How To Pick Out A Computer: Money-Saving Tips

how to buy a personal computer

The following article was written by Shirley Robinson. You can find out more about her at her blog at

Advice from a former computer repair technician

Get Your Money’s Worth, Computer Consumer!

Desktop for Him, desktop for Her, family computer, laptop for each college student; The list goes on. Most Americans have access to a computer, if not their own, and like all things in life, computers die. They fail, they become obsolete and we have to dip into savings for a replacement. Big sigh, I know we all cringe at the idea of yet another big expense. The good news is, buying a computer doesn’t have to be just another drain on your wallet; It is actually a worthwhile investment! On that note, I have a compilation of things you should consider while you’re buying new personal computer.

how to buy a personal computerFor starters, do not be deceived by the pretty stickers plastered all over your computer choices. When companies list off the stats of a certain model they use exclamation points and exciting phrases to lure you. But look deeper, if you don’t know what the phrases are talking about, find out. For example, in a store you may see something that claims “1 Gigabyte of Memory!” Here’s the skinny, “memory” is misunderstood. It has nothing to do with how much data your computer can save, or where it is saved. Memory, alternate term “RAM,” is one of two hardware parts that controls how fast your computer will run while you are using it. It is important to know that the lower amount of memory, the slower your computer will run. I recommend buying a PC (Personal Computer) with at least three gigabytes of memory (RAM) although two would get you by.

The other piece of hardware that controls the speed of your computer is the processor. Usually when describing the processor, alternate term “cpu,” it will be phrased something like, “Intel dual core processor 1.3 GHz.” When looking at the CPU description of a particular PC it is wise to look at two things; First the terms “dual core” or “core two duo©” (or even newer, “quad core”) are good things. Always look for a processor that is a dual core. The speed, in this case 1.3 GHz, should be considered too. For family or personal use 1.3 GHz is fast enough.

Keep in mind, almost all computer hardware (parts) are upgradeable. Ram or memory can be upgraded for a very low cost, while the processor will be a bit more expensive to buy. It is sometimes a more frugal route to buy a computer with low advertised memory, and then buy and add memory yourself. (With the help of someone who is knowledgeable about the inside of your PC or at a local repair shop.)

Another rule of thumb for computer consumers- You get what you pay for. Steer clear of Wal-Mart specials that advertise a whole new computer for a cheap ticket price. I have shopped at Wal-Mart hundreds of times and hold nothing against them, but in the world of computers cheap prices equals cheap parts. Cheap parts equal mechanical failure. A common trick to lower the price of PC’s is offering a cheap brand hard drive or a low amount of disk space. The hard drive, alternate term “disk space,” is the part of the computer that stores all your data, documents, files, pictures, music, and the operating system (Windows) itself. If this part is damaged in any way, you could lose valuable data.

Tip: Don’t spend more on extra disk space; a hard drive with 160 (or even 320) Gigabytes of storage is plenty. However this applies only when you back up pictures and files (on CD’s or DVD’s) and then delete unnecessary things from your computer. This is wise not only to save space but also because hard drives can fail at any time, and when they die you will lose all data not backed up.

One scam common to retailers is what I call “grabbing with graphics.” Many stores will rattle off the graphics statistics claiming all sorts of displays and capabilities. The important thing to remember is an amazing graphics card or even a fancy monitor, are not necessary unless you plan to use the machine for computer gaming. Choose a model with “on board” video. This is the wiser choice because it will save money while providing a good product. Remember if you decide later on that you want a better graphic card you can upgrade this by visiting a privately owned PC repair shop. (Check your prices don’t just take their word for it. I recommend for parts and PC shopping.)

Finally, pick the computer that is the right for your needs. For businesses I recommend avoiding box brands (i.e. HP, Dell, and Gateway.) Instead choose a private label or have a computer custom built. I’ve used and recommended Nexlink Computers by Seneca Data. If you are looking for a family or student computer, I recommend buying a Gateway or Compaq desktop. Keep in mind that cheaper computer means cheaper parts. If you are a traveler looking for a laptop, stay away from laptops that advertise ultra thin design or net-books. The smaller the laptop the more likely part failure will be. Instead choose a sturdy Compaq or Asus 15.6 inch or larger laptop. Don’t forget a thick, padded case to protect it! Take it from someone who knows, the warranty process for a laptop is grueling.

Remember, when it comes time to decide, it’s your money. So before you open your checkbook make sure the price tag matches your needs. An overkill of parts, features, “upgrades,” and accessories will tab your bill higher and higher, but in the end most of those added resources won’t be utilized. Research and comparison shopping are the key to getting your moneys’ worth, and eye-catching stickers or over-excited salesmen are retailers’ tools to dip deeper into your wallet. Keep in mind, while flashy makes for good conversation, sensible is a good investment.

Do you have any tips of your own for picking out a great computer?

  1. Chris

    A few points to suggest:
    – Smaller laptops may be perceived as unreliable because many popular small laptops have cheaper parts (think netbooks). If you want a smaller laptop, expect to pay more to get the same features as you would get in a larger laptop. Likewise if you’re looking at a laptop as opposed to a desktop.
    – Laptops are much harder to upgrade than desktop computers. If you are buying a computer with the intent to upgrade parts later, check to make sure what you can upgrade. For example, many laptops only allow you to upgrade the memory or hard drive, and upgrading a laptop’s video card is rarely possible.
    – If you’re looking for a used computer, some manufacturers sell either refurbished or “off-lease” computers, with at least some warranty coverage. One caution with Craigslist: unlike buying a mechanical item like a car or bike, it’s a lot harder to tell what problems may be lurking inside that used computer.

  2. Buying a computer used that is 6-12 months old can be a good idea and save you money. Just keep in mind that there are some risks involved and you may not get a warranty. Lots of scams on craigslist, so always do business in person with cash, and get a receipt. Protect yourself.

  3. Mike

    New PCs are so affordable these days don’t buy a use one.

  4. Shirley


    Buying a used computer can be risky, especially if you use it as is. If you buy a used computer spend a little extra money to have it “wiped and redone.” The process will set it back to factory settings, with only Windows installed, and not other users “stuff.” Its not uncommon for people to buy used computers with viruses and key-loggers installed on them. (Key-loggers are a common tool used for identity theft.)

    I often recommend buying refurbished computers. They save a lot of money, and usually come with the same amount of warranty. Unlike used computers, refurbished computers are safe to use, and thoroughly tested before sold.

    Thank you both for commenting!

  5. Brandon

    320GB is plenty even if you do keep your pictures on the hard drive! By my calculation, even at 5MB per picture, you could store 65536 pics on a hard drive that size.

    Furthermore, I strongly advise against backing up important data to only a single CD/DVD. What if it were scratched!?!

  6. Brian

    When buying a new computer, the first question should be: what doesn’t my computer do well now? Or, what do I want my first computer to do? The less you ask of it, the less you need. If you are primarily using to run your personal finances, read blog posts, Facebook, and email. Its not going to take much computing power. Add videos and games and integrated graphics and minimal RAM probably won’t cut it. If web pages are slow now, it might not be your computer. Consider upgrading your connection. Lastly, if you don’t protect against electronic intrusions today, your new computer will be just as slow in a short period of time. Lastly consider internet backup of your hard drive. If you ever have to recover from a disk failure, you will thank yourself.

  7. Shirley

    @Chris: I agree with your advice! Thank you for stopping by!

    @Mike: I tend to agree with that too, unless if a family is just looking for a pc to check email on, then I don’t see anything wrong with buying a refurbished PC, but not used. Thanks for stopping by!

    @Brandon: Many scratched CD’s can be repaired and the chance that damage to them is more extreme than damage to a hard drive is rare. Also keep them in safe place. Unfortunately I have seen people fill up rather large hard-drives. When I first started out in the computer business I didn’t think it was possible either, but wow! I learned the hard way. This happens mostly with people who have multiple users on a PC or people who use it for personal uses and business uses. Thanks again for commenting!

    @Brian: So true, internet backup, or almost any backup cannot be stressed enough in the computer business! I’ve found that if a healthy computer (one with very few or no viruses) has slow internet pages it has little to do with the actual computer. It is usually from an old/faulty modem and/or the websites servers are slow or clogged. If someone buys a new computer to speed up the internet, chances are it won’t help noticeably. Thanks for stopping by and for offering your good advice.

  8. Daddy Paul

    I agree with Bible Debt on this one. I have owned a number of computers in my day and few of them new. I am pretty good at fixing things so I can buy a computer that does not work for a song and fix it. Most people sell their used computers real cheap and these computers often have little wrong with them.

  9. I am graduate of Computer Science and when i bought the computer that I am using now, I bought every part of it not a whole unit. I bought it from different stores from the chassis of system unit to the motherboard to make sure that it is all good.

    And of course for users, the length of the service of the computer may depend on the usage of the machine.