Your questions: What kind of a computer should I buy? (updated for Fall 2008)

(See an update to this article in “It’s nearly back to school time: here’s info on buying a new PC“, Aug 14, 2009) 

As I Tweeted, This week, I received a popular question around this time of year, as people consider getting a new PC:

“What kind of a computer should I buy? We’re looking for a new computer for our home/son/daughter…”

“Which PC should we buy? It’s for the whole family”

“I’d like to get a new computer, but I don’t know what we shoudl get: a desktop or a notebook.  What do you think?”

Decisions, decisions. Good to hear that others are working to keep the economy moving.

Reprising a past post that answered the question “What kind of a computer should I buy?” post…

I found a special article on buying a new computer in the Personal Technology section of the Seattle Times. I was going to forward a link to the online version of the story, but wasn’t able to find it on the Times’ site.

But thanks to Brier Dudley, tech and business writer at the Seattle Times, I now have the link (having already recycled my paper). “glad you enjoyed the story. It looks like we forgot to include attribution, ouch. We took it from the wire, the original source is Mike Himowitz, Baltimore Sun.”

Mike Himowitz is a columnist at the paper, and wrote the article “Sticker tells shopper key parts of a laptop” in which he covers “the specific components of a portable PC.”

For general home use, I first recommend that people consider a media notebook, perhaps a laptop replacement, if it will be moved around the house. Last year, I noted that “if you are a careful shopper, you can find some very good prices on the latest offerings, especially during key sale seasons like, well, now, and back to school in the fall.” 

I agree with Himowitz’ suggested general specs (excerpted) with a few of my own suggestions:

  • The screen: “General-purpose laptops have screens in the 15.4-inch range, with an aspect ratio (width to height) of 4:3 – the same as a standard TV or desktop monitor. These are fine for most purposes… Wide-screen laptops, with a more rectangular, 16:9 aspect ratio, are gaining fans because they’re shaped more like theater or HDTV screens.”

  • Keyboard: “There’s a secret, industrywide competition to find the most awkward and illogical positions for these. So try to type on any laptop – or a model with the same keyboard – before you buy it.”
    My experience: I like Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba and Dell laptop keyboards, but preferences vary.

  • Microprocessor: “Laptops generally use mobile versions of processors from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Look for a PC with a dual core processor.”
    My suggestion: buy the fastest Intel “Core 2 Duo” or dual core AMD processors (“X2”) you can afford.

  • Memory: “Microsoft recommends 1 gigabyte of internal RAM for its Vista operating system, and Apple serves up 1 gig in its basic MacBook line. I recommend 2 gigabytes – particularly if your student likes to play games in those rare moments when he or she is not studying.”
    My suggestion: If you’re buying Vista Home Basic, 1GB may be fine unless the RAM does double duty powering your graphics (AKA “shared” memory). In that case, go for 2GB or 3GB, often after market (meaning you install it yourself) if there’s a premium to pay for the model. If you’re not handy with a Philips head screwdriver and an anti-static band, then have the pros do it. This year, we’re seeing 3GB and 4GB systems the norm for very little (if any) price premium.  But get Vista Home Premium for the Media Center features.

  • Video: “The computer’s video adapter determines what appears on the screen. Even when they’re displaying moderate detail, games and high-end graphics programs can strain a PC’s video processor.”
    My suggestion: This is one of the areas that is difficult if not impossible to upgrade later (as you can upgrade memory and hard drives fairly easily), so buy the best you can afford.  Best thing you can do: look at the screen and see which models appeal to you.

  • Multimedia: “A DVD/CD-RW, which records audio and data CDs and plays DVD movies, will do fine. But a drive that can also burn DVDs is a nice extra.”
    My suggestion: if you don’t have an external hard drive for backing up, consider a CD/DVD SuperMulti drive with Double Layer support that reads/writes DVD±R/RW, DVD-RAM, DVD±R Double Layer, and CD-R/RW. It’s a must if you burn videos for DVD playback.

  • Hard disk storage: “Laptop drives are generally smaller than desktop models, so get at least 80 gigabytes of storage.”
    My suggestion: 80GB is so passé: the standard models I see thsi year start at 120 to 160GB and average models feature 250-320GB HDDs.

  • Ports: “The more USB ports your laptop has, the better.”
    My suggestion: if you work with digital video or consumer electronics, look for an IEEE-1394 (or DV) connector for hooking up to digital camcorders and some hard drives.

  • Wireless networking: “Many laptops come equipped with wireless network adapters… make sure it meets the industry’s 802.11g standard.”
    My suggestion: get a 802.11g or better, an 802.11g/n wireless card: many hot spots are still 802.11b.

  • Pointing device: “Most laptops use touch pads to replace the mouse, although a few use trackballs or little buttons in the center of the keyboard.”
    My suggestion: I agree with Himowitz: Get a mouse. I love my Microsoft wireless notebook mouse, much more than my (too touchy) trackpad on one laptop. But I often find that I use both for many tasks. 

A note on 64-bit Windows Vista: Vista with 64-bit is quite solid: I use it at home and it was pre-installed on my wife’s new Sony Vaio NS laptop which has 4GB or memory (which triggers the requirement for 64bit).  She can run all of her current software and the kids are able to access all their favourite games and web sites. 

A recent look online illustrates that there is something for everyone, at all price points:


For under $500 at one of the big box office stores (on sale or after rebates), you can find a name-brand notebook with a 15.4-inch screen with (as I concur with many of my associates) a decent 1280×800 resolution, Intel Pentium Dual Core T3200, 120GB HDD, 2GB of memory, six cell battery, Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100, 802.11b/g wireless and a CD/DVD Burner running Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic (splurge and get Windows Vista Home Premium for a few dollars). 

For many general computer applications (surfing the ‘net, writing term papers, listening to music and watching DVDs, streaming video from Netflix) this would fit the bill. And more.

This tops the 1.73GHz Dual-Core processor (T2080), half GB of memory, an 80GB drive and a double layer DVD Burner with Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic I noted last year for the same amount. 

For under $1,000, you can get a very nice 15″ laptop with Core 2 Duo, 4GB, 320GB & DVD Burner (after current discounts).  Or even better if you’re looking for a desktop replacement with a bigger screen, I found a 17″ (1440 x 900 resolution) notebook with an Intel Core 2 Duo T5800, 3GB memory, 320GB SATA Hard Drive, Intel 4500MHD Graphics, 802.11g wireless, 8X Slot Load CD / Dual Layer DVD+/-R Drive, 2.0M webcam, 9 cell battery, all running on Windows Vista Home Premium Edition SP1. 

Very nice when you consider a year ago the same amount got you a 17″ widescreen with a Core Duo Processor (T2350), 2 GB of memory, 120GB hard drive and DVD SuperMulti drive. Ouch.


Also under $500, consider the crop of netbooks as I posted this week, especially if you are considering a second computer for home use or travel. Rob Pegoraro, the Washington Post’s tech guru, noted in his article “Tiny PCs, Full-Size Problems.” 

I did appreciate Pegoraro’s advice for those of you considering an ultralight laptop.

“If you’re buying a netbook as your sole computer, knowing that you’ll only use it on the Web, Acer offers the best bet for now. If, however, you’re buying it as a third or fourth computer and are willing to tweak it to fit your own needs, look at the MSI.

“But it might be better to wait. If these manufacturers have the good sense to steal each other’s best ideas, we should see significantly better choices before long.”

But as it’s been said, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”  If you consider the trade-offs, there are some very good products available: I opted for the HP 2133 with 1.6GHz proc, 2GB of memory and 120GB HDD with Windows Vista Business for $399 after HP rebate as noted in the post.  And not to be outdone, Dell is offering their Inspiron Mini 9 UMPC for just $99.00 with select PC purchases (regularly $349).


You will get more power and better integration with home television services (cable connectivity) with a desktop.  Looking at solid all-in-one, entertainment desktop PCs that will stay in one place, I would recommend one of the new Sony or HP models. 

Sony’s new JS Series ( are attractive, very solid and feature very nice TV functionality. There are some excellent discounts found Live Cashback.  The JS110J is under $900 from a reputable AV/PC seller.  The more powerful Sony Vaio JS139 (Sony Vaio JS139) is about $65 more available through another reputable seller.  Both can be purchased via Live Cashback that helps lower your cost with a rebate (from Microsoft ;).

Dell also offer an all in one — the XPS One, offered in 20 and 24″ models — that get very good reviews and high marks from people who own them. 

But my favourite is the new HP Touchsmart 2 IQ506, which I just ordered last week.  It has a larger touchscreen that is very nice, with integrated TV just like the Sony.  It’s about $300 more than the Sony (after rebate) but it provides more screen real estate (22″ vs. the Sony’s 20″) and it has a touchscreen.  Very cool.

My preference is falls to the Sony or HP for style.

Another choice is to buy an inexpensive modular desktop system, one that has a traditional tower PC with external monitor.  Deals abound on models from Dell and HP: of the recent models featured on PC Magazine’s “Get a Great Desktop for Under $500” review (,2817,2335137,00.asp), I would select from any of the great PCs noted.  I personally have had good experiences with Dell, HP and Lenovo.  Plus, is a great place to watch for the latest discounts. 

Last, if you have a credit card that doubles the warranty of products you purchase, use it: that’s a smart investment whenever you consider a new PC.  I get this for free through my Costco AmEx, effectively a $150 ‘deal’ when you consider some of the waranties offered by Dell and HP.

Hope this helps.

More info: Upgrade or buy a new one? Suggestions from the Seattle Times

Tags: shopping, RSS, Microsoft, New PC.

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6 replies on “Your questions: What kind of a computer should I buy? (updated for Fall 2008)”

What do you recommend for someone in IT? I have Technet subscription and I would like to set up my own labs using Hyper-V to run multivple VMs, but most of the products out there cannot seem to handle it. Any info would be appreciated.

That notebook from the big box office store sounds like the one I got my son for Christmas. He lives in the dorms at school and things often come up missing, so the price is right.

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