Thursday, October 17, 2013

How To Buy A New Computer

Microsoft will drop the very last vestiges of support for Windows XP on April 8th, 2014. These computers have to be replaced by then!

I found an interesting article written by Microsoft's Director for Trustworthy Computing. You could read that rather tedious article or just settle for this quote:
As for the security mitigations that Windows XP Service Pack 3 has, they were state of the art when they were developed many years ago. But we can see from data published in the Microsoft Security Intelligence Report that the security mitigations built into Windows XP are no longer sufficient to blunt many of the modern day attacks we currently see. The data we have on malware infection rates for Windows operating systems indicates that the infection rate for Windows XP is significantly higher than those for modern day operating systems like Windows 7 and Windows 8.
To me that says loud and clear: Abandon Windows XP as fast as you possibly can!

Although Windows Vista was released seven years after XP I find many Vista machines from the early days of Vista that are mis-configured, mostly with way too little RAM (main memory) and technical limitations that would not allow to expand RAM beyond 2GB. I strongly recommend to upgrade these machines as well.

What new computer should I buy?

One of the first questions I often get asked is “Mac or PC?”. My reply is always the same: A MAC is almost always three to four times as expensive as a technically comparable PC. Plus you buy yourself into a very well maintained “gated community”. Any additional software for example will be more expensive and in the MAC world you find a much, much more limited selection of good free programs.

Those of my customers that switch to a MAC usually have compelling individual requirements and reasons. They accept the steep learning curve and the higher cost.

And opposite to common perception MACs do know viruses and are just as susceptible to browser based attacks and hijacks as PCs are.

There may be a difference in quality of the components; for my customers that is rarely an issue. I hardly ever recommend a rock bottom priced computer and decent average quality is available at very reasonable prices.

Where to buy the new computer?

I hesitate to write it down but many, many of my customers admit freely that they are not enough tech-savvy to go to a computer store; I recommend to simply avoid the risk of being sold much more than is really needed.

I offer to assist in selecting a suitable computer at a reasonable price. Buy it on-line at one of the larger, dependable and trustworthy dealers. Sometimes we find deals that seem to good t be true.

All-In-One, Desktop or Laptop? 

The one big difference that I always point my customers to is the text size on the screen. The nature of the beast dictates that things on a laptop screen are smaller than on a decent monitor. For people “up there” in age and/or with eye issues (like your's truly) this should be the major factor in that decision.

If on the other side you travel a lot or if you live for several month “down south” then a laptop may be the better solution because of the easier transportation.

All computers are built with mass production techniques. It is always a remote possibility to get a “lemon”, that one piece out of thousands that causes trouble.


This kind of computer has really “come of age” lately. A few weeks ago I bought a new computer for my wife, an All-In-One with a gorgeous 23 inch screen, 1TB disk drive, a fast 3Ghz dual core processor, built-in wireless and webcam. Needless to mention that she loves it.

The biggest advantage from the housewife's viewpoint is that there is only one cable going into the back of the machine!

Desktop with monitor, keyboard and mouse

If you already have a nice flat screen monitor and prefer a desktop computer, by all means just get another one. Very reasonably equipped standard computers cost between $300 and $500.

Beware of some sales rep talking you into a system with a touch screen. Do you know how heavy the hand gets when you stretch your arm out for only two minutes?

Touch screens are okay on tablets and phones; I don't see their usefulness in a classic computer environment; as usual, your views may differ.

Touch screen monitors are (so far at least) clearly more expensive than conventional flat screen monitors. It is a new technology that has had no time to mature yet.

As far as brands go: My reservations towards Dell and HP are well known; I just can not recommend to buy from companies that have deliberately lied to their customers (Dell) or still install at best questionable software.(HP, Sony and Samsung for example).

During the last two or three years I have recommended many Gateway desktop computers. Gateway (the brand!) is owned by Acer.


Screen size is always measured in the diagonal! I recommend at least a 15.6” screen; laptops with 17” screens are clearly heavier than their 15.6” cousins.

The only brand I recommend is Lenovo. Their laptop computers are designed in the tradition of IBM laptops from long gone times. They are mostly just a tad better than the competition.

How much Memory?

Memory, main memory or RAM denotes the computer's internal work space. The more main memory the computer has the more programs can work at the same time.

For normal household usage 4GB of main memory (RAM) in a Windows 7 or 8 machine has proven to be enough, no matter was the sales rep at the store told you.

If you use any CAD/CAM software or Adobe Photoshop or if you edit videos then you want 6 or 8GB of RAM or even more. Most heavy duty users know that and buy accordingly.

What processor?

My typical home use customer will not experience lots of differences between an AMD and an Intel processor (CPU). If you actually really do create your own family movies you want an Intel i7 or i5 as fast as your budget allows. For everybody else the speed of the processor is more important than who made it.

Dual core processors are the standard now. Here a warning: When the store clerk sings the praises of an AMD quad core CPU he/she dupes you. AMD quad core means that you get two CPUs and two graphics processors in one chip. Marketing at it's best...

Laptops have thermal limitations; there just is not enough space in a laptop to create sufficient air flow to cool a fast CPU. Laptops in a reasonable price range tend to top off at 2.5 Ghz.

Desktop and all-in-one computers usually do not have the stringent air flow limitations of laptops Thar is why I recommend the faster CPU within reasonable limits and budget constraints.

In my experience a desktop with an Intel i3 3.4 Ghz CPU is faster than the same computer with a more expensive i5 with only 2.3 Ghz.

I see cheap desktop computers with 1.4 Ghz CPUs being offered. In every day usage you may only occasionally experience some sluggishness. But when Microsoft gives us a big update Tuesday the 1.4 Ghz computer may easily need 45 minutes to finish the updates versus five to eight minutes for the 3.4 Ghz machine. 

What about hard drive size?

The hard drive, the internal disk drive with moving platters supplies the storage space where the operating system, all programs and all data files are stored.

Modern computers offer typically from 320GB to 1 TB of storage space which definitely is enough for household usage. Only if you or your teenager download full length movies you can fill up these large drives.

Windows 8 or Windows 7?

You can try to find a Windows 7 computer but it will be $100 to $150 more expensive than the technically same machine with Windows 8.

If you buy Windows 8 you will likely want me to adjust a few settings to run the computer in desktop mode, just as you have been used to since 1995. I would love to help you “taming” Windows 8.

Do you have your software ready?

If you are replacing an older Windows XP system you may have an old version of Microsoft Office that originally came with computer. These licenses are tied to the machine they came on, they “die” with the computer.

Even if you still have the installation disks for MS Office XP or MS Office 2003 I strongly recommend NOT to install them on new systems. They are by now as hard to keep secure as Windows XP has become hard to keep safe..

One of the main reasons for new software versions is security against attacks by viruses and so on.

Remember: It is NOT possible to safely transfer programs directly from an old to a new computer, even if there is software claiming to do just that. Programs have to be installed on the new machine and that is only possible if you have your install disks and eventually required license or product keys at hand.

If you only want to create or edit Microsoft Word or Excel files I recommend Libre Office, a very good product developed out of the original Open Office.

If you use any other "old" software you have to check with it's manufacturer that it is suited to run on a computer with Windows 7 or Windows 8 Desktop Mode.

Where to Buy?

Naturally you can go to any store that sells computers. Just keep in mind that their prices need to pay for the brick and mortar buildings and the sales people there.

Most brick and mortar stores do not service a computer you buy from them, they usually send it to the manufacturer for repairs; then they charge you what the manufacturer billed them plus a margin for their efforts.

All too often the sales “representatives” are nothing more than high school or college students that “know about computers”.

  • If you have wireless in your house, get a computer with wireless already installed in both laptop (standard) and your desktop where it is not yet standard, but worth getting!
  • Buy an extended warranty only if you buy a a business computer; your business needs to be running and usually can't afford longer computer down time. Some of these extra warranties come with guaranteed same day or next day assistance.
  • For obvious reasons I recommend NOT to buy from a rental center!
  • Stay within your budget; temptations are plentiful!
Set it up

Certainly you can set up a new computer yourself.

With Windows 8 Microsoft has elevated “arm twisting” to a whole new level, IMHO at least! You definitely should NOT ever use a so called Microsoft account! Read this for more background information.

If you feel more comfortable to have the computer set up by a professional correctly and with added safety features then please read this article about my Set Up job, I would be glad to help.

As usual I welcome suggestions and comments right here in the blog.

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