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Elegant Computing

Purchasing a New Computer

Purchasing a New Computer

November 13, 2007|By JIM WOLFENSBERGER

Form. Function. Security. Reliability. These four words could be criteria for purchasing an automobile. A new car's styling grabs our attention. The features of the car are typically just as important.

Somewhere in the buying process, we probably consider the safety rating, something akin to "security" by virtue of the safety features of a car. Hopefully, we buy wisely based on a manufacturer's reputation for reliability as well.

Meanwhile, I've observed for years that people tend to buy computers much differently, particularly if they feel uncomfortable with technology. What's cheap at Wal-Mart or on dell.com? Bam! There's your computer.

Unfortunately, seeking out some lowest common denominator among computer options is often a formula for achieving poor value. I would suggest that a careful consumer tackle a new PC purchase with similar criteria to purchasing a car - if that analogy seems extreme, then at least consider the computer system not unlike a major appliance.

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Form

Recently my firm helped a home user choose a notebook, a docking station and peripherals based on very specific guidelines: All components needed to fit neatly within a drop-lid desk. Inside, the desk was divided into compartments designed to house computer components, but still presenting obstacles by virtue of the carved-up space. This scenario is very different than choosing a computer system destined to reside in a kitchen nook, an office, a child's room, or a family entertainment center.

I've seen many home computer configurations that are downright eyesores. For example, some computer enthusiasts get a little too excited about the fact that their computers can play DVDs, and they opt for elaborate surround-style speaker systems without an effective plan for routing all those wires. Meanwhile, your family room likely provides a better setting for home theater, and your computer desk could benefit from a tasteful LCD flat-screen with barely-noticeable integrated speakers. Now granted, your 14-year-old gamer might be difficult to convince that he doesn't need blaring surround sound while saving the universe in a virtual world, but even in that case, headphones could probably provide the desired sensory immersion.

Regarding form, "wireless" is naturally all the rage. By utilizing wireless Internet routers, wireless keyboards and mice, and wireless accessories, we can accomplish a much appreciated configuration of fewer wires. But a computer system of any type in the foreseeable future will rely on wires for power, video feeds, and some accessories.

Function

In a retail setting, it is common for PCs to have stickers on them listing their features. This is a lot like the sticker on a new car listing installed options. For the most part, this seems like a good idea, but when buying a modern automobile, it is increasingly unlikely that you will ever modify or upgrade the internal components. Your new car isn't going to become suddenly obsolete because it doesn't have "the right slot" for a new feature you have in mind.

The breakneck pace of PC technology is the very thing that puts consumers at a disadvantage when buying computers. Those stickers on the retail boxes listing components seem impressive, but again, in my experience, attractively-priced retail PCs are often configured very much for the "here and now" of computing, if not yesterday. The challenge is to arm yourself with information and understanding, and to shop where the seller is willing to hear your wish list for function: what you intend to accomplish with that computer for the next three to five years. Typically, as of today, you will want a new PC capable of running Microsoft Windows Vista and multiple programs simultaneously while maintaining high performance. If you opt for an Apple Macintosh computer, you should understand clearly if it is able to run the programs you need, particularly if you work from home or access your office computer systems remotely. If selecting a computer for your family, understand what you and your children expect with regard to games and educational programs. A seller should be able to speak to every concern regarding function of the computer.

Security

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