New Computer? A Few Tips for Purchasers

New Computer? A Few Tips for Purchasers

Thanks for the Memory!

One of the requests for topics to cover that came from my inaugural post here at DA was about tips for buying a new computer or laptop. I get asked that question a lot and despite the fact that we now have more choices in computing devices than ever, my advice has remained unchanged for 15 years. What is that advice, JSON, you ask?

Whatever amount of RAM comes installed with whatever you buy, double it. Don’t hesitate. Ignore the screams from your wallet. Work through the pain and do it.

If your device of choice comes with 4GB of RAM, buy it with 8GB. If it’s 8GB, get it with 16GB. If you can, and these days I’d recommend it, max out the RAM. I am, I’ll note, on the edge of advising that installed RAM should be tripled.

Doubling the amount of RAM is just about the single best thing you can do in order to come home with a computer that won’t have you cursing at it sooner rather than later.

You’re welcome.

Well, all right. I guess I’ll expand on that advice.

RAM. Doesn’t that Hurt?

RAM: Random Access Memory.

The usual disclaimer about things being more complicated than this…

Because I still see this confusion a lot, here’s some RAM basics.

RAM is not storage disk capacity. To use a car metaphor, it’s not how big your trunk is, it’s more like how many cylinders it has. The size of the trunk of your car is not going to affect how fast you can drive the car. (Oh, come on. Yes, we can all imagine a trunk so massive, you can’t get your car around a corner let alone up to 5 MPH… Please accept that I am talking about normal cars.)

Suppose you have a car with a HUGE trunk. ALL your luggage fits in the trunk, possibly with room for your buddy’s luggage too. Yippeee! That huge trunk has no effect on how fast your car can go. Full up trunk or empty one, you car’s speed depends more on whether you have 4 cylinders, 6 or 8 or whatever.

(Yes, this is an incredibly lame metaphor.)

If you buy a new computer with the default amount of RAM and you’d like to run multiple applications or applications that do complicated things, you will soon wish you had more RAM. (Yes, I know, you will also want not to have bought the low end CPU, but that is another post, K?)

Fine. I drew you a picture:

Lame drawing depicting the ways in RAM is not disk storage

It’s ART, people

So, here’s a thing you might notice in the artwork. In the upper left corner I drew a horizontal rectangle with 4 vertical gold lines. Those lines represent RAM chips. In this case, we are pretending they are DDR4 SDRAM chips. Because.

There is this horrible thing computer vendors do that you should understand when you buy your new computer.

But first, some more explaining.

There are a number of slots N on the motherboard that hold RAM chips. How many slots there are depends, but let’s say there are four of them (N=4!) as in the picture.

Now let’s say the base computer comes with 4GB of RAM (GB = Gigabytes) but the computer is capable of addressing 32GB of RAM. You buy the base model with 4GB. You might think you will get a computer with one 4GB DDR4 SDRAM chip (because that is the kind I say we have) in one of the four slots, with the other three being empty. Because then you could just buy more chips as money becomes available for the investment.

You would be WRONG.

You would get a computer with four 1GB DDR4 SDRAMS.

Let that settle in.

What does that mean when you realize you need 32GB of RAM, and all 4 slots are occupied?

Yes. That is right. You must discard your four 1GB SDRAMS and buy four 8GB SDRAMS so that you now have 32GB of RAM.

Because there is no mix and match. So, if you go cheap at the start, thinking you will upgrade later, it’s not a matter of buying more RAM, but ALL NEW RAM.

Possibility: You could decide to bet that in a year or so, those screaming fast DDR4 SDRAMS will be substantially cheaper than they are now. You limp along on 4, waiting, waiting, waiting for the price to come down, and really, why?

Possibility: You might be able to resell the old RAM, but you won’t be able to sell it for what you paid for it.

Just accept that if you want to love your new computer for years to come, you should just max out the RAM from the start. I know I said double it, and really, you should do that. But max it out if you can.

Other Random Stuff

Yes, CPU is a consideration, especially if you are running applications that do a lot of calculations, like drawing programs. Then you’d be looking at top end CPU–the faster (more mHz) the better. If you game, then you’d also want a high end graphics card with its own RAM etc.

But, for the average user, the upgrade that will give you the biggest performance boost is more than the base amount of RAM. If you’re a Windows user, NEVER EVER get just the base RAM. Always double it. Seriously. Macs tend to suck a lot less at the base amount of RAM because Apple tends not to sell machines that are seriously under resourced.

This is because Apple is selling you the hardware AND the OS and it’s their brand. In the Windows world, PC manufacturers seem to have no qualms about selling low priced machines that can’t really run the OS and Word at the same time. Because hey. So what?

More Random Stuff

In the tablet world, RAM is not something upgradable after the fact. Nor is it in the smart phone world. But for any device where the amount of RAM is an option at time of purchase, you are likely to be better off with more rather than less.

What do I buy??

The answer is: it depends.

It depends on what you do and where you like to do it.

One time, I decided to buy a laptop with a large monitor because, I reasoned (badly, as it turned out) I would spend so much time looking at the screen, I would be glad of the awesome monitor. The reality was that I soon began to take trips without the laptop because it was too big and too heavy.

Another time, in the days before touch screen devices, as I observed cell phones get smaller and smaller and smaller, I thought to myself that anyone with big hands or fingers was going to have a heck of time using those devices. And this was true.

Netbooks kind of never took off because they were the trifecta of bad compromises. Not powerful enough to be useful to most people on the road a lot. Too small to be comfortable to use if one’s hands are large. It turns out we weren’t quite at that place where you can compute with only an internet connection.

You must, therefore, have a serious talk with yourself about what you actually use a laptop for and where you would be using it, all while keeping in mind that you may not be able to envision the ways in which a new design will prove useful. A small, lightweight computer is one that is easier to bring with you. A machine with a long battery life is one that may still be running after your 13 hour journey to another location. Assuming that machine does not kill you with bad ergonomics for the size of your body parts, you will use such a computer in more places.

This means assessing which applications you MUST have and accounting for the power they require to run.

Example: I would love a MacBook Air. I want one so bad, I sometimes cry because I don’t have one. BUT. I run Parallels on my Macs and so far (…..but this appears to be changing…..) the MacBook Air is underpowered for what it takes to run a Windows Virtual machine without me wanting to scream.

You’ll need to talk with people who have devices you think you’d like. Find out what they’re using it for before you accept a rave review as relevant to how you will feel about that device.

Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux vs ?

Linux is unlikely to be the best OS choice for a normal user. If you already have a Linux install, you are not a normal computer user. So, really, it comes down to Windows vs. Mac.

It’s not a wrong vs. right decision. The Windows OS is OK enough usually. As long as you buy a computer where you at least double or triple the RAM it ships with, and you stay at Windows 7 or skip to 8.1 (as of this writing, obviously if you’re reading this in the way future the OS decisions will be different) you’ll be OK. You’ll have to develop religion about updates and malware and anti-virus applications, but you will have a decent machine that will get the job done.

Story for you.

I was a dedicated Windows user because I could not afford a Mac, and since I muck around with computers all the time, I’m not afraid of registry hacks or other customizations.

Then through a complicated series of events I can’t tell you about, I was given an iMac. I didn’t want to switch but circumstances were such that I had to.

30 seconds after I turned on the machine, I knew I was never going back. If you have the money, go there.

A Mac is more money out the door but a lot less money over time, and here I include time = money because I now spend significantly less time fixing things that don’t work. Significantly. Less. Not everyone is able to make that upfront expenditure but if you can, you probably should.


Next Week

I’m planning to write about what you can do to make sure your family and loved ones can deal with everything that will need to be taken care of computer-wise after you die.