In January I did something stupid and ended up getting my laptop stolen.
Since then I have spent a lot of time at the library (on some pretty nice desktops with nifty touch screen monitors) and borrowed by sister's computer while at home. I don't have my own computer at work (or my own classroom, or a desk chair in my office) so I spent a lot of time moving around in the computer labs. This whole process has given me a lot of time to think about what I actually need and want in a computer so that when I got my tax return I was prepared to make a purchase.
The Simple Dollar says to spend one month thinking and researching for every $100 you plan to spend on an item. I have been thinking about this new computer for a long time and have come up with some pretty clear guidelines for myself as well as for others in general.
1. What am I going to do with my computer?
This is the most important step in thinking about purchasing any piece of electronics. If you are a general consumer, most of the time you DON'T want all the fancy stuff because you aren't going to be using the bells and whistles you pay for. Just because you COULD maybe someday use them doesn't justify getting something that is above and beyond your lifestyle and learning curve.
Two years ago I would have said all I needed was a basic computer: something with internet and Microsoft word and enough memory to handle Pandora, 5 Chrome tabs and a Word document. Now that I am starting my masters program this summer in instructional technology I know I need a little more. So I looked up the system requirements for Dreamweaver and Photoshop (the two largest programs I will probably every use) and found that the inside requirements are nothing huge and that pretty much an new monitor can support the display. I had originally though that I would be looking at something a little bigger than the basics required here (heck, they don't really sell anything new with only 1GB of RAM, and that's all it needs though more will probably help) but in knowing what I need and the requirements to fulfill that I made my search process much easier.
Also, because of the abundance of computer access at work and because I can use the library computers when I get out of the house I am not stuck to a laptop (though I think I am leaning that way).
2. What can I afford to spend?
This should be a two-fold question. Don't just look at your finances, look at your finances and what is out there that meets your needs side by side. Look at what is at the high end price wise and the low end price wise, then the quality at the top and the quality at the bottom. This is a simple explanation for what should take you several hours of research. Don't take the simple directions lightly.
3. Where do these two things meet?
This is the decision making part of all of this. Once you have mapped out what the high end quality and price looks like, what the lower end price and quality looks like it is up to you to decide what you want to base your final decision on. Did you find a great deal somewhere? Does one of the more pricy computers come with an accessories pack? Do you not like the feel of one of the computers?
4. Where to shop
This depends a lot on how comfortable you feel with your own computer knowledge and what you need. If you are looking for a general-use computer BestBuy.com is actually a great place to start looking. I was a little surprised at this becuaes I'm used to their prices being astronomical compared to some of the more techie niche sites, but apparently they got smart and are being more competitive. But don't buy it in the store. You can go to the store, check out how a computer feels and then buy it at home, but you WILL pay more in the store.
I am lucky and live close to MicroCenter so I went there and tried out computers, but there are only a few around and I'm honestly not certain what other regional equivalents are. Their website is a good place to go too, but it's more technical than Best Buy's site. Also, Tiger Direct and New Egg are great technical sites that have a lot of the more in-depth specs but again can be overwhelming if you are just browsing. If you know exactly what you are looking for though they are a great place to find lower prices.
So, what did I come up with?
I don't know yet. I'm still researching. After writing this out I realized that though I've been thinking this through for a while I still don't have the answer figured out. The moral of the story is: take your time making such a large purchase. There is nothing more complicated then a computer that you will use as often except your car.