This guide is being edited over time (as I have been asked by a few people what to look for when buying a new computer, I will keep updating this guide over time with new information). It can be hard knowing what a person needs from a computer now and into the future (Windows or Mac) so the decision is ultimately yours. This guide will hopefully inform you what internal components (specs (specifications)) to care about and what specs to ignore when buying a new computer.
Choosing an Intel or Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) processor?
In years gone by Intel were the faster and most expensive processors and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) was the cheaper and slower processors but recently Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has been matching Intel processors and has been driving the innovation. Generally, an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) based system will be cheaper and will have the most profit for a retailer. The faster a system the more expensive it will be and the less room for discounts IMHO.
Most sales people personally prefer a certain brand processor, video card or computer brand but most salespeople will recommend the system with the highest profit margin (and commission for them) so beware of advice from sales people. FYI I am not paid to say anything here.
Cores v MHz.
Computer processors used to have only one processor core and used to run at a certain megahertz all the time (making comparisons of processors and systems easy) but processors these days have multiple cores each core can run at potentially different megahertz (and run at a lower speed by default). Cores can change speed thousands of times a second. Some software programs prefer one processor core or multiple cores (it is very rare that software will use all cores efficiently) so comparisons are hard. Generally, newer generation processors are faster than older processors that run at the same speed, but having a few cores helps the operating system manage background tasks but don’t expect an 8 core system to run software 8x faster.
Cooling, Noise and Thermal Throttling.
A computer processor has embedded temperature sensors that tell it when one core reaches a set temperature the processor will start to slow down the processor to protect itself (by slowing down one or multiple cores). A computer’s internal cooling architecture and ultimately airflow will determine how fast a computer is in the long term. A heavy laptop or computer may, in fact, weigh more because it has better internal cooling (or not) so beware buying light computers. Apple computers are made of light aluminium metal and (some say because they are slower) are lighter, quieter and not as hot (I Agree).
I tend to forget the newer processors codenames and have to review all the latest offering on stores like https://www.scorptec.com.au/product/cpu. Anandtech and TomsHardware are good news sites that will keep you up-to-date with processors and processor trends.
Remember even a fast machine can run slow on hot days or if the cooling is no good.
Windows generally, has more software available but Apples can run Windows software via emulation software called Parallels (cost involved).
A free Ubuntu (Linux) is also available. Read my guide on Ubuntu here.
Apple also has a free operating system and software (with their computers). View more information on macOS here.
The golden rule is to spend more than $2k on a computer and get as much memory (RAM) and storage (HDD) as possible. But spending $2,000 on a computer that will last 2 years is silly when a $3,500 computer that lasts 9 years.
Emma Castle from http://shegoes.com.au/ said, “That computer (13″ Apple Mac Book) was exceptional for a very long time!” when her 2009 computer died.
Should I get an Intel i3, i5, i7 or i9 or xx processor?
An Intel i3 processor has 2 cores (but generally run faster per core than an Intel i5 or Intel i7). An Intel i5 has 4 cores and an Intel i7 also has 4 cores and 4 virtual cores (8 cores) and the 4 real cores handle the work of the 4 virtual cores. Gamers and programmers usually get Intel i7′s over an Intel i5 or an Intel i3. Generally, the higher the number the faster the processor. Intel has just released i9’s but they are not available yet.
Handy CPU Benchmark Chart: http://www.cpubenchmark.net/ Some software likes more cores over more Mhz and vice-versa.
I’d recommend you choose an Intel i5 over an i3. Only get an i7 if money needs spending or performance is required.
Should I get an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) processor?
Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has a number of processor ranges (A, FX, Ryzen, Athlon etc). I would consult the processor hierarchy chart here for advice.
CPU Benchmark Chart: http://www.cpubenchmark.net/
If you are looking at an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) processor aim for a Ryzen processor (as they are brand new and quite fast).
Nvidia or AMD Graphics Card?
A graphics card is like a mini-computer in a computer that is responsible for games and many graphical tasks in software and the operating system. Mac OS and Windows 10 need a fairly good video card.
A video card has its own processor (GPU), memory and has its own cooling. I won’t bore you with details about graphics cards here but video cards are more complex than the rest of the computer. Generally, gamers need expensive video cards where everyone else does not.
Toms hardware has a nice graphics card hierarchy chart that shows where a video card sits on the performance table: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/gpu-hierarchy,4388.html
Another good video card comparison chart http://www.videocardbenchmark.net/
A good video card has its own dedicated memory (not shared with the main system memory) avoid on CPU video cards like the Intel Integrated graphics chip as it will heat up the processor.
Generally don’t get the cheapest or the most expensive computer for obvious reasons.
Generally, The higher the power usage (power brick charger) the faster the computer (or the older a system is). The more electricity a computer uses the more its insides need cooling and the noisier it may be too.
Time to buy.
Tax time is a great time to buy a new computer and many Windows computers will be on special (Apple do not discount much).
Apple tends to update their computers every 500 days, you can use the Mac buyers guide site to determine the best time to buy Apple computer or device. Apple tends to discount when surplus computers are available before new models are launched. All retailers are keen to clear out older stock in June in Australia before the end of the tax year.
Generally, you are looking for an Apple or Windows computer (I cannot decide that for you).
Windows computers are cheaper (but in my opinion and experience last far less than Apple computers).
Most people get a Windows computer. Windows computers do have great games available. FYI: I am biased towards Apple computers.
Generally, people buy Apple computers if you are an app developer, creative, want a nice computer system or are sick of Windows crashes and viruses.
Apple computers can still run Windows via a separate Windows installation (Bootcamp) or via emulation (Parallels Software) so I’d recommend Apple.
If you search for a brand laptop long enough you will have add banners follow you around the internet so don’t be in a hurry to buy a computer (let the discounts come to you). Don’t be afraid to ask vendors for discounts. All hardware has profit margins and discounts or freebie throw in’s are usually available.
Most brand name computer manufacturers have discounted models all year round. Just use google and browse the retailer’s website.
A laptop needs to be durable and last a long time. My metal Apple Mac from mid-2012 still looks as good as the day I purchased it. Avoid plastic computers and computers that run hot (start a computer before buying it).
Configurability and upgradability.
Laptops are less configurable and upgradable over desktop computers. My advice is to buy at least 512GB of solid-state hard drive storage and 16GB of memory.
Memory generations and speeds.
Generally, more memory will add more speed to a computer. Memory comes in various speeds and newer memory generations (e.g DDR2, DDR3, DDR4) are faster overall but are technically slower at smaller tasks (as they add more latency to achieve higher speeds). Read more about memory speeds and timings here.
Try and aim for 16GB memory over 4GB, 8GB. Also the more memory you have the higher chance of system crashes and errors IMHO.
Storage types and sizes.
Olden day hard drives used spinning magnetic disks and have floating read heads, more modern hard drives have faster flash-based solid state drives that use electrical circuits. Solid-state drives are about 10x faster than spinning magnetic drives but may not last as long due to limited lifespans. A mechanical and spinning hard drive is slower but larger in capacity and is more recoverable in the event of a crash and are cheaper. More on hard drive differences and reliability here. Backblaze publish a report of failure rates in large capacity magnetic drives each year, read here. Hybrid drives combine a small flash solid-state drive with a larger spinning hard drive. This is a perfect balance.
Newer Intel-based systems may contain Optane based devices that may boost the performance of a computer. Optane is recent so any Optane compatible system is new.
Get a solid-state if you can afford it but a spinning hard drive is still ok. If you are getting a solid-state drive get at least 512GB in capacity.
Screen sizes and types.
Generally, I ignore the screen technology (LCD, TFT, IPS) and instead focus on the screens resolution (1920×1200 resolution minimum) and colour abilities (6-bit, 8-bit, 10-bit or 12-bit). A good 8-bit TFT or LCD can beat a newer 12-Bit IPS. I’d look for a 1920×1200 resolution screen that is 10bit of higher. A 10-bit monitor can display more colours than a 6-bit monitor. Read more on bits here.
Recently 4K resolution screens have hit the market so if money is no object get a 4K monitor (if it is also 12-bits).
Look for a system that can handle external monitors (via HDMI, Display Port or Air Display (Apple)) to complement your primary monitor. Apple computers can wirelessly beam displays to Apple TV/TV’s or connect to other displays via dongles.
A fast system can potentially be a noisy system so do power up a system before you buy it. Generally, Apple computers will be silent (at the cost of speed, but will spin up noisy fans if needed).
Ask Yourself, What is the noise of a system at Idle and Full Load before buying a computer?
A small battery is no good in a laptop, try and aim for a 15MA battery or higher. 10+ hours of running time is ideal.
Almost all laptops and systems come with an SD-CARD slot, USB, Bluetooth, headphone and microphone jacks (except Apple who has moved to USB-C and accessory based dongles).
Strongly consider setting up online and automatic cloud backup after purchasing a new computer. I use https://www.backblaze.com/ CrashPlan is also good.
Antivirus is also key (even on Apple), I prefer Bitdefender but any antivirus or antimalware is preferable to none.
Enjoy and good luck.
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v1.5 added info on longevity