February 12, 2003

By George Lister, The Argus

THUNDER BAY, ONT. (CUP)“?At first glance this seems like an odd time of year to write about buying a computer since most people, not just students, do that in September. The first reason for doing it now is that there are usually other stories to tell when school kicks off, but more importantly this is a great time to shop if you want to save some money.

Computer shopping can almost always be broken down to a series of questions, so that’s how this is going to be structured. Since we’ve all had enough exams, I’ll be kind and give you the answers too.

Yeah, this question is still out there folks, just in case you thought Apple was dead. With some impressive new machines that look even better than they work (which is really well), Apple has regained a lot of lost market share. Even so, I generally would not recommend buying a Mac unless you’re heavily into video, sound or image editing. And, frankly, if you’re into that you probably don’t need to read this article.

Macs are great, hell I own one as well as a PC. If I had to pick just one computer to use for the rest of my life, I’d probably pick the Mac. That being said they are more expensive, somewhat slower, and it’s a lot harder to find software for them. Sadly, for most people the PC is a better bet.

Linux is an open source (no copyright on the code) operating system. It is stable, it is free (or cheap), and it is often heralded as the only real threat to Microsoft out there. Unfortunately it remains useful only to geeks. The problem is that even with all the user friendly ways in which Linux has been modified, you need to know a fair bit about command lines and coding to truly make it worthwhile. Let me put it this way…I’m a computer geek, but I’m not a good enough of one to really be able to use Linux well.

The short answer is that it doesn’t really matter. AMD’s Athlon and Duron processors are usually a bit cheaper than Intel’s Pentium and Celeron ones and have similar, and sometimes better performance. Ultimately, they all work and there are good deals to be had no matter which you choose, so go by price and performance. If a computer has what you want at a price you’re willing to pay, then don’t worry too much about the processor. The only caveat here is that the Intel Celeron chip is the weakest out of the bunch so, since you can usually get one for cheaper anyhow, I’d go for a Duron based one instead.

The flip answer to that question is: As much as you can afford. That phrase has almost become a cliché in the computer industry, but it’s also valid since you usually end up spending more money to upgrade later than to buy everything you need right away.

Since having tons of money to spend on anything is rarely the case for most of us student types let me throw some rough numbers at you. These days you can pick up a decent computer for under $1000. You have to be careful here though, since there’s usually a catch. In some cases the machine doesn’t come with a monitor, or it only has 128 MB of RAM (which just isn’t enough these days), and almost never has a CD burner. Also sometimes the best sounding deals come from companies that have less than stellar quality and service records.

If you have a little more to spend, say about $1300 or so, you can get a computer that’s pretty much loaded with the good stuff. For $1500 you can get a computer to be proud of in every respect, and $2000 will buy you a computer that will have most geeks calling you “?daddy.’
Here’s a quick checklist of what you should look for at a minimum in a new machine:
-256 MB of RAM
-40 GB hard drive
-1.2 gigahertz processor
-17” monitor
-CD burner (you know you’re gonna want one)
-Windows XP
-AGP, non-integrated video card. Lots of cheap machines have what is called integrated video, as it it’s built right onto the motherboard of the machine. This is cheap and sometimes even decent for video, but you will NEVER be able to upgrade it and it isn’t suitable for a lot of games.

There are lots of used computers available, especially in April and May when students head for home. Sometimes you can find a really good deal, but there are a lot of problems. If you buy a used machine bring somebody with you who knows computers inside and out to check it over because there’s usually no warranty. Also, don’t plan on playing a lot of video games if you buy a used machine since, typically, games need some pretty recent hardware to work.

You can also buy a used machine from some stores and chains, and there are good deals to be had. If you go this route you’ll at least get a limited warranty but it will be more expensive than making a private purchase and the same warning about video games applies. It’s also rare to find a used machine with a CD burner and adding one might just put the purchase price a lot higher than you want.

If all you’re looking for a machine to surf the web, download music and to write essays on, then going used is a pretty good way to go. For less than $500 you can get a machine that will do those things I just listed, albeit not much more. Here’s what you should look for:
-128 MB of RAM
-6 GB hard drive
-300 Mhz processor or better
-Ethernet card and/or modem (depending on how you connect to the net)
-Windows 98
-15″ monitor or better

Laptops are great. There’s no question that it’s a good thing to have at school and I use it to take all my notes for class. They’re also nice for space-limited residence dwellers or anyone with limited desk space. However, laptops are more expensive than desktops, and more limited in their capabilities.

Laptops usually have less hard drive space, are slower, have less RAM, have fewer expansion options, and have less capable video systems. CD burners are quite common in laptops now, but do drive the price even higher. Also, anything you want to add to a laptop usually has to be added externally with cables.

Support and repair is another issue. Laptops are usually pretty hardy creatures but they do get banged around quite a bit. Add in the ever present possibility of a general computer failure of some kind and the odds of needing repair at some point are quite high. If your warranty has run out it can take hundreds of dollars and weeks of time (since it usually has to go back to the manufacturer) to get your machine back.

There’s no denying that these are very useful machines for students though, so here’s some prices and specs to think about. $1500 or less should get you a machine that runs at 1.3 Ghz or so (usually a Celeron or Duron chip) with 256 MB of RAM, a DVD-ROM, and a 20 GB hard drive. Around $2000 speeds the machine up to about 1.7 Ghz, increases the hard drive to 30 MB and might get you a DVD-ROM/CD burner combo. Over $2000 will either get you more power and more features, or less of each but a smaller, shinier machine.

What I ended up doing as an alternative was buy a great big desktop system first. Then I found a really cheap used laptop and bought it just for taking to school for notes (about all it’s good for). This doesn’t save you any space but it saves you a lot of cash and gives you the best of both worlds.

You have, basically, two choices when it comes to buying a computer. You can either get a name brand machine from the manufacturer or from a big box store (like Future Shop), or you can buy a locally built machine from smaller retailers.

It’s not as cut and dry as it seems. At first glance buying the name brand machine is a no-brainer, but there are problems there. Especially in their cheaper offerings, name brand machines often don’t have name brand components inside. They often have cheaper hard drives, power supplies too weak for the demands placed on them, and integrated video (see question 3). On the other hand they’re often cheaper, offer national service on a standard warranty, have more financing plans available, and offer toll free support.

A locally built machine requires the buyer to have a little more computer know-how than does a name brand one since you don’t have the same toll free support option. On the other hand the parts are usually higher quality, repairs are done here in town so they take less time, and you get to specify exactly what you want to go into the computer.

Having worked at both big box stores and smaller local ones, I would suggest that you at least look at the local options. The prices are competitive and there’s no question you get better service with faster turnaround. If having a warranty that extends beyond the borders of your town is important consider buying an extended warranty. These are available at all small stores and cover you nationwide.

Extended warranties are”?in some ways”?the greatest rip-off in the industry. If nothing ever goes wrong with your machine the retailer has just made a bunch of pure profit. If anything does go wrong however you will be really freaking happy to have one.

Since they usually add a few hundred dollars to the purchase price it isn’t an easy decision. I tend to recommend them just because I know much I used to charge people to fix their computers. If you buy a cheap as hell machine from, say, Future Shop, definitely get the warranty. It’s been my experience that those machines break a lot. If you buy a laptop, budget to buy the extended warranty there, too, since those repairs are the priciest in the business. Otherwise it’s your call.

There are actually two best times to buy computers. The first is in September when everyone and their dog runs a back-to-school sale. You can find some great deals, especially on packages that include a printer and other goodies. This is the time to shop around and don’t let pushy salespeople or huge crowds force a decision upon you too quickly.

The other good time is pretty much right now. Most tech companies start bringing out their new models around March so retailers, often with Christmas stock still in inventory, have to clear out some space. These deals aren’t as widely advertised but they are out there and, since the crowds aren’t as bad, you’ll probably get a little bit better service.

That’s it folks, your crash course in computer shopping is done. The last few tips I’ll give you are simple ones. First, do your homework. Know what you want to buy and what the price range is. Second, bring a computer knowledgeable person along with you when you go shopping. And, finally, don’t be pressured by limited time sales or pushy salespeople, take your time.

With all that in mind go forth and buy yourself a really wicked new toy.

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