Buying a computer can be quite an ordeal. We often get questions in the ITS department about personal technology purchases…  “What’s the best? …How much do I need?  …What’s a good price?” The options are overwhelming.

Fortunately, we can offer a few tips to make the process a little easier.

NOTE:   This article does NOT cover ultra-portable tablet technology (such as the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab)… Those devices will be the subject of another upcoming article!


Before we start, let’s hammer-out some terminology:

Desktop Computers

Also known as a “Personal Computer”, “Desktop”, “Workstation”, or just plain “Computer”, this type of device is usually designed to sit on or near a desk in a permanent or semi-permanent fashion. Common configurations include the “tower” (and the more popular “mini tower”) which sit upright on the floor, and the “desktop” which lays horizontally on a desk surface.  Many devices blur these distinctions as they can sit either horizontally or vertically depending on preference.  With the exception of a few “all-in-one” devices, these require an additional display device (“monitor”, “LCD screen”) for output, so make sure that you either already own a good monitor or have budgeted for one when you go to make your purchase.

Desktops make up for their lack of portability with enhanced processing power. You can cram more CPU, memory and storage in to them than their portable counterparts and often for less money. If you know you will be primarily working at a desk or want the most performance possible, consider a desktop.

Portable Computers

Portable computers run a wide gamut, ranging from lightweight and low-cost “netbooks” designed only for light-duty computing to full-featured “ultrabooks” that reach computing parity with desktops. Notebook computers are designed with portability in mind.

As the portable device is an all-in-one proposal, there are many more variables to consider before purchasing. Key factors include processing power (CPU and memory), screen size, overall size, overall weight, durability, and battery life. 

It should be noted that optical drives (CD/DVD ROM) are often not included on smaller-sized portables. If you need to use CDs or DVDs, make sure that you either have an external DVD drive or that you purchase a model that includes one!


Also commonly known as the “processor”, the CPU is literally the “brain” of the computer. It does all of the logical computations that makes a computer… well, a computer. Generally,  the faster the processor (measured in Gigahertz, or gHz), the better.  As far as computers are concerned, two brains are definitely better than one, so many computers offer multiple CPUs.  If multiple CPUs are not offered, many processors are able to logically “split” themselves into 2 or more virtual CPUs called “cores”. Even though there is only one CPU, the operating systems sees each core as a separate processor and is able to perform more efficiently. The more cores, the better.


Often referred to by its technical name RAM (Random Access Memory),  the computer’s memory is a critical component of a computer’s performance. Memory is where all of your computer’s current instructions are stored. Think of memory like your kitchen countertop…  The more space you have to sort things out, the less time it will take to get dinner ready.  More memory is always better.

Hard Drive

This is your long-term storage. All of your documents, photos, videos, etc.  are stored here to be accessed later. Using the home analogy, think of your hard drive as a bedroom closet: You can probably start with a smaller one, but eventually you’ll fill it up and wish you went with the walk-in variety. As with memory, more hard drive space is better.

Graphics Controller

Modern computer graphics are so processor-intensive that they are usually offloaded to a specialized CPU called the graphics controller. Also known as the video card or GPU, this device controls your computer display and graphic rendering. Most devices come with integrated graphics cards which offer decent performance, but if you are serious about multimedia you can opt for a high-end 3rd party graphics controller.  With portable computers you usually have to settle for integrated graphics controllers due to the inherently tight fit of the components involved.

Wired and Wireless Networking

Virtually all desktop computers have integrated ports for Ethernet (wired) networking, as do all but the slimmest portable computers. Hooking your computer directly to a DSL router or cable modem should be no problem whatsoever.

In terms of wireless networking, practically all portable computers come with some provision for wireless networking, but desktop units often do not. USB-based wireless adapters are available for desktops if needed.  

Operating System

The basic software interface that you interact with when you use your computer. Each operating system has its own unique look and feel. For Apple devices the operating systems is OSX;  for most other units the operating system is Microsoft Windows.


For a personal device, cost will likely be a deciding factor. Unfortunately when it comes to computer technology, being truly satisfied with a low-cost option is often the exception rather than the rule. Seemingly minor compromises in performance, usability, and physical durability may leave you with a frustrating paperweight in a short amount of time (this is especially true with mobile devices).  While everyone loves a good deal, the old adage about getting-what-you-pay-for still holds true.

However there is a rule-of-thumb for cost that can be suggested. Unless you are a dedicated computer gamer or advanced multimedia enthusiast, you should never need to spend more than $1,000 on a personal computer or notebook.  The best-in-class products for personal use hover around this price point, so there’s no need to spend more without an exceptional reason.

Intended Usage

If you never intend to do more than read your email, type a document or two, or watch some videos on the internet you really don’t need a high-end computer. Most basic desktop or portable computers can fill any of these needs with ease.  However, if you intend on pursuing multimedia interests such as photo/video editing or gaming, you will want to focus on systems with more CPU, memory, and disk space.

Battery life is important

Don’t underestimate the importance of battery life. Having to stay tethered to the wall by a power-hungry laptop can quickly nullify the benefits of mobile computing. Modern lithium-ion systems should be able to sustain at least 4+ hours on a full charge when new. Battery life decreases over time, but this is often after the computer has outlasted its useful life.

Size and weight

Unlike a desktop computer with an external monitor, you only have one chance to purchase a portable computer with the right size and weight… So give it some thought beforehand.  Choose a screen size that is large enough to read comfortably while being small enough to tote easily.  A 4 lb. portable might seem light when you lift it 3 inches off the display case for a half-second, but think about what it might feel like in a backpack for a few hours. Lightweight is the name of the game these days, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something suitable.

Factor-in a performance premium for your operating system and antivirus software

Remember that your operating system and antivirus software are competing for system resources as well. Windows 7/8 can easily demand 1-2GB of memory; antivirus software can take 25% or more as well. If you purchase a  Windows system with just 2 GB of memory, you have already committed most of your memory before adding any other programs!

Be wary of add-ons

Your Windows-based computer needs just an operating system and quality antivirus software to function… Anything else is superfluous. Salespeople often try to tack on “value-added” software that usually serves no purpose other than to slow down your computer and clutter your desktop. Modern operating systems, in conjunction with good antivirus software, are fully capable of taking care of themselves without the need for extra “optimization” software.

When in doubt…

Ultimately, only you can decide what computer is best for your particular needs. If you are thinking about purchasing and computer and need additional help, please do not hesitate to ask us!