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Which Computer is Best for You?

Kate Traynor

A new computer may be one of the first things you purchase when you leave school. But with so many choices available, buying one can cause a lot of anxiety.

Before you decide which model to buy, think about what type of work your computer needs to do. If your computer will mostly be used for word processing, e-mail, and Internet surfing, you'll need less power than someone who edits photos or uses documents with lots of graphics. Software manufacturers list the minimum systems requirements on their packages, so a trip to the software aisle of your computer store can help you pinpoint your specific needs. 

Confused about choosing between an IBM-compatible and a Macintosh? If you bring electronic files home from the office, buying the same class of computer you use at work makes sense. If you're concerned only about home use, the nonprofit Interactive Comparative Studies Group sponsors an online quiz that may help you choose between the two most popular platforms. 

You'll also have to decide whether a laptop or desktop model is best for you. Desktop systems offer more power for the money than laptops and can easily be expanded. But if you travel a lot, the portability of a laptop may compensate for these drawbacks. 

How much computer experience do you have? If you expect to need a lot of help from customer support, consider buying a brand-name model that you trust, from a company with a good reputation for technical support. Purchasers who can troubleshoot typical problems may not be so concerned about customer service. 

Computer technology changes so quickly that the sophisticated machine you finance today will seem primitive by the time you pay it off. So you'll inevitably have to decide between upgrading the computer or starting over with a new system. Before you purchase that first computer, think ahead to which option you'll choose—upgrade or replace. 

If you plan to upgrade, consider purchasing an easily expandable model from an established manufacturer. Media company CNET Networks Inc. reports that the top-selling computers from January through April came from Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Gateway Inc. Compaq and Hewlett-Packard products are sold directly by their manufacturers and through a variety of retailers, as are Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh computers. 

Gateway and Dell don't sell through traditional retailers but do offer discounted computers to students through arrangements at some campus bookstores. Students should check with their university before graduation if they want to receive a campus discount. 

You'll probably pay at least $1,000 to buy a suitable computer, monitor, and printer from a major manufacturer. Apple also offers computer systems for about that price. 

But there are less expensive options for people who don't want to invest a lot of money in a computer or don't plan to keep a computer for more than a couple of years. 

In 1998, eMachines Inc. introduced to American consumers the first brand-name personal computer that sold for less than $400. Last year, the company reports, it became the third-largest seller of desktop personal computers through U.S. retailers. Although CNET reports that desktop computer prices this summer are higher than a year ago, computer systems in the range of $600 to $800 are still available. 

Some manufacturers offer rebates, usually tied to Internet access agreements, that result in free or nearly free computers. The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers to do their math before buying such systems, since rebates typically require subscription to a specific Internet service provider for two to three years. 

Consumers who want a computer for Internet access but distrust rebates can buy an inexpensive computer and then sign up with a free Internet service. As Clark Howard, consumer advisor at Atlanta's WSB-TV explains, this option can be less expensive than using a rebate. For those interested, Marc Selinger of The Washington Post recently reviewed five free Internet service providers. 

Don't forget about the costs of software and peripheral equipment. Many computer systems come bundled as a computer, monitor, modem, speakers, keyboard, mouse, and factory-installed software, but some don't. Make sure you know which equipment and software you're getting before you make your purchase—it can be very expensive to buy these items separately.