Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Cheaper computers are often more expensive

Computer buyers are like drivers who need to put gas in the tank. Let me explain.

There are a few “discount” gas stations near my place. They sell gas for about four cents per litre less than nearby stations. On a typical 30 litre fill-up, that works out to savings of $1.20.

One of these filling stations tends to feature lineups that block traffic on the road. Drivers can easily wait 10 to 15 minutes before pulling up to a pump. In that time, they burn gas idling their vehicles. They also burn off the wait time. They do all this to save about $1.20.

What kind of driver are you? If you’re the type of driver who would join this lineup, read no further. If you value time and efficiency more highly than a pittance, keep reading.

Let’s transfer the filling station situation to buying a new computer. Like a house, car or other purchases that involve moving parts and the potential for costly repairs, the total cost of ownership for a computer extends beyond the purchase price. Yet people still flock to the best deals they can find, coming from manufacturers whose commitment to quality is sketchy at best.

The result: people who buy low-end computers spend time and money fixing problems with their computers, or replacing them sooner than they thought they would. Sometimes you’re better off spending a few more dollars on a computer to avoid costs and frustration down the road, much like you would spend an extra $1.20 to avoid wasting time lining up for a commodity like gas.

Buying the right computer

Consider these two (of many) tips to help you buy a computer that will reliably meet your needs.

Certain large computer manufacturers sell consumer and business lines of products. “Business” products are more expensive for several reasons. My favourite: They don’t feature useless “crapware” or “scareware” or “bloatware” (e.g. utilities that do nothing but display messages during you to buy them) that savvy computer owners uninstall before using their computers.

Do NOT buy or use crapware

Why do computer manufacturers ship such loathed software on their products? Crapware developers often pay computer manufacturers to include installers of their products on brand-new machines. That helps manufacturers subsidize the cost of those machines, sometimes to the tune of $100.00 per unit. Some manufacturers then sell their products at lower (i.e. more competitive) prices.

Business-grade computers may come with support options that provide peace of mind, at minimum, and actual support if the computer develops problems.

To improve your chances of buying a good-quality computer, check out third party reviews like those published by Consumer Reports, J.D. Power and Associates, CNET and others.

Buy legitimate software

The same logic applies to software, since the wrong software can render a good computer useless. Don’t buy cracked software at a “discount” or download cracked software for free.

“Cracked” software has had the requirement for a serial number removed so that people can install it for free, or at a discount. If only the people who perform this service didn’t have ulterior motives… cracked software often “ships” with more than the computer user bargains for. While installing the software you think you’re getting (and there’s no guarantee of that), you may also be installing software you didn’t mean to acquire, malware that lets a third party use your computer for its own nefarious purposes. The malware could do any of the following – or more:

  • Your computer (and Internet connection) might be used to spam other people.
  • The “secret software” may also upload information on your computer to a third party’s servers.
  • Keyloggers might also upload your keystrokes when you sign in to websites, be they social networks, banks or other places where criminals might use your information to commit fraud.

Buy computers from a legitimate source

If the price of a computer seems to good to be true, find out if the version of Windows installed is legitimate. If it isn’t, you may not be able to update it when Microsoft ships updates.

No updates means your computer may one day be vulnerable to malware that up-to-date copies of Windows have long since been hardened against. Should your computer fall to one of these vulnerabilities, you can expect no end of headaches.

This same logic applies, by the way, to software.

Computer buying – a quick checklist

Which computer you should buy depends on many factors.

  • If you’re a tinkerer, you may be able to run a “lesser” computer more efficiently. You can buy a lower-priced model that you can upgrade yourself. Quality third-party components often cost less than what manufacturers charge for them pre-installed. Just ensure that the model of computer you buy allows for such upgrades.
  • If you’re not a tinkerer, get a model that works properly out of the box, or with minimal amounts of extra setup.
  • If quality matters, read authoritative reviews.
  • If speed matters, opt for the most RAM you can get and choose a model with a solid state drive (SSD) rather than a hard disk drive (HDD).
  • Budget always matters, of course. Just remember: quality only hurts once.

What are your criteria for buying a computer? Let me know in the comments below.