Last updated: September 2020
If you are purchasing a new PC the choices available to you can seem daunting. There are so many different types of desktop and laptop, with so many choices of processor, memory, storage and graphics. Not every desktop PC or laptop though presents good value for money. So here’s my top tips for getting a great value machine.
When to Buy
The Black Friday, Christmas and New Year sales are all good times to buy a new PC, with big savings to be made. The laptops and desktops you will find on sale will always be last year’s models, where manufacturers and retailers want to offload their stock to make way for the latest models that are usually released in the autumn of each year, or that launch shortly after the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in early January.
Computers are always reviewed online, so a quick search can help you determine if you’re getting a great machine, or a crock. If you want to find a discount on the very latest models then making a purchase from the early summer can often bring good offers, both because it’s the slowest sales period of the year, and also because of clearing out stock ahead of new hardware launches in the autumn.
Where to Buy
You can find some tremendous deals in retail stores such as PC World and Best Buy, but often buying direct from the manufacturers own website can prove equally effective. If you sign up for the newsletter from your preferred manufacturer, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll be notified when they have a sale or other offers coming up. If you call the manufacturer to order, you can sometimes haggle and get the price down by 5% or more.
There are many different form-factors for PCs, and each has its benefits. A full size desktop tower will give you room to expand and upgrade the machine, often extending its life. A two-in-one convertible laptop can also be used as a tablet, or for watching movies on a plane or train. If you don’t think you’ll ever want to use a touch screen, a standard laptop will be best, though it may still come with a touch screen as most of them do.
If you do a lot of typing, then a detachable keyboard such as the one you use with Microsoft’s Surface Pro may not suit you, but for other people having a tablet you can use with pen input, and optionally a keyboard can be very appealing. Small Form Factor (SFF) PCs sacrifice expandability and upgradeability for convenience and a small desktop footprint, and they can often be good choices for offices and workplaces.. All-in-one PCs can also benefit from a small desktop footprint and be great in offices and workplaces, though they also sacrifice upgradeability and expandability.
For children of school age, dedicated laptops are available from the major manufacturers that feature toughened screens, and rubber surrounds that can protect them from drops. Speaking of which, a laptop or two-in-one with a metal casing will withstand knocks and bashes much more effectively than a plastic case, though they tend to cost more money. The extra cost though will come with the benefit of peace of mind and potentially longer life.
The processor (also called the CPU) does all the hard work to make the PC operate. There are different choices of processor these days, and you should be aware of the major differences between them. With processors from Intel you can get a Celeron, Pentium, Atom, Core 2, Core 2 Duo, Core M, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9, with the power increasing as you work through the list.
The Core i7 and Core i9 are overkill for general usage, with the Core i5 being the sweet spot of power and performance. The Core i5 includes integrated graphics, so can be used for light gaming. The Core i3 is otherwise identical to the i5, but it lacks the integrated graphics. As for the other processors, you will get reasonable performance from a Core M, but you should expect the other processors to be slow.
You can also buy processors from AMD. They have the FX, A-Series, Athlon and Ryzen ranges. Of these it’s only the Ryzen processors that offer good performance, and you’ll notice slowdowns with the other chips. AMD chips are cheaper than their Intel counterparts however, so a Ryzen-powered machine could present excellent value.
There are huge variations in laptop display types. First there’s the panel type, this is the technology that forms the display itself. Of these LCD panels are the worst. Colours can be washed out, screens can look grainy, and contrast can be poor. OLED panels are the best with deep blacks, and good contrast. OLED screens can be expensive however and so LED screens present a good sweet spot between the two.
Then there’s the resolution. The lowest resolution you’ll find will be 1280 by 720. This can be great for older people, whose eyesight isn’t as sharp as it once was, as everything will be larger on the screen. It won’t be as sharp as a full HD, 1920 by 1080 panel however, and this is certainly the sweet spot and is recommended for general usage. Any resolution higher than this is only really useful on more powerful PCs, and will also impact battery life.
There are several different types of storage available. Traditional spinning hard disks can still be found, and come in two varieties. 5400rpm and 7200rpm with the former being very slow, you’d want to make a cup of tea when starting your PC or loading games. When it comes to solid-state storage, eMMC should be avoided at all costs. This is effectively having the type of memory card you put in your phone or digital camera as the storage on your PC, and the performance is woeful.
When it comes to the better types of storage SSD (Solid State Disks) is the sweet spot for price and performance, with NVMe and M.2 drives offering much faster perormance. These last two types can push up the price of a PC substantially however. Also, if the interface type is mentioned, PCI drives are generally faster than SATA.
As for the amount of storage to get, don’t buy anything smaller then 128GB as you will very quickly run out of space. 128GB is fine if you just live in a web browser, but 256GB will give you more headroom. If you have a lot of files and photos, try and go for 512GB or larger.
The memory is different from storage as it’s what Windows and your software is loaded into when the computer starts. All types of memory will likely be fast enough for general use, but lower cost machines will have smaller amounts. Avoid anything with less than 4GB at all costs, the performance will be woeful. 4GB is the absolute minimum, but even with this amount you’ll get a slow PC. If you can get a PC with 6GB of memory then you’ll get a good deal, but 8GB is really the happiest amount to have on a PC. Anything higher than 8GB can help, with 16GB being great, but prices can rise sharply.
Batteries in laptops are all Lithium-ion so you need to look at the mAH power rating, with higher being better, and the specified usage time. However many hours the manufacturer says the battery will last, it’s always wise to halve the number they state. Their tests are always done with the screen at 50% brightness, and Wi-Fi turned off. This is likely not going to match your own daily usage.
The quality of laptop keyboards can vary considerably, with the price of a laptop not necessarily determining how good the keyboard really is. If you’re purchasing a laptop or desktop (where the keyboard, mouse and screen will likely be bundled) in a shop then have a play with the keyboard. Look for the solidity of the typing experience, and also for any bounce in the centre of the keyboard when you press down. If you’re purchasing online it’s always a good idea to search for the computer model online, and find some reviews.
It’s worth mentioning discrete graphics cards. These are only required if you want to perform tasks such as PC gaming or photo and video editing. There’s never any need to purchase the most recent generation of card as they can come with substantial costs. The previous generation of cards can usually be found discounted and sometimes at a fraction of the cost of the latest cards, and the generation before will normally be perfectly fine for anything except demanding games.
The choice between Nvidia and AMD cards is usually a personal one. There’s very little in it as a general rule, though for gaming it can be worth searching online to see if other gamers recommend one brand over another for the games you play.
All computers will come with USB ports. If you want to future-proof your PC however look for USB type-C “Thunderbolt” sockets. Standard USB-C run at a much slower speed than their Thunderbolt cousins. For lower-end computers, look for USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 as they are significantly faster than older USB 2 sockets.
All of this makes my recommendations for a great PC that will last a good few years…
Core M, Core i3 or Ryzen 3 processor, 6GB RAM, and 128GB SSD storage, with an LED full HD screen.
Core-i5 or Ryzen 5 processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD storage, with an LED full HD screen.
Core i5 or Ryzen 5 processor, 16GB RAM, and 512GB or 1TB SSD or NVMe storage, and an LED or OLED full HD or 2560 by 1440 resolution screen.
Core i7 or Ryzen 7 processor, 16GB or 32GB RAM, 1TB or more NVMe or M.2 storage, and an LED or OLED Full HD or higher resolution screen.
Core i5 or Ryzen 5 processor, 16GB or 32GB RAM, and 512GB or 1TB NVMe or M.2 storage, an Nvidia 20xx or 30xx, or an AMD RX series graphics card, and an LED or OLED full HD or 2560 by 1440 resolution screen.
Photo and Video Editing
Core i7, Core i9 or Ryzen 7 or 9 processor, 16GB or 32GB RAM, and 1TB or more NVMe or M.2 storage, USB-C or USB-C Thunderbolt port, an Nvidia 20xx, 30xx or Quadro, or an AMD RX or Pro series graphics card, and an OLED 4K resolution screen.