If your computing needs have changed or your current computer is performing poorly and will cost more to repair than buying a new computer, it is time to purchase a new one. But which type of computer offers the most bang for your buck? What benefits do you get with a tablet computer or laptop? Is a more economical desktop computer a better choice for your needs? Here we’ll discuss getting the best value for your computing needs while staying within a budget of $500.
One of the first things to consider is why you use a computer. Over eighty percent of America households have some type of computer, whether it’s a desktop, laptop, or handheld device. The following lists describe the most popular uses for computers at home, school, and work.
Popular reasons for using computers
- Home and family or personal computer uses: store pictures and music, use email and social networking, track finances and pay bills, play games, watch movies, read news and check the weather report, access healthcare information, research and buy products online, view maps or lookup driving directions, find and apply for jobs, and subscribe to a streaming service to watch TV shows and movies (for example, on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or Sling) . Still other uses include downloading DIY instructions on home repairs, looking up entertainment options in your city, looking up sports scores online, watching YouTube videos, finding health/medical data or advice, and visiting government websites.
- School computer uses: online research, writing assignments, and completing other schoolwork.
- Work computer uses: manage projects, do research, keep records, write reports, check email, and get training or education.
The primary reason for choosing a desktop over a laptop is value (price vs. features). Generally speaking, you get more computing power in a desktop for a lower price than any laptop. But if portability is a key issue, then a laptop is your clear choice and a good value can still be had. Tablet computers, being the latest in handheld technology generally cost more than laptops. When deciding on any computer purchase, here are the features to consider.
Basic computer features
The following features apply to any type of computer, desktop, laptop or tablet.
RAM memory and Processor affect the speed of your computer when starting programs, opening files, downloading content from the internet, and other basic tasks. If your computer use is primarily email, social networking, surfing the internet, and word processing, then you can get away with the minimums. A RAM of 2GB to 4GB is typically sufficient. Additionally, the processor features to compare include speed (e.g. 2GHz or 4GHz) and number of “cores”. If you regularly do power-hungry tasks such as graphic design, video editing, or run multiple programs at once, then your needs are greater, perhaps 6GB to 8GB or more of RAM and 3GHz to 4Ghz processor speed with more than two (dual) cores. Higher numbers often mean quicker computer response, but not always. For example, a quad-core may not be twice as fast as a dual-core, nor four times as fast as a single core. It depends on your habits (opening lots of programs, files, or browser pages at once), the programs you run and their requirements, and whether the computer programs you run can take advantage of other features such as parallel processing (if available on your computer). Most of this is much too technical for the average user. But if you plan to do power-hungry tasks (graphics, video, multi-process), then you need to pay more attention to these details and ask lots of questions to compare one computer to another.
Storage capacity: 500GB is a good minimum. 1TB is becoming more common. Take a look at how much space you’re currently using and plan to get two to three times your current use. For example, I have around 115GB of used space on my 500GB drive, so I have plenty of space for growth. If you use a lot of programs (and upgrade them routinely) or store lots of photos and movies, your needs grow faster than if you primarily use and store documents and spreadsheets.
Graphics card and/or display: again, unless you are using design programs or playing the latest graphic-rich video games, a graphics card isn’t the most important priority. However, a dedicated graphic processor is better quality than an integrated graphics card. As with RAM and processor speeds, higher numbers usually mean higher performance, but the terminology from one brand to another varies, so sometimes you are comparing apples to oranges. For the display, most laptops have 1366 X 768 pixels displays. Higher numbers mean sharper images, but can also shorten battery life–so if portability is an issue, then lower graphics capability might be better for you. Test and compare different models in a store to see which display size and clarity you like best.
Number of USB ports (to connect mouse, external disk drive, printer, or other devices). You usually want at least two, but three or more is, of course, better. If this is the only issue on an otherwise screaming deal, you can buy a USB hub with four USB ports, for $5-$10.
Operating system (OS) pre-installed. Windows and Mac are the most popular OS offering a full fleet of applications. Chrome is sufficient if your computer use is limited to online activities such as surfing the internet, checking email, and using social media. If you’re in school, you may need to use Microsoft Office applications. But, Chromebooks also offer a suite of typical applications to create documents, spreadsheets, slide shows, photo editing, a calendar, and more.
Guarantee (one year or longer). If you are in school, a 4-year guarantee plus replacement insurance (if stolen or lost) is advisable to ensure the availability of your computer for your full education term.
Ability to upgrade: Desktops can also be more easily (and cheaply) upgraded with new components as technology continues to advance. If you choose to buy a desktop, you may want to examine whether the case and the motherboard has extra bays, ports, and RAM slots for extra or larger components such as graphics cards, wireless adapters, extra storage space, or more memory. Computer technology changes every two to four years on average. Note that RAM is limited by the motherboard, so if you plan to upgrade, then get a motherboard that can accept the upgrade you anticipate.
Value (price vs. value aka “bang for buck”): Desktops tend to be cheaper than laptops for the same basic features (such as processor speed, RAM, and storage space). When calculating the cost of a desktop, don’t forget to include the price of a monitor, graphics card, keyboard, and mouse. Most of these options are built-in to laptops and tablets (except touchpad vs. mouse), but may be priced separately when considering desktops.
Laptop and tablet computer features
In laptops and tablets the following features are also considerations.
Portability: If you routinely use your computer away from home, then size and weight are a primary consideration.
Screen size: For a desktop, today’s minimum standard is around 24-inches, beginning around $200 and going up in price as the size increases. On a laptop, most people opt for a 15-inch or larger screen. I prefer the smallest laptop screen of around 11-inches, to which I add a 27-inch monitor (about $250) and standard keyboard (about $30) while in my office. On the road, the small, very portable computer is perfect for my needs, yet I get the feel of a desktop in the office.
Weight: If you routinely carry your computer to/from school or the office or while traveling, a computer under three pounds is desirable.
Battery life: Three to five hours is on the low end for battery life but can be acceptable depending on your needs.
Keyboard feel is a subjective feature that is a matter of personal preference. Either you like the feel of the keyboard while you are typing, or you don’t.
Touchpad response. As with the keyboard feel, touchpad response is a matter of personal preference. I prefer a mouse or touchscreen, so the touchpad isn’t a critical need in my case.
Disk drive. Most budget laptops do not come with an internal disk drive since most software today is downloaded rather than installed from disk. If you need one, you may want to purchase an after-market external drive that connects to one of the USB ports. So figure this into your budget, if needed.
Backlit keyboard. Keys that light up are useful in low light, which may or may not be important to you. It’s a feature I like, but will pass up if I can get everything else I want a great price. Or use a clip on light, costing under $15.
2-in-1 computer can be used as a laptop or tablet. The keyboard either detaches or folds back for handheld use.
Computer purchase recommendations
It is rarely cost-effective to pay for computing power that you don’t need. Here are some general recommendations for each type of computer.
- Desktop computers are recommended for families or households with multiple users, video gaming, graphic design, or other intensive tasks such as multi-tasking and video editing.
- Laptops are recommended for anyone on the go, including students, travelers for business or pleasure, journalists, writers, and some sales or service representatives. A 2-on-1 laptop (with a keyboard that detaches or folds back) can double as a tablet.
- Tablets are recommended for anyone who has a business need for cutting edge technology or extreme portability. Most other uses for a tablet computer are secondary to a desktop or larger laptop, such as a second screen for your existing computer, an e-reader, taking notes, a mobile hotspot, or any task that you might do on your smartphone (for example check email, use social media, play games or other time-killers). If you already own a smartphone, you may see less benefit from a tablet.
The brands most often recommended for a budget laptop or tablet under $500 include Asus, Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Toshiba. For desktop computers, add to this list Gateway and LG. In all low-priced models, skip purchasing the extended warranty, unless you are a student as mentioned above.
The best times to buy a computer tend to be in late spring when you see promotions for Father’s Day or graduation gifts, in late summer when you see back-to-school specials, on Black Friday (after Thanksgiving Day), or after the Christmas holiday.
When I need a new computer, I usually visit the big box and discount stores in my city to try the latest models, and then compare prices online. Invariably, there will be one or more models on sale, sometimes because they are the outgoing models—last year’s computer can often be a great buy on current computing power and features, and an upgrade from the model I’m replacing. So buying that last “latest and greatest” model just before the new one is about to be released is another great way to maximize your computer purchasing dollars.