Do not buy a slow Windows PC to save a few dollars. If you get a slow Windows PC, you will become bitter and depressed, people will mute you in Zoom meetings, and you will pound the keyboard with your fists in frustration. Has “Fists Of Frustration” ever been the name of a kung fu movie? It needs to be made. Ninjas flying thru the air to kick a PC displaying the message “Do not turn off your computer.”
It’s easy to avoid. There are only three things to consider if you’re buying a cheap Windows PC:
No, wait, that’s something different, those are the top three things you don’t want the government tracking on your phone. Ah, here’s the right list, it was in the jeans that went through the laundry by accident.
The three things to consider if you’re buying a cheap Windows PC – home or small business, desktop or laptop:
- Processor – Intel Core i5 or Core i7
- Memory – 8Gb minimum, 16Gb preferred
- Hard drive – solid state drive (SSD), 256Gb minimum, 512Gb preferred
If you get a Windows computer with those specs, you will be reasonably happy. It will still be a Windows PC, which means there will be occasional crazy-making bits, but performance will be acceptable. You might decide to focus on other specific things that are important to you, but you must not compromise on any of those three specs.
Gamers and tech enthusiasts have unique concerns. I love you but I’m not talking to you today. You’re excused, but please stay quiet as you leave so you don’t disturb the non-tech home users and small business users who are still in the lecture hall.
Everyone else? If you’re shopping for PCs on a budget, make sure each cheap PC meets the above specs.
Processor Cheap PCs are still sold with inadequate processors, miserable old Celerons and Pentium processors that just can’t keep up. Please don’t buy one of those and expect me to set it up. I don’t want to talk about you behind your back but I will if you deserve it and it’s funny, which it will be if you buy cheap crap like that.
Memory Windows inexorably needs more memory to run well. That’s been true for decades, since the dawn of Windows. It was a big deal when we upgraded to, gasp, 4 megabytes of RAM to run Windows 3.1. Today the minimum is 8Gb. Eight gigabytes is two thousand times more memory than we had on those early PCs.
Windows 10 has been stable for longer than previous versions of Windows. It’s been running acceptably on 8Gb of RAM since its release six years ago. It’s still okay with 8Gb but I’m starting to see performance improvements with more memory, which is the beginning of the slippery slope that makes 16Gb the new minimum. Get 16Gb today if you can afford it and your new computer will be future-proofed a bit.
Hard drive The most important spec, though, is the solid state drive (SSD). If you see a computer with an old rotating hard drive (described as “7200RPM,” for example), don’t debate it, don’t weigh it, just cross that computer off the shopping list. The move to SSDs is the most significant single hardware upgrade in computer history. It’s shameful that computers are still sold with rotating hard drives. If you see a cheap computer with a 1Tb or 2Tb drive, it is almost certainly the wrong choice.
Quality and other considerations The cheapest desktop PCs are made with crappy quality parts. Stuff will break faster. Nothing new there, it’s true of almost everything, from cars to boots. You get to decide how higher quality fits into your budget.
Heat is no longer an issue and we seldom need to replace parts inside a computer case any more. It’s tempting to get an ultra-small case instead of a traditional tower case. Every PC today easily handles dual monitors and has adequate power for (__fill in the blank with whatever you were about to ask about, Zoom meetings or email or online porn or Netflix or whatever__).
All-in-one PCs are tempting and there’s no particular reason to avoid them if you’re tight on space and want to minimize cables, but you give up some of your options for changing your monitor later and they’re tougher to fix when stuff happens.
I used to recommend specific laptop models. Today there are hundreds of wonderful laptops at every price point. As long as you observe the three basic specs, any of them will meet your needs.
A few things to think about:
Screen size 13” screens are typical of a lot of very small and light laptops, but they tend to be a bit small for baby boomer eyes. 14” and 15” screens are a nice compromise. It’s possible to get a 17” screen in a relatively lightweight laptop that will not break your back carrying it down the airport terminal but it takes some shopping.
High-resolution screens in a laptop can decrease battery life and aren’t necessary unless you’re going to hook up a 27” monitor and do photo work. 1920×1080 resolution works quite well for almost everyone.
There are different types of screens and an almost infinite number of acronyms to distinguish each one. You have my best wishes if you decide to walk down that road and try to make an informed decision. Take water and a change of clothes.
The latest number to use in comparison shopping is the brightness of the screen. It definitely makes a difference, especially if you’re going to use the laptop outdoors. It’s measured in “lumens,” which Wikipedia defines as “the SI derived unit of luminous flux.” I think that tells you everything you need to know, right? So I’m not going to make a recommendation, I just want you to keep in mind that it’s a thing.
Size and weight It makes me happy that there are so many light laptops with thin bezels! The fat five-pound behemoths are disappearing.
Webcam, keyboard, speakers Most laptop webcams run at 720p (1280×720). If a cheap laptop has a lower-resolution webcam, it’s probably crappy in other ways too. There are higher-resolution webcams in some high-end laptops if you want people to have the clearest possible view of your receding gums.
There are differences in keyboard and speaker quality that can be hard to evaluate because we usually don’t get to see laptops before we pick one to order. If either of those things are important to you, look for reviews.
Battery life If you buy a cheap laptop, battery life won’t be long enough. If you spend more money, it still won’t be long enough but with luck it will be marginally less annoying.
Stay away from the bottom shelf at Best Buy and Walmart. As long as you match the three key specs, buy confidently from the middle shelf for $600 or so, maybe a bit more for a business laptop if you have a vestige of self-respect, and quite a lot more if you want to get something lightweight and powerful that will last. Happy shopping!