Once you’ve settled on a computer style, you need to decide how you will be using this computer; for web browsing, image editing, DVD watching, plenty of text typing, heavy gaming, video editing? All these pursuits require different levels of power in a machine. Before you buy, consider major aspects of a computer:
Operating system (OS): Arguably the biggest decision you have to make about your new device is what operating system it will run on. For traditional computers, your main choice will be between Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS, though Google’s Chrome OS is gaining traction in the marketplace and, for the technically savvy, so is Linux. If you find a tablet fits your needs, your big options are Android, Windows or iOS.
The main difference between the operating systems is style, but feelings can run strongly for each choice. Spend some time talking to friends and others, read online information and compare features and costs, but what will be probably most helpful is to go to a store and try them out for yourself to see what feels most natural to you. The other important factor in choosing an operating system is which programs or apps you are already using or plan to use as not all operating systems support all apps and programs.
Computer processing unit (CPU): Considered the brains of the machine, the CPU directly relates to the speed of the computer. When talking about processors, you will hear them defined in terms of cores and gigahertz (GHz) and generally the higher the number, the faster your computer will be. Most computer users will find a dual core processor sufficient but more demanding users such as video editors or heavy gamers will want a quad core or even a six core processor.
Random access memory (RAM): RAM is the space your computer uses to run programs and store data you are currently working on. The more RAM you have, the more tasks your computer can do at once and the faster is can perform tasks. Not enough RAM will lead to freeze ups and slow program loading. While RAM can usually be updated later in a laptop or desktop, it is most cost effective to buy enough RAM built-in.
RAM isn’t really a consideration when purchasing a tablet as there currently aren’t different RAM options offered.
Storage memory: If you will primarily be using your device for web browsing, emailing and other light tasks, you won’t need much storage memory, but if you plan to store plenty of music, photos or videos, be sure your device has enough gigabytes to accommodate you. This is a particularly important decision for tablets as their storage capacity is virtually impossible to upgrade. Laptops and desktops are usually upgradable either by completely replacing a hard drive or simply connecting an external hard drive for extra space.
Screen size: Larger screens may reduce eye strain and time spent scrolling, but the decision is strictly personal and depends on your needs for use and portability. With tablet screens starting at seven inches and computer monitors reaching upwards of 22 inches, you have plenty of options to consider. If you are interested in a monitor above 22 inches, you might consider purchasing a TV instead as it can perform the same function.
It is important to note for laptops and netbooks, screen size directly corresponds to keyboard size. Large hands will find small keyboards cramped for heavy typing tasks.
Power usage and battery life: If you plan to often need to work on your device away from power outlets, it is important to compare battery life. A computer’s rated battery life is often best-case-scenario, so be sure to read reviews from users for a more realistic idea of how long a laptop or tablet can last on a charge.
Though usually less of a consideration for desktop computers, you can compare models for energy efficiency and how they will impact your electric bill.
Ports: You will most likely want the ability to plug things into your device and so it is important to familiarize yourself with which ports you’re likely to use and make sure your new computer has them.
- USB: The most common connector; it’s always nice to have several. Used for peripherals such a mice, keyboards, hard drives, flash drives, etc.
- HDMI: Allows you to hook a cable to play audio and video on a TV or monitor.
- SD card readers: Cameras, e-readers and even tablets commonly store data on SD cards.
- Bluetooth: Not a physical port, but bluetooth is how many wireless peripherals like mice, keyboards or speakers can connect to your device.
Other features: Depending on specific uses you have in mind for your device, you might also want to pay close attention to the availability and quality of other features such as optical drive to read and write CDs and DVDS, speakers, onboard camera, graphics card and wireless network card.
Warranty: Your computer will probably come with a limited manufacturer’s warranty lasting 30-90 days, but you'll surely be offered the chance to buy an extended warranty or service plan. It is a personal decision whether to purchase the extra warranty, but be sure you know fully what any extended warranty or service plan will and will not cover before you purchase anything because sometimes the plans are so limited, it’s unlikely you will even be able to use them. Don’t just take the salesperson’s word for it, but ask for a written description you can read over and refer to later if there are discrepancies when you try to get service.
Generally, the more you invested originally in the device, the more likely the warranty will be worth it, but if it was a cheaper device or something you know you will upgrade quickly anyway, the cost of repairs would not be detrimental down the road so buying a warranty now isn’t worth it. In the end, if you feel more peace of mind with an extended warranty, go ahead and get it.
Read more about extended warranties for electronics.