Hunkering down at home during the coronavirus pandemic has taught us this: Personal computers are absolutely essential, helping us to communicate with family, keep up on events, do our shopping, pay our bills, be creative and manage so many other aspects of daily life.
“This past year we’ve seen so many people having to buy computers because now everybody in the household needs their own. You can’t share a family one anymore,” says Dan Ackerman, senior managing editor at technology website CNet.
But if you haven’t bought one in three or more years, computers have changed quite a bit. Today’s machines are generally faster, more power-efficient, thinner and, in many cases, cheaper.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the jargon that can still baffle buyers without advanced degrees or a passion for technology. Here’s how to get the computer you need, without paying for what you don’t.
This is the master chip that drives your computer. Current Windows-based computers typically run 10th- or 11th-generation Intel chips. Look for the model number (examples: i5 or i7), then find the two digits immediately after that, preferably 10 or 11.
America has gone mobile, and so have computers. Laptops are the most popular type of computer today, followed by tablets. Together, portable devices account for about four-fifths of the worldwide market.
Those big desktop boxes of old are still available but are usually built for high-end users who need ultra-high-speed capability. You can also hook up a laptop to a monitor on your desk when you need a larger display. They, too, have dropped substantially in cost; great monitors can be had for $150 or less.
This is your computer’s short-term memory — essentially, its operating workspace. The more RAM, the more programs or browser tabs you can have open and running smoothly at the same time and the fewer freeze-ups on your monitor. Experts recommend at least 8 gigabytes (GB) of RAM, though cloud-based Chromebooks can work well with just 4GB, CNet’s Ackerman says.
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Cable connecters or go wireless
Those USB, power-cable and monitor connections you’ve become used to? Mostly gone.
The new industry standard for connecting power-drawing accessories is the smaller USB-C. It can be used for anything. The downside is that you may need an adapter to plug in older devices or accessories.
You can get a hub starting at around $20. And many peripherals don’t require plugging in at all. Since your last computer purchase, your keyboard, mouse and printer have gone wireless, often via Bluetooth.
You should be able to find a computer suitable for most everyday needs for about $400. The difference is the quality of the components.
“It’s like shopping for a watch. You can buy a Timex, or you can buy a Rolex. Both will tell you the time,” says Nicholas De Leon, a senior electronics reporter at Consumer Reports.
Mark Spoonauer, global editor in chief of the Tom’s Guide tech-buying website, says a Windows laptop that costs less than $600 should last up to five years. More expensive models should have a longer life because they have more speed, memory and storage.
A larger screen makes reading and viewing easier for older eyes. Whether you buy a monitor for a desktop computer or to hook up to a laptop, Ackerman recommends one that is 27 or 32 inches.
The sweet spot for laptops is 14 or 15 inches, which balances readability, portability, space efficiency and cost. Also, pay attention to screen resolution specifications. Choose a model with full HD (1080p) resolution; avoid 720p, below today’s standards, or the new high-end 4K resolution displays, which curtail battery life.
A good starting point for internal storage is 256GB, but you could get by with less because of one big area of change in the past few years. Increasingly, computer users are storing documents, photos and videos “in the cloud,” which means on secure servers you subscribe to and access online.
This not only reduces your need for a large hard drive inside your computer but also lets you access your files from your mobile devices and other computers. Another benefit: When you buy a new computer, you won’t need to transfer a mountain of data.
Try a Chromebook
The rise of cloud-based computing has led to a new laptop subcategory, Chromebooks, which run a Google operating system but are made by various manufacturers. These units come with minimal internal storage and are typically less expensive and lighter.
“One of the biggest trends is that Chromebooks have gotten a lot better,” Spoonauer says. “A lot of people dismissed them at first as being for schoolkids. But their screens have gotten bigger, a lot of them have touch displays, they’re super simple to use, very secure and getting better in terms of design.” The battery life also tends to be good, he says.
Other things to consider:
1. Audio and video
Most computers sold today come with high-quality video and audio components — that is, built-in speakers, cameras and microphones — and wireless Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities. Salespeople may try to get you to invest in enhanced video cards, but they are primarily for hard-core gamers.
2. Disc drives
Few laptops sold today have CD or DVD players because the uses have mostly gone away. Software is downloaded or even cloud-based, most music or videos today are streamed over the internet and files are stored either on your hard drive or in the cloud. But if you require one, plug-in external CD-DVD players are available for less than $50.
3. Internet connection
Video calls freezing up? The problem may be with your internet service or Wi-Fi connection, says De Leon of Consumer Reports. Investing in a better router, using a signal booster or getting higher-speed internet service could enhance your computer’s performance more than buying a higher-grade model.
Mark A. Stein has written about technology for the Los Angeles Times and McKinsey Global Institute. Edward C. Baig was the personal tech columnist at USA Today.