Columnist Marc Saltzman helps parents and students decide between laptops, hybrids, desktops and all-in-one computers.
High school and college students already have enough weighing on their minds – including big decisions like what courses to take and how to scrape up tuition money. But there’s another important and timely consideration: buying a computer.
Do you go with a conventional laptop, a sleek tablet or a hybrid “2-in-1” device? What about a tried-and-true desktop for the dorm room?
You must also decide on a brand, operating system and minimum specifications (“specs”). It could all make your head spin.
The following are some considerations to help you decide what’s best for you and your budget.
More: How much did a personal computer cost the year you were born?
Step 1: Assess your needs
ASUS ROG Desktop: If you’re serious about computer gaming, consider a tower PC, like this Republic of Gamers (ROG) setup from ASUS, as it’s easier to upgrade components over time. (Photo: ASUSTeK Computer Inc.)
How you plan on using your new computer should dictate what kind to buy.
If you only want a computer for light tasks – such as web browsing, reading email and checking on social media – then you could go with modest specs, which should have a modest price, too. Something with an Intel Core i3 or i5 should suffice.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re looking for a machine that can handle high-end computer games, virtual reality or video editing, you’ll need to invest in a faster processor, better graphics capabilities and more RAM (system memory). An eighth-generation Intel Core i7, NVIDIA graphics, and 16GB or 32GB of RAM (instead of 8GB or 12GB) is a good idea.
When it comes to storage, more and more laptops have a solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard disk drive (HDD), which makes these laptops thinner, lighter, faster and more energy-efficient. Like the flash memory in your smartphone, SSDs are also less prone to damage because there are no moving parts.
That said, I like to say purchasing a computer should be like buying kids clothes: go a little bigger than you need today, so you can grow into it for longer-term savings. You don’t want to have “buyer’s remorse” by picking something underpowered, only to replace it in a year from now.
Stick with a brand you’ve had a good experience with, or ones your friends and family highly recommend (and critics, too).
Step 2: Choose an operating system
Microsoft Surface Go: Portable, affordable and powerful, Microsoft’s 10-inch tablet starts at just $399 and is powered by Windows 10 S and has a 9-hour battery. (Photo: Microsoft)
When it comes to buying a new computer, you’ve got three main OS (“operating system”) choices today: Windows, Mac and Chromebook. (Yes, there’s Linux, too, but not a mainstream pick.)
Stick with the operating system you’re most comfortable with. If you’re not sure, or feel like a change, know that each OS has its advantages.
My take on all three:
Windows 10 is the most popular choice today. It’s offered by nearly all the biggest computer brands – such as Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Acer, and so on – plus Microsoft makes its own Surface-branded PCs. Windows 10 is versatile, easy to use and it works with the most software and hardware out of any operating system. Windows 10 offers multiple ways to interface with your content, whether it’s a keyboard, trackpad or mouse; fingertips on a touchscreen with many models; using a stylus pen on a screen for greater precision (often called “digital inking”); or by using your voice with the Cortana personal assistant. There is also a ton of choice when it comes to form factor. Windows devices start at $199.
Apple’s Mac family is also a popular pick – if you can afford it. Since Apple is the only one that manufactures Macs – like the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro – there is good quality control and they’re built with premium materials. Macs tend to last a long time (but not their chargers), though Macs cost more compared to Windows and Chromebooks with comparable specs (MacBooks Air starts at $999, MacBook and MacBook Pro start at $1299). Some users find them easier to use than other operating systems, though that boils down to personal preference. There are no touchscreen Macs – you’d have to buy an iPad tablet for that. Apple bundles many of its top apps for free, which is great, or it may be a free download from the Mac App Store.
Powered by Google’s Chrome OS, Chromebooks are generally more affordable than Windows and Macs, but there are some premium Chromebooks, too, such as Google’s own Pixelbook (starts at $999), which includes Google Assistant for voice interaction, premium materials and powerful specs. Chromebooks usually ship with popular Google apps already preinstalled, such as Gmail and Google Maps. Most Chromebooks, however, have very modest specs, such as little local storage, but most Google apps are cloud-based, so it might not matter to you so much. Chrome OS is billed as a lean, secure and fast operating system, designed for mostly basic tasks. Chromebooks start at $199.
More: I just cheated on my MacBook Pro with a cheaper alternative from Huawei
Step 3: Decide on a form factor
Dell XPS 13: Dell’s “convertible” PC can be used in various modes, such as a laptop turning into a tablet, on its 60-degree hinge. (Photo: Dell)
If it’s been a while since you shopped for a laptop, you’ll notice many are incredibly thin and light, making them much easier to carry around with you to and from coffee shops, the office, school, airplanes, and so on.
Many Windows-based laptops are “2-in-1s,” as they can transform from a laptop to a tablet and back again. Some 2-in-1s are called “convertibles” as they convert from laptop mode to tablet by simply bending back the screen, which is on a 360-degree hinge, and disables the keyboard in favor of tapping and swiping the screen. Other 2-in-1s are called “detachables,” as the screen detaches altogether, which you can then bring with you as a tablet and leave the keyboard on your desk.
While laptops are often preferred because they’re portable, stationary desktop computers might be more ideal for younger kids. If you put it in a highly trafficked area of the home, parents can keep an eye on where they’re going online. Desktops are usually less expensive than laptops and harder to break since they’re less mobile. A desktop’s external keyboard and mouse may also be easier and comfortable for small hands (and more “ergonomic”) than a fixed laptop keyboard since you can angle it how you like.
Many of today’s desktops are “all-in-ones,” which is when the computer is built into the back of the large monitor, so there’s no tower to take up additional space or a mess of cables to worry about. Ideal to place anywhere in a home – such as a kitchen counter, in a home office, or a teenager’s room – many all-in-ones have a touchscreen and often ship with a wireless keyboard and mouse.
But if you’re buying a desktop for a gamer, an all-in-one isn’t as modular, since it’s not so easy to update storage, memory or graphics cards. Instead, a tower setup may be best for a gamer.
As you can see, there’s a lot to decide when buying a new computer – it’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario – but along with how much to spend you should decide on operating system, form factor and minimum specs that meet your needs.
Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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