Computer Buying Guide

Computer Buying Guide

Once you've decided to buy a new computer, you still need to tackle a few more questions before you meet your new machine. Use our computer buying guide to put together a solid plan to get the kind of system you need.

Have you considered whether you'll want the computer to travel with you? Will you use the computer for video games or just for checking the Internet? Do you want to watch movies on your machine? We'll walk you through the most important aspects in this computer guide.

The Main Types of Computers

When buying a computer, you should consider one of two basic machine types: portable computers or desktop computers. Portable computers encompass a wide variety of devices small enough to take on the road, while desktop computers are larger, stationary machines.

If you want to bring your computer along when you're on the go, choose a laptop, Ultrabook, netbook, or tablet computer. Here's a quick guide to portable computer types:

Laptops - These computers feature all the basics in a single unit. Laptops cost from $400 to well over $1,500, depending on how much power you need. If you watch movies on DVD or Blu-ray, or need the ability to burn DVDs, a laptop or ultrabook will likely be the best choice; tablets and netbooks don't offer an optical drive.

Ultrabooks - Ultrabooks are thinner and lighter than standard laptops, providing incredible portability. The cost of an ultrabook runs between $600 to $1,800. Ultrabooks are usually a bit more expensive than laptops with comparable specs because Ultrabooks must be manufactured to exacting detail in order to achieve their remarkably slim profile.

Netbooks - Netbooks eschew optical drives and high-end components in favor of getting things done through an internet browser. They tend to be very small, with screens around 10 inches. While their popularity has faded due to the growth of tablets, netbooks remain the least expensive, most portable mobile computer available with a built-in physical keyboard. You'll usually spend between $200 to $400 on a netbook. Although they are not officially classified as netbooks, the Samsung and Acer Chromebooks serve a similar purpose and have become popular alternatives to more traditional laptops.

Tablets - Tablets are essentially compact, ultra-portable touchscreen devices that rely on a specialized operating system. Mini-programs called apps make possible all the work and play you'd expect from a computer, but instead of using a keyboard and mouse, you simply touch the screen. Tablets run anywhere between $300 to $900, depending on how much storage and which brand you choose.

Tower-style desktop computers - This type of system separates the processing tower, monitor, and other components into distinct units, allowing you to more easily select specific components to suit your needs. Upgrading your computer later is much easier with a tower desktop. The prices of tower-style desktops range widely. In general, expect to spend $500 to $1,200 for both the computer and monitor.

All-in-one desktops - These computers combine the processor, internal components, and monitor into one convenient, sleek package. An all-in-one makes your computer buying decision easy by including nearly everything you'll need in one purchase. All-in-one computers tend to come in affordable packages ranging from $600 to $1,000, but can go as high as $2,000 and more.

What's the Best Computer for You?

If you're a casual home computer user and just want check your email occasionally, surf the Internet, and keep up with home finances, you'll probably be satisfied with a desktop or an all-in-one system. An inexpensive desktop offers a large screen that's easy on the eyes—although if you prefer sitting on the couch to sitting at a desk, a tablet or netbook could offer both the features and comfort you're looking for.

Generally, high-end power and capabilities are more affordable in a desktop system, which is also easier to upgrade over time. You can keep a desktop computer contemporary by replacing components year after year, a process that's more difficult or impossible on most portable computers and all-in-ones. If you need a computer for travel, doing business, or attending school, you'll want a laptop or an Ultrabook. Tablets and netbooks keep you connected to the Internet and allow you to do light work, but neither offer the full-fledged power of a laptop or desktop computer. Still, for a computer that's so highly portable, tablets and netbooks are about as convenient as you can get.

The next step in our computer buying guide is to determine the components that will go into your new computer.

Get Enough Hard Drive Space

Most of your files and data will be saved on your computer's hard drive. While text documents, pictures, and music files generally don't require much space on their own, it's easy to quickly chew through the available storage as your collection grows. In general, you'll get more hard drive space for your computer buying dollar by opting for a desktop computer instead of a laptop or tablet.

Try to get enough gigabytes (GB) of storage--or perhaps even terabytes (TB) for a desktop--to keep all the files you'll need today as well as what you might need in the next few years. You don't need to go crazy, though: 500GB will be enough for many users, and you can also purchase additional external storage or upgrade your internal drive if you need to down the road.

You could also choose a solid state drive. SSDs are quickly becoming more common, especially on ultrabooks and tablets. SSDs are faster than traditional hard drives, and they use less power--but you pay for that speed and economy. If you need help deciding which type of drive is right for you, see our computer buying guide to solid state drives vs. hard drives.

Know About Memory (RAM)

While your computer's hard drive determines how many files, movies, and songs you can store on your computer, your random access memory (RAM) determines the performance of multiple programs running at the same time. Large programs like video editors and games usually demand more RAM. Simpler activities such as watching a Blu-ray or checking your email don't necessarily require much RAM, but extra power makes everything go quicker.

Most computer buyers will be satisfied with 4GB of RAM, while budget-conscious shoppers could make do with 2GB. A video gamer or heavy computer user will want 8GB or more of RAM, which represents the upper end of the spectrum for most computers. It's important to note that RAM isn't really a factor in choosing a tablet computer. While tablets do use RAM, you don't get RAM options when choosing a tablet.

Consider Processor Speed and Power

When it comes to your computer's processor, the general rule is that faster is better. You can generally assume that the more cores you have and the higher the speed (measured in gigahertz or GHz), the better off you are. The more cores the processor boasts, the more computations it can do at once. Speed describes how quickly those cores can work.

Unless you're trying to save every penny possible, don't buy a single-core computer because dual-core processors are widely and inexpensively available. Those dual cores provide all the power most computer users need. Video editors, gamers, and other power users will need a quad-core or even six-core processor.

Get the Ports You Need

Familiarize yourself with the types of ports you'll need on your computer and what each type does. Here's a quick buying guide to the most common computer ports and plugs:

SD - Cameras, e-readers, and even tablets store files and data on SD cards, so having a built-in SD card reader offers huge convenience.

HDMI - HDMI presents a convenient way to play audio and video between your computer and a TV or monitor.

USB - Common peripherals like keyboards, mice, and printers connect using USB cables. The standard USB port these days is USB 3.0, though plenty of devices support older USB ports.

Thunderbolt - Thunderbolt is a newer port type found predominantly on contemporary Apple computers. It can transfer data and even support monitor connections too.

Review the Package and Check Your Budget

Once you've made decisions about all the factors in this computer buying guide, review your final choices. Check your options against your budget by browsing our Computer section. When everything lines up, congratulations on your new computer!

If you're thinking of buying a laptop or tablet computer, we have computer buying guides just for them, too.

Best Sellers

Updated hourly
HP Stream
1. 182 days in the top 100
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2. 180 days in the top 100
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Acer Chromebook
5. Ranking has gone up in the past 24 hours 179 days in the top 100
Acer Chromebook 11 CB3-111-C670 (11.6-inch HD, 2GB, 16GB)
$199.99 $173.99
HP Stream
6. 170 days in the top 100
HP Stream 13 Laptop Includes Office 365 Personal for One…
$238.99
ASUS Zenbook
7. Ranking has gone down in the past 24 hours 60 days in the top 100
ASUS Zenbook UX305FA-ASM1 13.3-Inch Ultra-Slim Aluminum…
$699.00
HP Stream
8. Ranking has gone up in the past 24 hours 164 days in the top 100
HP Stream 11 Laptop Includes Office 365 Personal for One…
Toshiba Satellite
9. Ranking has gone down in the past 24 hours 50 days in the top 100
Toshiba Satellite C55D-B5308 15.6-Inch Laptop (AMD E1-Series…
$499.00 $257.01
Acer Aspire
10. Ranking has gone up in the past 24 hours 191 days in the top 100
Acer Aspire E 11 ES1-111M-C40S 11.6-Inch Laptop (Diamond…
$199.99 $177.99

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Alienware Alpha
6. Ranking has gone up in the past 24 hours 182 days in the top 100
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$549.99 $449.00
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Dell Inspiron
8. Ranking has gone down in the past 24 hours 238 days in the top 100
Dell Inspiron 3000 Series i3847-3850BK Desktop (3.5 GHz…
$499.99 $489.99
Apple Mac
9. Ranking has gone up in the past 24 hours 179 days in the top 100
Apple Mac Mini MGEM2LL/A Desktop (NEWEST VERSION)
$499.00 $464.99
Dell Inspiron
10. Ranking has gone up in the past 24 hours 295 days in the top 100
Dell Inspiron 3000 Series i3847-4617BK Desktop (3.2 GHz…
$549.99 $508.87