09 October 2012

Choosing a New Computer

People often ask me about buying a new computer as they are unsure what to get. Strictly speaking I'm a software engineer so whilst it's not my area of expertise I do have a lot of experience of choosing and living with machines for myself. I have also spent a lot of time reading up on them and living with the consequences of my choices so here are a few pointers.

General Points
  • Bigger is not always  better: the larger the screen, the more power is required to light it. Generally the largest drain on the battery is lighting the screen. This makes a larger machine less portable due to size, weight and reliance on external power. If you travel a lot you will need to be without power for extended periods. You can always get an external monitor if you need more screen 'real estate' when you in the office.
  • Please do read the specifications! It is enough to send most people into a coma but compare the specs of different machines especially look at not only the current spec but also what it can be 'maxed out' to. e.g. memory: my machine has a documented maximum 8GB of memory but in fact can take 16GB which means it should continue to be useful for some years. However, if the memory is not expandable or is limited then then machine won't continue to be useful for as long (as memory requirements of the operating systems grow over time). The same goes for the hard disk size... some models are not upgradable.
  • Consider day to day what will you actually use it for? Do you rely on a specific piece of software e.g. Outlook or some bespoke Windows only piece of software? If you are considering a Mac check your software suppliers to see if there is a 'conversion' capability i.e. to get a Mac version. Alternatively can you achieve the same result with different software?
  • Will you use if for work? If so will your office I.T. department support it e.g. do they support Mac? As per point above are there any windows specific pieces of software that work requires you use?

Mac vs PC

Then there is the 'platform' debate: basically Mac, PC or Linux. For me the race for most end users is really between Mac and PC. I have yet to find a version of Linux I feel I can recommend to what I call a 'consumer user'. I especially like to use the 'could your gran use it' test. e.g. will it install external hardware automatically and support most items without additional work.

  • In my experience the Mac hardware is generally better, the operating system is more robust and you can get Mac versions of most software plus you can install Windows 'within' it if you really need it using a product like VMware Fusion http://www.vmware.com/products/fusion/

  • If you buy a Mac you'll have to purchase Windows separately if you need it e.g. Windows 7 personal: £110 on Amazon. You will also need to buy a virtual machine host (to install windows on your mac) like VMware Fusion approx.  £40: http://www.vmware.com/products/fusion/
    If installing WIndows inside your Mac seems too technical for you, don't worry: it's really a point and click process.

In Conclusion

Ultimately it's all about usage. For me as a programmer I just need the most powerful portable machine I can afford with the largest screen possible and I'm prepared to take the downsides of reduced portability due to bulk, weight and reliance on external power. For a reporter or author the emphasis might be more on battery life and portability, and they might be more willing to accept the unit's inevitable demise due to lack of upgradability.

If you are looking for a Mac then don't forget to check out their re-furbished units: they come with a full one-year warrantee and so to all intents and purposes are like buying a new machine: http://store.apple.com/uk/browse/home/specialdeals/mac

If you really do want a PC then I've had many years of success with Dell hardware, particularly when covered by their support package: http://www.dell.co.uk/

1 comment:

  1. True and very good points. I made the mistake of buying a big screen laptop and was always soooo frustrated at the battery life. It had never even occurred to me (even after all my research!). Lesson learned. On to the next one I didn't think of (hopefully your list will prevent more!)