computer buying guide

You’ve likely spent a good portion of the last 15 to 16 months using your computer as your primary connection to family, friends, and the world at large.During the pandemic, we developed new habits and skills, using computer software apps and programs we hadn’t even heard of before. We ordered groceries online, traveled virtually, streamed live performances, sent hundreds and thousands of emails, submitted our tax returns, and paid bills, along with a host of other tasks. Your computer or laptop may not have always behaved as expected or needed but you put aside notions of purchasing a new one, at least until now.

In fact, most computers need to be replaced about every four years. Computer hardware ages and technology is advancing faster than ever. And, as we experienced this past year, our needs change, too. If your trusty desktop is no longer keeping up with new demands or if your older laptop is too bulky and slow, how do you go about selecting a new machine? Admittedly, it can seem like an overwhelming task so we reached out to local tech specialist Paul Lakis, the owner of EB Computing, Inc. in Ossining, NY to learn how to select the best computer for a variety of needs.

1. Laptop or Desktop Consider your lifestyle and needs when deciding between a laptop or a desktop computer. They each have their pros and cons. A laptop is easy to carry and can be put away in a drawer, whereas new life can be brought to a desktop as aging internal components can be replaced. If you work or browse from multiple locations, or simply prefer a lightweight computer, look at laptops. If you have a permanent work area, a desktop can make sense. Neither option is more powerful than other, as that depends on the internal components, which are customizable. (Important tip: If you experience power outages in your area, a laptop could prove more reliable because of its built-in battery.)

2. Mac, PC or Chromebook Finding the best computer for your needs and wants means deciding between an Apple Mac or a Windows PC (Personal Computer). Popular brands like Dell, HP, Asus, Lenovo and others offer different laptop and desktop models, each running the Windows OS (Operating System). Apple Mac computers all come with a version of the macOS (Macintosh Operating System), the latest one being Catalina. Consider carefully whether you’re willing to adapt to a Mac if you’ve never used one before. Same goes for Mac users who are thinking of switching to a PC. Re-training can be frustrating for users of any age because many computer habits are dependent on muscle memory, especially when using a new mouse. When it comes to security, Apple MacBooks are known to be reliable right out of the box. However, PCs can be just as malware-proof if set up properly. Don’t hesitate to look for help in this area because today’s malware, also known as computer viruses, are increasingly sophisticated and dangerous to your data.

A significantly less expensive option is a Chromebook. Chromebooks look like smaller laptops but don’t have their own internal storage, meaning you wouldn’t be able to save files to the machine itself. Instead, everything on a Chromebook is saved to either Google drive or a cloud storage location such as Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive. You would not be able to install programs on a Chromebook either. Instead, you would use apps available through Google Play Store. Chromebooks are the least powerful machines, but if you are looking to browse the web, stream media, join Zoom meetings, or use Microsoft Word and Excel, then a Chromebook might be worth considering.

3. Processors A computer processor (also called CPU for Central Processing Unit) is sometimes referred to as the “brain” of the machine, and determines how fast the computer will operate. The more “cores” a processor has, the more powerful the computer. Intel Core i5 CPU models have four cores, which is generally suitable for mainstream users, including streaming and video chats. Intel Core i7 CPUs are more expensive but better serve heavy multi-tasking and gaming, video editing, and data crunching.

4. Random Access Memory (RAM) is the physical hardware inside the computer that serves as the computer’s “working” memory. Additional RAM enables a computer to work with more information at the same time and improves overall system performance. The hard drives or solid state drives (SSD) are also memory devices, but they are used for storing files long term. Look for machines with no less than 8 GB (gigabytes) of RAM.

Other Terms to Know:

Computer Ports are the openings on the sides of a laptop, or in the back or front of a desktop that allow other devices, such as screens, printers and flash drives to be connected. The older type of the frequently used USB port is USB 3.0; the newer version is a USB C port. It is the standard for today’s machines. A USB 3.0 is good to have for backing up the computer, and having an HDMI port would likely prove very useful because it allows connection to a TV. Don’t stress if the machine of your choice doesn’t have a certain port, because adapters are often inexpensive and available on Amazon.

Bandwidth refers to the amount of data that your internet connection can handle at a given time and is key to, among other things, good streaming performance. Your internet connection should have at least 100 MB (megabit) download speed – something that can be confirmed by your internet provider. Your internet performance also depends on the number of users. If you notice a drop in internet speed and quality when other household members or guests are online – perhaps gaming or watching videos, you may want to look into upgrading to a faster service, such as FiOS, which may be a bit pricier but often improves the browsing experience.

AntiVirus Protection Most computers today come with built-in antivirus protection. However, many of these programs are installed as free trials, requiring a subscription for maximum protection. An antivirus program is absolutely worth its cost. Popular programs such as Malwarebytes, Norton and McAfee offer similar features and choosing one over the others is often a matter of cost and personal preference.

5. Storage In most cases, having between 250 to 500 GB (gigabytes) of internal SSD storage is sufficient. More storage can be added to PC laptops and desktops, but MacBook internal storage cannot be upgraded.

6. Screen Size A high-definition 720 pixel, 15-inch screen or larger is recommended to work comfortably on a laptop. For desktops, a good-sized screen is 21 to 24 inches. To determine for yourself, visit a computer store and evaluate the different screen sizes. Keep in mind that a separate monitor can be purchased and plugged into a laptop to deliver a larger screen experience.

7. Cost A reliable Windows laptop will generally cost between $500 and $800, without taking into account insurance, Microsoft Office products, and accessories. Desktops span a wider range: from $400 for a basic machine to about $1,500 for higher end models. A high-definition screen adds $120 to $300 to that cost. Apple MacBooks are known to be expensive investments that last a long time. A mid-range MacBook Pro with a 13-inch screen is priced at about $1,300, before insurance. New MacBooks now all come with the pricier high-resolution Retina screens.

If you’re looking for savings, ask about “open box” computers (used for display or demonstration purposes). These computers are often new and unused, and may come with a warranty which can mean sizeable savings compared to a new machine. Another great option to check out are certified refurbished computers. (Apple sells refurbished computers direct to consumer off their website.)

An extended warranty may be worth purchasing separately, and is frequently offered by the store or manufacturer. More aptly referred to as protection plans, they can cover cracked screens, damage from beverage spills, and hardware failure.

8. Where and When to Shop It’s a great idea to check out some computers in person before making a decision to buy. Visit a larger Best Buy and don’t hesitate to talk to the techs. It is their job to explain the differences between the various models – without any pressure to buy. You will have a chance to compare computers side by side and ask questions, as well as find out about possible “open box” savings.

Once you’ve made your choice, you will want to price out the model of your choice online. You may be wondering if it’s worth waiting for the next Black Friday or Cyber Monday to buy a new computer. Although great deals do pop up on these hot shopping days, manufacturers often run great sales throughout the year. Know your needs and a great deal will inevitably come up, no matter the season.

This article was developed in consultation with Paul Lakis, owner of EB Computing Inc. in Ossining;
Paul can be reached at 914-523-8142 or via email at

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