How to Buy a Desktop Computer
So you're in the market for a new computer? What’s it going to be? Mac or Windows? Blu-ray or regular DVD? Touch-screen monitor or standard mouse? With technology advancing so quickly and new features coming so fast, it’s becoming harder and harder to know what to buy. (See also: Why You Should Buy a Desktop Computer)
My advice to you is to treat this like you’d shop for a suit or a dress: find the one that fits your body as comfortable as you can and ignore the rest. Some of us need to do advanced things like video processing, while others just need a machine that runs an Internet Browser and Microsoft Word. It’s all about buying what’s right for you.
Desktop Features That matter
These are the features you want to pay the most attention to when picking out your system.
This is the brains behind the whole operation. The processor determines how fast you will get stuff done on your computer and, to a large extent, how long it will last until your next upgrade. Buying the fastest processor you can afford is always good advice here. If you want to save some money, find the fastest processor and take one step down from there. It’ll save you some money and you’ll still get great performance.
The more RAM you have, the less bogged down your system will get. But RAM is easy to upgrade, so don’t break the bank trying to fill up your computer with RAM. Instead, make sure the maximum amount of RAM it can be upgraded to is way up there (10+ GB of RAM). Then look for special deals on RAM and add as you go along.
Mac vs. Windows...the eternal question. What’s it going to be? Are you ready to make a switch or do you want to stick with what you’re used to? If you are a novice you may want to consider spending more to get a Mac. For all the power users out there...you don’t need me to tell you what to do.
Hard Drive Capacity
Like RAM, hard drives are easy to buy separately and replace/add as you go along. But they're also relatively cheap to add when you're buying your desktop -- if you're not the type who likes to open up the machine and fiddle with things. Think about all the photos and videos you want to store and go ahead and get as much as you can handle budget-wise.
Desktop Features That Are Just Hype
Leave out these bells and whistles that aren't useful.
They make for great commercials, but the mouse is still the best way to navigate through the software programs on a computer. While we’re all getting used to using touchscreens on our cell phones and tablets, this is one thing you can do without. Especially if it costs more.
Some computer makers are trying to jump on the 3D hype bandwagon, but it’s so early on in the technology that there’s no sense jumping in when we don’t really know how it will all play out.
Special Features to Consider
Getting the right desktop for you is the most important consideration. Before you go shopping, think about what you're using it for, and how long you're expecting to keep the machine for.
If you know how to update your BIOS and change the boot order of your devices on a computer, then this won’t be a feature you care about — you can probably handle most issues that you’ll encounter. For everyone else, you want to make sure you’re taken care of after you buy a computer. Issues will come up and they can be very frustrating. Knowing you can just pick up the phone and get help is kind of a big deal, so pay attention to the length and quality (read what people are saying) of the warranty, as well as the overall quality of the machine.
This is where the personalization comes into play. What are you going to use this computer for? If it’s editing large photos and videos, you’ll need certain software and lots of RAM. If you’re a gamer, you’re going to want a monster video card. Pay attention to what you’ll be using it for and buy accordingly. Don’t fall into the temptation that you need to have it all! You will be wasting your money — just buy according to your usage.
Best Time to Buy
I like to keep an eye on the machine I want and hold out for a few weeks until I find a coupon or it goes on sale. You can usually find great deals in July and August, right before the newest models hit the shelves, and in November during Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.
See our shopping calendar for more tips on the best time to buy anything and our other buying guides.
Best PC: Build your own Dell (Dell.com). Remember what I said about buying a computer that fits you and your needs? Dell is a world-class company with great customer support that allows you to build your own machine with a wide variety of components. I’ve built two machines with them and have absolutely no complaints. You can build a very good system for around $500.
Best Mac: iMac ($1,199). The whole machine is built into the monitor and no other desktop looks like it. Combine that with a fast processor, tons of RAM, and everything you need to pretty much run any program you’d like, and you can’t go wrong. It’s more expensive...but there are reasons for that.