Noob Guide: Buying A Budget PC / Laptop

The holidays are right around the corner, and lots of people are considering PCs for their favorite people. I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to break the bank to buy a decent PC, all you have to do is pay attention to the specifications. Of course, you could buy a Mac but I won’t even go there. If you can afford to gift someone a Macbook, or Apple product than we’re probably not friends anyways.

I’ll break down the most important specs and put them into normal people terms. Note: This guide isn’t for someone who already knows what does what in a computer. This guide is to help the ignorant educate themselves.

Noob Guide: Buying A PC

Tablet, PC, or Laptop?

To put it short; Laptop. Yes, I’m constantly plugging Windows 8 tablets but if you’re looking for a budget tablet, you’re going to have some problems (make sure you have a warranty).  You can spend less money and get a better machine if you go with a desktop PC, but most people tend to abandon their desktops as they’re stationary and the walk across the room/house could be disasterly when boredome strikes. Lots of laptops come with “convertable” touch screens meaning they can do both. If you’re stuck between a tablet / laptop desision, you can spend a little more and get both in one.

Price*:

I bought a $300 laptop almost 4 years ago. It still runs like a champ despite me using it every day (all day), and the case is litterally falling apart. Although technology is always advancing and prices are always dropping; the $300 PC market hasn’t changed much, so I wouldn’t expect to get a decent PC under that. Ideally, there’s a huge upgrade if you’re willing to spend the extra $100 to jump into the $400 market. It’s worth it, although most people don’t need a $400 Facebook machine, they sure do look pretty.

Operating System:

Pretty much, if you’re buying a new PC it’s going to come with Windows 8.1. Most people can’t handle the change from Windows 7 to 8, but once they get over the initial “what is this screen?” they’ll learn to love it. After playing around in the settings for a little while, it can pretty much do anything Windows 7 can do. The great thing about OS’ is that they’re not perminant. Anyone can change their OS down to Windows 7, or even to a Linux based OS. But let them try Win8. They may love it after awhile.

Processor (CPU):

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is usually the engine of the mother-board. While you’ll never find a “mother board” spec, they usually go hand in hand with the processor. Of course, the pros could choose to get a soldering iron and combine the two, but if you’re reading this guide it’s probably out of your scope. The thing to keep in mind is the processor does most of the work of your computer so of course you find a good one. At this day and age, it’s uncommon to find anything less than a dual-core Intel or AMD processor which is exactly what you need. If you’re sticking to the $300-$400 budget, you’re not really going to find anything better than “dual core”.

Of course, these processors are not the best, or even that great by today’s standards. The number you’re going to want to look at is the “speed”. Budget laptops/PCs will usually be packed with a 2.16GHz CPU while the standard of a “good” processor is somewhere around 3.4-3.6GHz. It may not seem like much, but keeping the car comparision going, it’s like running a 4 cylinder car VS a 6 cylinder. Sure, a brand new 4 cylinder vehicle will run beatifully, but it will never compete with it’s 6 cylinder counterpart.

Unless you’re a “pro” or buying for a “pro”, 2.16GHz will get the job done. It won’t be the fastest PC, but it gets the job done.

Memory:

RAM, or Random Access Memory is your computer’s brain. While RAM’s usually pretty cheap and easily upgradable most people won’t bother prying open their laptop to do it so it’s important to get a good number out of the box. Really anything more than 2 GB will get the job done. What does RAM do? Basically, it works to keep the memory of your CPU’s work load. The more space, the more memory it can store. If an IT guy has ever told you to turn your PC off and on again and it worked like a champ, it’s because you didn’t have enough RAM and it filled up with whatever logs it keeps, slowing your PC way down. There are many ways to clean this up without having to shut down.

The more expierenced a PC user, the more RAM they need. The more that’s done on a computer, requires more logs, and more memory availible.

Hard Drive:

This is how much physical space is actually on a computer. If you know someone with a huge music / movie library, they may want more HD space but I wouldn’t recomend anything more than 1 TB (1,000 GB), and 500GB should surfice anyone’s needs as external hard drives are availible, safer, and better for your PC. Why fill it up with useless nonsense when you can do it all externally?

Display:

This is usally the size of your screen, and what kind of screen it is. Unless you’re looking for a touch screen, you really only need to pay attention to the dimensions here. 15.6″ is pretty standard, but when you’re in the budget market, you’ll have to watch out for those pesky 11.9″. Unless you’re buying for a petite woman who likes things small, you’re going to want a bigger screen. Even 15″ isn’t enough for screen real estate for the average user. Unless again, they only want a “Facebook Machine”.

I’ve yet to see a 15.6″ screen under 720p so don’t get suckered into all that HD nonsense that plagues technology. If it’s really your concern, look at the resolutuon. Most are about 1366×768, meaning it’s 768p; but in such a small space a regular user isn’t going to notice the difference. Still don’t believe me? Look at this chart.

Ports:

Everyone wants USB ports. The more, the merrier. 3.0 is obviously better than 2.0. I’ve been living with 2.0’s for years, and can tell the difference but even I’m willing to live with the slow speed of 2.0. It’s not terrible. Most budget PCs come with at least one 3.0 USB port, just make sure you use that one for your hard/flash drives.

HDMI cords are the easiest way to hook up a laptop to a TV but unless you’re known to do it already you can probably live without it.

Power:

This is where budget laptops especially suck. Under $400, you’re not going to find anything better than “up to 8 hours”. The great thing about batteries is that they usually pop right out so someone with battery troubles could buy multiple back-ups to keep their laptop availible on long trips. You’ll notice most people with laptops are always looking for outlets, so don’t feel too ashamed to be one of those people.

That’s it!

Really, it’s hard to go wrong with budget PCs. Unless you’re paying more for a “certified approved” laptop from Best Buy, just keep one thing in mind: You get what you pay for. While a $300 will “get the job done”, $400 should get you a laptop worth showing off. Anything more than $400, is either for a gamer or a rip off. And if a gamer is looking for a laptop to play on, then they’re looking to spend almost double for a top of the line machine.

*Prices / specs based on MicroCenter’s availible stock. Don’t buy from BestBuy. You’ll get ripped off.