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Funny Money: How Not to Suck at Shopping for a New Computer

The moment you buy a new computer, the ghost of Steve Jobs will conjure something lighter, faster, better and — arg — cheaper! Although obsolescence is unavoidable, you can avoid these hair-brained computer-shopping mistakes and save some major gigabucks.

Shopping for a new computer? Don't be a sucker!If you read Highlights magazine when you were a wee whippersnapper, you remember the comic strip Goofus and Gallant. The former was an oblivious idiot who screwed everything up, and the latter was a pompous dweeb obsessed by acting so self-righteous he made everyone else want to punch him.

I bring the characters up because both would be absolutely terrible at computer shopping. Goofus would be the sucker who would by an outdated, overpriced machine and pay extra for a bunch of bloatware, while Gallant would paralyze himself by trying to do things the “right” way and end up paralyzing himself through hyperanalyzing the overwhelming options.

The bottom line is that when you go shopping for your next computer, you are going to screw it up. No more than a week will pass without a better deal on a more powerful machine popping up to torment you.

The key to what passes for success while attempting the torturous endeavor is to accept your inevitable failure but vow not to screw things up as badly as either Goofus or Gallant would. In short, you can’t be either too dumb or too smart about how you go about the process.

Try as you might, here are five things you may end up doing anyway to goof or gallant-up your computer shopping quest:

Sacrifice specs to cut costs.

Electronics retailers tend to dangle their lowest-hanging fruit at low prices to entice you to snap up their garbage and make way for the better stuff. Before you jump in on what seems to be a good deal, compare the RAM, processor and hard drive to those of high-priced machines, then read up on the reviews to make sure the performance will fit your needs.

If all the reviews you can find online are from 2008, disregard whatever they have to say and look for a different machine.

Fail to see the next big thing that’s on the horizon.

Just as important as what’s listed on a spec sheet is what isn’t there but should be. There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who spent big on a computer, only to have their purchase left in the dust by what came shortly after. Think picking up a laptop before WiFi and integrated webcams became industry standard, or picking up a desktop that can’t handle USB 3.0 inputs.

Keep an eye on tech blogs and, more importantly, check out your friends’ devices to get an idea of what you need to future-proof your next adoption. If you don’t get a computer your pals are jealous of, you did it wrong.

Get ‘optimization’ or an extended warranty.

Retailers, especially those with names that rhyme with pressed tie, are all about snookering you into paying a little extra for absolutely nothing. Coughing up extra dough for dubious “optimization” work — usually which involves stuff your computer will walk you through when you first set it up — or redundant extended warranties are ways to puff up a vendor’s profit margins and turn your buy into something less than best.

Stick with unopened products and free manufacturer’s warranties.

Overspend on bundles crammed with stuff you don’t need.

Being in a rush to snag all sorts of software or services you may or may not actually use is an efficient way at picking up another little something extra — buyer’s remorse.

Do yourself a favor by avoiding software bundles and picking up programs as needed. Or better yet, borrow your friends’ software unlock codes or login information to see if you can get “framily” plans to apply to the computer world as well as cell phone bills.

Get a tablet assuming it will replace your laptop.

What do the Santa Claus and the dude who is totally satisfied he ditched his laptop for an iPad have in common? Both aren’t likely to break into your house and leave you gifts, because both exist only in the imaginations of the naive.

While tablets have advantages in portability and speed over laptops, they fall short in productivity and ease of use in form and function for the standard demands of a work needs. Some tablet-only people work hard to hypnotize themselves into thinking they don’t miss laptops.

Tablets are for play, laptops are for work, and that isn’t changing any time soon.

These are the same people who awkwardly try to take tablet photos and videos in public — doing things the device is capable of but not best for. These people are “that guy.” Goofus and Gallant are both “that guy” as well. Don’t be one of them.

Published or updated on April 3, 2014

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About Phil Villarreal

Phil Villarreal writes Funny Money weekly for Money Under 30. He lives in Tucson and works for the Arizona Daily Star. He's also an author, blogger and Twitterer.


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  1. dojo says:

    What I care about: good price and decent specs. No, I don’t run for the ‘biggest’ computer, even if it’s the ‘machine’ that earns my money. I always look for something that will do a good job and won’t cost as much as a new car. Have done web design work on pretty crappy computers years ago, I can clearly manage it on these new laptops (have been using laptops only in the past 8 years).

  2. Nice Highlights throwback!

    I had to do my first solo computer shop this year after my old laptop finally crapped out on me. I turned to my more tech savvy friends to see where I could cutback and where I shouldn’t with a lot of the points you’ve outlined above.

    The most frustrating thing to me is how quickly software becomes obsolete.

  3. Phil says:

    If you are looking for a desktop and have even just a basic understanding of computer hardware I recommend you consider building your own computer. It’s not as complicated as you’d think. Lifehack has a great manual that walks you through the entire process. It’ll take longer to choose the parts than actually build the computer. The benefits are a cheaper computer, with all the hardware spec’d exactly how you need it, that you can upgrade easily if needed. I built my first one a few years ago. Build time was about 90 minutes, and that was me taking it slow to make sure I did everything right! Now I have a great computer that I plan to keep until the death of the desktop as a computer format.

    • Q says:

      Building your own computer has it’s own hidden costs, if you’re ready to deal w/them:
      1. time to get the parts;
      2. time to build the computer;
      2.a. time to read and DIY if you don’t know how to build one;
      3. time to install the OS and software;
      4. time to configure your OS/apps
      …of course, this is assuming you are building a PC

      while it’s pretty straightforward to build one once you take the time to learn – just like painting your own house, you need to consider if this is a real interest and good use of your time. you might save yourself $200? and spend maybe 4-8hrs (depending on how good or bad you are doing this your first time) doing all the above.

      just like anything, know what you’re dealing with and what’s important… like anything, you’ll have to do your homework if you really want to get the most bang for your buck.

      any pc you get, look for these common bottlenecks that will determine performance of your new pc::
      1. cpu – multicore processor (2 is sufficient for most), GHz, cache size (order of importance L1, L2, L3)
      2. harddrive – interface (SATA 3 minimum… SATA 6 preferred), rpm (7k+), and cache size (8M +) OR you can look to get an SSD harddrive
      3. ram – faster = better… 4G for xp, vista, w7, or w8 (32bit); 8G+ (12-16 is nice) for 64bit OS

      more geeky than most prolly need. bottomline, if you get a system with components that are well balanced, your computer will literally last you at LEAST 5yrs before you’ll notice you’re obsolete. case in point, I have a dell laptop from 2007 that is still running solid and comparable to most $800 laptops new! purchased at 2500 at the time. desktops can last longer :)

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