The Last Computer Buyers’ Guide

You’ll never have to ask for advice again.

“Which computer should I buy?” folks invariably ask me after they learn that I work in the computer business. I don’t know what the latest and greatest computers are because I don’t buy them very often (usually my employer buys them for me). Yet I generally have good advice to offer, advice that is timeless because it isn’t about specific manufacturers or models. And so, with the full intention of never having to say any of this again, here are my recommendations on how to buy a computer:

1. Wait as long as possible. Computers get cheaper and more powerful monthly, and sometimes weekly. If you don’t have an immediate need, put it off a little longer, and you’ll either get the same technology for less money or more technology for the same money.

2. Always buy n - 1. Let’s use the label n to describe today’s latest and greatest technology. Whether it’s DVD-RW or RDRAM or a 1,000-MHz Pentium III, n is always the coolest thing around—it makes gear-heads drool and reach for their wallets. But there are two problems with technology n: 1) It’s expensive—you are paying a premium to be the first in line; and 2) it’s unproven. Intel’s first Pentiums had math problems, the software that runs new video boards (“drivers”) often has glitches. If you go with n - 1—yesterday’s technology—the actual difference in performance will be small. But you’ll save some money and not have to work as an unpaid tester for some corporation.

3. Your new computer is already obsolete, but will still be good for the next four years. The day you buy your computer, some new technology will be announced that will make it look as advanced as a rock. But if you took my advice and bought n - 1, you’ve already admitted that you can live without the latest. In three years, your zippy new computer will seem as slow as a slug and its storage capacity will seem microscopic, but it will still run all today’s software as well as it does today. After four years, two things will happen: You’ll want to run newer software that requires or benefits from newer technology; and, after watching the latest zippy computers in action, you’ll no longer be willing to wait for your old machine to load and run your favorite applications. At that point, you have my permission to buy a new computer.

4. Plan for the next four years. What applications will you use in the near future? E-mail, Web surfing, and word processing don’t take a lot of horsepower, but photo retouching requires a lot of memory and hard drive space, and video editing even more so. Games need blazing speed and a hot video board with a lot of video memory. What peripherals will you use (e.g., printer, scanner, PalmPilot or Pocket PC)? How will they connect to the computer? Do they all need to connect at once? What type of Internet connection will you use—does it require a network card? What is your backup strategy? Will this computer be part of a home network? Make a list, now.

5. Get the nicest monitor you can. You’ll spend a lot of time staring at it, so do your poor eyes a favor. Monitors don’t improve as rapidly as computers, nor do prices fall as quickly. Nicer doesn’t always mean bigger, but it should be big enough and as bright and clear as possible. Hint for early 2000: Those expensive large flat-screen monitors are technology n. Full disclosure: I own one.

6. Buy the biggest hard drive you can. The incremental cost is low, and hard drives fill up quickly. And while you can always upgrade later, it’s nontrivial to add or replace a hard drive (and you may have to replace, as some computers only have room for one). Even if you’re happy to pay someone to install a new hard drive, you still have to transfer your files. But that shouldn’t be so hard because you’re already backing them up regularly, right?

7. Pay attention to slots when choosing the amount of memory. Memory comes on little cards that fit in slots. Find out how many memory slots your prospective computer has and how the memory is configured. If you think you’ll need more memory one day, leave one or more slots free. For instance, say a computer has two slots and memory comes in 32-MB, 64-MB, and 128-MB cards. A 96-MB computer will fill up both slots (64 MB + 32 MB = 96 MB), but a 128-MB computer might leave one free. Go for the latter, even if it costs a little more, because you’re leaving room to grow without throwing memory away. So let’s say you do decide to fill that first slot with 128 MB, and let’s say that’s all you need right now. Should you go ahead and fill the second with 128 MB just to get it over with? No. Next month it will be cheaper, and in a year it will be dirt cheap. Buy it when you need it.

8. Count interfaces. One network card, one video card, one serial card—and my new computer is out of accessory slots. If I want to add a DVD drive with MPEG decoder, I’m out of luck. Don’t let this happen to you. Think hard about the peripherals you have now and what you might reasonably expect to add in the next few years, and make sure your computer is prepared. There are many kinds of interfaces—accessory slots, serial ports, parallel ports, USB (universal serial bus), SCSI (small computer systems interface), and no doubt in the future there will be others. Some allow many devices to share a single interface or to “chain” devices together, some don’t. Just make sure your future needs will be taken care of.

9. Buy refurbished/remanufactured units. Most name-brand manufacturers now offer refurbished systems either at a discount or via auction, and they come with full warranties. Plus, when you buy a refurbished system you’re getting n - 1 almost by definition. (Or not—I bought my snazzy large flat-screen monitor as a refurbished unit at nearly half-price.) One drawback: Refurbished computers usually come as is, making it harder to get what you really want. Avoid bargains that include stuff—like a $150 network card—that you won’t use. If it’s advertised as “$100 off list,” then you’ve just effectively paid $50 extra!

10. Pay attention to bundled software. Software is expensive when bought at retail, but a great bargain when bundled with a computer purchase. However, bundled software is no bargain if you don’t want or need it.

11. Don’t automatically buy your peripherals with your computer. When you buy computers online, they always try to sell you a printer or a scanner or other peripherals at full price. Don’t buy until you do some shopping: You may find that peripheral at a steep discount elsewhere.

12. A notebook offers few advantages over a desktop if you never move it. Notebooks are cuter, cooler, and handier than desktops, but they’re also 50 percent to 100 percent more expensive than desktops with comparable power. Also, they’re not very expandable. If you really need portability, don’t get one of those 8-pound fully featured notebooks that are too big and heavy to take on business trips. Get a lightweight notebook that may not have all the bells and whistles—but which you’ll actually take with you.

13. Buy it direct from the manufacturer. Otherwise you’re paying somebody a retail markup.

What? Don’t I prefer Dell to Gateway? PCs to Macs? Towers (like a Power Mac G4) to all-in-ones (like an iMac)? Honestly, I have my opinions, but they’re only opinions and they might not be as good as yours.

So, until the time comes, three years hence, when it’s time to replace my year-old computer, this is my last word on the subject. Don’t even think of asking me for additional advice.