Thu, Jun 14, 2012
You’ve been foregoing that afternoon Mars bar for months, you’ve strip-searched every piece of furniture for loose change, and you’ve been eating Tesco’s value peanut butter on toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner – and now you’ve finally got the funds to buy a new pc.
But, oh, which one to get? Among the literally thousands of options, how do you know which one fits your needs? And what are the red flags that you should look out for?
We’ve been taking a look at some of the decisions people have to make before they buy a new computer, and we hope this post will answer a couple of questions or at least enlighten you on a couple of technical features to look out for before you decide to take the plunge.
The main three things to consider when buying a laptop or PC are:
- What do you use/want to use your computer for?
- What specifications will I require in order to put the computer to that use?
- How much am I willing to spend on my computer?
Other aspects, like brand and looks, are lower down the priority scale. Try to make the most of your budget – it’s better to be future-proofed, as technology develops quickly and you don’t want your new computer to be outmoded by the end of the year. Below, we break these three questions down a bit further.
Mac or Microsoft?
Possibly the first decision many of you will have to make. Both makes have their strengths and weaknesses, but neither is the overarching superior of the other.
The most obvious crossroad when choosing between the two is that Mac computers tend to be more expensive. A new PC can be purchased at any price from £199 upwards, but you’d struggle to find a new MacBook below the £800 mark.
Specs like the hard drive size and RAM of an Apple Mac can be found in similar configurations in a PC – but at a much lower price. If you do spend £1000+ on a Mac computer you’re not necessarily getting a superior machine to an £800 PC.
The higher price of Apple products is mainly the result of the image people have of the brand – MacBooks and iMacs have been marketed very effectively, and have thus become highly desirable machines. Apple users can sync up their devices to all their other products, iPods, iPads and iPhones, and get access to decent pre-installed software, with next to no bloatware.
PCs, however, have a far better variety of both hardware and software. Multiple brands work together to build new computers and programs, allowing you greater freedom with your computer. PCs are open source, which means you can tinker with the innards of your computer and upgrade it, as opposed to just buying a new one. Most people don’t bother, but it isn’t hard to do and quite a good money saver. The licensing of Apple products voids your guarantee if any DIY tampering is perceived to have occured, and you are similarly limited with Apple’s software.
The Apple Mac user interface is far friendlier and easy to get to grips with, and it also allows you to switch operating systems – i.e. you can run Windows on it, too. This is a rather exceptional feature giving you the best of both worlds.
Apple Macs are considered safer in terms of digital threats (i.e. viruses), but they aren’t invulnerable. The open source trait of PCs and the fact that they’re more commonplace means that you’re more immediately vulnerable to Trojans and malware. New PCs are often wracked with free trials for software you’ll never use and you’re a sitting target until you have decent security software in place.
Apple are enjoying greater popular appeal with customers won over through devices like the iPad and iPod. They are targeted towards ‘creative people’ and are great for design work or editing movies and music, making them a popular choice for students. PCs tend to be more ‘professional’ machines despite the fact that you can use Windows on a Mac.
As the more cost-effective choice, PCs are the preferred choice for a lot of businesses and that doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.
Deciding what type of computer you need
The three main consumer categories for computer shopping are work, entertainment and family use. Naturally there’s some cross-over so it’s worth considering the features of the other categories when choosing the right machine for you.
Dell, Hewlett-Packard & Toshiba
Offices tend to be kitted out with Dell or HP desktops. These companies’ laptops, meanwhile, are a respectable choice for personal-use computers. If you need to take your laptop with you on the road, then you should consider ultrabook models. These are slim and powerful machines – a little bit pricy but they’re new and have the latest technology. The alternative is to get a tablet such as the iPad, which is even more user friendly, especially when on the go.
If you’re looking to kit out your home office it’s still a safe bet to buy a desktop computer – these tend to be faster and have greater storage than business laptops.
Sony, Apple & Samsung
We aren’t all slaves to spreadsheets and reams of endless code – some of us like to enjoy technology through computer games or watching movies. The brands listed above build computers that are more than capable of handling heavy workloads, but their specifications are better suited to multimedia output. They make ideal student laptops since they’re high-end enough to be long lasting, and not limited when it comes to graphics and sound quality.
Asus, Acer, Lenovo
With a shared family computer, a healthy amount of storage is key, so make sure you get a decent hard drive. You’ll need to keep the system healthy (no mean feat when there’s more than one person downloading stuff form the web) so don’t scrimp on security software either.
Most brands have something to offer in this category, and we’d advise you go for an all-in-one which is more family friendly in terms of size, design and security features. All-in-ones are touch-screen desktops, and they only have the one wire which is plugged in to the wall, making them very tidy machines.
How to check the specs
It’s easy to get baffled by the number and nature of technical specifications. Below is a short summary of key components and what to look out for.
Processors: which core to consider
They work like the brain of the computer. The majority of new computers run either 2nd or 3rd generation Intel i-core units. As you can assume, the 3rd generation, called Ivy Bridge, is superior to its predecessor, with between 5% and 15% improved CPU activity.
The second generation (Sandy Bridge) came out just last year and is still highly effective, so don’t feel pressured to splash out on the latest chip when last year’s is still serving most of us very well.
When choosing your computer, don’t set too much stock in processor speed. It’s not tantamount to the overall performance of the computer, it’s just the frequency at which the processor runs. You can’t really compare processors from different companies just by GHz – that sort of comparison only works with processors of the same product line.
Picking a processor is really quite simple. For light to medium use (i.e. email and word processing), go for an Intel i3, which we’d also recommend for family or entertainment computers.
The Intel i5 processor is a bit more standard in working environments and amongst serious techies. If you want a reliable system which can handle intensive applications e.g. high-spec gaming, then plump for that range.
The Intel i7 processor is essentially the best (i.e. most powerful) one out there, but naturally it comes at the highest price.
Storage types, and how much is enough
Hard drive storage determines the amount of data you can store locally on your computer. You’ll need to pick between hard disk drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SSD). The difference between the two is that the SSD has no moving parts, making it ideal for travel since jolting it doesn’t risk memory damage.
HDDs offer larger memory at a lower cost. At the moment consumer SSD memory storage is available in chunks of up to to 256 Gb, which is substantially less than the multiple terabytes that you can get in the HDD format.
Generally speaking, the more storage you can get the better (unless you have an external hard drive you use and trust), and opting for an SSD is the best choice you can make since it offers greater random-access memory (RAM) which is vital for better performing computers.
Here’s a table to breakdown our recommendations for storage sizes, depending on what sort of computer you want to buy.
Integrated and discrete graphics
Intel offer integrated graphics with i-series processors, which greatly helps lengthen battery life in laptops. A lot of people are more interested in quality graphics, in which case a discrete or ‘dedicated’ GPU is advised.
Standard graphics card choices when configuring your computer are between Intel HD 300, AMD Radeon HD and Nvidia GeForce. Intel graphics are the typical choice and difficult to find fault with, but Nvidia and AMD are both respected by gamers.
Some laptops have both discrete and integrated graphics, so you can switch between the two depending on what you are currently using the computer for.
Written by Karim Beerahee
Karim is a veteran writer at PC site, you'll be able to find him at product launches in London where he finds the latest and machines for review, published here...