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Know what You're Buying Before You Buy a Computer


Commodor 64

photo by Anastasia Dulgier

The better you understand any computer you're considering buying, the more money you'll save and the more satisfied you will be with your purchase. Most consumers of computers know little about what they're buying. The common result is that they experience significant buyer's remorse when they get their new computer home and discover that it is low quality, frustrating to use, and/or doesn't do everything they want. The way to not fall into this trap is to do your homework before you buy.

In this case, doing your homework means several things. To begin with, understand the technology. Know the difference between hard drives and SSD's, between good displays and bad ones. Know what a 1920 by 1080 display looks like and whether you'd be just as satisfied with a 1366 by 768 display. Know what it feels like to carry an eight pound laptop on a long trip. How much additional money would you be willing to pay to carry a three pound laptop instead? What are the read and write speeds of the hard drive in the computer you're thinking of buying and how might this affect your user experience? How fast a CPU do you really need to run the current version of Microsoft Word? What are the relative speeds of a core i5-3470 and a core i7-2820QM? Hint: not much--a core i7 is not always faster than a core i5. How much faster is a USB 3.0 port than a USB 2.0 port, and does that matter to you? How can you test the speeds of your current hard drive and flash drives to get an idea how much faster what you're considering purchasing might be, or if you even care? Do you care how fast the video card is? Do the number of CPU cores really matter? In other words, know the pluses and minuses of the different types of components of any prospective computer, how much those components are likely to cost, and whether the performance is worth the cost to you. These are only a few of the issues you will need to consider to find a computer you will be happy with for a price that is acceptable to you.

So, how do you begin doing the necessary homework? Hint: we have this thing now called "the internet". When I was a kid, the internet didn't exist. If I found a book in the library that I really, really wanted to own, I would have to get the publisher's address from the copy-write page of the book and write a letter to the publisher asking for the current price of the book. Six weeks later, I would get a reply. By then, I might not even remember what the book was about. Now days, we have nearly instantaneous access to huge amounts of information about a huge array of products. But if you're reading this article, I guess you already know that. So, getting back to doing your homework on your potential computer purchase ... There are a few really great websites that can help. If you want to know how fast a particular CPU is relative to others, is your best bet. There are also websites that rank SSD's and flash drives. You can also get free software that can tell you the speeds of your current hard drive and flash drives (for example, Crystal Disk Mark and FlashBench). This can tell you whether the hard drive or SSD in the computer you're thinking of buying is faster than the one you already own. Passmark also makes free software that can test the speed of several of the components in a computer, including the RAM, hard drive, CPU, and video card.

Once you understand the technology, the next step (after determining your requirements and how much you want to spend) is looking at potential candidates for your next computer. At this stage, the key is reading as much as you can find about each computer that you're considering. First, look at all the professional reviews you can find online. The best site I've found for this is They do a really great job of covering most of the issues that I've mentioned above and in previous articles--cost, CPU, hard drive, build quality, number and types of ports, weight, display resolution, contrast, and color spectrum, video card, thermal issues, noise, etc. Unfortunately, I've found that navigating their website to get the English version of a review that I want to see is not as easy as googling the name of the computer followed by "notebookcheck".

Something to keep in mind is that professional reviewers only look at a computer for a short period of time. They don't live with it every day for months or years. So, you also need the perspectives of as many people as you can find that have actually bought the thing and enjoyed (or suffered with) it for a long time. is great for that. For computers that many people have bought, you will see complaints and compliments from the most major down to the most inconsequential. One of the things I've noticed from reading hundreds of both professional and amateur reviews is that professionals tend to be much more enthusiastic about thin, light laptops than do the people who actually buy and use them. I explain why here. I'm thinking of one laptop in particular (which shall remain nameless) that professional reviewers give their highest rating, while owners give only a mediocre rating.

While I'm on this topic, another thing I'll say is that I've gotten to the point where I just won't buy many products unless I can find several reviews of them (like, more than 20) on The reason is that with all the cheap junk coming out of China and elsewhere, it just isn't worth the risk of buying something totally unknown if I don't have to. I've been burned too many times not to know better.

Another way of screening potential candidates for your next computer is to get your hands on the exact model you're thinking of purchasing and play around with it for a while. Unfortunately, there are often several potential problems with this approach. One is that you will likely not have access to the exact model through a nearby computer store or a friend. Another is that computer manufactures these days are making it very difficult to know exactly what you're getting by making several versions of a given model. The version is designated by all those indecipherable letters and numbers after the model name. And many display models in stores don't have a thorough description next to them that tells you, for instance, that the exact model you're looking at has the 500GB hard drive instead of the one terabyte hard drive that the reviewer's article described. You may not necessarily discover that until you get it home. You have to be very careful here to know exactly what you are buying. Another problem is that even if you are lucky enough to find the exact model you want on display in a store, you can't do everything you might like to do to test it in the store. For example, you can't tell how fast the hard drive and/or USB ports are by sticking in a USB flash drive and testing. You can't install software you might want to see running. You may not be able to surf the internet to see how many open web pages it can handle without freezing. However, you should still do what you can to have hands on access if you can get it. Any access you can get may give you important information. For example, you may disagree with reviewers about the keyboard and decide that you just can't live with it after all.

Just to avoid misleading you by the above paragraph--I do not recommend that you buy a computer from a brick-and-mortar store. This is only one of several places to go to get information. One of the reasons I don't recommend physical stores is that you can usually get better prices elsewhere. Yes, I realize it's considered to be in poor taste to window shop at a brick-and-mortar store and then make your purchase online. But frankly, who is telling you that's not cool? That's right. It's brick-and-mortar-stores. If they were willing to give us more information about their products and better prices, they would have more buyers. Period. I'll tell you in a future article the best places to buy a computer.

To wrap this up--you may be thinking that doing all this research sounds like a lot of work. You're right. It is. So, you should weigh the effort you'll put out doing your homework versus the frustration and wasted time incurred by owning a computer for perhaps years that you're unhappy with. The bottom line is that even a few hours of research can go a long way to making your buying and owning experiences better. This isn't an all or nothing type of thing. It's not like pregnancy. So, do as much homework as you're comfortable with. You may even discover that this is homework you actually come to enjoy.

Related Articles:

Know a Quality Computer when You see It.

How Powerful a CPU do You Really Need?

Why are there so many Lousy Laptops?


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