What to look for when buying a new PC (4 years ago)

This article is a reprint from some time ago for the Register-News. I am going through and posting the archives online.


Fifty cents does not buy you a good computer. Some think that they can pick up any deal of the week at the local discount store and go edit home movies. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Purchasing a new computer is quite similar to buying a new car in that there are many options to consider, including what your primary use will be for the new PC.

If you are like a majority of users, the ‘deal of the week’ at your local department store might be okay to use for a little while, but eventually it will slow down and become frustrating. One reason for this is that programmers create software to use future hardware, not current.

If that programmer designs a program that operates on a high-end dual-core processor with 6GB of RAM, then by the time the program is tested, fixed, and shipped, your ‘deal of the week’ PC from a year ago with a low-end dual-core processor and 1GB of RAM will struggle.

Here I will try to offer my opinion of what type of PC you should buy, and include some reasons for minor changes according to your unique needs. This advice may seem extremely simple, but hopefully it helps those of you who will be purchasing a new PC after the holidays or this spring.

The first and most important thing to do before you decide what to look for is to take stock of what you do with a PC. Do you just surf the Internet? Do you edit photos? Are you editing home movies? How fast is fast enough for you? Do you keep (legal) copies of movies on your PC? Is your music collection growing daily? Do you have mail, web browsing, and music running while you watch YouTube videos?

Each of those questions is extremely important in deciding how beefy your new PC must be in order to give you the type of experience that you need. If you are watching or editing movies, you need a better video card. If you are just surfing the web, a simple model may be all that you need.

In terms of processor, most people will do just fine with a 2.8GHz or higher dual-core model. There are subtle differences in the processor models, but they fit within this range. Quad-core processors are out and are quite powerful, but they are not needed unless you are doing heavy gaming or video/photo editing. Wait for them to become commonplace in a few years because they just add price in today’s market.

When you are looking at RAM, be sure to get no less than 4GB. Now, you may buy a 2GB system and upgrade (add) the RAM yourself, but either way I would have a hard time recommending less than 4. Again, the exception would be if you are doing high-end gaming. Gaming likes a LOT of RAM, and I would suggest no less than 6GB for gamers.

Video cards are generally optional – as they should be today. Many computers have built-in video processors that can handle quite a bit of demand. Used to be that built-in video was a joke, but not so much anymore. My advice is to get a 256MB video card if you plan on watching movies, especially in HD. Gaming geeks will probably opt for at least a 512MB card to keep their sessions going strong.

Hard disk drives are unbelievably inexpensive today. No one should buy a PC with less than 500GB in HDD space. Storage is incidental today. Personally, I have a hard time filling a 100GB drive, but movies and games will eat storage quickly, so get a big drive to eliminate concerns. It is generally not a big concern in desktop models, as you can purchase a larger drive cheaply and put it in the tower yourself. In laptops, however, be sure to get a good, large drive when purchased so you don’t have to muck around in those tiny machines.

Those are some base numbers that cover both desktops and laptops. None of these items are set in stone, and you may need more RAM or a faster processor for your own needs. Everyone is different in how they use the PC and what they expect in terms of performance.

If you are shopping, go to a retail store and play with some of their demonstration models. It might involve a trip to Saint Louis, but that’s better than making a large purchase decision and having to mess with returning it.

My experience in designing my next laptop (I can dream) has shown me that I will need to drop no less than $1000 on my purchase. That amount is NOT for my dream machine, but for a well-built machine that is expandable in the future. To be frank, know that I imagine most people should plan to spend at least $800 for their next PC. It’s not cheap, but with good planning it is an investment that will pay off more than spending $500 every other year.

Let me know what questions you have about buying a PC via email, and I’ll see if I can’t get them answered for you. Hope you all have a Happy Holiday and a great New Year!