What should I get with a new computer?

A new computer is a major purchase, and knowing what to get isn't easy. I continue my review of some of the important qualities to think about when purchasing.

So far in this series I’ve discussed what kind of computer you should consider, who to get it from, and talked a little about screen size and weight for laptop/portable computers.

Next I want to look at some of the many options around what goes in just about any computer you might get.

Memory

To be clear, we’re talking RAM, not hard disk space which I’ll get to shortly.

Windows, and in fact most modern operating systems love RAM. It’s one of the simplest, cheapest and easiest ways to improve system performance. It’s the one upgrade that can have immediate payoff and can extend a computer’s useful life.

When getting a new computer I recommend that you:

  • Get more RAM than you think you need now
  • Make sure you can install even more RAM later

I put 16 gigabytes in my desktop computer computer when I got it about a year ago. That’s probably a tad more than I need today, though my needs are probably above average compared to the typical consumer. More importantly, that desktop computer can be upgraded to 64 gigabytes in the future, so it should last me a long time.

I ended up maxing out the laptop I got a few years ago at 16 gigabytes of RAM as well, mostly because upgrading a Mac laptop isn’t quite as easy as doing so with a PC.

In general today (2014), I wouldn’t bother getting less than four gigabytes and I’d make sure that the machine was upgrade-able to at least 16. As you can imagine, this recommendation changes over time as operating systems require and machines are capable of holding more RAM.

Circuit BoardProcessor

Processor speed seems to have leveled off lately. Maximum speeds seem to be hovering at around the 2.6 to 3 Ghz level.

What’s new are the number of “cores”. My current desktop machine has a 12 core CPU (the reason I got this specific model), which means that there are effectively 12 CPUs or processors within the single CPU chip.

I now recommend that you get at least a dual-core processor, but as I update this, single-core processors are actually rare, so getting at least two cores is almost a given.

Having dual cores has immediate impact as it allows your PC to remain responsive, even if a single process is trying to use the CPU heavily. As software adjusts to the availability of multiple core technology, you’ll see it start to have a significant impact in overall speed.

The very highest speed and maximum number of cores typically come at a premium price that isn’t proportional to the increase in speed. So processor speed isn’t something into which I recommend you invest a lot of money. Normally I typically shoot for the middle of the available options on speed (though I’ll admit to violating my own rule with my most recent purchase).

Most people look only at processor speed when selecting a system, and while it’s important, it doesn’t necessarily make as much difference as you might imagine. If you’re browsing the web, for example, processor speed is almost irrelevant. It’s your download speed that limits you. If your machine has a slow disk, that may make a larger difference for many applications than processor speed. And as I said earlier, having enough memory perhaps makes the biggest difference of all.

Hard Disk

The original version of this article had the following quote:

I haven’t filled up the 20-gig drive on my old laptop and haven’t filled up the 60-gig drive on my desktop, so clearly disk space wasn’t a terribly important issue for me.

My, how times change.

My current laptop has a 500-gigabyte hard drive in it.

My desktop has 2.5 terabytes of storage, and while there’s plenty of elbow room, it’s getting used.

For normal word processing, email, and internet browsing, the smallest currently available hard drives are often more than sufficient. If you plan to have a lot of images or music, or if you do videos, then hard disk space becomes more important.

Wireless and networking

For mobile devices there’s no question: you need wireless – specifically Wi-Fi. There’s no reason not to get at least 802.11b/g/n wireless capability in any laptop or tablet. The incremental cost is low and the flexibility later can be significant.

What I explicitly recommend avoiding is mobile broadband hardware included in the machine. This is the equivalent of a cellular modem built into the PC. It sounds very handy, and I’m certain that it’s a perfect solution for some. The problem is that it does require a contract with a mobile provider, often for up to two years, and the hardware installed is often specific to that provider; so you’re locked in.

I much prefer to get my connectivity outside of my computer, be it a USB cellular modem (which I have), a portable Wi-Fi hotspot (which I also have), or open Wi-Fi access where I travel (which I use, carefully). There’s significantly more flexibility doing it this way rather than tying your hardware to a specific provider.

In the wired world, PCs should come with gigabit ethernet connections; there’s no longer a reason not to have this.

Peripherals & Other Upgrades

I tend to add very few additional components at the time when I purchase a machine. I let my future needs drive what to purchase, and more importantly, when.

The peripherals that make sense for you will vary based on your expected needs. An external USB drive is almost a must for backups if you don’t have another approach already.

USB ports, in particular, should now be USB 3, which is significantly faster than USB 2 or 1, and backwards-compatible as well. Having multiple ports is often a big convenience, particularly in desktop machines, as more and more external devices – everything from microphones to cameras to scanners and printers – can all typically use a USB interface.

Interestingly, my laptop has only two USB ports, and my Microsoft Surface Pro (first edition) has only one. In both cases, that means if I want to plug in more than two or one USB devices, respectively, I need to first plug in a USB hub. And yes, I now carry a USB hub when I travel; I use it occasionally.

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Software

Currently, almost all new PCs come with Windows 8.1. I expect that will transition to Windows 10 once it’s released. Macs include OSX Yosemite (10.10). Both operating systems are just fine, and there’s no real reason to consider any other version of those OS’s. (Yes, even Windows 8.) Naturally if you’re of a Linux bent, then it doesn’t matter which OS is pre-installed on your PC. Take a backup image of what gets delivered for safety and archival purposes, and then install your favorite distribution. My current favorite is Linux Mint.

Try to get the installation media. Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to get that with new machines. As a result I strongly recommend that you use imaging software to take a snapshot of the machine’s hard drives the day that it arrives. This becomes your fallback reinstall-from-scratch image. If you don’t have an imaging utility already, Macrium Reflect’s free edition will do the job quite nicely.

You’ll often be offered security software pre-installed. I recommend declining it and installing any of the good, free alternatives immediately after you’ve received your machine.

Other applications and utilities … well, that’s up to you! This is where it really depends on exactly how you plan to use your new computer.

Price

Obviously, price is an important component for most of us. There’s no real rule of thumb that I can offer here, other than to state that all of the decisions that lead up to this are trade-offs against the final price. Bigger, faster hard drives, more memory, name brand network cards, and so on all incrementally add to the price.

It’s one of the reasons why I like the Dell website for ordering; I can craft a machine to meet my needs and make trade-offs against my budget. Even if it’s only a guide to configuring a computer you might purchase elsewhere, it’s an easy way to see the impact of some of your choices and decisions.

Series

Previous: What brand of computer should I get?

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This is an update to an article originally posted : November 25, 2004

Comments

  1. Larry Osterman

    One caveat about processor speed for laptops.

    Intel offers two lines of processors that appear in laptops, the centrino line and the P4 line.

    Some laptops come with P4 processors, and are marked as significantly faster than the Centrino processor. Unfortunately, the faster processor comes at a significant battery-life cost. A non-centrino processor will suck a battery dry faster than a centrino processor.

    So if you’re buying a laptop, stick with the centrino processors.

  2. AVELIN MALAMSHA

    You did a good job but still it seems as if you are not advising us to buy any pentium one,two,three etc.Shouldnt we?

  3. Matt

    I am thinking of purchasing an Apple iMAC. Is it worth the $1600 i am willing to spend or can i use my money better elsewhere?

  4. Paul Treneary

    Some great info on your website (I’ve just tweaked my TEMP folders to my newly partitioned T: drive – simple enough but I’d forgotten how!).

    I hate to point it out, but whilst you cleverly worded some advice (ie the bit about how much memory to go for), I reckon it’s time to take a look at some of those more specific figures.
    Thinking about what I’ve needed to know recently, you could add details (or external links to save replication) as to how to build your own Windows XP install disc from the i386 folder for the very keen (I was very surprised it worked).
    Anyway, an excellent, well worded, site that I’ll be recommending to those people that keep asking me these sort of questions.

  5. Kyle

    i would recommend the 13.3 inch Apple MacBook Pro they are at a reduced price now, even though they might be a little pricey they last for 7 hours on a full charge, they last for approximately 5 years, they are energy efficient, they can’t get any viruses, they are very light-weighted even on the largest screen, the memory can be customized up to 4Gb and 8Gb, the hard drive space can be customized up to 500Gb, everything is very organized and they easily synchronize with other devices in a network, such as, printers and stereos, they can run both Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows, they can come with iWork and iLife which can run Microsoft files easily and they have up to 2.8 GHz of processing power.

    Apple has legendary customer service as in they make their own computers so they don’t send you to another company for a certain part.

  6. Jim Green

    For PC’s, My rule of thumb for amount of memory is to get at least TWICE what Microsoft says is minimum for the versions of windows you choose. I currently run 6GB in my desktop, and 4GB in my laptop. I rely on the CPU meter gadget in WIN 7 Pro to monitor how much memory is being used…so far, haven’t even approached 100%. But, like you, I made sure there was room for more. Oh, and you might remind people that anything over 4GB is just “preinstalled spare memory” unless you are running the 64bit version of your windows OS.

  7. Greg Bulmash

    The part you left out is the graphics adapter. Besides being able to drive various screen resolutions, you have two types of adapters — onboard & discreet — with two types of RAM — shared and discreet. Depending on whether you want to do any 3D, high-end videography, etc., you need to consider which kind.

    I’ll leave it to Leo to explain the difference and why (or why not) to pick one over the other.

  8. Lester

    Cheap isn’t better. My last computer came with 8 gb of memory, but it was DDR2, which slows it down. It had a Q8200 CPU, again on the slow side today. It has a motherboard that only supports 3 gig transfer rate for the HDD controller, and I recently installed one that supports 6, hoping for a speed increase. I also installed a better video card only to discover that they had only included a 280 watt power supply. So by the time I upgraded that, I could have bought a better computer. I’ll probably upgrade the motherboard, memory, and cpy someday. In the end I’ll have a good computer, but it will have cost me substantially more than if I’d went for the better one in the first place. I’ve used Dell a lot and also other online services, but I’d almost rather pay more locally and know for sure what I’m getting in these areas.

  9. GREG JACKSON

    Passing comment: And once you get the “perfect” pc as I did, there’s always a cummy external factor that mucks it up. My wireless IP provider ($30mo 3Gbps) has growing pains and suffers bandwith problems. A Ferrari in a congested highway. Now I must go to cable at 3 times the price. Who could have known?

  10. Jim H

    When upgrading RAM in a PC with Windows 7 ALL 32 bit versions of Windows 7 have a 4 GB RAM limit. The 64 bit version of Starter and home Basic is 8 GB. 64 bit Professional/Enterprise/Ultimate can go up to 192 GB of RAM. Of course, that’s if your computer can accomodate it!

    BTW: the information is from the manual Windows 7 Inside Out

  11. Ron

    RAM, more is always better, but don’t forget 32bit Windoze is limited to 3gb

    Multicore is nice, but again, for “average user” they rarely do enough parallel processing to need more than a dual core machine. OS and Apps are not yet written to take best advantage of multiprocessing. Give it a few more years, 5 or so, before app code is optimized for parallel processing.

    HD, I basically agree with your position. One new technology that is just coming into play now is SSD. Price of SSD is starting to reach point where it is reasonable for an OS/Apps only drive.

  12. Jim H

    @ Ron. It’s 4 GB, not 3 GB for the 32 bit limit. and you are wrong about multi core processing, especially in gaming. Most new games are written for multi core and suffer without it. I don’t even think single cores are made any more except in bargain basement machines.

    And as to “Windoze”- it’s precisely stuff like that and the infamous “M$” that Apple fans delight in tossing about which turns me totally off to anything they make. In my years of PC experience -I’ve been in it since ASR 33 teletypes, 16 platter 500 MB drives, and 8″ floppies- 90% of problems are created, enabled, or fall squarely on the humans operating the system. I have never had 99% of the problems that get parroted about Windows. I’ve been a biker all my life and I’m now approaching 60. I used to think Harley owners were the most arrogant people on the planet when it came to attitudes about their product of choice and their denigration of everything else. Now I believe it’s most Apple people withtoo many linux users a close second. But that’s just my opinion…

  13. Snert

    Any computer will do what it’s designed to do, compute. You, supposedly, get what you pay for. I max out my RAM first and refuse to worry much about dual core, quad core, and, in the future, octo-core CPUs.
    I’m not a gamer, a high-tech fanatic or a ‘gots-ta-have-the latest-greatest’, I’m just an average keyboard Joe.

  14. Carlos R Coquet

    I have been asked the very same question many times and my answer focuses a lot less on memory and processor: I always say

    “It depends on what you want to do and what you want to spend.”

    For many businesses, most computers will do. Surprisingly, machines for “non business” uses tend to require more “horsepower”.

    If you came to me and asked me “What car should I buy?”, I would say “It depends on your situation. If you are single and have a good job, a Corvette might be a good option. If you have a family of 6, an SUV might be more appropriate.”

    For example, kids always say they need a machine to do their “homework”. But, in reality, they will be mostly playing games and downloading movies and music. So, these “homework” machines will need very fast video cards and tons of storage space. As opposed to most business machines for which video speed will be less important (graphic arts excepted) and storage will probably be on a server.

    Many of my clients run only a couple of applications. Nowadays, another aspect is important. Are you ready to relearn this and that? If you don’t want to relearn Windows, don’t get a brand new machine unless it available with whatever operating system you are already used to. Probably Windows XP.

    Children always want “laptops” because they don’t care what anything costs and “laptops” are “fashionable”. However, notebook computers are not just more expensive to purchase, they are more expensive to own. Period. If you spill something on a desktop computer keyboard, you can replace it for $20 or less and you are back in business. If you do the same to a notebook computer it might damage the entire machine. Additionally, they are much more susceptible to theft and damage, such as if dropped. So, unless money is no object, consider carefully whether or not you or your child really need a portable machine.

  15. YCG96

    Hard Drives: It is either capacity or reliability. If you need lots of disk space (presumably 500GB or more), you just need to find the cheapest computer with that much disk space (although it will probably have one like a 5200RPM 1TB hard drive). Otherwise, I recommend a much faster and more reliable hard drive such as a 300GB 10 KRPM or 128GB Solid State Drive.

  16. Robert Moore

    Leo, I echo most of what you say when recommending system upgrades to my clients. However, I believe when you talk about Dell and using their website to configure a new system, that these comments might need updating.

    I too was quite fond of Dell’s product offerings, especially their Outlet variants. Since Dell still offers these refurbished units with the same new factory warranties, I like to help others save some coin & bills when looking for a new machine.

    However, there is very little customization on many of the product lines and Dell often buries product specifications, like USB 3 and SATA 3.

    Also, the original specifications for a given Dell computer could be found by plugging in the Service Code. That is still possible, but the generated list of components is more like an inventory list (including screws and labels) with indecipherable coded text descriptions. I’ve actually lodged several complaints but have never received any replies from Dell nor have I seen any changes.

    Like you said, a manufacturer can be the best in an area and a few years later have fallen considerably.

    IN any case, a great series on what to look for!

  17. Robert Moore

    Oh, one more thing. The new SSDs make for a significant performance boost, especially during boot and shut down. I am not so sure about the hybrid driver, though.

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