I’m going to keep this pretty basic. I’m not going to break down all kinds of different computer types or options. If you are looking for something specialized like professional photography, video editing, or gaming you hopefully know what to look for – or pretty much double the specs I mention.

For someone buying a computer today for school or normal home use, there are some basic specs to look for.

Windows PC, not a Chromebook or Apple – There are exceptions. If you know you need a Mac for specific school or work requirements, you already use a Mac (most people don’t and the switch is difficult), the school promises that a Chromebook will be enough.

A Chromebook would be enough for your parents or grandparents who just need to get online to check email, news and online banking. But most people and students will still want to run some program that is not web-based or do something a Chromebook either can’t do or makes more difficult. If you already own software you want to use like Microsoft Office, stick with Windows.

In school, the kids will probably get into (if not already) torrents, video games, video editing, or programing. All of which are better on Windows.

Even a good Chromebook will cost as much as a PC, so why?

8 Gigs of RAM – hopefully, 12 or 16 will be available, but 8 is enough and this is a cheap and easy upgrade you can do yourself for most computers. I have 16 GB and have NEVER used more than 8. The takeaway is don’t get less than 8.

500 GB SSD hard drive – Make sure it is an SSD (solid-state) hard drive. If it has a number like 5400 or 7200 after the size it is a spinning disk drive and that can be the biggest slowdown of a computer today. *Some computers come with a smaller SSD + another spinning disk drive – that should be OK. Windows and your programs are sorted on the SSD and you can save big files like photos and video on the other drive. I would not let the SSD be less than 128 GB though.

Intel I5 processor – You may see AMD options, but Intel pretty much rules the retail market. If you find a good deal on an AMD in the price range I will specify an AMD processor will be fine. You may even see Intel I7’s. an I7 may have louder fans or extra power you won’t use. Don’t get an I7 if the other specs are lower or its too cheap in comparison.

Screen size, touch screen, or flip screen – is up to you.

Price – on sale $600-$1000. Don’t buy a computer that’s not on sale!

I hate to say it, but there are no good or great computers under $500. Hopefully, you can find a more expensive computer on sale for $500-600ish. Besides basic specs, more expensive computers are of better quality. You are buying something you will use every day – maybe all day, you want something that can last years and years.

If you buy a $400 computer you will probably hate it and want or need to replace it in just a couple of years.

Over the years I have spent $1000 on each of my 3 laptops and they all still work. 2 of them are 10+ years old. One currently in use by my mother, one sitting in the basement with XP – still turns on, and my current laptop is 6 years and still working great.

If this is for a college student, don’t get cheap on a computer when tuition is at least $10,000 a year these days. “According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges” Just add the computer cost into the total.

Brand – Any mainstream brand should be fine in this price range. Even names you may not recognize as much like Acer, Asus, or Lenovo (IBM). In a store a salesperson may suggest one over another, this is usually a personal preference. I don’t think stores like Best Buy, Staples, or Office Depot get commission by pushing any brand.

When I was at Staples, I would see that one brand did get returned with more issues, or setting up computers there would be more “bad out of the box” by one brand at times and steer people away from them.

Keyboard – Let the person who will use the computer test the keyboard if possible. If the person does not like using the keyboard, they won’t like the computer.

Don’t buy an anti-virus program! – Windows comes with one of the better AV systems now and 3rd party AV like Norton and McAfee have caused more issues in the past years than they help fight virus’.
Consider an anti-malware program instead. Malware is the real threat these days and and AM can block sites that AV do not.
Malwarebytes is my suggestion. Malwarebytes.com. (I get no vig on this, just a normal address.)

Consider the extended accidental warranty for personal use, get the extended warranty for a student! If for no other reason, you have no idea who will be around this computer in a dorm/college apartment and someone else may spill a beer on it.

The Price of the Warranties has come down dramatically since I was selling computers and look to be in the $200ish price range for 2-3 years. If the computer has a touch or flip screen, or is dropped or spilled on – you will be putting several hundred dollars into a repair (more then 200), if not buying a new one instead.


I’m an A+ certified technician working at a Fortune 500 company, former Staples sales and computer technician.

Posted by Ken Barker

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