2013 Last Minute Holiday Buyer’s Guide – Part 2

Computers – or How to get Some Serious Work Done – Introduction

image3809I’ve been working with computers since 1981 when I began managing a computer retail store at the age of 16. Back then, in the days just prior to the retail introduction of the IBM PC and PC AT (the AT stood for Advanced Technology) most computers were very much reminiscent of the game consoles of today.  Computers like the TI99-4A and the Commodore 64 or the Apple II, were common place and were really more about playing games than getting serious work done.

Today, things are much different.  Computers can do real work and be taken most anywhere you need them to go. You can get them with a number of different operating systems on them, and in some cases a single computer can run more than one operating system…sometimes, even at once.  However, that may require some expertise and/or optional hardware and/or software in order to get it to run correctly.

There are a number of different choices in the desktop, notebook and ultrabook categories of hardware as well as in operating systems.  There’s a bit more to consider here than there was for tablets, so get ready to take in some information.  It may be a bit long, but in the end, I think you’ll find it worth the read.  Finding the right computer for your loved one(s) this Christmas is going to require you to consider the following:

What are you trying to do and how critical is the mission?

Assessing what you want to do and how important it is to you is totally subjective.  No one can really tell you that the tasks that you’ve set out for yourself are unimportant other than YOU. The answer to this question will help guide you to the right type of hardware.  The point is you want the right tool for the job.  For example, if your most important task is school work, you’re going to want something with a decent keyboard, and probably a dedicated – rather than integrated – pointing device. If the most important task is digital photo retouching, you’re going to want something that has a decent, monitor or screen. If you’re doing video work, you’re going to need a decent amount of processing power.

If you’re looking for a recreational PC, and your most important activity is social networking or email or web surfing, then the class of machine you’ll likely want or need is going to be completely different. You need to choose the hardware type and configuration that best suits your needs.

What software tools are available to satisfy that need; and at what cost(s)?

One of the best things about Soft32 is that it has a number of different resources for a number of different hardware platforms.  You can find software for Mac, Windows as well as mobile platforms. Having a place where you can find different kinds of applications at affordable prices is important.  Keep our link close at hand.

When you consider what you want to do with a computer, determining what tools might best perform those tasks is important. For example, while “Program X” may be available for both Mac and Windows, it may actually work better on one platform than on another.  Specific features may be better implemented on one side of the fence than on the other, or it may be easier to get the TYPE of applications you’re looking for on one platform rather than another.

Determining what you might want to complete your mission critical tasks with and what operating system they work best under will be a key factor in determining the kind of computer you buy. For example, Quicken from Intuit has always been much more advanced and much more complete on the Windows than on OS X. If financial management is your mission critical task and Quicken is your tool of choice, then a Windows machine may be a better choice than a Mac or Linux machine.  The differences between the way Microsoft Office functions on a Windows box vs. a Mac has closed a great deal with Office for Mac 2011.  Word for Mac 2011 is very similar in functionality to Word 2010/2013 for Windows.  The same can nearly be said for both Excel and PowerPoint. In this case, you could choose either a Mac or a Windows box.

However, if Exchange connectivity with a Microsoft tool (namely Outlook) or working with desktop database apps (namely Access) is an important part of your productivity regimen, then again, a Windows machine is likely your best bet.  At the end of the day, you need to assess what apps you will have access to, to satisfy your computing needs and then pick the hardware platform that has those tools.

This isn’t an easy task, and will likely take the most time in choosing either a first time PC or in reassessing what options you have when considering a computer upgrade.

What hardware configuration best meets that need; and where do you need to perform the work?

Different computing devices are better suited to the specific tasks for which they were specifically designed. In other words, you’re not going to want to do CAD/CAM work with a smartphone or netbook. You’re going to need to choose the type of device you need based on what you’re trying to do.

If you don’t need to cart your computer around, then picking a desktop is likely an easy/easier decision.  If portability is a need, then you need to determine HOW portable you need to be; or more easily put, how much junk are you going to be carrying around with you when you’re likely to need your computer? If you’re a mobile warrior – sales exec or IT consultant/contractor – frequently bouncing from place to place, then you may want something that is small and easy to carry along with the rest of your gear. If you’re a photographer or other video or freelancing professional, you may want or need  something with a large, or high resolution screen.

With the implementation of touch and the growing popularity of tablets, you now also need to consider how important a touch screen will be to you, as many notebooks and ultrabooks now come with touch screens and either a capacitive or resistive stylus. You need to determine if you’re more interested in a standard touch experience (best with a capacitive touch screen) vs. handwritten note experience (best with a resistive touch screen).

There are a lot of choices to be made here, the least of which include rotating hard drive or SSD, hard drive or SSD size, RAM amount, processor brand, type and model and graphics adapter and RAM amounts. Then you will want to determine if you’re going to want to upgrade any of these. Your PC choices may be limited by the amount of end user upgradeable equipment in your PC of choice. Generally speaking, desktops offer more expandability options than laptops or ultrabooks.  Many, if not most or all of these decisions, will also have a cost component as well.

Working though this task may also be difficult and will take up a bit of time when choosing either a first time PC or in reassessing what options you have when considering a computer upgrade.

What is your hardware budget; and how flexible is it?

Of all the decisions you have to make, this is probably the easiest decision out there.  Many of the Mac choices beyond the entry level build of each model can be very expensive.  Many Windows desktops and laptops are much more affordable than their Mac counterparts, even at the higher end models.  However – and this is a very important point – a Mac is a very versatile machine.  It can dual boot OS X and Windows XP/Vista/7.x/8.x natively via Apple’s Boot Camp.  With some basic Linux hacking, you may even be able to get a native triple boot – Windows, OS X and Linux – going. However, it’s clear – Macs are expensive.

Windows machines are generally much more affordable. While that’s partially due to the diverse hardware manufacturers, it’s also due to availability of components. OEM’s have a choice in buying components and can buy in bulk.  With more than one OEM making Windows machines for the masses, it’s easy to find something that’s in your price range.

If the model you choose is end user upgradable, buying the entry level model for the processor type you want and then upgrading RAM, hard drive, and other components can save you a ton of money over time.

At the end of the day, what you decide to buy should be tied to what you want to do and where you need to do it.  Please notice that I didn’t ask you what operating system preference you might have.  In fact, that wasn’t even part of the equation.  The bottom line is that what you do and where you need to do it will drive how you work and the tools you use, including the operating system driving the PC. Period.

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