Buying a new computer? Get the most bang for your buck!

Buying a new computer is simple, right? Sure – anyone can pay $700 and get a computer. But will you get the computer that best fits your needs, or the most for your money? Not necessarily. I’ve been purchasing computers for work and for friends and family (not to mention personal use) for quite some time, and I’ve learned a lot along the way. I’ll keep this basic, so that the people that need help the most get it. I am assuming you are not a computer whiz; you use your computer to check your e-mail, facebook, play a flash game or two,  store all your digital photos, etc.

Here’s my list of do’s and dont’s when looking to buy a new computer:

Do: Plan ahead.
Do: Have a budget.
Do: Know what it is you want to be able to do on your new computer.
Do NOT: Impulse buy. The more research you do, the more satisfied you’ll be in the end.
Do: Visit as many stores as you can to check out the computers in person, even if you plan on purchasing online. The touchpads vary greatly between computer makers – if you’re buying a laptop, make sure you like the one you’re getting. This also lets you see what is available in store (especially for stores like Costco with limited selection).

Stores I recommend:

  1. Costco: Your 1-year warranty is automatically doubled to 2 years, and they have an unmatched 90-day return policy on computers.
  2. Fry’s: They have an absolutely amazing selection. You will need to know what you’re looking for, but I’ll help you out with that.
  3. Dell.com: Dell computers are what I personally prefer; I’ve owned about 10 different ones, only had issues with one, and they took care of me at that time.
  4. Apple: For the big spenders, no one can deny Apple is a good product. It’s definitely not budget friendly, starting at $1000 for the cheapest laptop. Just a note: this article really doesn’t apply to you, as there aren’t near as many options on Apple computers.

Stores I do not recommend:

Best Buy: I’ve stood around in Best Buy before and listened to their sales people… and I’m not impressed. Also due to my family’s experience (spending $900 plus on a $600 computer due to extras they were sold); basically they’ll take advantage of you if they can and I don’t respect that.

Pound the pavement

Ok, now go visit as many stores as you need to, check out the computers, and note the ones you like that are in your price range (also note which store they’re at so you can find the one you want later). Then we’ll look at the specs, see what matters, and you can figure out which one is best for you.

Here’s what you need to write down about each computer:

  • Hard drive size (should be listed as 160 GB, 250 GB, etc)
  • RAM (should be listed as 2 GB, 4 GB, etc)
  • Processor (this may appear confusing, just write down what you see – the EXACT model number. Intel Core 2 Duo P8800, Intel Core i3-330, AMD Phenom II N640 Dual-Core, etc). Don’t worry about the wording for now, just write it down so you can compare at home.
  • Screen size (measured diagonally – 15″, 17″, etc)
  • Video card (You may see integrated graphics, such as Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator X4500HD, or a video card such as ATI HD5770 Radeon or NVIDIA GTX460 GeForce)
  • Optical Drive (DVD writer, BluRay writer, BluRay Reader, etc)
  • Ports (How many USB ports is the most important, also note anything else you have need for)

The Hardware specs that matter!

If you think all Dual Core processors are the same, you’re sadly mistaken. There is a huge array of processors available, and it’s very hard to know which one is best. If you don’t even know what Dual Core is, don’t worry – I have a whole bag of goodies to help you make sense of it all.

Hard Drive (HD) size

Most new computers come with at least a 160 GB (gigabyte) hard drive. Generally speaking, that’s big enough to hold about 32,000 mp3 (music) files or pictures. For most people, this will be large enough. Hard drive space is typically not a huge premium, so feel free to get a bigger hard drive, but this should not be much of a factor when you purchase a computer. Note: if you’re even asking about a solid state drive, this article probably isn’t for you :-)

RAM (memory)

2 GB (gigabytes) of RAM is pretty standard now. If you’re getting a new computer, I would recommend a minimum of 2 GB, and no more than 4 GB if it’s for basic everyday usage. It won’t hurt to have more, but you don’t need to splurge on it.

Processor (the brains)

Processors are all over the map. You have two main manufacturers – AMD and Intel. I prefer Intel, but to each his own; let the processor scores guide you more than personal bias.

Screen Size

This is going to be completely subjective. Just go with what suits you and your budget best.

Order of importance

Ok, so we have all of our specs written down. But which ones really matter? I’ll give you my list of importance for the basic computer user.

Ports - If the computer does everything including make you breakfast, but it only has 2 USB ports, chances are it’s not for you. Between printers, external hard drives, mice, keyboards, usb-powered speakers and everything else, USB ports are a must. Sure, you can buy a USB hub, but might as well get a computer that suits your needs.
Processor – This is the brains of your computer. You don’t want a stupid computer, do you? Ok, let’s make sure you get your money’s worth!
RAM – The short-term memory for your computer. You don’t need a ton of it, but you need enough to survive.
Hard drive size – Not super critical, but definitely needs to be considered.
Video card – Add-in video cards are great, but not necessary for most basic users.
Screen size – Completely subjective, just make sure you like what you get. Don’t want to settle for the wrong size just to save money.
Optical Drive – All new computers have a DVD drive, and most of them have a DVD writer (burner). If you need BluRay, obviously this is at the top of your list.

Picking your computer

So you have your list of processors written down, right? Good. Now head over to Passmark’s CPU comparison chart. Search one at a time for each processor, and write down the Passmark CPU Mark and the Rank. The higher the Passmark CPU Mark, the better. The lower the rank, the better. This should give you a good idea of how the processors stack up against each other. Here’s an example (first # is CPU Mark, second is rank):

Processor Passmark CPU Mark Rank
Intel Core i3 560 @ 3.33GHz 2888 153
Intel Core2 Duo T5600 @ 1.83GHz 1002 497
AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual Core 4400+ 1190 432

Let’s assume all three of these processors are all in computers in my budget range, varying by $50 or so. For the price, the Core i3 560 is absolutely the best bang for your buck. If you like everything else, go with the i3 560.
All else being equal, I wouldn’t pay more than $10 to get the Athlon 64 X2 over the Core2 Due T5600 – they’re so close the difference is negligible. If any processor is way below the rest, cross that computer off your list. You don’t have to pick the very best, but at least shoot for middle of the pack. This is one of the most important things to consider. You can always add more RAM or hard drive space, quickly and easily (demo coming soon). Upgrading a processor is considerably more costly, and more limited.

Got your new computer? Great! Check out these tips:
Transfer your files the easy way, with Dropbox!
Get your free anti-virus program
Take your PC security one step further
FREE Microsoft Office alternative


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Comments

  1. Hey, where were you a month ago when I bought a new laptop? Just kidding. This is all the stuff I looked for! Yippee! So good to see I know my stuff and get a passing grade. I actually bought from Staples, a model on clearance. A Compaq (which many don’t realize is made by HP). I normally would have gone to Costco for all the reasons you list, but the price was so right. I opted out of the extended warranty because the replacement price didn’t justify it.

    We’re going to buy a flatscreen TV for Christmas and will probably buy from Costco for the same reasons you recommend a computer from their.

    • Yeah, we ended up going with Fry’s for our last purchase. We tried a couple laptops from Costco, but didn’t like the touchpads (they were in weird places). Ended up finding one within our budget at Fry’s. Can’t beat Costco’s return policy though!

  2. I forgot to say thank you for all your computer advice. This is the place I HATE to spend money. So Mr. Frugal thank you SO much!

  3. I wanted to second everything that you said. But I also want to note that in people’s research they should read reviews from at least 3 different resources on the laptop they want. Because some laptops may have great specs on paper but when you actually use them they may run hot, or something about their makeup irks your nerves. Also, you should remember that if a laptop says 2GB you.” actually only be able to use about 1.1GB worth of RAM because some will already be taken up by your basic computer processes needing to run. The same with the hard drive and graphics card too. You should consider this when purchasing. I personally multi-task a lot but bought a low end computer that has fits if I open up too many things at one time. I needed a new computer but my budget was only so big at the time. So if you run a lot of media and multi-task shoot for 4GB+ RAM and an i5 (my personal opinion and I’m not an expert). But basic processes should shoot for i3/2GB. Hardcore gamers know that they should shoot for i7 if not Xeon (can you tell I’m an Intel fan?)

    I would also say when you find the one laptop you like best wait until after Christmas to buy it (January).http://www.thedigeratilife.com/blog/best-time-to-buy-discount-shopping/

    Then comparison shop between multiple stores. I participate in online and offline comparison shopping because I want the lowest price! =)

  4. If you are looking to spend on a mac there are a few ways to stretch your dollar. They do offer an education discount of 10% of everything. If you or the person you are buying the computer for is an educator or a student of any kind you can get the discount. Another thing is they often have nice deals on printers and iPods when you buy a laptop. When I bought my husband one two years ago (to get him through law school) I got $100 off any HP printer (printer was $120) and a free iPod touch after rebate. So if you can wait a little, wait for a good deal like that. Also if you are looking to buy additional software like Microsoft for Macs see if your company or school has a software buying program. Usually these are SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper. I paid $45 for Office through my University.

  5. Another tip if you are an apple faithful like myself, Refurbished Macs! The apple.com site sells them as well as various online retailers.

    • That’s exactly what I was going to say, Amy…there are some of us Mac-fans who aren’t tempted by a Windows computer at any price, and if that’s the case, then go to http://www.apple.com and scroll way down to where it says “clearance” on the left side, and there you will find a “refurbished” section–not only computers but iPods and other Apple products too. I make it a practice to always check there because I like to buy the “end of the line” models–which “refurbs” actually are–I’ve never gotten one that looked the least bit used at all–and they come with a full warranty as well. The inventory in the clearance area changes DAILY so if you see something you want, don’t wait, and if you don’t see something you’d like, check back every day and sometimes it’ll show up! I got my last MacBook for $750 there by doing that. I also breeze by the Apple section in Fry’s from time to time as they close out “end of the line” models too when new ones are intro’d. Once I even bought a MacMini there that was a BROKEN floor model sitting in the back room, and then I sent it out for repair under warranty and it came back as good as new (I just couldn’t pass up the price I was offered to take it off their hands….and the salesperson was the one who suggested that tactic to me….) So those are some tips to make Macs more affordable for those interested…

  6. Thank you so much for this information, I’m going to be good to myself and get a new laptop for christmas. and needed information on them, this will get me going, my laptop still performs well with the exception of the keyboard, which my son spilled spaghetti on it and I have to use a usb keyboard. I purchased this laptop 6 yrs ago and is still going good. (knock on wood) its a dell. so I was hoping to do some comparison to laptops prior to black friday. So that when I get to work on friday morning I can do some shopping before everyone arrives. happy Holidays to you.

  7. Any advice on how to get on the junk pre-installed on the computer off after you buy it? I would hate to delete something that I need.

    Thanks!

  8. Hello!
    First of all I would like to thank you for the information you provided. It helped me a lot so far.
    Could you possibly help me to decide, what the better deal is? I found 2 good deals, but I am not sure which one to get (intentionally there was a $400 budget).
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0051OLB9O/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&tag=thefrufin-20&linkCode=as2&camp=217145&creative=399373&creativeASIN=B0051OLB9O This one I could get for $427.20
    or
    http://www.walmart.com/ip/Dell-i17R-6457DBK/16651973 This one I could get for $519.20
    Thank you so much for your help

    • For those prices I would recommend the Acer. There’s a $92 difference. For $46 you could buy an 8 GB memory kit on crucial.com (or your local computer store, you would be up $46 and have 2 GB of Ram more than the Dell has. Or you could not upgrade and have $92 more.

  9. Danielle Rock says:

    Thank you so much fro the great articles. I tried to go to the link that you had posted and it’s broken….just thought you should know. See below:

    “Got your new computer? Great! Check out these tips:
    Transfer your files the easy way, with Dropbox!”

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