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5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Computer

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Even though smartphones and tablet sales continue to grow, most people still want to have either a computer at home or a laptop they can take wherever they go. If it's time to replace your old computer or get a new one for a family member, it's a good idea to brush up on what decisions go into buying one.

You can still wander into some stores and buy a computer, or you can order one online and have it shipped right to you. So now all you need to decide is what kind of computer you want. Here are the basic questions to consider:

Desktop or laptop?

Chances are, you already know whether you want a laptop or a desktop. But if you've only had a desktop and are wondering if you get more for your money with a laptop—a super-portable computer—then there are a few things to think about.

A desktop will generally be less expensive than a laptop, and that's not because it's a lower-quality computer or old-school technology. Simply, there's a lot more that goes into building a laptop than there is for a computer that will simply sit on (or under) a desk. Desktops have changed too, if you haven't noticed. They're not all "towers" anymore. Apple started the trend of building the monitor and computer into one piece several years ago, and a few PC makers have followed that. (Of course, you pay a little more for that technology.) If you don't need a laptop, stick with a desktop computer and save some money.

Mac or PC?

If you've never used a computer made by Apple—called a Mac (short for Macintosh)—here's your time to explore. In short, a Mac is more expensive, but it offers easier usability, a simpler operating system and isn't as prone to viruses as a PC. There are PC users who would NEVER buy a Mac and Mac users who would never buy a PC. Again, it doesn't hurt to explore both sides of the computer aisle.

What microprocessor should you get?

Microprocessor talk can get confusing very fast, and who needs that? At most, you simply want to make sure that you aren't getting a new computer with old or outdated technology, especially if you're expecting to do some serious computing or gaming with it. These days, one way to assess processors is to find out the number of cores and the speed. The speed of the processor tells you how much data it can process in how much time, so the bigger the number, the better...in general. A microprocessor that boasts 3.0GHz speed should, in theory, be twice as fast one running at 1.5 GHz. What about cores? Today, there are dual-core and quad-core processors. A core is the "working part" of the processor. A dual-core processor is like having an extra brain in your head to help you do things. Multi-core computers make it easier for you to run several programs at the same time. You'll notice that as you go up in price, you'll get "more" of everything. That sounds like a good deal, but you might just be buying more than you need. If you know a lot of this already, you might want to check out CPUBenchmark.com, which allows you to compare the features of the top CPUs at one time.

How much memory do you need?

All ads for computers (laptops and desktops) will tell you how much memory the computer comes with, measured in "gigs" (gigabytes). The higher the number, the better off you'll generally be, especially if you do a lot of multitasking, which means running lots of programs at once or watching videos while you're creating complicated spreadsheets and listening to music.

For reference, 2 GB is the lowest amount of memory you'll find on a new PC, and it goes up from there—4, 6, 8, 16, and so on. A computer with 2 GB of memory will probably do just fine if you just want to send emails, post notes on social media and browse the Internet. But you'll notice as you shop around that as you get a more robust computer, you'll automatically get more memory. Think of it like buying a car. You're not going to get a lot of power features with a low-cost car. But with a luxury model, you're going to get all the bells and whistles. If you're looking to spend under $400 on a PC, you'll probably end up with about 4 GB of memory. (Macs start at about $900.) Here's something to keep in mind though: You can add memory to any computer at any time.

How much "storage" do you need?

A hard drive is where the brains and information of your computer are stored. Whenever you load a program (Microsoft Word, for example), it gets stored on the hard drive. And whenever you create files of any kind and save them on your computer, they get stored on your hard drive.

Have you ever lived in an apartment or house that didn't have enough closets and cabinets to store your things? You know how inconvenient that can be. The same can happen on a PC if you 1) don't start with a big enough hard drive and/or 2) you are an active computer user and store a lot of data-space hogs (movies, video clips, music, large design files, etc.) on your computer.

Your computer's operating system and all the programs you run are also stored on your computer's hard drive. These days, most new computers come with sizable 1 terabyte hard drives (1 TB), which is the capacity of 1,000 gigabytes. Don't let these numbers scare you though. If you're a power user, you likely know what size hard drive you should get. Or if you're a photographer or musician, your friends and colleagues can give you an idea of what you should get.

Still, there are people who buy a computer and a year later discover they don't have enough room to store all of their files. Of course, the older data that doesn't need to be available all the time can be stored on an external drive instead of on your new computer. That same approach can be used with memory and a lot of other decisions you make when buying a computer.

Do a little homework, talk to a few friends and visit a few stores before you make a decision. It shouldn't be too hard to get just the right kind of computer you want for a price that works for you.

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