4 Things to Consider When Buying a New Computer – WHS 89 – The Wired Homeschool

The formal school year will be starting soon and that means parents all over the world are thinking about buying a new computer. Historically, computer manufacturers have back-to-school sales but this is one of the worst times to buy a computer because those companies are trying to get rid of their old stock to prepare for the holiday season.

If you’re in a situation where you need to buy a new computer and you can’t wait a few months hopefully this buying guide will help you make the right choice.

Reasons for Buying a New Computer

Reasons for buying a computer vary from person to person and family to family. One reason you should never buy a new computer is because you want the latest and greatest. In 6 months that bleeding edge computer will be a silicon dinosaur.

If you're still using one of theses it might be time to upgrade!

If you’re still using one of theses it might be time to upgrade!

Some reasons to buy a new computer are:

  • Your current computer or operating system is too old. If you’re still running Windows XP or Mac OS X 10.5 it might be time to look for some new hardware. Sure, you could do a few upgrades to speed thing up a little but that computer has probably reached or is nearing its end of life.¬†Support for Windows XP ends on April 8, 2014 so any computer you have that’s running Windows XP should be taken off the Internet because there will no longer be security updates available. Mac OS X 10.5 is no longer supported and it’s believed that Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) will soon reach its end-of-life meaning it will have no supported security updates either.
  • You need an additional computer. If you’re homeschooling more than one child you know that juggling computer time schedules can get tricky. As our kids grow older we’re finding it hard to decided who gets to use the computer and when. Priority is given to educational needs but sometimes the kids just want to play a game. We do have a 2nd computer (an old laptop with XP) that we take out every once in a while but it’s really slow which can sometomes be frustrating for the kids. These scheduling conflicts will occur more and more so at some point we’ll need to bit the bullet and purchase another computing device.
  • Upgrading isn’t cost-effective. In the past, upgrading a computer could really extend its life. That’s true today too but when you consider that the cost to buy components and a new operating system are almost as much as a new computer the cost-savings just don’t compute. Additionally, if you’re not technically savvy, you’ll need to pay someone to upgrade your computer. This puts in the market for a new budget computer that will be covered by a warranty and probably perform better that the upgraded one.

Whatever your reasons for buying that shiny new box of silicon there are some important things to consider when purchasing a new computer (or tablet).

Shopping for a new computer can be scary! So many choices!

Shopping for a new computer can be scary! So many choices!

4 Things to Consider When Buying a New Computer

1. Price – First, don’t buy anything under $500. It’s just not worth it (unless you’re buying a tablet). A lot of times the ultra-budget computers are made from inferior parts, come with limited specifications, or they’re using old technology. For some reason consumers want to pay as little as possible on something they plan to keep for 3-5 years. Sure, if you decided to buy a new computer every year, go for that $300 Walmart special but don’t be surprised if it goes belly up right after the warranty expires.

If you plan to pay between $500-$800 you can get a quality machine that you can use for years. Shopping for refurbished computers is a good idea too. You get the same computer but at a significant discount with a full manufacturer’s warranty.

Speaking of warranties, go ahead and spring for the extended manufacturer’s warranty if you’re buying a desktop. If you buy a laptop or tablet, SquareTrade offers a great 3rd-party warranty that covers accidental damage. This is ideal if the new device is for a child.

One more thing about price: a $1000 computer isn’t unreasonable. If you consider the cost over 3 years that’s less than $1 a day which is probably less than you pay for your Internet connection.

2. Purpose – What will you be doing with the computer? If this is just a supplemental computer for Internet use, checking email, or consuming content like YouTube videos or Netflix you may want to consider a tablet. Currently I recommend the Google Nexus 7 and the iPad Mini, in that order.

If you want to do some document editing and maybe a little video editing but nothing too resource intensive a Mac Mini or Dell Inspiron One 20″ are good choices.

If you want a gaming machine or high-end video editing computer then you’ll want an iMac or premium brand like Alienware. Keep in mind that these computers can cost thousands of dollars instead of hundreds. I doubt anyone needs a computer like this for homeschooling. If you’re planning to hand-down an old computer because its still serviceable then considering a premium brand is reasonable.

Microsoft Surface Pro

The Microsoft Surface Pro is a good choice for portability and backwards compatibility.

3. Portability – Do you want to be able to take your computer anywhere? This is where things can get tricky. Portability may or may not be important to you. If you want something that’s portable you need to decide how portable you want your new computer to be. Laptops, ultra-portables, and tablets are great but you tend to sacrifice performance. Unless you need to do some serious work while travelling, $500-$800 is still a reasonable price to pay for a on-the-go computer.

Thinking about your purpose for this computer (or device), you may want to just get a tablet. The Nexus 7 and iPad Mini are great devices and there are many educational apps available for both platforms.

If you need a little more flexibility, consider an ultra-portable laptop. I suggest Lenovo and the Macbook Air as two options. You can currently get a refurbished 11″ Macbook Air for $799. That’s $200 less than retail and you still get the manufacturer’s warranty.

Need more power? Lenovo and Apple also make some great laptops that will add considerable cost to your budget but provide you with desktop performance.

4. Performance – Do you need the latest and greatest? Probably not but there are still some things to look for when purchasing a computer.

Multi-core processors are standard now and most reasonably priced computer come with an Intel i5 or i7 processor. Skip the i3 or AMD products unless you want an ultra-cheap ($300) computer. It’s just not worth the performance hit you’re going to take.

Don’t settle for less than 4GB of RAM. RAM is what will really make your computer sing. If you can afford more, go for it. Modern operating systems can take advantage of all of it.

Next, you’ll want to consider whether or not to get a solid state or standard hard drive. Solid state hard drives are faster because there are no mechanical parts that can slow things down but the come at a premium. Standard hard drives are slower but you can get much more storage space for your money. Then there are hybrid drives that utilize both technologies. It’s an amalgam of the two but will still increase the price of your new computer.

Finally, you may be concerned about the video card in your computer if you’re going to do a lot of video editing or playing some modern computer games. This is the last thing you want to consider especially if you intend to use the computer for schooling.

You'll need to part with a few of these if you want a decent computer.

You’ll need to part with a few of these if you want a decent computer.

In the End it Comes Down to What You Spend

I hope this has helped to clarify things. It may have caused more confusion. Feel free to leave any comments and I’ll try to address all of your questions. For many, cost is the motivating factor when it comes to choosing a computer. I understand if you can’t afford to spend $1500 on a computer but even if you’re being really thrifty you can find some good deals out there. Sometimes refurbished computers are $200-$300 less than a brand new one which could put a very serviceable computer in your price range. If you can’t pay at least $500 for a new computer you may want to wait or buy one from a friend who may want to upgrade. Ask around.

I’m not an expert but I have been advising people on buying computers for years. Some of it comes from my own personal experience as a custom computer builder and some from articles I’ve read online. You may also want to check out these other resources that cover buying computers:
How to Buy a New Computer (Quick and Dirty Tips)
CNet Desktop Buying Guide
CNet Laptop Buying Guide
Consumer Reports Computer Buying Guide

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Music for the podcast by Kevin Macleod.

  • david edward

    One should buy a desktop computer that has only the features we need. Many people get high end machines that are not only beyond their budget, they have features that are unnecessary and will never be used.


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