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An IT guy gives relevant computer buying advice

"Separating the useful information from the steaming BS can be tough."

That's the word from Calgary-based IT pro Christopher Bray, who sat down at his keyboard recently to give some insight into what to look for when buying a computer in 2014. Bray, who moonlights as my oldest son, was responding to a request from another relative who was flummoxed at the choices out there.

Chris and I have owned many computers over the years, starting back in the early 1980's when the Apple II was king and the IBM PC had yet to be introduced. Heck, it was back then the Radio Shack computer was duking it out with Apple for supremacy. Both lost to the IBM/Microsoft juggernaut, though Apple continues to do extremely well as it offers higher end alternatives to the generic PC.

It's amazing just how far the technology has come, and it can be confusing knowing what to buy if, unlike the Bray boys, you don't live and breathe this stuff. Hence Chris' 5000-plus word primer, which I've published here so it can help anyone facing the daunting task of purchasing a PC. The upshot is that if you're a mainstream user, you can pretty well ignore all the hype and go into the store confident that whatever you buy, it'll do the job for you. That doesn't mean you should go in blissfully unaware of course, but you shouldn't worry excessively about getting less - or more - than you need.

But first, decide if you even need a new computer. Chris donated a desktop computer recently that he built 10 years ago and which still surfed the net, did email and word processing and the like just fine, but which had outlived its usefulness as far as his needs are concerned. "The machine…was high-end when it was new, and is noticeably below the specs of a low-end laptop today," he said, noting that for someone who only wanted a basic computer it was still the greatest thing since sliced bread and that's why it found new life in a new home.

Sometimes all you need to do is give your current computer a hard disk defrag, extra RAM, a bigger hard drive or a new monitor and you'll be off to the races. But if you really, really need a new computer, there's a lot you don't need to know before you buy.

Its CPU, for example. "CPU speeds haven't really increased that much in 10 years," Chris said, noting that any mainstream computer is plenty quick. Nor should the AMD versus Intel issue matter. "Intel is a little faster, AMD is a little cheaper," he said, noting that it's only a small difference anyway and shouldn't be relevant for most needs.

RAM-ing speed!

RAM is like your physical desk top, only it's "virtual." More RAM means, generally, that you can have more things open at one time. "An 8x8 foot desk will hold a lot more papers at one time than a little lap desk for a laptop," Chris said, adding that if you don't do a lot of multitasking (or gaming, etc.), you may not need more RAM than is offered as standard equipment, since any new PC worth its salt these days will have at least two GB of RAM (which Chris said is "tons for surfing and emailing"). There'll usually be four GB or more RAM anyway, so chances are it'll be enough.

Hard drivin' man…

The big new thing in hard drives these days is the Solid State Disk, or SSD. These are little flash drives like those USB keys or thumb drives, only bigger and faster. Chris said the laptop industry is moving to this type of drive because they don't use a lot of power and "they're insanely fast, especially compared to the slow drives usually used in laptops." But they're still comparatively expensive compared with "regular" hard drives. My advice? Most PC's today have at least a gigabyte of hard drive space, and (depending on what you do) that should be plenty for the foreseeable future. If you need more space after that, external, USB-interfacing hard drives are cheap.

PC/MAC? Laptop? Tablet? Phone?

Even a Smartphone is capable of big things these days - Chris noted that they effectively cram a $4000 computer from 10 years ago into your pocket, but their screen size and storage capacity (and relative price) make them a different experience and probably not a real mainstream alternative to a PC.

So it's basically desktop, laptop, or tablet.

Tablets come in many sizes, with varying capabilities, and costs. They're smaller, lighter, more portable, have better battery life, and can be cheaper than laptops - and if you need to type on it a lot you can get a decent Bluetooth keyboard. Just about everyone makes a tablet these days, and they range in price from around $200 to the $800-$1200 range.

The biggest names Apple and Google, via the iOS and Android systems, respectively, which kind of mirrors the PC/MAC thing. As Chris puts it, "I can't honestly say one is particularly better than another, though the iPad has something like 80 per cent of the market." He noted the Android market is all over the place, too, with a dizzying variety of models and capabilities, and that makes it harder to choose the best model for your needs.

As for desktops and laptops, the line between them is becoming very blurry. Laptops are as cheap as desktops in many cases, though not as easy to reconfigure or upgrade. If portability isn't important to you, you might prefer a desktop PC because you can get a bigger monitor, more and more easily upgradeable memory and a bigger hard drive if that's an issue.

Desktops break down to basically two types: Tower (which also includes the horizontally configured ones on which you perch your monitor) or All-in-One. All-in-one's are new - basically a monitor with all the PC's guts built in, which cleans up cable clutter and desk space. The Apple iMac is the most common version of this so far, Chris noted that the PC makers aren't far behind (in fact, I reviewed a nice Acer a couple of months back).

The downside to an All-in-One, Chris said, is that they're about as upgradeable as laptops, "with everything custom-built to fit inside that thin chassis, and usually there are no expansion cards."

A Tower requires a separate monitor (but gives you more monitor choice) and maximizes your upgrade options - except that Chris says hardly anyone needs to upgrade any more. "You can play all your YouTube and Netflix content at full frame rate already," he noted, adding that today's tower computers usually come with HD surround audio built in as well. Upgrading is easy, though, because except for RAM and internal disk drives, virtually everything connects via USB now, which is quick and easy - and external.

How do you choose a desktop? Since the specs don't matter much, Chris' advice is that you concentrate first on the monitor. "That's what you'll be staring at all day, so your best bet is to visit (a store) and look at the monitors to find one you like," he said. If that monitor is part of an All-in-One, your shopping is done. If it isn't, then "you can buy pretty much any old tower…that fits your budget."

Another important personal choice is the keyboard and mouse, and they're very subjective. "The nice thing about a desktop is you can mix and match," says Chris. So try a few and find ones you like.

And don't sweat excessively over the DVD or Blu-ray drive. "Physical media is a dying animal," Chris said, noting that Apple no longer includes such drives in its machines. Most software can be downloaded now, and USB keys/thumb drives are cheap and offer more capacity. They're also more convenient for transferring files than CD's or DVD's. About the only reason you'd absolutely need an optical drive these days is to play media content such as DVD or BD movies.

To pack or not to pack…

If you're beating your head against the wall trying to decide between a laptop and a desktop, don't. Most laptops now can handle an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and since a cheap laptop isn't much more expensive than a tower, you can get the best of both worlds. Even better, he laptop can be unplugged and taken wherever you want. "Even if you use it as a tower 90 per cent of the time," Chris said, "it has the advantage of having a built-in battery." The battery can also save you from data loss in a power failure.

Finally, do you want a Mac or a PC? "For many this is a nearly religious choice," Chris said, "which is unfortunate because there are advantages on both sides." Apple tends to be more expensive than PC's but Chris said that has as much to do with their lack of variety as anything. "There are only a few Apple models to choose from and there aren't really any low-end Macs," he said.

The Chromebook is another laptop choice, though Chris said it isn't popular het. Chrome is a competitor to Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Safari, and so a Chromebook is a laptop that runs only the Chrome Browser. "Obviously, not everyone can do all his stuff completely within a browser, and I'm not sure I'd want to be permanently locked into Chrome," Chris said, "but these units are in the $200 to $300 range, which could make them worth a look if money's tight and needs allow."

As for Windows, Chris said both Windows 7 and 8 are decent systems. "The Metro tile thingy that replaced the Start Menu in Windows 8 is weird and kind of off-putting sometimes," he said, "but not necessarily bad. It's just different and I wouldn't go out of my way to avoid it."

Chris' bottom line advice is that, unless you plan to do some high end gaming or "some sort of engineering or design work," pretty much anything on the shelf these days will do the job - so just make sure you you're comfortable with the particular PC you're pondering. "You're going to be using the keyboard, track pad, and monitor all the time," he said, so if you don't like them in the store, "you’ll hate (them) at home when you’re using (them) all the time."

And, of course, there's price. "As always, you get what you pay for," Chris said, which means you should avoid buying something cheap, if you can, and choose something from the more mainstream shelves in the store.

So forget the specs, because they're mostly irrelevant for mainstream use these days, and don't worry excessively about minor differences between Computer A versus Computer B: go for the one that, everything being equal, offers the best deal. "Just figure out whether you want a laptop, a tablet, or a desktop," Chris said, "and then go and find something that you personally feel physically comfortable using."

And that's all there is to it!

Copyright 2014 Jim Bray

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