Whether it is for your office staff or a specialty role, finding the right system for the job can seem like a daunting task. Do you spend big money now and hope it pays off in the long run or cut some costs upfront and plan to manage a gradual upgrade? Do you go with a laptop and dock for mobility or invest in a large all-in-one workstation? After almost 20 years of working in IT I feel like I’ve found a balance between performance and cost-effectiveness when it comes to purchasing computers. Here are a few key things to consider before your next computer purchase.
1. Is it the right tool for the job?
Over time a few brands have solidified themselves as front-runners, and for a good reason. You don’t have to go far before hearing a polarizing review on manufacturers like Dell, HP, and Apple. I tend to stick with one of these three because of their warranties and how easy it is to spec out a system that will suit the specific requirements for their roles.
Do you need a system that can handle 4k video rendering? Dell’s XPS line, HP’s Envy line, and Apple’s iMac or Mac Pro’s can handle just about anything you can throw at then. Need a budget-friendly workstation for general office work and the occasional large spreadsheet? Dell and HP have slimline workstations that will hold up to your day-to-day grind without breaking the bank.
Though there are many other brands that hold their own, I tend to try and stick with 1 or two brands in our office environment for simplicity’s sake.
Practical tip: I’ve been buying refurbished HP Pro/EliteDesk Micro PC systems from Woot for the past several years and have been blown away by their performance, cost, and reliability. At around $300-350 each, I’m typically getting an Intel 15 from the past 5 years, 8gb of ram, and a 256GB SSD.
2. SSD is king.
One of the other things to consider before your next computer purchase is your storage. There is no more significant upgrade that you can purchase for your computer than grabbing a solid-state hard drive. I’ve had SSD’s breath life into 8-10-year-old systems that should have hit the scrap heap long ago but due to budgetary restrictions or specialized configurations had to stay in production. Though there was a time where an SSD would run you hundreds of dollars you can typically find decent ones under $100.
Practical tip: It’s easier to buy the system with an SSD pre-installed so you don’t have to bother with reinstalling the OS or cloning the old hard drive but you can save some money by buying a spinning disk at the time of purchase and then upgrading to an SSD down the road, as your budget allows. For most office roles I stick with a 256GB SSD for the operating system and applications; if network storage isn’t available you can always purchase a 1-4tb spinning disk drive and run it over USB, as needed.
3. Intel or AMD?
Up until recently, I’ve primarily stuck with Intel’s i-series processors, but over the last few years, AMD has really stepped up their game and put out some excellent performance in their Ryzen series processors. Most of the main manufacturers stick with Intel for their flagship models but you can usually dig around and find some cost saving by going AMD where available. If you are shopping deals, pay attention to the processor listed as you are unlikely to be able to upgrade it down the road without also needing to replace the motherboard.
Practical tip: For general office work I stick with a dual-core i5 as my baseline as they provide the best all-around performance for their price point and i7/i9 (or AMD equivalent) for specialized roles. With the last 5 years of improvements being more gradual than the 5 years prior you should be able to get away with not purchasing the latest series processor and still have excellent results.
4. What about memory (RAM)?
8GB is my baseline for any new system being deployed. Though 4GB will work in most situations, you are often not paying much more for 8GB and will have better future-proofing. Whether you go with older DDR3, the current standard DDR4 or up-and-coming DDR5 you’ll see few programs needing more than 8 at any given time.
Practical tip: Check the make / model of your motherboard / processor before purchase to find out what your maximum memory looks like; many systems ship with only half of their maximum allowed RAM which leaves you with a future incremental upgrade that can extend the overall life of your purchase.
5. Are refurbs worth it?
Refurbs are one of the things to consider before you buy your next computer. Though buying new usually brings with it a better warranty you can save some significant money by buying a refurbished computer, even more so if the model is a few years old. Most refurbs come with a 90-day or 1-year warranty against defects and baring any major failures will usually hold up just as long as their mint counterparts.
A few things to keep in mind when purchasing a refurb are identifying where the warranty is coming from (is it from the manufacturer or a 3rd party), how long your system will be covered, and what is covered under the warranty.
Practical tip: I almost exclusively purchase refurbished systems as it will typically save me a couple of hundred dollars per system and I’m competent enough to handle most out-of-warranty repairs that may come along. If you are less technically inclined I’d highly recommend looking for systems that have a 1-3 year warranty that covers parts and labor so you aren’t having to replace parts on your own.
The 5 things to consider before your next computer purchase put together
With all of the above information as a baseline, I usually look for a computer that has specs no lower than an Intel i5 processor (or Ryzen 5), 8gb of memory, and a 256gb SSD. As long as I’m willing to purchase a refurbished system I can regularly get micro / mini-tower desktops for under $400 and laptops for around $500.
If I need a system that has higher-end specs I’ll either go direct to the manufacturer’s website or a 3rd party distributor. Gone are the days I put a full custom system into production, knowing I’ll have several different manufacturers to work with for any driver or warranty issues. It’s just not worth my time.
There is an overwhelming number of manufacturers, options, and confusing model names out there. Sticking with a few items you can easily remember or write down will save you both time and money down the road.
Some retailers will obscure the actual manufacturer’s model number on their ads to avoid price comparison. Others will offer deals that seem too good to pass up while hiding a lacklustre processor or poor build quality. This may require additional digging or trusting the word of their sales reps.
Additional practical tip: When purchasing a laptop or external display try and find ones that provide 1920×1080 resolution (1080p), though 1366×768 is fine for some tasks the visual experience is significantly better and usually not much of an additional expense.
For external monitors, you will be hard-pressed to find any decent manufacturer offering less than 1080p, with many offering 21”+ displays for right around $100 each. Also, don’t underestimate the productivity improvement brought about by the addition of a second monitor, whether used with a desktop or as a pairing with a laptop.
Whether you are shopping Black Friday deals for your home or budgeting for the next fiscal year, I hope the information I’ve provided have given you enough things to consider before your next computer purchase.