Holiday Buyer’s Guide: Part 1–Computer Hardware

Every year, I get asked by a number of different people, what computer they should buy their loved one(s) for Christmas (or your end of year holiday of choice).  My answer is never what they expect and never what they think they need, as it starts with a question for them – "What do you/they want to do with the computer?" I almost always get the same response – "Hmmm.  I'm not sure."

Unfortunately, that's one question you MUST know the answer to. If you don't know what you (or your loved ones) want to do, buying the right PC for your/their needs is going to be harder than it might be if you knew what they wanted to do.  Good thing, though – unless you have a specific need that you need special hardware for (like a gaming PC), most people want to do the same things:

  1. Surf the Internet (Facebook and its online games (farming…!)
  2. Take, process and share family photos
  3. Manage their music and off-line video collection
  4. Send and receive e-mail/ Update social networking status

Other than the above, unless, as I said, you're wanting to do something specific with your computer that requires specialized hardware, such as play processor and graphics adapter intensive games, buying the RIGHT PC is pretty easy; and for most (at least in this economy) price is usually the biggest driver. As such, I've pulled together the following holiday suggestions for desktops, note books and netbooks as well as tablets to help everyone out.  Let's take a quick look and see what is available for everyone.


There are a lot of very affordable desktops available, running a number of different operating systems, or flavors of operating systems.  However, you basically have your choice of 2-3 basic categories: Windows, OSX (Mac) or Linux.  Windows and OSX OS’ will cost your something.  Many Linux variants are available for free.

When selecting a desktop, you should use the following process to pick your machine:

  1. Identify your budget (and stick to it!)
  2. Pick your OS and the variant you want/need to use
  3. Select the components that best fit your intended needs
  4. Purchase

Let’s pick these apart a bit so that everyone understands them.

1. Identify and stick to your budget
There are so many options when purchasing a desktop.  You can effectively build your own, regardless of the brand you buy.  You can pick the processor brand, type and speed.  You can pick the amount of RAM you buy, as well as the size of your hard drive.  You can also choose the graphics card that works best for you.  This is where you’re likely to break your budget, especially when you get to a site that has online configuration (
Apple, Dell, Gateway and HP all allow you to do this). Figure out what you can afford and then stick to it.  Don’t spend more than you’ve budgeted; and as a rule of thumb, allow 15% for tax and shipping, especially if you want to get things delivered to you in time for Christmas morning.  So, if your budget is say, $500, then you know that you can purchase a PC that costs $425 (as $75 will cover both tax and shipping out of your budget).  You’d be surprised at how much PC $425 will buy now-a-days.

2. Pick your OS and the variant you want need to use
This is mainly for Windows and Linux OS’, as unless you buy a used Mac from eBay or Craig’s List, there’s really only one current, version of OSX available.  The nice thing about Windows 7 is that Home Premium has about 99% of everything the common user needs; and 64bit variants have very good driver support.  You don’t have to buy the Ultimate version in order to get the cool features, like you did with Vista. 

Linux, while free, is a little more difficult to choose from (due to the different number of Linux variants to choose from); and if you decide to go that route, you need to make sure that your component choices (LAN cards, graphics cards and CD/DVD drives and controller cards) are supported by the Linux variant you intend to use.  However, its still a very viable choice.  Variants like Ubuntu are easy to install, update and use; and most of the software you would want to run (an office suite, like Open Office) is also free.  The best way to insure that you won’t have driver issues here is to Google search the hardware components and Linux variant you want to use and have the resulting information open while you configure or pick your hardware components (if you order from Dell, HP, etc.)

3. Select the components that best fit your intended needs
This is the easiest part of the whole process.  Picking your PC’s components, at least to me, is like picking penny candy in a candy store. You put what you want in the bag and then pay by the pound when you’re done. Big fun! 

The best thing do remember here, is that you buy as big as you can afford.  Get as much RAM as you can, but you should have at least 2-4GB at a minimum. Get as big a hard drive as you can.  With prices as low as they are, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have at least one 1TB drive in your desktop.When it comes to music, pictures and movies, this is a no brainer.  Storage is cheap as of December 2010.  Buy big.  Storage is something that you can always use more of. There’s a 99% chance that it won’t go to waste.

Unless you’re going to purchase a gaming PC, you won’t need a high end graphics card.  Get something with 128MB to 256MB of dedicated video RAM, and don’t worry about much else.  While a better, faster video card is going to make display refreshes and screen writes faster, unless you’re doing any really heavy picture edits, really intensive video/DVD creating (say with iMovie or Windows Live Movie Maker), a high end video card is a waste of money on a non-gaming PC.

4. Purchase your Stuff
Ok, this is where the fun begins. I love configuring and picking out new computer hardware.  There are a number of different places you can go, both on and off line.
Dell, Gateway and HP all have online configuration, so you can build your PC to fit your specific needs; but you’re going to pay a bit more for that and for the brand name.

If you’re in the Chicago-land area, you can check out Tiger Direct on-line or at their showroom at 105 Ambassador Drive, Naperville, IL.  They have a number of very affordable PC’s that may meet your needs.  They have refurbished/off lease PC’s for as little as $90 bucks.

My pick for about $500, is the Syx Venture M110 Mini PC Bundle.This dual core Intel Atom PC may not be the most powerful horse in the barn, but it comes with everything you need to get you going, including a 19″ widescreen monitor, a gigabit Ethernet card (wired LAN) and an 802.11b/g wireless card.  It also has a fast 3GB/second 250GB hard drive that should give you decent speed with the 64bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium that it comes with.

The Syx Venture M110 Mini PC Bundle from Tiger Direct

Notebooks & Netbooks
Things here are a little more closed off than the desktop arena, especially if you go the Apple way, as Stevie J. obviously wants you to, this Holiday Season. The process of choosing the right PC experience here is very similar to the desktop process above.  However, once there, you’re likely going to have to make some configuration decisions that you wouldn’t if you went the desktop route.  More than likely, unless you have some experience in upgrading a notebook or netbook, you’re going to want to max out both RAM and your hard drive options at the time of purchase.  Upgrading a portable PC isn’t as easy as upgrading a desktop PC.

Given the economy, however, let me suggest that unless budget is a huge concern, a netbook probably isn’t the best choice.  I’ve been working with them for quite some time, and they really do have a number of limitations, most notably a non-standard screen size (most run at a resolution of 1024 by 600).  A decent laptop/notebook can be purchased for a reasonable, incremental increase over a netbook, and offer full notebook/laptop features for just a little extra money.

Again, you’re going to want to buy as beefy a machine as possible; but you want at least a dual-core CPU running at 2.0gHz minimum.  You’ll need at least 4GB of RAM, but again, if the notebook supports more and you can afford more, get it now.  Also purchase as big a hard drive as you can. Upgrading notebook hard drives isn’t too difficult, but depending on the drive type and interface, finding compatible upgrades later might be a challenge.

My pick for about $600 is the Toshiba Satellite L675-S7044.  The Toshiba Satellite L675-S7044 is a 17″ laptop that offers a lot of power for a decent price. It has a full size keyboard, including a dedicated numeric keypad. It comes standard with a 2.0gHz processor and 4GB of RAM (upgradeable to 8GB) and comes with a 5400 RPM, 320GB hard drive. It also sports 802.11b/g wireless, a built in SD card reader and a DVD SuperMulti drive.

The Toshiba Satellite L675-S7044 from Tiger Direct

While this laptop is bigger than most at 17″, it is a full desktop replacement, offers decent computing power at a good notebook price, and is above all, portable.  Its large, wide screen is going to be perfect for movies, presentations, as well as writing reports and working with spreadsheets. Toshiba also makes a decent laptop, so you won’t be disappointed with the quality of the machine.

Before we move to the next section, I did want to stop and address why I didn’t list an Apple laptop as my notebook pick.  I love Apple notebooks, I have one myself, and am using it to develop this Holiday Buyer’s Guide.  However, Apple products are premium products, and come with a premium price tag.  They are a good choice if you have the money to spend, need the PC to last a LONG time (5 years or more) and hold their resale value, whereas notebooks on the Windows side tend to not last as long and definitely DON’T hold their resale value.

Apple computers are a great buy if you have the resources to afford them. I definitely do recommend them, but you could likely get 2 of the Toshiba’s noted above for the price of 1 13″ MacBook Pro, after a RAM upgrade. Please keep this in mind when making your purchasing decisions.

This is the one section that is going to be hot, hOT, HOT this Holiday Season.  The Apple iPad has definitely made its presence known, and everyone from my 5 year old son, Sam, to the CMO (Chief Medical Officer) at the hospital I used to work at has been hounding me for my opinion on the platform, and suggestions on the best process for integrating them into the Enterprise.

Right now, tablet choices are limited to just a few choices:

  1. The Apple iPad
  2. The Samsung Galaxy Tab
  3. The Archos 7

My biggest complaint about the iPad last year was that it looked, felt and functioned like a big giant iPhone. I wasn’t really all that taken by it because it seems like something Flava-Flav would stick a giant, gold rope chain on and wear around his neck.  The product has matured a bit, its niche is better defined, and 3rd party development has picked up, further differentiating it from the iPhone or iPod Touch.  However, the Android Tablet market hasn’t gone through this maturation process yet.

The Samsung Galaxy Tab (and any other Android tablet for that matter) really is nothing more than a smartphone with a 7″ or bigger screen.  The applications available for it are either the same ones available for my Nexus One, Samsung Vibrant, myTouch 3G Slide or Motorola CLIQ. While I have picked one up and plaid with it, I don’t recall if the device has the phone application on it or not. If it does, I suspect you could make a phone call with it.  There’s no difference between the Galaxy Tab and the Galaxy S series of phones except for size, really.  I have a problem with this, as I can see Flava-Flav just waiting to put a gold rope chain on it, along with the fact that I haven’t seen tablet specific applications for it just yet. Until then, I don’t exactly know if I can in good conscience recommend it over any other tablet.

So, my pick for about $500, is the Apple iPad 16GB Wi-Fi version. With the right smartphone, smartphone data plan and carrier, you can get on the internet via either a built in portable hotspot app or wireless tethering and use it to surf the internet, get mail, Facebook, etc., without incurring any additional wireless costs.  The 16GB version may not have a great deal of storage, but the device is not meant to hold everything you might want or need at any given moment.  Its meant to sync with your Mac or PC, and you should setup some sort of routine that gets you back to it as regularly as you can.

The 16GB Wi-Fi only Apple iPad

With the right accessories and applications, the iPad should be perfect for meetings, meeting notes, and other enterprise applications that take you away from your desk. Its also the perfect companion for a long commute on the public rail system offering eBook and movies via iTunes and/or the eBook application of your choice.

Now that we have our hardware, we need to figure out what software we want to run with it.  Come back next time, as Part 2 of my 2010 Holiday Buyer’s Guide will show you how to get ALL of the genuine, licensed software you might need for your new computer at just a fraction of the cost!

1 Comment on Holiday Buyer’s Guide: Part 1–Computer Hardware

  1. Thanks for this post. I definitely agree with what you are saying. I have been talking about this subject a lot lately with my father so hopefully this will get him to see my point of view. Fingers crossed!

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