As a computer geek, I’m often asked what kind of computer to buy and what kind of software to have installed on it.
My first response used to be to buy a Windows 7 PC if you can find it and avoid Windows 8 or 8.1 like the plague. Now that Windows 10 has been out for awhile, my answer is different – get Windows 10. It should be on most new computers you’ll find.
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What Specs to Look For
What kind of computer you buy depends on your own personal needs. Laptops are the most convenient and easiest to hook up. They’re also super easy to transport in case you need to take it to a repair shop or to a friend who can assist you with technical needs.
I prefer Dell Optiplex desktop computers and Lenovo Thinkpad or Dell laptops based on previous experiences. Reading reviews on Amazon and elsewhere online can also point you toward brands and models which people have had good experiences with. Here are the minimum and preferred specs I recommend when purchasing a computer.
- Processor – Minimum i5 or equivalent, consider i7 if you use a lot of programs at once and/or use intensive programs such as CAD applications.
- RAM (memory) – Minimum 8 GB, more RAM is always better.
- Optical drive – Optional. Some people never need to read or burn CDs and DVDs if they download their required software. If you need one from time to time, you can always buy an external USB CD/DVD drive. Personally, I prefer to have an internal optical drive, and most desktop computers have them nowadays but many laptops don’t.
- Networking – Built in ports for wired LAN (Ethernet) and WiFi (for laptops).
- Hard Drive (HDD) – Minimum 500 GB, recommended 1 TB (1000 GB) or higher.
- Video RAM – 256 MB minimum, 512 MB recommended.
- Operating System – Windows 10.
Laptops With These Specs
- ASUS Premium High Performance 15.6″
- Dell Inspiron 13 7000 Series 13″
- ASUS K Series 14″ Ultra Slim
- Lenovo G70 17.3″
- HP Pavilion 17.3″
Should you spring for an extended warranty? I almost never buy extended warranties on anything, since in most cases, they’re pure extra profit for the seller.
In the case of computers, I make an exception and always go for the three-year onsite next business day warranty that covers parts and labor as well as phone support. If it’s available and you can afford it, I’d go for it.
If you buy a computer through Walmart, they’ll offer you a Care Plan. Amazon offers Square Trade plans.
Even though I can fix most of my own computer problems, I’m not a hardware technician. I can do simple things like replacing or upgrading RAM and hard drives.
However, I like to leave some tasks to the experts, like replacing laptop screens and keyboards, and swapping motherboards. So much of my life is stored on my computer that I definitely don’t want to have to send it away for service or drop it off at a repair shop for an unknown period of time.
Many computers, especially the least expensive ones, come with 90-day or one-year “depot” warranties. With a depot warranty, you have to carry in the computer to a repair shop or ship it somewhere, if there’s not an approved repair shop near you.
Can you imagine packing up a desktop computer and sending it off for repairs? Most people would end up paying someone locally even if their machine is still under warranty to avoid the trouble.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having backups. If you store very little data, you could use Google Drive as your My Documents folder and not worry about backing up your files.
However, if you store a lot of precious memories (photos, videos, etc.), important documents and/or financial records on your computer, you should buy an external hard drive to use for backups.
Last time I picked out a new computer for my mom, her external hard drive had bitten the dust, so she bought a new one to go with the new computer. At the same time I set up her new computer, I set up backups using Dell’s bundled backup software.
Roughly a year later, her computer’s hard drive croaked. She lives 500 miles away from me, but I could tell from her description that she needed to call Dell to get a warranty replacement hard drive.
Dell sent a technician the following day, and he replaced the hard drive in her computer. A warranty replacement hard drive, however, only contains what a hard drive on a new computer would have – Windows plus whatever software came with the computer.
After the repair, I remoted into her computer and used her backup to restore all of her data and settings back to the way they were before. She was thrilled to find that everything she needed was there again, thanks to regular automated backups.
Software That Comes With a New Computer
Keep in mind that software that comes preinstalled on a new computer, often referred to as OEM software, is licensed only for that particular computer. That means if you pay $100 extra for Microsoft Office, that software license dies with the computer, whether you have the computer for two years or six years. You can’t legally install it onto another new machine that you buy later.
If you purchase a retail software box from a store, you can legally install it on your current computer, and when that computer bites the dust, you can use it on your new computer. This is assuming you bought a software package containing one license. Some software companies offer multi-license packs, so you can install software on one or two or even three or more machines in your household.
Many laptops and desktops come with vendor-installed backup software, and external USB hard drives often come with basic backup apps, too. Check to see what you already have before paying extra for additional software.
Office Productivity Software
I don’t have Microsoft Office on my home computer. I use a combination of two free products, Google Docs and OpenOffice, which do most of the same things I’d want to do with Microsoft Word and Excel.
Microsoft Office costs a little over $100 on the low end, but the free products do everything that I need. One thing I love about Google Docs is that my documents and spreadsheets are easily accessible on multiple devices, anywhere I have an Internet connection.
I’ve been using Quicken for so long that my first version came on 5 1/4″ floppy discs and ran on MS-DOS. True story. There are some Web sites that offer free and paid online financial tracking, but I’m still partial to Quicken.
If you’re considering financial software, I recommend reading online reviews carefully before making a decision. Reviews can help you sort out the software’s good and bad points so you can determine if it’ll meet your particular needs.
Be wary of the bundled anti-malware software that comes preinstalled on your new computer. It’ll ask you for a credit card number when the trial period expires, and the company will probably keep charging your credit card monthly or yearly for the rest of forever.
It can be very challenging to get them to stop, even when you buy different antivirus software down the road and no longer use that same product. I ended up uninstalling the anti-malware software that came with my latest computer because it slowed down performance so drastically.
Windows 10 has its own built-in antivirus software. If you use Windows 7, you can get the free Microsoft Security Essentials,
Testers don’t rate Microsoft’s free antivirus software as highly as other products. However, Microsoft’s offerings don’t usually slow down a computer. Plus, they won’t keep nagging you for a credit card number to continue updates.
Your antivirus software isn’t the most important protection you need to use. You are.
Some people need software to create and edit PDFs. You can create PDFs easily using MS Office 2007 or later versions, or download a free PDF creator such as CutePDF.
Adobe Acrobatat definitely has its place, though. It’ll let you edit PDFs and even turn PDFs into Word documents or Excel spreadsheets. If you need those capabilities, Adobe Acrobat is worth considering.
Beware of Free Software
An important note about free software: Companies that offer free software have to pay the bills somehow, and even reputable ones have, unfortunately, resorted to including crapware in their free applications.
Even the widely used Java and Adobe Reader update packages have added the awful, problematic Ask toolbar and the McAfee mini-scan app, respectively. You need to watch for these options and uncheck the boxes next to them during installations or updates.
Instead of having to watch for unwanted additions to free software, you can use an amazing free tool called Ninite. It lets you choose all of the free software packages you’d like to install or update in one executable file, which doesn’t include any unwanted add-ons.
This article was originally posted in February 2015 and updated in August 2016.
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