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First things first! Advice for a new computer – part 1

I get asked quite a bit what specs I recommend for a new computer.

With the cost of new computers coming down into $500 range, the cost to repair a faltering older computer quickly favor simply saving the data on the old computer and purchasing a replacement. Especially if an expensive part such as a motherboard fails.

Similarly, with the costs of laptops plunging I’m seeing more and more people opting for the portability afforded by a laptop.

So, what specs do I recommend? And, what features are “nice to have” but probably won’t really matter much in the long run?


The Components That Matter

I begin this discussion noting that there are five things you should consider for any computer you’re going to buy (desktop or laptop)…

  • CPU
  • Hard drive
  • RAM memory
  • Operating System
  • Optical Media (CD / DVD)
  • Productivity software (Word, Excel, PPT, etc)



When discussing CPUs for a new computer,anymore I am almost tempted to say don’t worry about it – whatever you get is going to be fine. Which is “almost” true. Its just that there’s so much diversity of CPUs in the market that its difficult to give “simple” rule-of-thumb advice that a client can easily remember.

When I’m shopping with a client for a new computer all I want to do is make sure the CPU they’re buying is modern (this year’s model) and we’re not clearing out the store’s left-over inventory from last year. Intel chips starting with a letter and four digits – they’re old.

computer chip CPUAlso, stay away from Intel Celeron or AMD Sempron class of CPUs. They’re “lightweights.” Think of it this way… A horse can run 30mph, and a jack rabbit can run 30mph. But a horse’s 30mph is just “different” than a rabbit’s 30mph. Get it?

What “to” get? On the Intel side, any of the i3, i5, or i7 chips will do. If you’re a lightweight user, an i3 should be fine. If you’re in business, you probably need to be looking at the i5 line. Not many people will “need” the i7.

On the other side of the CPU world is AMD.  AMD makes *perfectly* fine chips. They don’t have the “Intel” name and reputation – this fact will typically translate into saving ~$100. You’re looking for the Athlon and Phenom lines – they are solid choices.


Hard Drive

This is easy. Just get the smallest hard drive you can find. Hard drive space is cheap. You’ll see 32oGB, 500GB and 1TB drives. These drives are *huge*! You will NEVER fill them up. You won’t fill up a 100GB drive, let alone 320GB (or 1TB!). What that does is takes out the consideration of the HD in your purchasing decision.

One factor that “could” come into consideration is drive speed – how fast it spins (RPM). Standard spin rates are 5400RPM, with “fast” being 7200RPM. And then once in a while, you’ll see a 10kRPM drive. If you need performance, you could see some amazing results with these fast drives. But they’ll cost! And, if 10kRPM isn’t fast enough for you, there are the flash drives – solid state drives (nothing moves – there are no platters spinning – its just electronics — think stick drives, ipods and camera chips). And these new drives are *very* fast. They’re also very expensive. They’re also on the ragged edge of technology and there are some safeguards you should take if you’re going to operate these newest drives.


RAM Memory

Now this is where you should really focus. I explain memory like this – RAM memory is like water – its the best thing you can do for yourself, its the easiest thing you can do for yourself, and its the cheapest thing you can do for yourself. Adding RAM is easy. Its also the most bang for the buck you’re going to get – you won’t pay much and what you do invest in RAM, you will actually “see” better performance from it.

For the typical new computer for a home user or standard business user I recommend 4GB. To achieve some level of “future proofing” for your computer, consider 6GB. But be advised, RAM is coming down in price all the time so a good argument can be made for starting with 4GB now, then in a year or two when apps are starting to bog your computer down, upgrade your RAM to a full 8GB – it’ll be cheaper and you’ll only be spending your money when you need it.

Just so you know, I recently purchased 8GB of RAM for a Lenovo laptop recently – it cost less that $100 — out the door! That’s what I mean when I say its the “..cheapest thing you can do.”


Operating System

Anymore the typical user is going to get Windows 7 Home Premium. Unless you need XP compatibility mode or add this computer to a network with a server on it, in which case you’ll need Win 7 Professional.


Optical Media

This used to be an important consideration, but it has faded from importance. It used to be people burned files to disk, but now its easier to use USB stick drives. A while back it was a “gee charlie whiz bang” feature to watch a movie on your computer screen. But now you can download/stream movies through Netflix (or other means) so why bother with DVDs?

One thing to keep in mind though, the netbook variety of computer doesn’t come with a CD/DVD at all. Which means if you only have software on a disk, you’re going to have to find a way to get it on your computer OTHER THAN via an optical disk drive.


Productivity Software

Often people will need the use of office productivity software (ie: MS Word, Excel, PPT…). The front runner for productivity has been and is Microsoft’s Office Suite. But there are other alternatives. Sun Microsystems’ (now Oracle’s) Open Office, Google’s Documents, etc. But you should decide “before” you purchase your computer what tack you’re going to take. Often the least costly way to get MS’ Office is at the time of purchase. but if you don’t want to tack on the “Microsoft tax” to the purchase price of the computer, be advised that you have several other “good enough” options that will most likely suit your needs adequately.


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