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Looking to avoid an expensive mistake? Cnet.com's Technology Editor Brian Cooley shares smart, practical advice to pick the best computer for your needs:
Get info from the three sources
Editor's reviews, user opinions and manufacturers information — each has a different perspective. Editors are going to have approached the product methodically and without bias if they are from an independent source like CNET.com. Users will have lived with the product for the longest time and in the most diverse ways, which can reveal flaws or benefits that don't become apparent in short-term lab reviews.
And Manufacturers will have a unique concept of how they intended the product to be used and what makes it stand out. Armed with these three perspectives you can feel pretty well-armed to figure out if the computer — or any consumer electronics product — is the right one for you.
Make more RAM (random access memory) your main priority with any PC
CPU speed and hard drive space are usually OK, memory is what's often skimpy on a new machine. All too often what is perceived by users as their computer being too slow is actually not the CPU speed but the amount of memory. When a computer has too little memory, it doesn't tell you, it just starts using part of the its hard drive space as a poor form of additional memory known as swap space or virtual memory. It's a clunky, slow way for a computer to run but it at least keeps things going. Much better is to give a computer the RAM it needs, 2GB at least if you want to run any of the latest operating systems with all their features.
Consider 3GB if you can afford it because there's almost no such thing as too much RAM and the sweet spot for RAM for most users is somewhere between 2GB and 4GB if they are running Windows Vista with all the bells & whistles enabled.
Shop for a laptop online and in store
You need to test drive the keyboard, mouse and monitor since they are integrated. You can always change the monitor, keyboard and mouse on a desktop PC but not on a laptop unless you have it tethered to a desk. Check the keyboard for good key action — the amount of travel from top to bottom of a key press; more usually feels better. Laptops use many different kinds of mouse pointing devices so make sure you like the one your new laptop uses. Or at least find out if you hate it and should buy a travel mouse right away.
And of course check the brightness of the monitor. Laptops are often used in brightly lit areas where ambient lighting it not idea, so make sure you have a bright display and one that seems large enough to your eyes.
Take advantage of weekly store specials
Computers are largely commodities, so chase a low price point aggressively. There are new models of computers coming on the market every few weeks and frankly they often differ very little in any meaningful way. So take advantage of the fact that the retailer wants to move the "old stock" by cutting prices of the remaining units in inventory. They also have other incentives for offering special price cuts, like special promotions from the PC manufacturer. The bottom line: There is usually nothing "wrong" with a machine that is being blown out cheaply since computers are very mature and not subject to dramatic technology improvements month to month. Shop for price somewhere in the range of $500 - $750 and you could almost go to the store blindfolded and still make a good choice.
Don't get hung up on parts
Computers are largely made from the same components. Rather, shop for a brand that will have good customer support. Computers are often considered commodity products since they all use pretty much the same guts, with just a different case and brand name on the outside. Businesses have known this for years and buy whatever brand gives them the best price when they deploy thousands of machines across an enterprise.
So buy like the pros and don't get hung up on some concept that a certain brand of PC is necessarily faster or better built than another. Instead you might want to ask friends and other users online what kind of product support experience they have had with a given brand of computer. That's where PC brands can differ rather substantially. Check the warranty, support section of web site, and even call their toll free support number with a test question to see what the people are like on the other end.
For more tech information and tips, visit Cnet.com.