How to Buy a Computer for Christmas

Geek!This is JB’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

As the tech guy of my family, family business, and my friends, I had the opportunity to put together and maintain several computers, some of which have been bought as presents. The difficulty is in creating a PC (or Mac) that is fit for the purpose it will be used for – all the while, sticking to a budget.

First of all, you need to know what the machine will be used for. The two typical cases are office and gaming, but it might be graphics work, on-demand television, or whatever. Let’s make some generalizations:

  • If the computer will only be used to run Word, it is safe to say that the cheapest option is the best option. Performance doesn’t really matter.
  • For everything else, there is MasterCard! Buying a top quality gaming rig is going to cost you… a lot. But some of us are on a tighter budget, and so your motto should be: spend as much as you can afford. But I have to warn you: computers are the WORST INVESTMENT EVER. Yes, even worse than Nigerian Treasury Bonds. Try not to overspend yourself.
  • If the present is for a child (by child, I mean under the age of 11), do not spend a fortune buying him/her a supercomputer that will never be used to its full potential. By the way, that will also help you keep your 8 year-old from playing violent games, as they tend to require better hardware.
  • If it will ONLY be used for gaming, consider a gaming console. Popular ones are: Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii.
  • If you are giving it to someone who already owns a computer, try to check what kind of computer he/she has. This also avoids the blunder of buying a brand new computer that actually underperforms the previous one. Never buy a Mac user a PC and vice versa – unless you know he/she has been thinking about switching. Always check if he/she already has a monitor, a printer, etc. so you can avoid buying those devices and/or accessories.
  • Laptop or Desktop? Desktops are ideal for people who work at home, for children, for the elderly, and when high performance is needed. Laptops are better if he/she travels a lot or needs to work at more than one place. Laptops are also great gifts for students.

If you have done your research, you will face 3 options:

  • Build a PC yourself / Have it custom made by a professional. This is something I wouldn’t recommend – unless you count yourself among at least those so called “Power Users”. If you decide to pick the parts yourself, there are some tips below.
  • Buy a PC in your local store / on the Internet. Most people don’t bother, and buy a computer the same way they buy… toilet paper, for example. By looking at it. “This one looks good, it’s shiny, I will buy it”. And here comes the No. 1. Rule of buying computers: DO NOT PICK ONE ONLY BY ITS APPEARANCE. Yes, looks are important, but there are literally thousands of more important things in case of computers. Some tips when buying in a local store:
    • Ask a salesman. Don’t just tell him: “I am looking for a computer”. Tell him: “I am looking for a computer for my 98 year-old grandma, with…”
    • Don’t let them blackmail you. If they say it is the last one they have, tell them you can always buy one in another store. They will tell you: “No sir, not this one.” Trust me, the shop next door will be more than happy to find you a computer just like that. Set a budget, and don’t let them exceed it. If they insist on spending just $50 more, you will end up spending $500 more if you accept. Don’t buy it at first sight. Go to other stores, you may even find it helpful to ask: “What do you think about that computer they recommended me at the other store?” But don’t believe everything they say. Ask if they have a better deal.
    • Don’t let them persuade you to buy tons of accessories that no one really needs. If you don’t want another monitor, don’t buy one. Avoid expensive cables. No cable costs more than a couple of dollars to make, so if they say it’s a hundred, tell them to find you one for $3.
    • If you must take a loan, be informed. They might have a better deal than your credit card company.
  • Buying the computer online is also an option. Deals might be better, but you will need more confidence in the vendor as you only have raw specs to rely on.

Now, the debate of Mac vs. PC has been going on for years, but people fail to realize, Macs are (in fact) PCs. There is nothing you can’t do with a Mac that you can do with a PC. There is a joke hanging around the Internet about this: “Name one thing you can do with your PC that I can’t do with my Mac!” And the answer is: “Right-click” That’s not true (yes, Virginia, you really can right-click in OS X, the Mac’s operating system). Macs are compatible with almost all PC accessories, including mice. Actually, several Mac applications need the second mouse button to function better. So, when is it time to go Mac?

  • It is a first computer. Easier to learn and maintain, Macs are ideal first computers. Most first time users fall in love with that, not the user interface.
  • He/she already has a Mac.
  • You want something… aesthetically pleasing. Like something for a living room. Or for a storefront. iMacs are elegant all-in-one computing solutions, and you can’t beat the look.
  • You are buying a laptop / notebook computetr. This might start a civil war, but Macbooks are probably the best laptops on the market today. They are not cheap, maybe they don’t have the best performance, but they have great battery life, size, and weight. They are also sturdy.

Yes, yes – but how do you actually CHOOSE what to buy? Here are some tips regarding the choice of hardware:

  • Trust bigger brands, but not blindly. There are some companies whose names became synonymous with quality. They deliver excellent products, albeit sometimes not cheaply.
  • Graphics. If it’s office-type work, it’s fine to go with integrated an graphics card. It’s cheaper that way. For games, you’d want a dedicated video card. There are two brands worth mentioning on the market: nVidia and AMD/ATI. They only produce the chips however, and if you custom-build your PC, you will need to choose the card’s manufacturer as well. Bigger brands tend to work better here, too. Price and performance are in close relation. You can also buy more than one card into one PC (called CrossFire and SLI by ATI and nVidia, respectively). The prime factor to take into consideration is the size of the screen (to be specific, its resolution). The bigger the screen, the more power you will need to achieve the same speed and quality in games. Also consider the games that will be played on the computer. Action and RPG games tend to require more from the graphics card. Also, the bigger the screen, the more video memory you will need. 256 megabytes is fine for 17 inch displays and smaller, but you will need more for a 19, 20, 24 inch screen. You will likely need more than one card to card a 30 inch screen.
  • CPU. As much as Intel hates it, CPUs have reached a level of performance where more speed doesn’t really have any effect for everyday use. However, if the computer will be used for video or audio editing, hardcore gaming, 3D modeling, or any other demanding task, you are better off with a faster model. There are two manufacturers: Intel and AMD. AMD has traditionally offered a more affordable solution, while Intel has traditionally offered the fastest processors. To be honest, it doesn’t matter which one you have anymore.
  • Storage. The Bigger, the better. Don’t ever buy a computer with less than 200 gigabytes of storage capacity. Laptops are the exception, especially with SSD (a next-generation solid state storage device – faster, yet significantly more expensive). SSD lacks the volume capacity of its mechanical big brother, the traditional hard drive. SSD is, however, more quiet and energy efficient (no moving parts). SSD options are usually found only for laptop configurations these days.
  • Screen. First of all: go with LCD. If CRT still exists, it is an “ancient” technology that nobody wants today. Also, the bigger the screen, the better (and, the more expensive). Most people do not need to go bigger than 20 inches. Remember, you need a better video card if you have a bigger screen! Keep in mind, text does not appear larger on bigger screens. Don’t just buy a bigger screen to cope with sight problems. Get glasses. 😉

Bottom line? For standard office work, you can get a PC without a screen for less than $300. With everything included, it could be as low as $500 – $600. For gaming, a basic rig will cost you around $900 without a screen. But that’s pretty basic, so you might want to spend around $1600 – $2200 (at least) to get a decent system. With a 20 inch screen, that might be $2000 – $2500 total. Decent laptops start relatively low, so you might be able to get one for $500 – but you have to spend at least $1000 – $1200 to get one that is capable of gaming. Netbooks (lightweight laptops) start as low as $300, but their usability is sometimes seriously impaired. Of course, I don’t claim that these prices are 100% accurate, but they might give you a pretty good picture of how much you are likely to spend on a new computer this holiday season.