Top ten computer buying tips!


People who want to buy themselves a new computer often ask us ICT types for our recommendation on the best buy. Having worked in ICT for some years including running my own business from 2001 to 2006 dealing with computer builds, sales and repairs for businesses and the public, I have my list of ten top tips to share on the subject....

10: Know your budget
When I ran my business, I was often asked “how much for a laptop?” There is no universal answer to this question – it’s like going to a car dealer and saying “how much for a car?” You need to work out what you can afford and then shop around for a suitable specification for your budget. Remember you get what you pay for and a £300 computer isn’t the same as a £1500 computer in just the same way as the £5000 Peugeot 1007 Postman-Pat-van driven by Bolton Dan (bald server man) isn’t the same as a brand new £200,000 Ferrari. That said though, if you’re only using it to pop to the shops once a week, you don’t need to spend a lot of lolly on style and performance. If you’re not playing 3D games or doing any heavy graphics manipulation, don’t spend out on 3D hardware and high end processors. If you’re not going to be watching next generation films on it, don’t worry about getting a Blu-Ray drive. If you’re not going to be downloading lots of pirate DVD’s from dodgy peer to peer websites, don’t worry about getting a massive hard drive.

9: Try before you buy
If possible, visit high street branches such as PC World or Currys where you can get up close to a range of computers. The ergonomics are probably the most important thing to get right, especially with a laptop so have a tap on the keyboard to make sure it’s comfortable and check the clarity of the screen. Make sure you’re happy with the weight, look and feel of the thing and that it has enough connectivity for your peripherals.

8. Shop around
Internet pricing is usually lower than a high street price tag although the high street provides you with a same-day sale and a more convenient point of return should it need to be taken back under warranty. If I were buying a computer for myself I’d probably check somewhere like dabs.com as they used to be pretty good (although I haven’t used ‘em for two or three years now).

7. Avoid cheap brands
The big supermarkets and high street electrical retailers offer some budget brands at low prices made by the likes of Advent, Ei, E-Machines and Packard Bell amongst others. From my experience the budget makes are a false economy and I used to get called out to repair them a lot more often than the big name brands. Support for these sort of manufacturers is often non-existent which means sourcing drivers or spare parts is difficult. If you really want low cost then the best of the budget brands in my opinion is Dell. If you spot any equivalent spec machine cheaper than Dell pricing you should avoid touching it with the extra long bargepole you normally keep around for just such occasions. Whenever me and the other lads are asked to recommend a brand, the name on the top of the list for all of us is Toshiba as they're sensibly priced and seem to last forever. I myself have a collection of Toshiba ‘luggables’ going back to the 80’s and they’re all still functional. Our new contractor Sukhjeet is the only one who might disagree with this recommendation but that’s only because he’s just bought a Hewlett Packard without reading point 6….

6. Don’t buy a Hewlett Packard
Surprising as it may sound, there are several well regarded brands I would personally recommend avoiding. Be wary of Philips who all but deny making home computers if you visit their support website to try and get drivers/parts on their legacy models. Watch out for Sony who have some daft ideas about using proprietary technology instead of off-the-shelf components making repair/upgrading expensive. Raise a single eyebrow at Hewlett Packard (HP) whose hardware build quality has proven to be well below par at our workplace. Frown at Apple who are sometimes more style over substance for their price tag and also use proprietary technology. I should point out that not everyone agrees with this statement and in particular Sanjay the stingy contractor carries around a pair of rose tinted specs which he hastily pulls on whenever he looks at a Sony product. As usual though, I'm right and he's wrong.

5. Read reviews
Do some Googling on the make/model of computer you’re interested in to see what the reviewers and the general public who have also bought it think. Remember that opinions are subjective but if you come across lots of people shouting about the same thing then it may be wise to allow it to affect your purchasing decisions one way or another depending on whether it is good shouting or bad shouting.

4. Don’t buy a laptop….
…. unless you really need the portability. A desktop computer can have individual parts changed out for upgrade/repair whereas laptops are a very proprietary build usually with a single circuit board. If one part fails, often the whole board needs to be replaced and because it isn’t an off-the-shelf part, repairs are expensive. Laptops also tend to have a shorter lifespan, are less powerful for the money and you pay a hefty chunk just for portability which is a waste if you’re not going to use it. Laptop batteries also degrade if not used so sitting in a corner plugged in to the mains 24/7 won’t do it any favours.

3. Be wary of second hand laptops…
.... as you don’t know their history (i.e. it may have been dropped five times and had beer spilled across the keyboard) and if it’s a couple of years old the chances are that the battery will be near the end of its life requiring an expensive replacement if you want to take it out and about.

2. Consider building your own
If you're the technically minded type and you're in the market for a desktop computer as opposed to a laptop then it may be worth the challenge of you bolting together your own machine. The insides of a computer are a bit like a jigsaw and so long as you're careful and buy parts that all fit together you should be okay. Building your own saves money against equivalent specification mass produced machines, it allows you to budget for and buy the exact parts that will allow you to get what you want out of your computer and if you know what it has under the bonnet, repairs and upgrades will be easier to perform yourself. Specialist stores like the Coventry based Eclipse Computers stock all the component parts. An OEM operating system licence for XP/Vista can be obtained from somewhere like Amazon for a fraction of the retail price or you could try a free operating system such as Ubuntu. Be prepared to do plenty of research into the minefield of jargon-heavy parts you're buying so you know they will meet your needs and be compatible with each other as well as with your intended operating system and be careful when assembling. I'm sure I'm not the only computer builder who has slipped and scraped a screwdriver across a brand new motherboard or fried an expensive processor due to incorrect heatsink installation!

1. Don't worry about obsolescence!
We've all heard that computer hardware moves on fast but some people are under the impression that if they buy a computer today it will be obsolete (and therefore useless) within a year. I once knew a chap who continually put off buying a computer for months because he was perpetually holding on for newer models to come out. While it's true that the technology moves on at a pretty quick pace and you'll always get more for your money if you wait six months, eventually you just have to take the plunge. Any new computer will be a powerful machine and will easily cope with the everyday tasks most people will throw at it. You don't need the very latest technology to create/edit documents, browse the internet, send and receive emails or use social networking sites. You only need to keep pace with the technology if you want to play the latest cutting edge 3D games at maximum quality or perform heavy processing tasks such as video editing. A computer bought today will probably be out of production in a few months but it still remains a perfectly capable machine and it will likely be years before the hardware reaches the point where upgrade or replacement needs to be considered. Most computer problems are caused by software faults (viruses, bad installations, corruption, etc.) and regular servicing by yourself or a suitable reputable local IT firm should keep it ticking over efficiently just as with a car service. Even old computers can be put to good use and rather than letting my kids loose on my own machine, I have provided them a c2001 Pentium III box which is perfectly capable of accessing the websites they want to play on while its Linux operating system means I don't have to worry about virus infection. Remember that computers can be upgraded and you may find investing in a service and some extra memory gives an ageing machine a whole new lease of life at a fraction of the cost of a new computer.

All the above can be summarised by saying buying a computer is like buying a car. So long as you know how much you want to spend, what you're going to be using it for, you test drive it (where possible), avoid the bad brands and keep it serviced then you should have years of trouble free motoring and just 'cos a restyled model with go faster stripes and a louder stereo comes out a few months later doesn't mean the performance or capabilities of your current model are reduced in any way.