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Buying a new PC

People often ask me for advice when buying a new PC. Here are some general guidelines with rough price estimates. (Prices as of September 2007)

Pick your budget

First off, pick your budget. You can get a great PC with a LCD screen for under a grand these days. If you're upgrading and already have a monitor, a new PC can easily cost less than $400CDN.

Buy Locally

Next, buy locally if at all possible, big-box stores don't count. Dell, MDG, HP all sell so many PCs that you'll only ever be a number. Small stores in town will offer competitive pricing and generally have better staff to look after you if something goes wrong. My favourites in Kingston are Kingston Computer Planet and Computer Depot. KCP in particular has very knowledgeable staff who are always at the ready. They also have an excellent website that lets you create an on-line quote in no time.

Consider a used PC

Consider a used PC. You can get off-lease PCs for as little as $150. Personally, I'd rather have a top-quality older PC than a very low-end new PC. For instance, at this time, Computer Depot is selling an IBM PIII 1GHz with 256MB RAM, a burner and Windows 98SE for $250. Heck, they have a similarly configured ThinkPad for $500. Buy one, which includes a copy of Windows XP and you're up and running for very little coin.  These machines also typically run Linux very well.

Consider an Apple Macintosh

Believe me, I never thought I'd be saying this, but please consider buying an Apple Macintosh. They are great machines, they aren't just for artists, they aren't that much more expensive than a similarly configured PC. If you don't absolutely need Windows, a Mac may be right up your alley. You can get a new Mac Mini for $630, $750 gets you more disk space and a faster processor. In either case, consider upgrading the RAM.  Mac OSX likes RAM.

Seriously, a well-configured Mac will run you about $850. A MacBook is as cheap as $1249. You can certainly get cheaper PCs, but Apple hardware is very well made and their operating system, Mac OSX is absolutely the best consumer operating system out there. It is built on Unix. Banks use Unix. Governments use Unix. I use Unix. OSX almost never crashes, viruses are virtually non-existent and spyware simply doesn't exist. Oh, the machines last longer too. I typically get two and a half years out of a Mac before upgrading.  Many people at work use them for four or five years between upgrades. I've never had a PC that lasted me two years before.

Now, people are often worried about being locked into Apple land once they buy a Mac. Honestly, I had similar worries when I bought my iBook. However, since then, I've found that these concerns were unfounded. For starters, with the shift to Intel CPUs, a Mac really is just a PC.  In fact, all you need to run Windows is to download BootCamp.  If OSX doesn't do it for you, just use the Mac with Windows or Linux.  It's all the same hardware. PCI cards, USB2, Firewire, DDR2 RAM etc. Moreover, if you're considering a laptop or the mini, the PC equivalent is no less proprietary.

However, more important than hardware lock-in is software lock-in. This one is up to you. See, despite the commercial options, on OSX I tend to use all of the Open Source apps I used in Linux. I use Firefox, Thunderbird, NeoOffice, VLC, Eclipse, X11 etc.  As long as you take care to avoid proprietary file formats, such as those used by Microsoft Office or Apple's iWork, you can shift to another platform in the future if Apple hardware or software is lacking.

As mentioned, hardware lock-in is a complete non-issue, as I can (and do) move easily back and forth between Linux and Windows. I use OSX on my main home machine because it works so well with all of my HW and SW. Let me tell you, Audacity on OSX is much nicer to use and look at than Audacity in Linux.

As long as the apps that you use are available on more than one platform, your data is safe regardless of your current system. Stick to Open Source and open standards like the OASIS office format and you can use whatever computer and OS fits your current needs.

Macs aren't prefect, though. There is less software for them, they can only be serviced in a few places, and Apple does charge a premium. Having said this, if you aren't a big gamer and don't _need_ Windows-Specific programs, at least consider a Mac.

I used to think that Macs weren't worth the time of day. The hardware was odd, the operating system was a joke, they were expensive. Since OSX, however, the operating system is great, the hardware has improved by leaps and bounds, and the prices have come down considerably.

Hardware Suggestions

If you're interested in trying a Mac, I'd buy it from Computer Depot.  If you need service, I'd certainly take it there over Altair. It turns out that the Queen's Computer Store. now ships their Apple products out to Computer Depot for servicing.  This is great news, as many people that I have spoken with have historically had problems with their service.  I'd generally avoid Altair.  They've done a few shady things that I've seen.  It took weeks for an iBook screen repair that I sent their way before Computer Depot was an option.  They also sold an older G4 Mac Mini to a friend the day the Intel Minis were announced and had no qualms selling him an upgraded hard drive for what I considered to be too much money.  I don't mean to slag them, but these were my only experiences dealing with them.  If you don't mind ordering on-line, you can also buy directly from Apple.


Apple Recommendations

As of March 2005, I'd suggest either a Mac Mini or an iBook for first time Apple buyers. Both are excellent systems and are an excellent value. In either case, I'd suggest upgrading the RAM to at least 512MB if you can afford it. Mac OSX likes as much RAM as you can throw at it. I find 384MB to be the least amount necessary for it to be really usable. I'd also suggest getting whatever hard drive you need off the bat. Upgrading the drive later is a real pain. This is especially true with the iBook. However, don't sweat the disk space too much, you can always throw on an external USB or Firewire drive later. An external drive can also be shared between the Mac and a PC.

PC Recommendations

I haven't convinced you to buy a Mac, eh? Okay. Here goes:

  1. Unless you're doing video editing, save $100 and get a Celeron instead of a Pentium 4. Pretty much any CPU is fast enough these days.
  2. Get at least 512MB of RAM
  3. Stick to a motherboard with an Intel chipset. I like the Asus P4P800-VM. It has on-board video and an AGP slot, so you can add a good video card later if you decide to play 3D games.
  4. Get a Seagate ATA hard drive. There's no advantage to S-ATA yet. Seagate drives are cheap, quiet and have a five year warranty.
  5. Don't get a $30 case. The power supply will die within a year. AOpen makes good cheap cases, Antec makes great quiet (and expensive) cases.