This question has come up a lot over the years. It’s usually asked by the people who regard their computer as an appliance, and they want to maximize its useful life. Much more common is the person who considers their computer to be a necessary commodity that they have to have. Typically they buy the lowest-priced computer they can find from a “big box” store. Use it a couple of years and repeat.
There are a lot of manufacturers of Windows computers, which makes for fierce competition. Since they are all using the same software, and mostly the same hardware inside, the main tool they use to achieve market share is low price. Selling through chain stores sets up a race to the bottom – how low can they go? The result is computers that are made as cheaply as possible so they can sell for a price very close to the cost of the components inside. How can they do this and stay in business?
The secret is to load up each computer with “trial” versions of various software. The publishers pay to have this done. The purchaser winds up with a barely adequate computer, bogged down with a plethora of added software that will not be fully functional until more money is spent. These days laptops are more typically sold than desktops. They are made with very small parts, to keep weight down. This makes them very expensive to repair – impossible in some cases. Carrying them around leads to bumps and bruises on mostly plastic cases and in a short while it’s time to buy a new computer. Again.
While computers made for playing games are somewhat upgradeable, the same cannot be said for typical consumer-grade computers. Because of this, it’s less costly to buy more computer than you need so you can keep it longer. Here are some key things to look for:
- Processor – the actual brain of the computer
Although the processors keep getting more powerful, the increments of improvement are getting smaller. Chip makers now use multiple “cores” to improve performance, where each core is sort of a computer within a computer. When buying go for a minimum of 4 cores. Anything less is already on the way to becoming obsolete. Speed is not of particular interest as they are all pretty fast.
- RAM – the working memory of the computer
Every version of Windows is bigger than the last, with more and more features. A computer with 4 gigabytes of RAM may be adequate today, but the next version may slow it to a crawl, particularly if it’s loaded down with trial software. Consider 8 GB as a working minimum. More is better.
- Storage – the place where all your stuff goes
Hard drives get cheaper all the time. They are also the weakest link in any computer. The spinning platter inside will fail at some point, with cheap drives failing sooner, often in a couple of years. The new trend is for Solid State Drives (SSD) that have no moving parts. These offer several advantages. While they do have a working lifetime, they are designed to spread wear evenly over the drive. For most people a one terabyte drive (1,000 gigabytes) will last many times longer than a mechanical drive. Lacking a motor, an SSD is much less weight in a laptop. Bumping or dropping a computer with a conventional hard drive can cause the read/write heads to contact the spinning platter. This renders the computer broken and the data lost. That’s not a problem with SSD, since nothing in it is moving. Then there is speed, the most important feature of a SSD. SSD drives are faster than hard drives by a factor of 10 or more. This leads to laptops that are ready to use just seconds after turning them on, rather than minutes. SSDs are more expensive than hard drives, but prices are coming down. With all the advantages they offer, you should not consider any computer that does not have an SSD.
All of the above apply without regard to whether you are buying a PC with Windows or an Apple Macintosh. With Apple being one of the most profitable companies ever, it’s easy to argue that their computers are overpriced. I have been using only Macs for the past 10 years, and have purchased a number of them. Every one is still in use, either by me or a member of my extended family, making it well worth the higher price. Nearly all sewing software requires Windows, mainly because most people have a Windows computer. It’s possible to use Windows on a Mac, though it requires more expertise than knowing how to use a mouse and keyboard. We address the issues in this free PDF. It’s a little dated, but still relevant.
With the advent of the iPad there was a big shift in the world of computers. As Steve Jobs famously noted, computers are like trucks while iPads are like cars. Most people can use a car for all of their needs. Only professionals need a truck. The analogy is not perfect, but now that Janome has embraced the iPad with the Memory Craft 15000 and 9400 it opens the door to the possibility having only an iPad for sewing. We’ll cover that in our next post.