Tips for Buying a Home Computer for the Family

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MAC, PC, RAM, DVD, CPU. Researching home computers can be more confusing than mortgage backed derivative swapping, given the can of “alphabet soup” it opens! We simplify the process and spell out all you need to know when buying a home computer.

When you’re pregnant or planning on adding to your family, you think a lot about the gear you’ll need. Usually you focus on diaper pails and crib bedding and nursing pads and other immediate essentials. But if you have kids, you will need a family computer. If you’re reading these pages, it’s a pretty sure bet you already use a computer. Perhaps that’s the one that will be used by sticky little fingers in a few short years, and the new one will be for you. However you work it, here are some pointers to help you make a smart purchase.

Laptop or Desktop?

This is the first question you need to ask yourself, and the answer depends on your needs.

Laptops are great for portability—they are set up for wireless Internet connectivity and can be taken anywhere in your house, to the coffee shop, or even on vacation. They also double as a portable DVD player or music system. And, if you’re short on space, laptops can be very compact—the MacBook Air is just 0.16 inch thick and weighs only three pounds.

However, if you want a computer for the family to share, a desktop might be the way to go. Placing the desktop in a central location allows you to set limits on usage and monitor the sites your kids visit. Desktops have other positives, too. First is price: Desktops lack the “cool” factor and are usually less expensive than laptops. They are also easier to upgrade and repair, and expanding the memory is simpler. Finally, you don’t have to worry about someone dropping or stealing your desktop the way you do with a laptop!

Mac or PC?

Just like cloth vs. disposable, the question of Mac vs. PC comes down to a personal choice. Mac and PC users are usually so loyal to their brands that they are no help to the novice computer user, so the best thing to do is to look at how you will use your computer before you make a decision.

Macs are thought to be more intuitive and easier to use than PCs. They are reliable, and great technical support is available. They also aren’t as prone to contracting viruses. Finally, Macs can run Windows as a second operating system, which means that most programs and data that are used on a PC can also be opened on a Mac.

PCs, on the other hand, are less expensive and give you more software options. Also, unless you’re a designer or an educator, chances are that your work computer is a PC , which means you’ll be compatible at home.

How Much Memory Do I Need?

The bigger the RAM—or random access memory—the more you’ll be able to do with your computer.

Current thinking is that you need 3 GB (that’s gigabytes) of RAM on a desktop, particularly if you are sharing your computer with other family members. On a laptop, 2 GB should suffice. If your computer is running slowly it’s usually due to the RAM and not the processing speed or the hard drive.

You might also want to look into whether the RAM is expandable. If you can add to your memory, you might be able to extend the life of your computer and thereby save money over the long run.

What About Hard Drive Size or Processor Speed?

Your hard drive is akin to your closet space, so you should ask yourself how much stuff you want to store. In general, 80 GB should be enough for the average user; however, if you store a lot of pictures or other large files, you might want to look into getting at least 120 GB of storage or more. Also, it’s always a good idea to get an external hard drive or USB (universal serial bus) port for backing up your files. That way, if your hard drive crashes or you get a virus, you’ll have saved your music, files, and photos without worry.

Your processor—or CPU (central processing unit) in a desktop—is the “brain” of the computer. In general terms, the faster the processor speed, the better your performance; 2.0 Ghz (that’s gigahertz) is considered standard. And today’s chips are often “dual-core” or “quad-core,” which means they have multiple processing “brains” on each chip. This is good for you—it means your computer is capable of more. Again, it doesn’t really matter what brand processor is in your computer; speed is king.

Computer Considerations for Kids

Today’s kids are called the digital generation, yet many of today’s home computers are not built for little hands. One way to help kids feel more natural at the computer is to purchase a kid-friendly mouse or keyboard.

If your children are a bit older and use the computer for gaming, you might want to spring for a gaming keyboard that is more ergonomically correct.

Also, remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time daily—this means total television and computer time! Putting your computer in a central location can help you monitor this, as can keeping a simple kitchen timer next to the computer.

Bells and Whistles

Before you think about the webcams and the gaming add-ons, you might want to consider your operating system and your software. Much of the software that comes with your new computer works only for a limited amount of time, so check that your antivirus and antispyware software will work and can be updated for at least a year.

Rather than focusing on the “brand” of the computer, focus on customer support. Check the warranty and the support section of the maker’s website or call the customer support number with a test question to see what type of response you get.

As for those bells and whistles, many laptops now have built-in webcams, and these can be great for letting kids communicate with distant grandparents or with you if you travel a lot for work. Alternatively, if you work from home, a webcam can help you be at a meeting “in person.”

How to Get the Best Deal

Before you go out and buy a new computer, consider upgrading your current computer. A second hard drive or additional memory may be more cost effective and environmentally friendly than buying a new machine.

If you’ve determined that you really do need a new computer, use the weekly circulars as a starting point to educate yourself on the prices you can expect.

Decide whether you want a custom-made computer or a model that’s off the shelf. Sometimes buying your computer “a la carte” can save you money. If you go to a manufacturer’s site, you can use its menu of options to see how much your computer will cost. Look at how a change will affect the overall price.

If you plan on purchasing a computer off the shelf, first shop in stores so that you can see and feel the computer to get a better idea of what you want. Then, go to online to shopping comparison sites (like Froogle.com or Pricegrabber.com) to see where you can find the computer you want at the best price.

You also might want to skip the extended warranty. A Consumer Reports subscriber survey found that the cost of a desktop service contract was not much less than the average repair cost. That means you might be better off paying for desktop repairs out of your own pocket.

Finally, when comparing computer prices, consider any other necessary software as adding to the true cost. Read the fine print for hidden costs, return charges, or restocking fees, and make sure you can return your computer for a full refund if you are not completely satisfied.

Disposing of Your Old Computer

If your new computer is replacing an outdated one, make plans for the old system. You can donate, sell, or trade in used computers—check the computer manufacturer’s website for more information. Check with local schools to see if they have a need for used computers, or call your town’s sanitation department to see if they have an electronics recycling day. Just make sure you wipe out the data from the hard drive before you donate or recycle it.

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