwise, most computer science and web development barely needs any processing power, so don’t overspend for these disciplines either.

For Photography and Video editing, storage space is going to be important.  At minimum, be sure to budget for some hefty external hard drives to keep all your pictures and backups.  Also, look for computers with 2 storage bays: one for fast storage for programs, one for slow but high capacity storage for your pictures.

If you’re not looking for any of these, congratulations!  You can save the cash and stick with a nice, basic computer.

2) How often are you moving the computer, and to where?

This decides how important weight is to your buying criteria.  Yes, they make amazing, super light laptops nowadays.  But you pay a hefty premium for that lack of weight.  So unless you take your computer to class every single day, it’s not worth the extra cost.

But here’s the kicker, if you do take your computer to class every day, you need to balance weight with durability.  If you throw your laptop in your bag multiple times a day, every day, your laptop is going to take a beating.  In my IT job, I saw many computers, some less than 2 years old, come in completely destroyed because they simply weren’t designed to handle the rigors of student life.  I had to tell many clients that it would be cheaper to buy a whole new computer than source the structural parts needed to repair it.  The cost of a second computer could have been avoided for a few hundred dollars extra on a better-built computer the first time.

This question also decides if battery life is important to you.  Because, let’s face it, if you’re just moving from your desk to your couch, you really don’t need a 12 hour battery.  Buy an extra power adapter and leave it next to the couch and save the extra cash.  Also, more performance means less battery life, so if you’re planning to move around, think really hard about if the extra power is worth having to carry around a power adapter everywhere you go.

Finally, if the person says the computer will be used only around the house, I ask them to consider a desktop.  They are so much cheaper than laptops because they don’t have to be built to a certain size.  Bigger footprint means better cooling, resulting in significantly better performance and longer lifespans for the same price.  The screens are bigger and the keyboards are better.  More importantly, they are easily upgraded down the road.  If you can sacrifice the mobility that a laptop brings, a desktop will be a better choice every single time.

3) What’s your budget?

I like to end with this one, so that I can adjust their expectations by citing what they said before.  It’s a lot easier to suggest spending more on a laptop after talking about durability etc.  I also use this time to prioritize certain wants, like say durability over maximum performance.  Alternatively, sometimes people think they need the biggest, most expensive computer going in, but after our talk, they realize something much cheaper will suit their needs just as well.

tl;dr

A computer is a tool with a limited lifespan.  Don’t overspend on performance you’re not going to use in the immediate future, but don’t underspend on durability.

Next time, I’ll talk about component specifics.

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