Computer Buying Guide: So You Want to Buy a Computer...

With the advent of tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices, computing has recently undergone a major transformation. This shift, arguably as big as the launch of the personal computer and the adoption of the Internet, has left many wondering whether they need a desktop or laptop computer at all. But computers still play a significant role in the modern workplace, and will continue to power you well into the future.

More productive and easily upgradable, higher-powered workstations and ultra-light laptops alike can be cost-effective choices for small businesses looking to keep their companies running and technology costs under control. To that end, a July 2013 study by Daniel Research Group revealed that desktop computers generally have a lifespan of 4.5 years, and laptops last more than 3 years, on average. Tablets, meanwhile, only live for 2 years before it’s worth an upgrade.

But shopping for a computer is more challenging than buying a tablet. While handheld devices generally have few options, computers have processor speeds to worry about, peripherals to research, hard drive sizes to weigh and operating systems to choose from. This computer buying guide will help you navigate the sometimes dizzying array of options and provide a clear path so you find the best computer for you and your needs, whether for a home office or your business.

The Basics

Deciding which exact computer system to buy can get a little complicated. Here’s a brief rundown of the variables every buyer should weigh when shopping for a new computer.

Tablets vs. Computers: With millions of apps, tablets can do a lot of things, and in recent years these capabilities have garnered a lot of attention for the handheld devices. But when it comes to certain types of productivity — tasks that require a keyboard and mouse, like writing reports, creating spreadsheets and entering data — computers are much more efficient.

Operating Systems (OS): For many people, Microsoft® is synonymous with the term “operating system,” but there are multiple options for making a computer run. For example, Microsoft Windows has several available versions: Windows 8, a new touch-optimized interface; Windows 7, an older system released in 2009; and Windows Vista, which will be discontinued in 2017. Windows XP was another popular Microsoft OS, but support for XP ended in 2014, making it a dangerous choice for users looking to protect themselves from hackers.

Linux, an open-source operating system, has hundreds of variations and is popular among tech-savvy users. Highly customizable, it has a wide range of capabilities, running everything from desktop applications to server software.

Google’s Chrome OS has also started attracting users. This Internet-connected software takes up less storage space and connects to Google’s online suite of applications (such as Mail, Docs and Calendar), allowing less-expensive computers to perform simple tasks like word processing and spreadsheet management. Not to be confused with Android™, Google’s handheld operating system, Chrome is based on Linux, is updated frequently and is ideal for minimalist computing needs.

Central Processing Unit (CPU): The brain of a computer, the CPU is an important factor to consider when determining what system to purchase. There are many different elements to keep in mind when considering which processor suits your needs, including clock speed (measured by how many calculations the CPU can make per second), amount of cores (which gives the chip the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously) and cache size (which stores frequently used data for faster access).

If you’re comparing computers with different CPUs, in almost every case, the processor with larger numbers will perform better than the chip with smaller ones. But they’ll also likely be more expensive. Processors tend to be the priciest part of a computer, and they typically cannot be upgraded — so choose your chip wisely. Intel and AMD make almost every processor in today’s computers. Intel’s chips tend to be more expensive but faster, while AMD’s processors typically cost less while providing value-driven performance.

Storage: “Bigger is better” used to be the only principle to keep in mind when evaluating a computer’s storage capacity, but there’s now a “less is more” approach to consider, too. Currently measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB), storage capacity is the amount of data a computer can hold. Typically, the more gigabytes a computer can store, the better. This can also be said for storage available on a networked drive, and even in remote, cloud-based storage.

There are two kinds of storage available in computers: hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs). HDDs are similar to record players in that they retrieve their information by spinning a platter beneath a needle that reads from microscopic grooves. SSDs, meanwhile, are chunks of silicon that retrieve information by sending precise voltages through a network of transistors. SSDs are the newer technology, and tend to be faster and less energy intensive than HDDs, but HDDs typically come in higher capacities and are much less expensive. Also worth noting: if you buy a computer with an HDD, you can upgrade to or even add an additional SSD later.

Network-attached storage (NAS) is another option for increasing the amount of data your computer holds. Similar to servers, but much smaller and simpler, these drives link to your computer through your computer’s network, and can even plug into some Wi-Fi routers for wireless connectivity.

Finally, cloud storage has become popular with many businesses seeking scalable data management solutions. Hosted remotely over the Internet through services like Dropbox, Box, Windows OneDrive and Google Cloud Storage, cloud drives are great ways to share files across multiple devices or users. But since they’re wholly dependent on having an active Internet connection, they are slower than physical drives and offer just a fraction of the capacity.

Memory: The equivalent of your computer’s short-term memory, random-access memory (RAM) is necessary for holding data that applications need to run. Think of it like a basket: the bigger it is (or the more gigabytes of memory your computer has), the more your system can think about (and the less time it will spend looking for the data it needs). RAM isn’t particularly expensive, and can be upgraded later on most computers, but there is a limit of how much each individual machine can hold.

Graphics Cards: A mixture of RAM and processors aimed specifically at rendering images, graphics cards — sometimes called graphics processing units (GPUs) — are found on gaming and media computers that demand higher performance. While some systems come equipped standard with GPUs, these cards can also be added to a computer later, or upgraded as needed. But not every machine has the architecture necessary to allow a graphics card, which is something to consider when selecting the right computer for you.

Touch Screens: Prior to the release of Windows 8, touchscreens were mostly a novelty, or limited to devices like a tablet or cell phone. But with Microsoft’s tile-based operating system, they are becoming a necessity, if not a default. Whether it’s on a laptop, an all-in-one computer or an external computer monitor, a touch screen allows the user to have a more natural interaction with the computer. The screens can support up to 10 points of multi-touch input, which is perfect for complex-yet-intuitive commands like pinching to zoom or twisting to rotate.

Ports: The computer’s ports are an often-overlooked yet important factor in selecting the right computer, since these inputs and outputs cannot be easily added to a system later. Some, like universal serial bus (USB) ports, can expand, giving users a seemingly endless supply of new inputs to connect peripherals like a computer keyboard, mouse or printer. Others, like FireWire and Thunderbolt ports, are fast but still aren’t popular among peripheral manufacturers, so they may be unnecessary for your use.

Ethernet ports have begun disappearing from laptops, as computer makers search for ways to make the portables lighter and thinner. But some users need the option for a hard-wired connection to the Internet. On the other hand, High-Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) ports are becoming standard on most computers as a way to connect to external monitors and high-definition televisions. But older displays may require a video graphics array (VGA) connection, a port that is becoming less prevalent on newer computers.

Wireless Connectivity: More commonly called Wi-Fi, wireless connectivity refers to a computer’s ability to connect to the Internet without linking to a modem through cable. Currently, the most common version of Wi-Fi is the 802.11a/c standard, introduced in early 2014, which runs from 433 to 1300 megabits per second (Mbit/s). While this is a considerable speed boost over 802.11n, which provides speeds between 54 and 600 Mbit/s, it requires a Wi-Fi router that’s capable of transmitting at the 801.11a/c level. Still, buying a computer with the fastest Wi-Fi capabilities possible is a smart way to future-proof your purchase. Remember, Wi-Fi isn’t just for the Web — it’s also a great way to connect to devices like wireless printers or external hard drives without having to run wires all over your office.

Optical Drives: Physical media — or more specifically, Blu-ray® discs, DVDs or CDs — can be read and written on using an optical drive. As USB flash drives and cloud storage have become more widely adopted, computer users now use physical media less often, but blank CDs and DVDs are still a great way to store important files. Some kinds of computers, like Ultrabooks, no longer come with optical drives as a standard feature, but you can always add an external CD or DVD drive later if you need one.

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