Computer buying tips

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Note: This page was written in June, 2006. Since then, a lot has changed in the computing world. Computer hardware and software have improved, system requirements for most software including the operating system have increased, and computer and accessories prices have generally gone down. So a better system is now more affordable (good news!) Also, I am observing many seniors are now doing more fancy things with their computers these days as compared to 8 or 10 years ago. Look at me. I have grown much older but doing more and more amazing things with my computer than I myself had ever thought possible. So I strongly feel that it is necessary to revise my recommendations for buying a desktop computer even by a senior. Instead of re-writing the whole page, I am adding my latest recommendations in RED below each item. I would suggest that you read everything (including old recommendations) to get a better understanding of things.

A senior is most likely to use the computer for wordprocessing, may be some accounting, surfing the Net, sending and receiving e-mail, and possibly storing and manipulating digital pictures. A good basic computer can handle all of these. Anybody who wants to enjoy the latest computer games, or are planning to edit and store digital videos on their computers will need more advanced and expensive computers. Selecting and buying such computers is beyond the scope of this page. In this section, I shall talk about buying a basic computer, because that is all most seniors really need. That said, let me jump right into the topic.

You need to make two important decisions first. One, desktop or notebook? For the elderly, unless you really want to carry around your computer (I don't know why you should do that), I recommend buying the desktop (that sits on a table). That is much easy to use, and is cheaper. And two, Mac (Macintosh) or PC (the one that uses Windows)? In the old days, this used to be a debatable subject. Both had their pros and cons. Today, both kinds have advanced tremendously (both can read each other's files) and it is basically a personal taste. Mac computers are more expensive though. Since I personally do not use Mac, I cannot advice you about buying a Mac. I shall stick to PC (Personal Computer, originally introduced by IBM). Since many manufacturers make PC's these days, some people use the words "IBM clone" to refer to the PC. I use both desktop and laptop (also known as notebook) computers. I personally find desktop computers much more comfortable to use. They have bigger screens (monitors), the keyboards are larger (easier to type), and they have mice as the pointing device. I think most seniors will find that the mouse is more comfortable to use than the "touchpad" pointing device in the notebook computers. (Note: A mouse can be added to a notebook computer as an extra at additional cost). So unless you have a compelling reason to carry around your computer, I shall recommend that you buy a desktop computer.

When buying a computer, the following things need to be considered. But before I recommend any minimum requirement, let me remind you that computer industry is advancing by leaps and bounds. What is considered adequate today, may fall short of expectations in a few years. A good computer bought 5 years ago might seem like pre-historic today. So it is kind of difficult to suggest what to look for. But I shall try to give you an idea what you should look for in a basic home computer (not for doing "extreme" things, like playing the latest computer games or high speed video editing or listening to theater quality music) that will hopefully be adequate and still remain usable, without the need to upgrade, after 3 to 5 years. Some of you are probably wondering why should there be any need to upgrade? Well, the Operating System (Windows) and software designers are continuously coming up with newer and better versions of their products which themselves occupy a huge part of your hard drive and demand more memory and more speed from your computer. So to run these latest versions and newer software you will need a more powerful computer with better features. Remember, if you run only one application at a time, lower memory and lower processing speed of your computer may not be a problem. But if you want to run 3 or 4 applications (programs) at a time (which is usually the case for seasoned computer users) lower memory (RAM) and lower processing speeds can be an issue, and if your computer is not equipped to handle such demanding tasks, you may notice sluggishness on part of the computer and it may even crash often! To enjoy better quality pictures, you will need better video cards, and larger monitors with higher resolution. To enjoy better quality music, you will need better sound cards and better speakers. The list goes on ...

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Okay, enough of intro. Let's jump into the subject. This is what you should consider when buying a basic home computer:

I do not want to burden my elderly readers with too much information. I know instead of helping that will confuse them more. So I will end this section by telling the following things.

Buying computers from a typical computer store may seem easy and quickest if you have such a store nearby. But the best prices are usually obtained from Internet dealers. But buying from Internet dealers requires some experience on the part of the buyer. You have to know how to search, how to navigate through the dealer's Web site to select your computer, then customize it where possible, proceed to checkout to make the payment and complete the order. You also have to find out what is the dealer's return policy, what happens if the computer you are buying gets damaged in transit etc. You should very clearly understand the seller's telephone support policy and terms, the telephone number to call etc. Also make sure you understand if the computer is brand new or refurbished (returned by somebody for a defect and the defective part has been repaired/replaced by the manufacturer, essentially making it a second hand computer in good working condition).

At the very end, I shall say something at the risk of being branded as Dell Computer's salesperson. I find computer buying very easy from Dell's Web site (www.dell.com) if you live in the United States. First you click on Desktop (or on Notebook if you want to buy a Notebook computer). Then click on the cheapest computer among Desktops shown. It is usually marked as Basic or Entry Level. Believe me, for the purpose of most elderly home computer users, the basic or entry level computer they show is all you need. Scroll down the page to read the features (specifications) of that computer. Then, if necessary, customize it by clicking on the Customize button. The next page will give you options to choose from. For each item like the Processor, Operating System, Memory etc. Dell also gives a button marked "Help me choose". Click on that button to learn more about that item, then choose according to your need. You will click on a radio button to put a dot in front of your selection. If the advertised price already includes the feature you want, you don't have to select another option. Check every item to make sure you are getting what you need. If you need more memory, for example, put a dot in front of the memory option you are choosing from the available options. If you are choosing more memory than what is included in the price, Dell will show you right on that page how much extra it would cost you. Keep selecting all the additionals (or perhaps none at all). The next page will tell you what software comes already installed in the computer for no additional cost, and will give you options to choose more for additional cost. The next page will offer you to purchase broadband connection for Internet access through Dell and also to purchase other options such as setting up your home computer system by Dell appointed contractors, transferring files from your old computer to your new computer, setting up a network between 2 or more computers within your house, extend Tech Support contract etc. Choose as many of these as you like for additional money or refuse all if you want to stick to the base price. The next page will ask you to confirm or alter your selections before going to the checkout counter. At the checkout counter, you have to give your mailing address, credit card number etc. At this stage Dell will usually offer additional discount on your computer if you pay by the free Dell credit card (for which you can sign-up right on their site). These are your personal choices. Do whatever is best for you. When you confirm your order you should print out your final order to keep a record. Dell will supply you a order number for reference and will also supply you with a date when your order will leave their warehouse. Most of the time Dell offers free shipping by UPS Ground Service within the 48 contiguous states of USA, though they charge a small handling fee. Dell is the only place I know where they will build a computer to your specifications in about six days and sell that to you at a highly competitive rate, though Gateway also probably does the same. I have no first hand experience with Gateway. One tip to share. Dell begins by showing you three computers marked as Basic, Mid-range, and Advanced. For most ordinary people looking for a reasonably good home computer without very fancy features, it is best to start with the Basic model and then add some extras or improve some items of the Basic model. That way I have found the price is cheaper, than if you straight go the Mid-range and try to customize it. I don't know. It may not be true all the time. But for a Basic Computer shopper, I think starting with the basic and then improving on some selected items will result in a cost efficient "Basic" computer that will not fall behind time very quickly. Give it a try. By the way, to make things easy, Dell also offers help by telephone in choosing the right computer with the right features. If you feel like it, by all means seek help by phone. But before that do your homework and know exactly what you want. Otherwise, there is a slight chance that you will end up paying extra and buy features that you really do not need because the Dell Rep. might talk you into it. By the way, Dell offers some kind of Deal almost all the time. So keep studying their Special Offers for sometime. Then when you have formed a good idea about what really is a good price, just grab that offer!

Dell's website has changed a little bit. What I described above may not match exactly anymore, but the basic idea has remained the same. (I don't think they offer you to purchase Broadband service through them anymore.) You can choose a basic or entry level model first, and then build upwards from there to meet your requirements. I bought my latest computer running Windows 8 from Dell again, and I am totally satisfied!

In conclusion, I have to admit that buying a computer through the Internet is only possible if you have access to a computer with Internet connection, i.e., if this is your second computer, or you can use somebody else's computer.

If you need help using the Internet, check out the companion site:
Internet Basics For Seniors
If you need help with Windows XP, check out the companion site:
Help with Windows XP (New)
If you are an absolute beginner in computing, check out:

ABC's of Computing

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Copyright © 2006 Silabhadra Sen
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This page was added on June 8, 2006
Last revised on January 15, 2014