Laptop on a table
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Buying a new computer can be an overwhelming task. Technology reporter Leena Rao breaks everything down to give you the confidence you need to make the best decision for your lifestyle.
Over the past 10 years, I've gone through seven computers, including desktops, laptops and a netbook. After my relationship with each device ended (more often then not, the computer simply died on me or stopped working), I would promise myself to do my homework and pick a new machine that actually fit my needs. And, of course, when that time came, I found myself uninformed and on the brink of making the wrong decision once again. As a technology reporter, I've finally learned from those mistakes and feel confident enough to pick a laptop that works for me.

Learning to choose the right computer might seem like a small victory, but the fact is that many of us spend more time in front of a screen than we do with our families. We rely on computers to stay connected to the world and to organize our lives. Yet understanding the importance of a good computer doesn't make choosing the right one any easier. The market is inundated with options. Gone are the days when there were 10 laptops to choose from. Today, there are 10 different models from each electronics company at a variety of price points.

I am going to break down the process of choosing a new computer so that when you are ready to buy a new device, you can do so with confidence.

Should I get a Laptop, Desktop or Netbook?

The choice of what type of computer to buy should be based on what you use your computer for and your need for portability.

If you travel often and or want a computer that you can take anywhere, then a laptop is for you. A desktop computer is a good option if you have an office you work out of at home and don't need to take the computer to other locations.

A netbook is a pared-down computer that doesn't have a disk drive or much memory. It is largely meant for surfing the Web, checking email, listening to music and casual computing. The downside of the netbook is that it has a smaller screen and a more cramped keyboard. Keep in mind that a netbook is not a replacement for a laptop or desktop computer but merely a companion to these devices.

Should I Buy a PC or an Apple Computer?

This is a common question that many people ask when shopping for a computer. It's a tough decision, but one that is worth consideration.

PCs tend to be less expensive, while Apple's offerings are decidedly higher in price (the basic MacBook starts at $999). Apple has a different operating system and interface, which may take some time to get used to and learn. Microsoft, which provides the most popular and powerful operating system for PCs, just released a new version of its PC operating system, Windows 7. Windows 7 is a significant improvement from its most recent predecessor, Microsoft Vista, which had serious compatibility issues.

As a user of both PCs and Apple computers, I would advise anyone to choose an Apple computer if it fits in their budget. The operating system is fast, reliable and innovative. If you have an iPhone, the transfer of songs, pictures, email and other data to your computer is seamless. Plus, Mac computers offer Bluetooth wireless and a host of bonus features that make your life easier. And while expensive, Apple computers have been proven to have a longer lifespan than PCs.

That being said, you can still find high-quality PCs that match the capabilities of a Mac.
Once you're clear on technical factors and side features, it will be important to weigh each factor based on your plan to use your device.

6 technical factors to consider when buying a computer
6 Technical Factors to Consider When Buying a Computer

  • Portability: We all know that lugging around a heavy handbag can be taxing on your shoulder and back. So it's important to consider size when choosing a computer, especially if you will be traveling with the laptop. Laptops range in both size (from 13-inch to 18-inch screens) and weight (from 3 pounds to 8 pounds).
  • Screen Size: Screen size on a laptop is very much about personal preference. Most screens have the same resolution and clarity regardless of size, but it's generally known that the larger the screen, the shorter the battery life. Many computers that have screens larger than 16 inches may have only a few hours of battery life, which can make it harder to travel with the laptop. That being said, having a large screen can make watching movies and videos more visually entertaining.
  • The Processor: If the screen is the eyes of the computer, the processor is the brain of the device. The processor is what controls the speed and performance of a laptop. Processors are measured in speed in terms of gigahertz (GHz) and mainly provided by two companies, Intel and AMD. Both types of processors are reliable and powerful, but the majority of laptops, netbooks and desktop computers are powered by various Intel processors, with the Centrino, Pentium and Core processors as the most common on the market.
  • Memory: Otherwise known as "RAM," memory is like the heart of the computer. Memory is what the computer uses to run applications like iTunes or Microsoft Office, your browser and the operating system (Windows 7, XP, Apple). It's important to choose a laptop that has 3 to 4 GB of RAM. Netbooks are generally under 3 GB, but this is because the devices are not meant to support complex applications.
  • Hard Drive: The hard drive determines how much storage capacity your computer has. When you download music, store photos and videos, you are taking up your computer's memory. Generally you should be looking for 160 GB of memory at the very least. But if you do store music and photos/video, you should choose a computer that has at least 320 GB.
  • Battery Life: Always check the battery life for a particular laptop or netbook! As I wrote above, the larger the screen, keyboard and computer, the lower the battery life (the amount of time your computer can keep running on a charged battery). As a general rule, you should aim to buy a laptop with at least three hours of battery life.

In addition to the six key technical factors, there are other features that you may want to consider when purchasing a computer. If you video chat with your family and friends, you'll want to make sure that your computer has a webcam. If you actively use a digital camera, you'll want to double-check that your device has a built-in digital media card slot.

The best all-purpose laptops, desktops and netbooks on the market

IBM's Lenovo ThinkPad SL410 ($579.99, Best Buy): This computer is ideal for the business traveler. Specs: Intel Centrino Processor, 4GB RAM, 320 GB hard drive, 14-inch screen.

Toshiba's Satellite T135-S1309 ($529.99, Best Buy): This computer is an all-purpose good buy for the price. Specs: Intel Pentium Processor, 3GB RAM, 320 GB hard drive, 13.3-inch screen and up to nine hours of battery life.

Asus K50IJ-RX05 ($479.99, Best Buy): Similar to the Toshiba laptop, this is a budget-friendly all-purpose computer that has all the basics for the everyday user, except this device has a larger screen. Specs: Intel Pentium Processor, 3 GB RAM, 320 GB hard drive, 15.6-inch screen, battery life up to three hours.

Dell Inspiron 4Z ($479.99, Best Buy): Generally, Dell computers are well built and reliable. This one is ideal for students and is easy to use and portable. Specs: Intel Pentium Processor, 3 GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive, 15.6-inch screen, battery life up to four hours.

Apple MacBook Pro (starts at $1,199, This is a more expensive option, but worth the splurge. While the memory is low, you can add memory to the computer for less than $100. Specs: Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, 160 GB, 13.3-inch screen.


Dell Inspiron Mini ($349, Best Buy): This is a popular option for casual computing. Specs: Intel Atom Processor, 1 GB RAM, 160 GB hard drive, 10.1-inch screen.

HP Mini 311 ($399, Best Buy): While this is a netbook, this device has the graphics and resolution of a laptop computer. Specs: Intel Atom Processor, 1 GB RAM, 160 GB hard drive, 11.6-inch screen.

Asus Eee PC ($329, Best Buy): This is a less-expensive option on the netbook market but offers much of the same features and speed as its higher priced competitors. Specs: Intel Atom Processor, 1 GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive 10.1-inch screen.


HP TouchSmart ($899, Best Buy): This desktop is extremely portable, yet has the hard drive, and all internal components of the computer are built within the screen. The screen is also touch enabled, similar to the technology you use on an iPhone. This is a high-powered desktop PC that is ideal for digital media (photos, videos) editing and viewing. Specs: AMD Athlon, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB hard drive, 20-inch screen.

Apple 27 inch iMac ($1,699, This is a splurge, but well worth it. The 27-inch computer is extremely fast and has a enormous high-resolution screen. Similar to the HP TouchSmart, the computer is a space saver and only requires the screen and a keyboard. Apple also offers a 21.5-inch sibling that is priced at $1,199. Specs: Intel Core 2 Processor, 4 GB RAM, 500 GB hard drive, 27-inch screen.

Tips to Help You Choose

While there are plenty of online electronics sites that offer great deals on computers, it can be helpful to see, touch and feel your options at an electronics store. I would advise that you take a trip to your local electronics or Apple store to visualize your options. Make sure to lift the laptop or netbook to gauge its weight. Play around with the touchpad on the computer to see how comfortable you are with its technology. And for all computers, remember that it's important to buy or download security software to protect your devices from viruses.

As you can see, buying a computer involves a series of decisions. But once you evaluate your needs, the process can be fairly simple and, might I dare say, enjoyable! By keeping these factors and considerations in mind, you can avoid some of the frustration and confusion that accompanies finding the computer that is perfect for you. And at the end of the day, buying a laptop, desktop or netbook device is an exciting decision, and with the proper knowledge, you can find one that not only improves your productivity, but hopefully empowers you to live your best life.

Leena Rao is a writer and blogger at technology news site TechCrunch. Prior to her career as a technology reporter, Leena attended Northwestern University's Graduate School of Journalism and served as a legislative aide for a U.S. Congresswoman. She lives in Chicago with her husband and an assortment of gadgets and laptops.


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