Buying a Computer

Home & Family, Technology
on September 29, 2002

Doris Hartley is determined that her next computer will do what she needs. She’s no novice to computers, having used them for decades, but she really doesn’t look forward to shopping for one.

“They are talking about RAMs, and they are talking about this and that,” Hartley, of Roy, N.M., (pop. 304), says of some computer sales people. “I just want it to be able to do this and this and this. I want it to be simple.”

In fact, it is simple—simpler than most would imagine. In a nutshell, one decides what the computer will be used for, then finds the programs and hardware to do the work.

Roeland Hancock, 17, who took top honors this year in the New Mexico High School Adventures in Supercomputing Challenge, understands why computer buyers might be intimidated, however.

“It can be a reasonably expensive investment and frequently is a very short-term investment, because you’ll end up getting a new one,” says Hancock, of Silver City, N.M. (pop. 10,545). “Also, people who aren’t that computer literate are concerned about how usable it’s going to be and if it will do everything they want.”

Others are unfamiliar with the technology, says Christine Schlauch, 18, of Perry, Ohio, (pop. 1,195) who participated in Perritech, her high school’s student-staffed company that handled all of the school’s computer needs. “They’re scared to mess it up, or they’re afraid that they’re going to do something wrong,” she says. “You can’t really break a computer, though, and I don’t think people realize that.”

Indeed, if anyone is comfortable with computers, it’s teenagers such as Hancock and Schlauch—young adults between 16 and 22—for whom computers always have been part of the landscape, not something new and challenging.

Still, technology is advancing so quickly that even these members of Generation Y, for whom words such as “megahertz,” “gigabytes,” and “RAM” roll off the tongue as easily as “jogging,” “yuppies,” and “groovy” did for their baby boomer parents, occasionally find themselves bamboozled by computers.

“I’m intimidated the way they are, sometimes,” says Heather Menzer, 18, a Colorado State University freshman who also captured top honors at the supercomputing challenge. “Computers are changing so rapidly, and (buyers) don’t know what is the best.”

But the “best” computer depends on what an individual or family needs, so figuring up your requirements is crucial, says Tyler Danley, 18, of Ocean Springs, Miss., (pop. 17,225) who has been using computers for half of his young life.

“You have to decide first what you want to use the computer for,” Danley says. “Then, write them down: Internet, word processing, e-mail, or whatever. Then you have to decide: Do you need something more powerful or something not as powerful?”

Who will use it, and for what? That’s critical in figuring your new computer’s specifications, Schlauch says. “How many people are going to be using this computer?” she asks. “Because if it’s for a family and there’s a range in the ages of children, you’re going to want to put lots of programs for the little kids—programs where they’re learning to read and write—but if you also have older kids, they are going to need different programs.”

Schlauch also suggests taking children’s schoolwork into account when considering different computers. “(Parents) need to look into their school district and see what operating system the school is working with,” Schlauch says. She suggests parents then buy a school-compatible computer so the students easily can switch between home and school.

Many of these requirements can be filled with the less-powerful, reasonably priced models, Hancock says. “The fastest isn’t much better than slightly older models, but they’re lots more expensive,” he says.

“For just a general computer, you’re going to want a reasonable amount of hard drive space—upward of 30 gigabytes—and a decent-sized monitor—about 17 inches,” Hancock advises. “You want a rather fast processor, and the amount of memory that most come with should be sufficient for most users.”

“Most users” will use a computer for word processing, spreadsheets, the Internet, e-mail, financial programs, and some games, Hancock says, adding that many computers under $1,000 easily will fill the bill. Opting for the fastest, most powerful models could mean paying hundreds more for barely noticeable distinctions, Hancock says.

“There’s not that much of a difference,” he says, noting that the newest computers are “maybe” 5 percent or 10 percent faster than those made just a few months ago.

“You’re paying a real premium just because it’s the latest. There’s a huge price gap between the very latest technology and what’s been around for a while,” he says. “I wouldn’t pay that extra for something I wouldn’t notice.”

A good, major brand computer sells for as little as $599, says David Heim, deputy editor for Consumer Reports. “You might get a printer with that, but you can get a good printer for $80 if you don’t,’’ he says.

And a buyer should be able to get state-of-the-art technology with the best sound, graphics, and a DVD drive for $1,400 to $2,000 or higher, depending on the size and type of monitor, brand, and sales, Heim says. “There are different deals that change all the time,’’ he adds.

The Federal Consumer Information Center’s Life Advice … About Buying a Computer, says computers “can be categorized by two operating systems—those designed primarily for graphics work and those primarily intended for word processing, although both are capable of either function.” Deciding which function you will use most can guide your choice.

Electronic fun

Some buyers, however, do require the latest, most-powerful computers, Hancock says. “If you’re a power user, someone who wants everything you can out of your computer, or a major gamer who is playing the latest games with complex 3D graphics, then you would look at the higher-end models,” Hancock says.

Today’s very latest games, popular with older children and teenagers, are in 3D, giving the player a “you are there” role. “They create whole multimedia experiences with very detailed graphics and involved game play,” Hancock says.

The 3D games are “the most power-hogging games out there,” Danley says, and they require top-of-the-line computers.

He suggests checking the games’ packaging—usually on the bottom of the box—to see what kind of computer system they require. “Look at the games first to see what you want to play,” he says, “and make sure that you buy a system that will handle it.”

But plenty of games, such as strategy, role-playing, puzzles, racing, and educational games for younger children, may be played on lower-end computers, Hancock says.

Ask questions

Visit a computer store and ask lots of questions of your salesperson, each of the teenagers suggests. Menzer offers a few examples: “What does it mean if it has a Pentium 4 processor? And what makes a Pentium 4 better than a Pentium 3? What are gigabytes and what do they do in a computer?”

“Ask first how big the monitor is,” Danley says of the computer’s viewing area. “A lot of people don’t ask. You’re going to be sitting in front of the monitor a lot. You don’t want to have a little monitor when you’re using it every day.”

Know the computer’s specifications, such as its processor speed and amount of memory, he says. “Even if you don’t feel you need it, you should have it, just in case you want to know if there’s a part recall,” he says. “You’ll know exactly what you have in the system.”

First-time buyers probably should shop where they feel comfortable asking questions, the teenagers agree.

“Personally, I would get one off of the Internet, because you can get a wider selection and lower cost … but a first-time computer buyer might want to go into a shop and see what they’re buying,” Hancock says. “But if you’ve had a computer before, and you go to a major online retailer, I think you could do all right online.”

Be A Savvy Buyer

Buying a computer doesn’t have to be intimidating; with a little prep work, it might even be enjoyable, says Dan Gookin, author of Buying a Computer for Dummies, PCs for Dummies, and other best-selling books that demystify technology and translate tech-speak into plain English. Gookin offers five steps toward savvy purchasing:

1. What do you want the computer to do?

Look at what games your children or grandchildren might want to play, if you’re buying a family computer. If you plan to do genealogy or scan and catalog old photos, that will determine how much computer memory and storage you need, Gookin says.

2. Look for software first.

Most people first think of hardware (the physical part of the computer, the monitor and keyboard), but the software (games and other programs which tell the computer what to do) determines the kind of computer you need, Gookin says. “(Software) will say on the box, ‘I need this much memory, I need this much hard disc storage … this much graphic memory,’” Gookin says. Note the requirements of whatever word processing, game, or graphics software you plan to use, then buy a little more than required if you can afford it, he suggests, because upgrading later is more expensive.

3. Find hardware to match your software.

Now take your list of software requirements to the store. Pre-packaged deals may seem like a bargain, but make sure they meet your requirements, Gookin advises. Compare prices and look for a helpful dealer.

4. Look for service and support.

“Most beginners shop price and find the cheapest one. But they might do better to find a dealer who offers training and will fix the computer,’’ Gookin says. Find out where the computer will be repaired if something goes wrong, he suggests. Do they have to ship it across the country? “Computers do crash, they do goof up, things do go wrong,’’ Gookin says. “If you find someone who is good and reliable, then there’s your dealer and you can go ahead and go with them.”

5. Buy the computer.

Once you’ve done the legwork, don’t sit around waiting for a sale, a better discount, or technological advancements. “There’s always going to be something better, newer, faster. If you wait, you are never going to go anywhere,’’ Gookin says. “A lot of people get to the final step and then they hold off.’’