My December, 2010 Montana InBusinessMonthly column
Are you looking for a new personal computer as a holiday gift for someone or for yourself (because Santa knows you’ve been good all year)? Or maybe as a year-end tax deduction for your business? Here’s a quick buying guide for those in the market for a new PC.
While shopping, combine the online and off-line worlds if you can. Many shop online for PCs and laptops, and the deals can be good. At sites like Cnet.com, you can read product reviews and see what the general public says, too.
But if you can, try the computer out at a big box store to get a good feel for it. See if the keyboard is big enough and if you like the display and/or touchscreen and how it all works. And compare similar models side by side.
And while you’re looking and reading, forget about some of the techno-babble, like Intel vs. AMD processors, high-end graphics and the like. The typical user of Microsoft Office and surfer of the Internet isn’t going to notice the subtle performance differences between many of these choices.
But there are a few important technical specs to look for. One is hard-drive size; you don’t want to run out next year.
Most Apple laptops come with a 250- to 500-gigabyte drive, and that should be fine, unless you know you are going to collect lots of music and store lots of photos. Windows users want to get a 500-gigabyte drive at the minimum, as Windows needs more space.
Solid-state drives (SSD) offer almost instant booting, but are more expensive than traditional hard drives, so I’d forget about them for few years until they come down in price and increase in capacity.
But do look for more RAM in any laptop or desktop you get. More RAM makes the most difference in terms of speed and usability. A minimum of 4 gigs is needed on any laptop or desktop, and 6 is better.
And consider getting an extended warranty directly from the manufacturer of the item and not one you get offered at checkout time.
AppleCare is a good deal for the two extra years of coverage, and major manufacturers of Windows machines offer their own extended warranties. Three years of total coverage is a good idea.
Most high-tech items out there – PCs, laptops, TVs, etc. – have an overall failure rate of close to 10 percent, so an extended warranty may save your bacon.
And while shopping, you might come up against that ageless debate: Windows or Mac? The basics: Apple makes both the hardware and the operating system software and tightly controls third-party software, so Apple systems tend to work better.
Microsoft makes the Windows operating system and Office suite, etc., but doesn’t make the hardware that the software runs on. So Windows runs on any PC or laptop (like HP, Toshiba, Dell, Sony, etc.), which can lead to problems with software and drivers and compatibility.
You will need antivirus and anti-spyware for Windows; you don’t necessarily need it right now for Apple.
Apple machines are more expensive at first glance, but once you start adding things up – customer happiness, lack of malware, included software and ability to work with Windows files – you at least will come out even with Windows.
In any event, read those “quick start” instructions first after unboxing the new toy. Run a software update for operating system updates and antivirus, too. Check the manufacturer’s website for help with simple problems. And worst case, keep all the boxes and receipts for a possible return or exchange.