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Investing in Computers? 7 Questions to Consider

A computer buying guide for nonprofits and libraries

Investing in Computers: 7 Questions to Consider 
TechSoup - March 27, 2012

Buying a computer is a big investment, so you want to get it right. This guide will help you understand what to look for when investing in computers for your nonprofit or library.

Buying a computer is a big investment. And with so many different options available, it can be hard to figure out how to meet the technical needs of your nonprofit or library and still stay within your budget.

This guide will help you understand the questions to ask when shopping for a computer. It will also provide a quick reference checklist with definitions of some basic technology terms (not too many!), as well as the minimum standards we recommend for computers.

Things to Consider When Buying a Computer

1. Do You Need a New Computer?

It's possible some basic maintenance tasks or a simple hardware upgrade can boost performance and give your old computer new life.

2. How Will You Be Using the Computer?

If you do need a new computer, one of the most important things to consider is how you will actually use it.

  • A technology plan, technology budget, and technology strategy are all helpful tools to make sure you understand your current and future computing needs. See TechSoup's Planning and Strategy section for resources to help you plan effectively.
  • What kind of work will your staff be doing? Basic office tasks, like creating documents and spreadsheets, checking email, and using the Internet? Or heavy-duty work with video, audio, or images? Audio-visual work tends to be resource-intensive and will require a more robust computer.
  • Will your staff be traveling, or only using the computer in the office?
  • How does the computer fit in with your existing technology?
    • What operating system(s) do you use? Operating systems, like Windows, use up a lot of your computer's resources. If you barely meet the minimum hardware standards for using your operating system, you may not have the computing resources to do a lot of other tasks at the same time (multitask).
    • What software do you use? Do you have software that only works with a certain type of computer or only runs on a particular operating system?
    • 32-bit and 64-bit? The key thing to know is that hardware and software come in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. If your computer has a 32-bit operating system or hardware, you cannot run 64-bit software on it.
  • What are your future plans? Are you planning to upgrade your operating system or add a new kind of software? Are you planning to do different kinds of tasks in the next couple of years?

3. Mac or PC?

The choice between Mac and PC often comes down to personal preference. Both types of computers have their merits. Macs and PCs use the same kinds of internal processors, so they are equally powerful. The main difference between Macs and other computers is the operating system they use: Macs run Mac OS X (the latest version is called Lion), and PCs run Windows (the latest version is Windows 8).

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Macintosh computers are usually more expensive off-the-shelf than a similar PC. However, some argue that the long-term cost for a PC is actually higher, due to additional software and maintenance costs.
  • There is some software that will only run on Windows. Make sure the software you depend on is compatible with your new computer's operating system.
  • The more similar your computers are, the easier your technology will be to manage. If you have different types of computers, running different operating systems, and different software, troubleshooting and maintenance become much more complicated. Consider whether you already have a Mac- or PC-centric office and whether or not it's worth switching some or all computers.

4. New, Used, or Refurbished?

If you plan to use the computer for basic office tasks like word processing, email, and web browsing, you probably don't need a top-of-the-line or brand new computer. A used or refurbished computer may be just fine. Used and refurbished computers are usually much less expensive than new computers. They're also a greener option, since you're extending the life of an old computer, rather than buying a brand-new one.

A refurbished computer may be a better option than a used or donated one. Refurbished computers are older machines that have been carefully inspected and updated by professionals. If you get your refurbished computer from an authorized professional refurbisher (and you always should), you will know it is in good working condition. Refurbished computers also often have a warranty of some kind. Read more about refurbished computers available to eligible organizations through TechSoup's Refurbished Computer Initiative.

There are some additional things you need to think about when buying refurbished equipment:

  • Fail and return rates. Check the refurbisher's fail and return rates.
  • Warranty. You probably won't get a three-year warranty for a refurbished computer, but a three month warranty is pretty standard. This should cover any out-of-the box problems.
  • Peripherals, software, and documentation. Make sure you know what is included with your computer. Refurbished computers, for example, rarely come bundled with a monitor.

If you are buying a used (rather than refurbished) computer, or accepting a donated one, make sure a knowledgeable person inspects the computer thoroughly first. This will help ensure the computer is functioning properly and that it will meet your needs. Remember that as alluring as a free or very cheap computer might seem, an old one in poor condition can actually be more trouble than it is worth. Learn more about how to avoid receiving time-wasting donated hardware in Six Tips for Accepting (and Refusing!) Donated Equipment.

5. Laptop, Desktop, or Tablet?

When deciding whether a laptop, desktop, or tablet (hand-held) computer will best meet your needs, the key things to consider are:

  • Price. Laptops are usually more expensive than an equally powerful desktop computer, even if you factor in the cost of a monitor for your desktop. Parts and repairs are usually more expensive for laptops as well.
  • Travel. If you will only be using the computer in the office, a laptop probably isn't worth the added cost.
  • Upgrade, repair, and maintenance. Especially if you're planning to do this yourself, keep in mind that fixing or upgrading a laptop computer is usually much more complicated than it is for a desktop computer.
  • Size or "form factor." Desktop computers can be the traditional bulky tower, compact models that are smaller than a loaf of bread, or an all-in-one model (where the computer and the monitor are all one piece). Laptops come in different sizes, too: from tiny netbooks with miniature keyboards and 10 inch screens to ultra-thin or ultraportable models to giant models with 17+-inch screens that don't even need a separate monitor. A few things to consider:
    • If you will be traveling a lot, size and weight are important considerations for laptops.
    • Smaller models are often more costly than a comparably equipped standard size model.
    • There is often a trade-off between small size and computing power. Inexpensive netbooks, for example, may not be powerful enough to serve as your main computer.
    • Tablets (as handy as they can be and as popular as they are) aren't suitable for heavy use for office productivity tasks. But they're great for web surfing, checking email, and reading documents on-the-go.
    • For more information, Consumer Reports has a really nice, clear discussion of the pros and cons of laptops, desktops, and tablet computers, in varying sizes.

6. Get to Know Your Technology

There are a few key things you should understand when you're making a decision about which computer to buy. We'll define them and provide the minimum standards you should be looking for to support performing basic office tasks.

Component Definition Key Consideration Minimum Standard

CPU (Central Processing Unit)

Also known as:
processor

This is your computer's brain, and its function – as you might imagine – is to process information.

Usually, a faster processor means a faster computer.

Performance, which is based mostly on:

  • Number of cores (single, dual, quad, and so on).
  • Processor speed or "clock speed," which is measured in Gigahertz (GHz).

Dual-core processor, with mid-range clock speed (2.6 GHz)

RAM (Random Access Memory)

Also known as:
memory

RAM is used to temporarily store information while your computer is running. More memory allows your computer to run more quickly, up to a point.*

Confusingly, memory is not the same thing as storage (see below for additional information). Storage is what allows you to keep files and software stored long-term, while memory is what your computer uses short-term to perform its basic functions.

*32-bit operating systems can't use more than 4GB of RAM, so if you have a 32-bit OS, you don't need more than 4GB of RAM.

Amount of memory, which is measured in megabytes (MB) and gigabytes (GB). There are 1,024 megabytes in a gigabyte.

1 GB

Storage

Also known as:
Hard-Disk Storage

The amount of information (files, data, software, photos, video, and so on) your computer can store.

Amount of storage, usually measured in GB.

See Hard Drive, below

Hard Drive

Also known as:
hard disk, hard disk drive (HDD), or internal drive

The hard drive is where most of the information on your computer is stored.

There are two main types of drives:

  • Traditional drives are a spinning disk attached to a platter. Because it has these rapidly moving parts, hard drives are susceptible to mechanical failure. For example, when your drive "crashes," it's because the spinning disk literally crashes into the platter underneath it.
  • Solid-state drives do not have moving parts and therefore are less likely to have mechanical problems. They are also faster and quieter than traditional drives, but they are also significantly more expensive.

Note: an external hard drive is basically the same thing as an internal drive. An external drive just has a case surrounding it and a cable to connect it to your computer.

Disk size: the amount of storage space on the disk.

160 GB storage capacity

Networking

How your computer connects to the Internet or networked devices.

  • An Ethernet port lets you plug your computer into a router for "wired" access.
  • A wireless adapter or wireless card enables your computer to connect to the Internet and other devices wirelessly.
  • Bluetooth is a technology that allows your computer to wirelessly connect to other devices (but it doesn't allow your computer to connect directly to the Internet).

Wired and wireless connection capability.

  • Ethernet port and
  • A wireless card or adapter

Ports

Also known as:
Output Ports or Interface Ports

Device ports: how your computer connects to other devices, like a keyboard, mouse, printer, digital camera, or external hard drive. Different devices use different cables to connect to different kinds of ports. The most common ports and cables are:

  • USB (Universal Serial Bus) – the current standard is USB 2.0, which provides a faster connection than the older USB 1.1 standard.
  • Firewire (also known as IEEE 1394, iLink) provides an even faster connection for high-speed data transfer.

Audio and video ports: How your computer connects to speakers and external displays, like a monitor or television screen. There are different kinds of outputs, including:

  • VGA (analog) output is included on almost all desktops.
  • DVI (digital visual interface) carries only video, not audio.
  • HDMI (high-definition multi-media interface) carries both audio and video. Mini HDMI ports are often used on portable devices.
  • Like HDMI, DisplayPort and Mini DisplayPort carry both audio and video.

What devices you will connect to your computer.

Device ports: Several USB 2.0 ports

Audio and Video Ports: VGA port

Graphics Card

Also known as:
graphics processing unit (GPU)

The graphics card or chip is what allows your computer to process and display visual information (text, images, video, and basically everything you see on your computer screen).

There are two main types of graphics processors:

  • Integrated or on-board graphics cards are built into your computer, and they share your computer system's main memory.
  • A dedicated graphics card has its own, separate memory.

Amount of system memory (RAM), and tasks you are performing:

  • If you have at least 2 GB of RAM, integrated graphics should be sufficient in most cases.
  • If you work with a lot of digital video, you will probably need more RAM and/or a dedicated graphics card.

Integrated graphics: fine for most everyday office functions.

Dedicated graphics card: only needed if you're planning to work with a lot of digital media.

Optical Drives

Also known as:
removable media

Optical drives let you read and record (or write) to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays. A "burner" or "recorder," usually labeled "RW" allows you to record or write information to discs.

Most drives are labeled with the type of discs they are compatible with, as well as whether they can record or write to a disc or only play or read it.

  • Devices labeled "ROM" can only play discs; they cannot write to them.
  • Devices labeled "RW" allow you to write information to discs.
  • For example, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW can play DVDs and can both play and record to CDs.
  • What media you are using (CD, DVD, and so on).
  • What devices can and need to read that data.

Functioning DVD-ROM/CD-RW device

Peripherals

Electronic equipment connected by cable (or wireless integration) to your computer’s CPU.

  • Monitor or screen.
  • Keyboard.
  • Pointing devices (mice, trackballs, touchpads).
  • Printers, scanners, and other optional devices.

For monitors, the key considerations are:

  • Screen size.
  • Display Resolution is based on the number of pixels (the little dots that make up the image you see on-screen) that can be displayed; more pixels means a sharper display.
  • Desktop monitor: 15" monitor (measured diagonally), 1024x768 screen resolution
  • Laptop screen: size will depend on organizational needs; 1024x768 screen resolution
  • Fully functioning keyboards and pointing devices

Battery and Power Consumption

When not plugged in to an outlet, laptops use a rechargeable battery for power.

Some laptops can have an extended battery added. This makes the laptop bigger and heavier, but significantly extends battery life.

Some laptops have batteries that cannot be removed, which makes them more costly to replace when the battery wears out.

Battery life: how long the battery retains power after charging.

No specific recommendation

Size or "Form Factor"

Desktops, laptops, and tablets come in different sizes.

Some desktop terms you may hear:

  • Full-size: these computers are encased in a standard (sometimes bulky) "tower" case.
  • Compact: smaller than full-size towers (sometimes called "minitowers").
  • All-in-one: the computer and the monitor are all one piece.

Laptop terminology:

  • While we use the term "laptop" in this guide, "notebook" means the same thing.
  • A netbook is a very small, lightweight, (and less powerful) laptop computer.

Unless you will be traveling a lot, size is not usually a major factor when choosing a computer.

No specific recommendation

7. Do Your Research

The following are good places to start your research:

  • Consumer Reports provides an easy-to-understand, comprehensive computer buying guide and product reviews.
  • CNET and PC Magazine have more detailed technical buying guides, as well as computer reviews for laptops and desktops. Just go to their site and search for "computer buying guide," "laptop buying guide," or "desktop buying guide."
  • Learn about 32-bit vs. 64-bit computers with TechSoup's article: Do I Need the 32-bit or the 64-bit Version?

When doing your research, keep your organization's needs, budget, and the minimum requirements in mind, and ask yourself:

  • Will this product meet our needs?
  • What do you know about the company that makes the computer? Do they have a good reputation? What about the particular computer you're looking at?
  • What kind of warranty do you get, and how long does it last?
  • How good is the company's technical support, and how long can you use it?
  • What other hardware comes bundled with the computer? A monitor, keyboard, mouse, cables?
  • What software comes with the computer?

Image: Computer hardware, Shutterstock