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1 May 2012

How PC buying has changed

By Andrew Clifford

Buying a PC is now much more about personal preference and getting good value than it is about technology.

If you work in IT you've probably been asked by a friend or family member about what PC they should buy.

It was certainly true in the past that it was useful to have a bit of background knowledge, to interpret the different specifications and to protect friends and family from purchasing already obsolete equipment.

The definition of obsolete has changed through time. Take memory for example. I remember advising that Windows 3.1 ran much better with 4MB than 2MB, but more recently that 512MB, 1GB and then 2GB was the absolute minimum they should have. I remember advising how much better the 80386 chip was than the 80286 because of its support for 32 bit processing. And how much faster USB version 2 is than version 1. And more recently how a "g" WiFi connection is better than "a/b", and now how "n" is better than "g".

But after years of giving this sort of advice, most of the issues have gone away. For most people, nearly any current PC will do. The only real issue is if you want a gaming PC, in which case you're probably better off buying a dedicated games console.

Nowadays you can have so much of everything. Processors are fast. Memory and disk are plentiful. Displays are cheap, so laptops (or tablets) are the default choice. Second screens are cheap. Printers are ridiculously cheap - though manufacturers recoup their profit in exorbitant ink costs.

Now when friends and family members ask for advice, the advice is much less technical. It is much more about interpreting preferences and how to buy.

To start, rather than going into any technical detail, I suggest people go to the local computer store and see which keyboard they like the feel of and which screens suit them best.

And I suggest how best to buy things. The market for computers, printers and monitors is very competitive, and the price difference between buying online and in the store is usually not that great. So you might as well pick up your computer, printer and monitor from the local store, if they have what you want. However, the market for accessories like cables and ink is hugely uncompetitive, and it really pays to shop around.

And there are the special offers to avoid. Like the special offers on anti virus software - where most people will do perfectly well with the free Microsoft Security Essentials. And the special offers for a single user license for Microsoft Office, where the three user license is only marginally more expensive, and saves money if you have more than one PC in the household. And many people will be happy with the starter editions that are bundled with Windows 7 or with the free Libre Office suite.

These changes show how much technology has grown up. For the first 25-30 years of the PC, technology has been the limiting factor. But now, like so many other areas of IT, technology is no longer the issue. Now the issue is helping people pick a PC that suits them and getting value for money.

Next: Microsoft - pay now, pay later


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