Computer buying advice: how to get what you need without wasting money

A couple months ago I was at The Russian Tea Room, attending an event held by Intel about online etiquette.  Afterward I struck up a conversation with Alison Wesley, an Intel employee in Media Relations I had first met over the summer in Chicago when I won a Dell Mini from Heather Spohr and Intel.  I wanted to ask her advice about buying a new computer.  I was in the market for a powerful desktop, and while I did want to be able to multi-task and edit video, I didn’t need to run the Space Shuttle from the thing, and was totally confused about what to buy.  The package deals on sites like Dell seemed too good to be true: Could I really get everything I needed for $799, or would I just be frustrated by the speed?  And trying to build my own was even worse.  How much RAM do I need?  Which processor should be put in there?  Do I need to spend more cash on more cache?  And what the hell does SSD mean and should I care?

I was actually relieved to hear that she had trouble with these same issues when shopping for computers.  And she works for Intel!  So how do non-techie people get what they need in a computer without over-spending for power that they’ll never use?

Alison said she’d set me up on a call with one of her colleagues, Dan Snyder, who works in Technical PR and has been at Intel for 15 years.  He deals a lot with writers who know what they’re talking about, from sites like tom’s hardware and cnet, but Dan was fantastic and was able to dumb things down enough so that I could understand them.

In the end, I’ll be using what I learned on our call to choose a computer for my mom, instead of buying one for myself.  Intel provided me with a really amazing CyberPower PC powered by the new Intel Core i7 Processor.  I’ll do a separate review of my new computer soon, but the short version is that it is a dream machine for a chronic multi-tasker like myself who wants to run every program I own at the same time without losing any speed.  They didn’t ask anything in exchange for this, but if they want me to name my next child “Intel” I’ll seriously consider it.

All of the following information, unless otherwise noted, comes from Dan Snyder at Intel, or from Intel’s own website, which is packed with articles and guides for choosing the right computer.

Evaluate Your Needs

Desktop vs. Laptop

I think that going in to the buying process most people probably know if they want a desktop or a laptop.  But if you don’t know that, that would of course be your first question.

Desktop Pros:

  • Memory, drives and other features can be changed and expanded as your needs change
  • You’ll spend less money for a better, more powerful computer
  • Handles multi-media stuff better
  • You don’t have to worry about a battery running out of power

Desktop Cons:

  • Takes up a lot of space
  • There are cords everywhere, running from the tower to the power outlet, the internet connection, the monitor, the keyboard, and possibly the mouse and printer
  • You’re stuck using it in one place

Laptop Pros:

  • Doesn’t take up much space
  • Portable, even if you only want to take it as far as the couch or the backyard
  • Can connect to the internet wirelessly
  • No cords to deal with, except when charging

Laptop Cons:

  • Costs a lot more compared to a comparably-equipped desktop
  • Can only run for so long before needing to be recharged
  • Can not be expanded too much if your needs change
  • You need to set up a wi-fi connection to get online without wires at home, or you need to pay $40-$60/month for a wireless connection from an ISP

So, are you someone who likes to snuggle under a blanket on the couch and edit your home movies, or do you like to have an official space to work in with a desk and a chair?  Do you need to have a computer with you for travel, or do you get by fine on the road with just your Blackberry?

Will you be sharing the computer with your whole family?  Do you want to have to look under your son’s dirty clothes for the laptop, or would it be better to have a desktop that stays in one place, out in the open?

Of course, for some people the answer may be to have a powerful desktop at home and a less powerful notebook – or an even less-powerful (but much cheaper) netbook – for travel.

Students going away to college need a laptop that balances portability with power, since this will be their one computer for everything.

What will you use it for?

At one end of the spectrum you have light computer users who check their email, update Facebook, maybe edit a few pictures before printing them out for the family photo album.  On the other end you have gamers and amateur video editors who need a machine that’s super fast and powerful.  I’m guessing that most of us fall somewhere in between: we want to get as much as we can for a reasonable price, without sacrificing too much speed and power.

For most people, spending $800-$1,000 for a desktop will get you a really nice system with an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor – fast, able to multitask, with lots of storage for photos, videos and music (the prices discussed do not include a monitor; you can get fantastic flat-panel LCD monitors for $200 or less).  Spending more may get you more than you could ever need, and spending less could cost you in terms of speed and performance.  If this is going to be your main computer, think about how frustrated you’ll end up if you go for a “great deal” that slows to a crawl whenever you open more than a couple of programs.

The guts of the computer

These are the main things you should pay attention to when choosing a computer.

The Processor

A computer’s processor is like its brain.  If the brain is too small, it won’t be able to think fast enough and you’ll get frustrated.  But if you get a brain that’s too big, you’ll be paying for something that doesn’t get used.

The main types of processors from Intel are:

  • Core – Intel’s newest, fastest processor (my new computer has the Core i7 870, and it is super fast); fantastic for multi-taskers; anything less will cost you in terms of speed and multi-tasking
  • Pentium – Solid performance for everyday stuff; older
  • Celeron – Used mostly on laptops, OK for everyday stuff, very affordable
  • Atom – very small, and used mainly in netbooks – not incredibly powerful, but great for using internet-based applications

The better your processor, the more applications you can have open at once and the faster they’ll run.  As technology has gotten smaller, dual core and quad core processors have become popular.  Windows runs something called a Scheduler, which divvies up the tasks among the different cores so that everything runs faster and more seamlessly (like telling several cooks in a kitchen what they should be working on and where, so that everything gets done as quickly as possible and they don’t run into each other).  Windows also shuts down cores that aren’t being used, in order to save energy – especially important on a laptop.


Short for “Random Access Memory” RAM is kind-of like temporary memory.  It stores what’s happening in the programs and applications you have open at any given time.  If your computer slows down to a crawl when you open a bunch of pictures in Photoshop, you probably could use more RAM.  If you like to run Tweetdeck, three different internet browsers, Word, Windows Media Center, and Skype all at once but your computer freezes, you probably could use more RAM.

While 2 gigs of RAM would probably be sufficient for most people, 4 gigs of RAM is a sweet spot that will handle 99.9% of what most people are doing (even gamers).  Anything more than that is probably overkill, unless you have some very specialized needs, for example having to do with video production.

Hard Drive

Spinning vs. Solid State

There are two kinds of hard drives: the regular one (SATA) spins at about 7200 rpms, and a Solid State hard drive is kind-of like a giant flash drive: no moving parts, just instant memory access.  If you have extra money to spend (probably about $200 more), upgrading to a solid state hard drive is a good way to spend it.  It will simply find things faster.

What size?

The first computer my husband and I bought after we got married had a 1 gigabyte hard drive.  I remember saying to him “Wow, we’ll never fill that up!’  Well, that was a long time ago and now having a terabyte of memory (just over 1,000 gigabytes) isn’t all that unusual.  The more you have, the more vidoes, pictures, songs, and other media you can store.

Most desktop systems in the $800-$1,000 range seem to come with at least 500 gigs of memory.

Sound and Video Cards

For most normal users, whatever sound and video cards come with the computer will be fine for normal use.  If you’re a gamer, you want a fast processor first and foremost (like a Core i7), but once you have that, you could spend $100-$200 on a high-end graphics card upgrade.  For most other users, a high-end graphics card would be a waste of money.

Bottom Line for Desktops

$800 (plus a monitor) is probably as low as you want to go for a desktop system.

If you need to come down in price a bit and won’t be doing any gaming or running any really demanding multi-media applications, you can get a good computer with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor for about $500-$600.

Under $500 you’ll be making some serious compromises.


Laptops are a bit of a special case, because how people use laptops varies greatly.  Everything said above about desktops still applies to laptops, but how powerful a laptop you need depends on how it will be used.


Netbooks are small laptops that are very portable – and affordable – and great for internet-based use, like email, Facebook, posting to a blog, and simple applications like Word.  You can use them for more than that – I’ve had salespeople tell me that I can do everything on a netbook that I do on my laptop, and technically that’s kinda sorta true – but things will slow down considerably and get frustrating fast.


When a student goes off to college with a laptop, it’s going to get put to use in many different situations.  It can’t be too big or you’ll have to add chiropractor bills to the costs of college.  It should have a big hard drive for storing music and pictures, and be able to handle multi-tasking well.  $700-$1,200 is about what you should be spending, and it should be running a Core processor and have at least 2 gigs of RAM.  If it’s running Pentium or Celeron it’s probably not fast and smart enough for today’s college student.  If a laptop price looks too good to be true, the first thing you should check is what kind of processor it has in it and how much RAM.

I have a laptop with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor with 2 gigs of RAM and I can open a bunch of applications at the same time without sacrificing too much speed.  I can listen to iTunes, use Photoshop, and have a couple of browsers open (each with about a dozen tabs) with no problem at all.

Secondary Computer

If your laptop is just going to be your secondary computer and you don’t need to do everything on it that you would do on your desktop, then you can get a good deal.  If you want your high-school student to be able to write a paper or cruise the web on the laptop while you’re using the desktop, then a laptop running Celeron or Pentium processors should be fine.  But if you want to sit on your couch and Photoshop it’s going to be too slow.

Need More Help?

Intel has put together some benchmarks for performance so that you can compare how different configurations match up with what you’ll use a system for.

Intel also has a twitter handle dedicated to tech questions – not just about processors but all computer questions.  @IntelInside has 14 years of Intel and computing experience and will be happy to help.

CNet also has two great buying guide videos: one for desktops and one for laptops.


So thanks to Dan and Alison, and of course to Intel, for all of their knowledge and help.  Computers make great gifts, and there are deals to be had, but make sure you know what you’re getting.

Originally posted on Selfish Mom. All opinions expressed on this website come straight from Amy unless otherwise noted. This post has Compensation Levels of 1 and 8. Please visit Amy’s Full Disclosure page for more information.


  1. says

    I think this is a great post and will be a lot of help to folks who are trying to navigate the waters — esp. since, as we all know, you can’t expect help when you’re standing in the store. Not reliable help anyhow. Plus, it’s good to see the whole processor thing spelled out, which is Greek to most people.

    There’s only one thing I’d quibble with, and that’s about RAM, and I mean for your main computer, whichever that is. I wouldn’t advise going low on a new machine, just because RAM is the best thing to max out on a cost-to-benefit basis alone — it’s cheap and speeds up your computer cheaply. You get more bang for your buck with RAM than with any other component, speed and capacity-wise. Vista and Windows 7 are both RAM hogs (using up to 1 GB just on their own), and so are a lot of things average people increasingly do with their computers — kids’ games, Flash games online, converting videos for our iPods. No matter how much RAM you start with, you’ll want more eventually. Luckily, it’s easy to upgrade, but I’d still want to start with more. In other words, it might seem like overkill to get 8 GB of RAM now (which is what I use), but in a year it won’t be. The biggest reason really is, it’s cheap and it does a lot. :)

    Lots of good tips on laptops! I learned long ago that I’m not really a laptop person — I’m happy with a big heavy machine at home and a smartphone for when I’m out. But you’re 100% right in pointing out that’s the whole game, figuring out what suits you best.

  2. says

    @Missy – I’m so glad it helps! That was my goal.

    If there’s anything else you need to know and you can’t find it on Intel’s site please let me know, I’m happy to try to help.

  3. says

    @Toni – Thanks! I had so much trouble when I was looking, and you know me: I’m fairly smart about PCs when I’m actually using them (we’ll just forget about that episode where I stuck the pointy tweezers in to the memory card slot…), so I was really surprised by how clueless I was when it came to actually picking one. Hoping to help other people in the same boat.

    As for the RAM issue, you’re right. But it would be hard to find a computer at that price point – $800 and up (without monitor) – with less than 4 gigs of RAM. Whether it’s worth it for an average user to upgrade from 4 gigs to 8 is debatable. It isn’t that expensive – a quick survey of a few sites just turned up a 4 gig RAM upgrade for between $90 and $145 – but according to Dan Snyder 4 gigs would be more than sufficient for average users.

    I think our buying habits are probably very similar. I’d throw it on there for an extra $145 bucks, hoping to save myself even the slightest bit of frustration later. But that’s exactly how I was building $3,000 computers online, and having no clue what I could reasonably cut! So for someone on a budget trying to get the most for their money, I’m guessing that 4 gigs would be fine.

    The super-fast computer that Intel gave me has 8 gigs of RAM running Windows 7 with a Core i7 processor, and my laptop – which is fairly fast, even though it’s almost two years old – is running Windows Vista with a Core 2 Duo processor and 2 gigs of RAM. I don’t have anything in between for comparison.

  4. says

    Husband wants a new computer, so I emailed this to him. Now, if I can just get him to read his emails. Guess I’ll have to resort to that old standby in the subject line: My Hot Lesbian Fantasies.

  5. says

    @Amy – The computer I bought this past fall was about $800 or so, and came with the 8 GB of RAM. So no added extra $$ needed.
    I think I’d just have to agree to disagree with Dan Snyder. Well — no, he’s right that 4 GB is probably fine for most users, right now. But RAM usage increases exponentially, it’s crazy. If you go back and look at this post a year from now, it’s almost a sure bet the idea that almost no one needs more than that will seem silly. Just out of curiosity, I went Google-hunting and in April of 2008, I could find posts saying, “you’ll never need more than 2 GB of RAM”. Now I’d call that the minimum. So the real question might be, too, how long does the potential buyer keep a computer? Some people would rather replace their entire system more often. Some people don’t mind upgrading parts. I like to buy a very solid machine that stays solid for awhile. As Tim Gunn would say, chacun à son goût. (see? Tim Gunn is applicable ANYWHERE)
    I really know nothing about laptops, well, more or less nothing, since I don’t use them. I know it’s a different ball game with the parts & all, and capacity, RAM, etc., unless you build some monster laptop that weighs 23 tons, which would seem to defeat the purpose, at least to me.

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