From: "David Burton"
Date: Thu, 16 Feb 2006 18:34:17 -0500 (EST)  (Partially updated 8/5/2010)
Warning: some of this advice is now obsolete! wrote:
> What computer should I buy?


I don't know anything about Macs.  Sorry.

Also, I warrant that this advice is worth at least
what you paid me for it.  There is no other warranty,
neither express nor implied.


I don't think there's a HUGE price difference between
buying at a store like Sam's Club or Best Buy etc. vs.
buying online, by the time you add in the shipping, but and others do have some attractive prices.

The TigerDirect outlet store (on Capitol Blvd in
Raleigh) often has great prices, especially if you
don't mind doing rebates, but their customer service
is poor (though they at least have better techies
than WalMart), and you must pay attention to whether
you're getting new or "refurbished" products.  Note
that the outlet store has only a subset of what they
list on their web site, so be sure to call before you
drive over there to buy something that you see on the
web site.

Here are some links:


If you need a laptop computer, get a laptop computer.

But if you aren't sure whether to get a desktop computer
or a laptop computer, get a desktop computer.  You'll
get more bang for the buck, and much better upgrade
options in the future, and they are MUCH easier and
cheaper to work on if something goes wrong someday.


I wouldn't worry too much about processor speed,
because they Intel & AMD CPUs (except Intel "Atom")
are all very, very fast (except Intel Atom-based
"netbooks," which are sloooow).  But be sure to get
at least 512 MB 4 GB of RAM memory.

For processor architecture, I would give a slight
edge to AMD Athlon 64-bit CPUs (or an Intel Pentium
630, which is also 64-bit), rather than one of
the 32-bit CPUs.  Most of the AMD CPUs these days
are 64-bit, but many of the Intel CPUs are still
only 32-bit.  You won't see much difference now,
but I think that eventually you might need to use
software which will run best (or only run!) on a
64-bit machine.  (But the 32-to-64 bit transition
is not nearly as big a deal as the 16-to-32 bit
transition was, back when dinosaurs like me roamed
the earth.)

The latest thing at the high end is "dual core"
multi-core (2, 3, 4, or 6-core) CPUs.  They are
great for servers, but for typical home use I don't
think they more than 2-4 cores are worth the premium
price.  Here's a web site for comparing CPU speeds:

complementary time-saving sites for setting up new
PCs.  PCdecrapifier deletes the crudware & demoware
that clutters up most new PCs, and Ninite makes it
easy to install the good stuff.


Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much of a
quality difference between the major brands of
desktop computer.  HP/Compaq, Acer/eMachines/Gateway,
Dell, Toshiba, Sony, etc.. -- they're all made with
pretty much the same parts, and they are all
aggressively cost-reduced.  Dell claims to be better,
but they seem about the same to me.


The two features that are most valuable for improving
computer reliability are "ECC" (Error Correcting Code)
memory, and "RAID" (Redundant Array of Independent
Drives) duplicate ("mirrored") hard disk drives.

Unfortunately, most computers these days do not
support ECC memory.

However, if you want to reduce your risk of losing
the data on your hard disk drive, it is possible
to buy that extra assurance, in the form of "RAID 1"
(mirrored) SATA hard disk drives.

I really like mirrored drives.  They're not a
substitute for doing backups, but they drastically
reduce the threat from the most common cause of
data loss, which is hard disk drive failure.

Most computers do not come with mirrored drives.
However, many SATA disk controllers will support
mirrored drives under Windows, so if you get a
computer which has one SATA hard disk drive, then
you might be able to add a second one and convert
them to a "mirrored RAID array," by installing the
second drive, then going through a RAID setup
procedure which copies the old drive to the new
one and enables the mirroring feature.

Note: About half of the new computers on the market
use the new SATA disk drives, and the other half
use the older ATA/IDE disk drives.  The performance
is about the same, but for some unknown reason the
ATA/IDE controllers usually do NOT support RAID,
and the SATA controllers usually DO support RAID.

(Note: "ATA/100" or "ATA/133" or "Parallel ATA"
or "Ultra ATA" or "PATA" or "EIDE" means the older
ATA/IDE type, which is usually connected with a 2"
wide flat ribbon cable.  "ATA/150" or "SATA/150" or
"SATA/300" or "Serial ATA" means the newer SATA
type, which is connected with a 3/8" wide flat cable.)

With disk mirroring you have two drives storing the
same data, so you double the cost of each megabyte
of data that you store, but you greatly reduce the
chance that you will ever lose your data due to a
hard disk drive failure.  Since huge 160 GB SATA
hard drives only cost about $100...
....adding a second (mirrored) drive is inexpensive
protection for your data, and an awful lot cheaper
than trying to recover your data from a dead drive...
....which sometimes doesn't work no matter how much
you pay.

Note #1: for best performance with mirrored drives,
try to match the make and model of the additional
drive to that of the original drive.

Note #2:  If you'll be using using Windows XP Home
Edition, you need a RAID controller to use mirrored
disk drives.  However, Linux does not require any
special hardware (other than a 2nd disk drive) to
do disk mirroring.  Its "software RAID" works well
even with Parallel ATA/IDE drives.


One of the things that makes the major brand
computers so cheap is that they preinstall a lot
of junk and trial version software, and the
software peddlers pay them to do so.  So the
manufacturers can actually sell a computer for
less than the cost of making it, and still make
money on it.  But when you buy it, the first thing
you'll want to do to it is uninstall the trash.

Places that put together machines from parts, like
Intrex, could probably put one together with just
what you want (e.g., RAID 1 mirrored drives), and
install Windows XP for you, but that'll cost
significantly more than a major brand prebuilt
computer.  If you decide to go this route, call
Intrex (or a similar shop).   You can also call
me, and I'll see what it would cost for me to get
one through the distributors that I use.


If you want to splurge on something, get a nice 19"+
LCD monitor.  You will love it!  If you can get
both monitor and video adapter with DVI (digital)
connectors for not too much extra money, do that,
too.  But even with analog (VGA-style) connections,
these big LCD monitors are just plain gorgeous.
(But make sure you don't accidentally get a television,
instead.  Most TVs can connect to computers, these
days, which can buying a monitor confusing.  If the
screen resolution is given as something like "720p"
or "1080i" or "1080p" then it is probably a TV, not a
real computer monitor, and the picture quality will
be poor if it is used as a computer monitor.  True
computer monitors have screen resolution specified
with two numbers, like 1280x1024, 1440x900, or
1920x1200.  If it is 1920x1080 (a 16:9 aspect ratio),
then make very sure that the screen looks good before
you buy it, because that's normally a TV aspect ratio
rather than a computer monitor aspect ratio, though
some laptops have 1366x768 screens.)

Optical mice are just plain better than the old
rolling-ball mice.  I use a $20 Microsoft optical
mouse, and it is great.  But I prefer a wired mouse
to a wireless mouse.  A wireless mouse will
inevitably need new batteries just when you want
to use your computer.  A wired mouse needs no
batteries, so it is always there when you need it.
I also think that wired mice usually "feel" just a
little bit more responsive than wireless mice.

Look closely at the keyboard.  Lots of keyboards,
these days, have slightly rearranged the Ins/Del/
Home/End/PgUp/PgDn keys, or the '\' key, or the
cursor keys -- which drives me nuts when I try
to use them.  If you use another computer regularly
somewhere else, be sure your new PC has the same
keyboard layout, if possible.


For laptops, mirrored drives are not an option,
and lugging around your favorite keyboard is not
very practical.  In fact, lots of things aren't
options for laptop computers.  But a good mouse is
an option.  They all permit attaching an external
mouse.  I would spend the $5-$20 to get a nice
optical mouse to carry around with it, so you aren't
stuck using that nasty touchpad or thumb-thingy.

I don't know what laptop brand to recommend.  The
Panasonic "Toughbook" line is a bit more rugged
and reliable than most laptop computers, though
very expensive.  IBM Lenovo also claims that their
laptop computers are more rugged than most, and
maybe they really are.  (But if price is an issue, I
know a guy in Michigan who fixes laptop computers
and also sells laptop computers that he has fixed,
and does good work, and stands behind his work.  If
I needed to buy a laptop computer, I'd seriously
consider buying one that Ken had fixed:
(Unfortunately, Ken has closed his laptop business.)


You need both ONE anti-virus tool, and SEVERAL
anti-spyware/anti-adware tools.  (Note: spyware and
adware are almost synonyms.)

My recommendation is that you remove the McAfee or
Symantec/Norton "trial version" anti-virus that
probably came with your new computer, and replace it
with something else.  There are several good options,
but I usually install Grisoft AVG.  It is completely
free for home use, and $49 for 2 years for business
use (which is about half the price of Symantec/Norton),
and seems to do a pretty good job.

BTW, Microsoft has a list of anti-virus vendors, here:

I also recommend that you install MalwareBytes (free)
AND SpyBot (free).  See my web page:

For an "office" application suite (word processor,
spreadsheet, etc.), if you don't already own Microsoft
Office or don't want to pay the high price, you can
download OpenOffice for free.  It is not quite as
"polished" as Microsoft Office, but it is really
quite nice, and you can't beat the price:

For internet access, if you are on a tight budget see for the cheapest dial-up
ISPs.  Also, in 2004 I composed an email to someone
with some ISP recommendations, some of which are
still valid:  isp.html


If you are converting from one Windows computer
to another, consider using Microsoft's included
"Files and Settings Transfer Wizard" (for migrating
to Windows XP) or "Windows Easy Transfer" (for Vista
or Windows 7) to migrate most of your documents
and emails, etc. to the new machine.

There are also tools you can buy which try to transfer
your programs to the new machine.  That doesn't always
work, so you are probably better off reinstalling the
programs (if you can find the CDs).  Kim Komando says
that a product called "AlohaBob" is best for this:
(Unfortunately, AlohaBob is a discontinued product.)

I hope this helps.

-bro Dave