WHS 4 – Purchasing a New Computer – The Wired Homeschool

Purchasing a computer can be confusing. Should it be a Mac or a PC? Laptop or desktop? In this episode of The Wired Homeschool I’ll give you some tips for helping you make the right decision.

Purchasing a computer for your home can be a daunting decision. I hate having to buy new hardware. It’s especially difficult if your computer suffers a catastrophic failure and you need to make a purchase quickly. Hopefully with these tips you’ll be well-armed (or armored) the next time you walk into the big, box store to make a computer purchase.

General or Purpose-built?

The first decision you need to make is whether or not this will be a a general-purpose computer for the whole family or a computer used for a specific purpose like gaming or multi-media production and playback.

If it’s a general-purpose computer the typical computer you find at a store in the $300-$500 range is fine. This type of computer can be used for Internet browsing, office productivity, watching DVDs, email and other general tasks.

If you’re looking for a computer with a specific purpose in mind things get a little trickier. Maybe you want a computer just for Internet use and checking email; a netbook might be the right choice for your. If you want a computer so you can play the latest 3D-accelerated games then you’ll be looking at things like clock speed, graphics cards, RAM for both the main system and the graphics card, and hard drive seek times. In this case the faster the better. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for a basic, modern gaming system.

All of this can be very overwhelming and since technology changes quickly I’m not going to make any specific recommendations. Cnet has a great buying guide that I’m sure will get updated as technology changes.

Desktop or Laptop?

Now that you’ve decided how you want to use your new computer you’ll need to decide what level of portability you need.

Is this a computer for the family room? You’ll want to go with a desktop. Looking for a Windows media extender? A small form factor desktop would be best. Want to be able to take the laptop on field trips or the family vacation? A laptop will be best.

A word of caution: a laptop will increase the cost of your purchase by $300-$500 if you want the same performance as a desktop. I don’t recommend you pay less than $1000 for a laptop if you plan to do video or photo editing. That $500 laptop may look appealing but it’s not really made to edit or watch video. Granted, processors and video technology have improved but you’ll want to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. You can do that by sticking to major brand names like Dell, Apple, HP and Toshiba. Again, CNet has a great laptop buying guide that you’ll find useful.

Finally, whatever you do, get an extended warranty from the manufacturer not the reseller. WHEN (not if) something goes wrong this will cut out the middle man when it comes to making repairs. You’ll pay about $100 to extend the warranty to 3 years but it’s money well-spent in my opinion.

Mac or PC?

This age-old debate will go on forever. As a general rule of thumb I recommend that you stick with what you’re accustomed to using. You won’t have to purchase new versions of your software and it will make the transition to a new machine much easier.

I will say this: you’ll get the most bang for your buck buying a Mac. Apple offers an educational discount to homeschoolers (check out their education store for details) and they offer the best tutorials for using their products I’ve seen online.

If you’re looking to switch from Windows to Apple then you’ll want to do that before you purchase any digital curriculum so that you’re sure the media will work with your new computer. This is generally not a problem these days but there are still some companies that only produce products for Windows operating systems.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

Purchasing a new computer can be quite daunting. Hopefully I’ve given you a few guidelines to help you with your purchase. When in doubt, ask a knowledgeable person you trust. Sales associates (especially if they’re paid on commission) will always try to up-sell. If you go into a store knowing exactly what you want then you may be able to avoid any hard selling.

One thing I didn’t go into detail about is peripherals like printers and scanners. For the most part what you have should be compatible with a new computer if it was purchased in the last 3-5 years. No guarantees, however. Don’t be surprised if you have to replace that 10-year old scanner.

Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make two specific recommendations for a general purpose family computer (something I don’t normally do). If you’re looking for a Mac and already have a monitor, keyboard and mouse you can reuse go for the Mac Mini. If you’re looking for a suitable Windows desktop computer the Dell Inspiron 580s starting at $599 is a great choice (ask for a educational discount since you’re a homeschooler — it can’t hurt). Both of these computers can be tweaked to your heart’s content but the base configurations are fine for the average family.

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