2013 Computer Buying Guide

Posted by on Oct 6, 2012 in News, Tech Support

2013 Computer Buying Guide

As we head into 2013, I’ve decided to update and simplify my approach to help people decide what new computer they are going to buy.

In essence, the question distills down to:

 

Laptop vs. Desktop

 &

Windows PC
vs.
Apple Mac

Finding the right fit for your needs is the objective of this article.

Initial Considerations:

Before I start a considered response, let’s get one critical thing out of the way first: price.

If you have limited funds to purchase this new computer (under $1000) then an Apple product is off-limits.

Your NEEDS are what determines what type of computer is a fit for your lifestyle and your workflow.

Spend some honest effort in self-assessing what it is you will be doing with the computer.

What will you be using the computer for: school? work? gaming? serious gaming? writing a book?

Where will you be using the computer: at a fixed location at home? at a fixed location in your office? to and from school? to and from the beach? in the ferry terminal?

Who will be using the computer: just you? your partner? your colleagues? This is a moot point, all computers are now personal computers, and my advice is to have One Computer – One Person. Your kids also need a computer? Budget for a second system.

But I get ahead of myself.

System Requirements:

This is almost a non-issue in today’s modern computing. All quality computers built today far exceed the needs of most applications. But I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on the specs:

RAM: 4 GB or more.

CPU: i3, i5, or i7 Processor. AMD A4 or AMD A8 or greater Processor.

Hard Drive Space: 512 GB or more.

Don’t understand what RAM or CPU mean? Google the term and learn.

Laptop vs. Desktop

The answer to this question will be determined by how mobile you need to be.

Laptops have the following advantages:

  • light weight and portable
  • all-in-one device with very little cabling
  • fold up nicely for easy storage
  • small footprint (fits nicely in a kitchen writing nook, for instance)
  • take your computer with you (classroom, office, presenters podium, etc.)
  • have built in surge and black-out protection (all laptops are rated for 220 V and have a battery to take up the slack should there be a power outtage)
  • are just as powerful as a desktop computer (for 95% of today’s applications)
  • quiet operation

Laptops have the following disadvantages:
  • low repairability (hard drive and ram OK, all else is costly)
  • low upgradeabilty (hard drive and ram OK)
  • often don’t have enough USB ports, an Optical Drive, and some other connectivity
  • small screens

Desktops have the following advantages:

  • repairable
  • upgradeable
  • can add on multiple drives
  • can drive multiple monitors
  • more options exist to get more powerful / higher performance systems
  • less stealable (OK, I’m grasping to find advantages)

Desktops have the following disadvantages:

  • big and clunky
  • lots of wires
  • need lots of desk real estate
  • often loud

Another thing to consider: A laptop can be run like a desktop in many situations.  A laptop running with an external mouse, monitor, and keyboard is almost the same thing as having a desktop.  You can even purchase docking stations that allow you to quickly connect your laptop to all of these external peripherals.

 

Windows PC vs Apple Mac

To be fair, there are other Operating Systems out there other than Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X, however Linux and Unix variants really don’t play much of a role in the regular consumers decision making process.  Perhaps this will change, but that will be another article for another day.

There are fanatics in both Microsoft and Apple camps, and I certainly enter into this fray knowing this is a loaded question.  Let’s keep this simple and stick to the facts.

Windows systems have the following advantages:

  • Microsoft dominates the business world (Office products, Windows Enterprise environments, etc.)
  • there is an ENORMOUS knowledge base of technical information from Microsoft and other users (this helps solve problems quickly using simple Google searches)
  • most business software is written exclusively for Windows (this is becoming less true, but Apple isn’t there yet)
  • Windows is a very flexible Operating System that allows users to tweak their experience
  • Microsoft is always pushing the design envelope, they get it right a lot of the time, and they get it wrong sometimes

Windows systems have the following disadvantages:

  • Viruses and Malware
  • constant flow of security updates and system patches (annoying, but necessary)
  • Operating Systems have a history of being rushed to market (not yet ready for prime time: think Vista, ME)

Apple systems have the following advantages:

  • no non-patched viruses (as market share increases, so does the development of viruses for the Apple Operating System)
  • a great Operating System (Mountain Lion is solid and feature-rich)
  • all-in-one design, with clean aesthetics
  • becoming more compatible with the Windows world with every year
  • can run Windows as either a dual-boot or as a virtual machine
  • work nicely with all other Apple products (iPhones, iPods, iPads, etc.)

Apple systems have the following disadvantages:

  • very little user tweaking allowed (Apple has a culture of “our way or the highway”)
  • constant flow of security updates and system patches (annoying, but necessary)
  • Operating Systems have a history of being rushed to market (not yet ready for prime time: think Lion)

 

Hardware & Manufactures

In my opinion, the biggest problem that Microsoft has is that they do not control the hardware that their operating system is installed on. People buy horribly underpowered systems with a hodge-podge of questionable components at a bargain price and then complain that their system constantly crashes (Blue Screen of Death, BSOD) or is SOO slow.

They then blame Microsoft.

They further confuse the issue when they compare that $300 Netbook with a $1300 MacBook Pro.  “My new Mac is SOO much better than my old system”.  Well yeah, no doubt.

If you want a happy computing experience, don’t hunt for the lowest priced unit, hunt for the system that meets your needs.  It will pay for itself many times over.  Guaranteed.

Stick to good known hardware manufacturers and pay a decent price for a good product.

So what are your options?  I could say go out and do some homework here.  But time and time again people come back with the discount special.  And then are surprised when a year and a day later their system crashes.  So I am going to cut through the BS and tell you plainly which manufactures to consider, and which to strike from the list.  (I don’t have any vested interest in what you buy, I am just telling you what my picks are for 2013).

Windows-Based Systems:

Type Good Bad
Laptop
  • Acer
  • Toshiba
  • HP
Desktop
  • HP
  • Certified Data

I regret having to place Toshiba systems in the “bad” column, but their hardware has been very poor for the last 2 years… with cheap drives, failing LCD inverters, and underpowered systems.  HP laptops have been horrific for years, but their 2012 units take the cake.  They are constantly overheating and if you make it to a year a half on your investment you are doing great.

As models change daily, I won’t get you distracted with precise models… but look to spend $800 – $1200 for a decent system.  Please don’t try and bargain bin it… you do get what you pay for.

 

Apple-Based Systems:

Apple has control of their hardware line and your choices are much simpler.  You essentially pick your form-factor and a few upgrades and hit the buy now button.

For desktop systems you have the choice of the Mac Mini and the iMac.

For laptop systems you have a choice of screen sizes, screen quality, and weight.

Price only goes up on the Apple Store.

I would recommend talking to an Apple Sales Representative to discuss your needs and your budget.

For desktops I like the Mac Mini as it gives all the power I need with a tiny footprint (and at the $1000 price point).

For laptops I like the 15″ Mac Book Pro w/ a Solid State Drive and w/o retina display as it has all the functionality I could ever need (even as an IT) and has a price that I am comfortable with.

See http://buyersguide.macrumors.com/ for an up-to-date review of all Macs, and a buy / don’t-buy recommendation.

 

Last Words

I often hear people saying, “I don’t want to switch to Apple because I don’t want to learn a whole new operating system; I don’t have time to start from scratch”.  A good point, but a false one.  If you are upgrading from Windows XP to Windows 8 (i.e., keeping within the Microsoft family) you are going to be in for one heck of a learning curve.  There is lots to learn and lots to have to figure out.

What I am saying, is that there is a learning curve regardless of which system you are moving to… so don’t let that be a factor in your decision making process.

Get a Book and learn.  They aren’t that tough.  If anything I lament the fact that these new Operating Systems are too easy to learn.  You almost require no skill to use them (and get into trouble using them).

If you are a business, talk to us about our approach to mixed-environments (Apple Mac AND Windows PC) which run in beautiful harmony.  You get the best of both worlds.

Also, do not neglect the extended warranty.  In the case of Lenovo and Dell, they usually have a 3 year warranty for little additional fee.  In the case of Apple, buy the AppleCare Warranty to extend to 3 years.

One last thing: don’t forget to backup your systems and to electrically protect them (in the case of a desktop system) with a UPS surge protector.

 

You may also find these articles of interest:

I welcome you to leave a comment or contact us to discuss this article.

Microsoft® Windows® and Apple® Mac OS X® are trademarked by their respective companies.

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9 Comments

  1. thank you this was very helpful

  2. Question via email: Thank you for the article, it was really helpful. However, you didn’t mention All-in-One computers. What is your opinion on them?

    Answer: I find all in one’s to be a nice answer for those that know exactly what they will be doing with their computers for the lifespan of that computer and require a big screen in a location where desktop realty is at a premium.

    All-in-one’s do serve a purpose and can be a nice purchase, but I wouldn’t really recommend them for most people.

    As they have non-standard parts, they are difficult to repair. Also, aside from RAM and Hard Drive, they are not upgradeable. So if you suddenly decide you’d like to go dual monitor, you are out of luck.

    Although it has gotten marginally better in recent years, they are often prone to overheating, as they [generally] have very poor air circulation.

    I also wouldn’t get too carried away with the touch screen capabilities. Anyone who’s ever sat at their desk knows that it is really awkward to touch your screen on a regular basis. So this “feature” is not that desirable.

    Buy if you like, but they are not highly rated by me. You may also want to check out:

    http://mainstaycomputing.com/repair-your-computer-vs-replace-your-computer/#axzz2Lvuas7mJ

    and

    http://mainstaycomputing.com/failed-hard-drive/#axzz2Lvuas7mJ

    All the best,

    –Matthew

  3. Thank you very much for the overview. It is very helpful and much appreciated! Great tip reg. the learning curve: I’m in that situation; I am a daily PC user; have about 100,000 mostly MS-office files + some statistics, designer, professional programs and files. I do not use any games, but need a very fast, very reliable PC to do my work and typically multitask between a dozen open windows. I have plenty of desk space but appreciate a sleek design. I need to make sure that any system I switch to, allows me to access my existing files – ideally without upgrading all the expensive software from the 2004-2008 era. Can new systems process older software and related files?
    A new PC purchase is over due; mine is from 2004 running XP and by now painfully glitch prone and tends to freeze; RAM has been upgraded to the max. I’ll stop thinking about the all-in-ones and touch screens right away thanks to you. Two choices down, more to go: I am still not sure whether desk top or laptop, Apple or PC.
    I am fine with a price up to $2500 but want to make the right choice for my needs. Any tips on how to determine the right choice?

  4. Hi Cornelia, thanks for the response!

    >>Can new systems process older software and related files?

    From what I understand, you have a large set of data from software that is mostly written for Windows. While Office 2011 for Mac does exist, and does a fine job of opening Excel / Word / PowerPoint files, you may have to work hard to find a Mac equivalent of your statistics and design programs that are Mac native.

    My recommendation would be to buy a Dell Optiplex 7010 w/ Windows 7 Professional (pay for the media disks) w/ Windows XP Mode.

    You get a zippy computer that handles your modern software packages, and if you have any legacy software that is purely Windows XP-based or WIndows 98/DOS -based, then you can run a fully legit copy of Windows XP Professional as a Virtual PC.

    See: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/virtual-pc/

    If a Dell isn’t to your liking, I would recommend talking to your local computer shop as they are far more likely to help you find a good balance of performance and price.

    Typically, local shops like to work with good equipment (like Intel or Asus motherboards, Kingston or Crucial RAM, Western Digital Hard Drives, etc.) and are looking towards equipping you with something that they can stand behind.

    Give them a budget and a rundown of your needs and they can help.

    Get two monitors and run Windows 7 on one screen and Windows XP on the other.

    All of this being said, you can also achieve the same effect on a Mac running Parallels (http://www.dpbolvw.net/2b74cy63y5LRQOTOSULNNNPURSR) and a copy of Windows XP (however, you need to provide the disks & licensing keys).

    Stop by your local Apple store and get your hands on a Mac to see how it feels to you.

    The only drawback I see for you in this department is that your existing software is probably not fully transferable to an all Apple environment. This just means you need to spend more money to reinvest into copies of Apple licenses for your software (if your software even supports Apple).

  5. Wow! Thank you so much for the immediate and detailed feedback. It is the most useful advice I’ve gotten. I appreciate your taking the time. I feel better equipped to hit the stores.

  6. Maybe just lucky but my HP laptop is 4 years old, cheapest I could find and I use it for hours every day and so far no serious problems.

  7. Re MacBook Pro choices.

    If you take a MBP non-retina, and upgrade the memory to 8 GB and put in a 256 GB SSD you’re up to the price of a similarly configured Retina. Of course, you could get the memory cheaper than Apple’s, but the price of the Retina is not really much more than a similar MBP.

    • Apple has been pretty quietly closing the gap between MBP’s with Retina and those without.

      They are slowly dropping the price and increasing specs, so the disparity in pricing is starting to be less severe (and much more attractive for those on the fence between retina vs. non-retina).

      http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2415376,00.asp

  8. Good article just got me a Lenovo Z400 4G i3 laptop and was doubtful about my decision your post has given me confidence in my decision. I agree that HP sucks and Apple for the business world just do not fit,
    regards, Jorge

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