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Know What You Need Before You Buy a Computer


Special-Purpose Computer

photo by Igor Starkov

Knowing what you need before you buy a new computer may save you a substantial amount of money and will greatly improve your chances of getting the computer you really want. Now, you may be thinking, "Of course I know what kind of a computer I need!", but do you really? Is the computer you're thinking of buying really the one you need? Or is it just the one you want?

Are you planning on buying what you need right now? Or are you buying what you speculate that you'll need in a few years? If the latter, you may want to rethink that. The reason is that it is very hard to predict what you might need or even want later, especially given changing technology. Who could have predicted the USB-C port or the NVMe M.2 solid state drive? The average consumer just does not have the knowledge to make those kinds of predictions. Back in the early 2000's, I remember hearing Bill Gate's say that floppy drives would soon be obsolete. I remember being incensed. There was no way in hell I was going to give up my floppy drive. I was convinced that this was just the latest scam that was being concocted to force me into paying more for storage. By the way, I absolutely hated the unreliability of floppy disks, but I absolutely was not ready to get rid of mine. Not for any reason. Or so I thought. Then pen drives (USB flash drives, for you younger people) came out, and I was astounded. I could get the contents of 50 or more floppies on one USB stick (USB sticks were small back then). I was overjoyed, and I had no trouble parting with my floppy drive. So, be very careful about buying based on your future predictions.

Of course, I have to concede that the recent death of Moore's law does make it easier to predict what you may need in a few years. This is because current processors are not as likely to be obsolete as quickly as they used to be. By the way, this is also the best argument for buying a used computer, or sticking with your current computer longer. In fact, given the slow pace of CPU advancement lately, you may not feel the need to buy a new computer in the first place.

But perhaps the biggest argument against buying what you think you may need in a few years is that "cutting edge" computer technology can be very expensive. A computer that is twice as fast as the one you actually need may cost you much more than twice as much as the one you actually need. In fact, about a year ago, I bought a used HP Elitebook 8570p laptop for $209. If I were to try to find a computer twice as fast, I think I would be out of luck. I'm not sure such a thing exists. But if I could find that in a laptop, I'm sure the price would be astronomical.

So, the way to go about buying the laptop you actually need is to get into whatever mindset you need to only focus on your actual needs, not what you want or what the laptop looks like. This may take quite a bit of thought, and will absolutely be based on past experience with previous computers. Did you use that fancy feature that you paid for through the nose on your last laptop or the one before? Or did you find that it was actually of no value to you? Did you buy a two-in-one laptop a few years ago and never separate the keyboard from the tablet? Or did you never use the keyboard? If you bought a tablet because you though it looked neat, did you find that you didn't actually carry it everywhere all the time, like you thought you would?

Once you have entered the necessary mindset. Begin by making a list of all your requirements. Don't think yet about what hardware you need, just think about what you need it to do. Do you need to play Netflix? Do you need to run Microsoft Word? Do you need to run Microsoft Visual Studio? Will you be trans-coding videos? Will you be sending email? Are you going to want to store all your movies on you computer's hard drive, or will you use an external hard drive? Will you need to occupy three USB ports simultaneously? Will you need a hard line connection to the internet? Do you need or care about a pretty display? What about screen brightness--will you be using it outside? Do you need long battery life? Will you be traveling with your new laptop? These are just some of the questions you should be thinking about. And be sure to write down the answers to these questions, because they will likely change when you see how much the resulting computer will cost and that some of your requirements conflict or are actually impossible to fulfill. This is a process that you should take your time with. The longer you spend thinking, the more likely you are of getting a good result--the computer you need for the lowest possible price.

Next, research potential candidates that meet these requirements. Are they within your price range? Do they meet all your requirements? Do they meet 90% of your requirements? Will you have to adjust your requirements to meet the ones you absolutely can't live without in exchange for the ones you cringe at giving up, but can still manage to give up? In other words, iterate several times until you can either get something that is close to what you need, or you decide you can live with your old computer for now. This is a process that could easily take days or weeks of off-again on-again thought and searching.

Good luck.

Related Articles:

Know a Quality Computer when You see It.

How Powerful a CPU do You Really Need?

Know What You're Buying Before You Buy a Computer

When Buying a Computer, More Knowledge Equals Lower Cost


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