Tech – for Everyone

Tech Tips and Tricks & Advice – written in plain English.

Computer Shopping Guidelines

Some Advice for what to look for when buying a new PC

Some of you will be shopping for a computer this holiday gift-giving season, so today I will re-post some advice on what to look for in a new machine. I’m not going to get into a Mac versus PC debate. I am going to focus solely on hardware (the ‘capabilities’) options of a non-Apple desktop or laptop PC.

Tip(s) of the day: What to look for..
* Laptop computers. Most of what I am going to recommend today applies equally to laptops and desktops with very few exceptions. Today’s portable machines (notebook and tablet PC’s) very nearly rival the hardware capabilities of a desktop (or “tower”), and some models market themselves as a “desktop replacement”. They have large hard drives for storage, can ‘burn’ dual-layer DVD’s, have nice large screens, can access the Internet wirelessly, and are fast. Some have high-end graphics adapters that can keep up with the latest games.

Where laptops are different is: they are comparatively more expensive, they (often) depend on a battery, and they’re limited in terms of “expansion”. Expansion, quite literally, is room to “add stuff”, commonly referred to as “upgrading”. For this reason, I advise (when purchasing a notebook/laptop/tablet) differently than when buying a tower/”box”/”desktop” – buy the most machine you can afford. (that means, faster CPU, bigger “Gigabyte” numbers..)
Also, I advise buying the battery “upgrade”.

If you have to penny-pinch, reduce the RAM and/or go with a smaller hard drive… because these are the two components on a laptop that it is relatively easy to “upgrade” at a later date, when your finances have recovered. The other things – CPU, graphics, motherboard, sound, etc. — are not so easy to swap out/upgrade. In a Desktop PC (“tower”) there is practically nothing you cannot replace: in a laptop you’re kind of stuck, so buy as high up the scale as you can. Not just what you think you’ll need today, but buy for tomorrow as well. Because that’s the way the machine will be for its lifetime.I would look for an i3/i5/i7 CPU.

When deciding which model laptop, do not forget to compare battery life (these stats are published). Also, and I can’t stress this enough, do not buy a laptop that you haven’t typed on. Yes, you can make your purchase online or out of a catalogue, but go into a store and touch it first (sorry, all you Best Buy salespersons out there). Each keyboard and touchpad is different. Make sure you like the layout and “feel” of typing on the keyboard. There’s nothing worse (in laptop computing) than trying to work on a keyboard that just isn’t “you”–IMHO.

Considering a netbook? The portability of the compact netbook computers would certainly appeal to the student. For those who go this route, I would suggest the addition of an “external” hard drive (for more storage) as well as a DVD reader.

* Desktops: When considering which tower/desktop to buy, there’s basically three categories of machines; budget/student, workstation, and “performance”/gaming. Low, middle, and top-end. You can spend as little as $300 $250, or as much as $8,500. (Yes. $8,500. But, those systems are cool!) I have mentioned before that to do it right, you can get everything you want/need for $700 – $1,100 $399 – $899, and that even the budget machines have the “good stuff”.

My advice for what to look for in a desktop, is a little more flexible. First, decide roughly what you’d like to spend. If you really are in the $300 -500 $250-400 range, do not rule out “refurbished” machines. Factory rebuilt/refurbished machines are an excellent value. Any negative stigma they may have is largely unjustified.

Get the most RAM you can.I would not buy a PC today that had less than 4 GB’s.

If your machine is coming with Windows 7 (and most all of them are), you should look for 64-bit.

Go with a mid-to-high end CPU. The quad-core CPU’s from Intel are very good, and are my current preference. But you can save some dinero by choosing an AMD equipped machine. If it is in your budget, go quad-core.

Optical drives. Unless you really need a ‘high def’ burner and you want it right now, hold off on going for a “Blu Ray” burner just yet. Blu-Ray readers are available and should suffice. Two optical drives, while nice, is not a necessity. Do, however, make sure your “combo drive” can burn (”write”) to a dual-layer DVD.

Graphics. Most people do not need a $800 graphics card (only us hard-core gamers, and other boys-of-all-ages, do) nor do they need an “SLI” set up. However, whenever your budget allows, it is almost always better to have a “graphics card” than “onboard graphics”. Onboard graphics chipsets are built into the motherboard, and while they do a quite adequate job, they “share” your RAM … and by that I mean “steal” your RAM.
Please note, you can buy, and install a graphics card at any time..

Power Supply. Do not forget to check the Wattage of the machine’s power supply. Here is another area where more is definitely better. It constantly surprises me how many seemingly unrelated computer ‘glitches’ and quirks turn out to be caused by an inadequate or failing power supply. Shoot for one that’s rated in the neighborhood of 350W, unless you’re going for a more “loaded”, high-end performance machine — in which case 500W, or higher, is not unreasonable.

* Is space an issue? Consider a “small form factor” (aka “mini tower”) size. These smaller boxes fit on (or under) a desk much easier than a normal size. You can find some “bundled” with a 17″ LCD monitor.. perfect for the dorm.

Well, that should get you started. Buying a new PC should not be a stressful thing. It should be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Just remember to test drive before you buy, and do a little comparison. It really doesn’t matter if you decide upon a no-name, a HP, a Sony, Dell, or whatever (see, Which is Better, HP or Dell? and/or Tech’s Most (and Least) Reliable Brands).

Today’s free download: For those of you lucky folks who will receive a brand new PC… Whenever you buy a new computer, it will come preloaded with all sorts of trialware (as it’s called) that most of us don’t want. If you have just purchased a new PC, download and run the wonderful PC Decrapifier and clean off that *stuff*.

Copyright 2007-2010 © “Tech Paul” (Paul Eckstrom). All Rights Reserved.

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December 15, 2010 - Posted by | advice, computers, shopping for | , , , , , , , ,


  1. I don’t want to get too technical, but I am a retired EE and I understand well how electronic devices work.

    I found that some online computer stores let you choose your own CPU, Motherboard, Graphics card(s) etc. However, some do not automatically add up the total wattage necessary to power the items you have chosen. I picked a 950 Watt for mine after researching the current drain of each device I selected. The total came to a maximum of about 800 Watts. 950 Watts will handle that with ease.

    However, no matter how many devices you choose at one particular website, the default Power Supply remains at 600 Watts. Even with 3 SLI Graphics cards that draw 150 Watts each. I went through to test my theory and added everything I could from every category and the default supply remained at 600 Watts. That is simply not enough in some cases.

    You can never have TOO much power from a power supply, as some of the posts I read on that website stated. Devices will only draw the amount of current (or Watts) that they need. One person in a post said “OMG… you are going to burn up your computer with that big of a power supply”. That is a common misunderstanding that non-technical (or non-geek) people have.

    Consider the 200 Amp electric service in your home. You may never draw that much current. You certainly won’t burn your house down if you are only using 100 Amps of the available 200. It just means that if you exceed the 200 Amp limit the main breakers will trip, which protects the main wiring to your home from overheating.

    In the case of a computer, an excessively large power supply will never overheat or cause your computer to shut down. It certainly won’t “burn it up”. My daughter has a 750 Watt power supply in her gamers computer and it constantly overheats and shuts down. We have identical devices in our computers and mine has never had an issue. The internal temperature runs at about 86 degrees F (30 degrees C) even during graphics intensive operation.

    Bottom line, IF you are going to build a custom computer, go to the manufacturers website for each device you select (including the CPU) and find out what the maximum Wattage or current drain is. Add them all up and then give yourself a little extra (50 to 100 watts or so) when choosing the Power Supply Unit. Your PC will never overheat and will not begin to slow down or shut down due to insufficient current.


    Comment by KsTinMan | December 15, 2010 | Reply

    • I posted a link to a “power supply calculator” some time ago, that did that for you dynamically, depending on your choices.. I’ll have to try to find that again… and perhaps I need to bump up my article’s reference to “500W or more” as 750W to 1,000W is becoming more “average” for the high-end machines…
      [update: NewEgg has a sort of a simple one here.]

      But, yes, you’re right: bigger IS better (higher Watt number).. and the OEM’s are notorious for putting in barely adequate PSU’s.

      .. I purchased a gamer through a “boutique” (choose the items one-by-one, and they build it for you) manufacturer one time (I didn’t/don’t regret it either) but I cannot remember the PSU options available… and if they were limited, like your 600W example.


      Comment by techpaul | December 15, 2010 | Reply

      • I purchased mine just like you did, and I don’t regret it a bit either. I was actually amazed at the extremely neat job they did of tying up loose wiring and making it look clean and tidy. Couldn’t be happier!


        Comment by KsTinMan | December 15, 2010 | Reply

        • KsTinMan,
          Well, for me, at the time, the thrill of assembling a machine myself had long ago worn thin, they could build it for less than I could (access to better volume pricing), and had a full (no questions asked) 1 year warranty. (Being a bit prudent with my dollar, number 2 was huge.) As I said, I don’t regret it to this day (and, by selecting the components myself, the machine did not become obsolete as fast as they normally do, “future-proofing”, I believe it’s called.)

          I kinda think enthusiasts, and other Geek-to-the-bone types, should build (or re-build) their own computer at least once in their lives, if opportunity permits, though. Not only does it give one Geek Bragging Rights, and a sense of accomplishment (and pride of ownership), it’s sort of a … um.. er.. “graduation test” (though, truth be told, one does not have to be all that geeky to do it, these days).


          Comment by techpaul | December 15, 2010 | Reply

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