This answer usually elicits one of two responses: laughter or a slug on the arm. Both responses come from the same place: Confusion. What they don’t realize at first is that I can’t possibly answer that question for them. What ends up happening is that I lead them to their own decision.
How do I do that? I turn the tables. They come to me for an answer to a question. What they get is a lot of questions in return. I’ll try to frame these questions here for you in an attempt to lead you to your answer.
- What is your budget? If you’re looking for a cheap computer, Apple usually isn’t going to be your first choice. Apple attempts to be the top of the market. Whether you’re talking hardware or software, Design is king. Just working isn’t enough. It must be elegant. This is part of the legacy left behind by co-founder Steve Jobs. He demanded it. That’s not to say you can’t get a used or refurbished Apple product that fits within your budget. It just means that if you want the quality design that Apple offers, expect to pay for it. A part of that quality control means that Apple doesn’t license their operating system. If you want the Mac operating system you have to buy Apple hardware to run it. They licensed their OS for a while (while Steve Jobs was not there). It was cheaper to get a computer that ran the Mac OS. The problem was that they lost control of the quality. It didn’t work well. It took away the appeal of the whole Mac experience. On the other hand, anyone can make a machine that runs Windows. As a matter of fact, my MacBook Pro runs Windows better than any computer I’ve ever seen. Because of the diversity of Windows computer manufacturers, they’re usually cheap. Be careful though. Not all Windows machines are created equal. They may all run fine for the first few months. As with most electronics, you get what you pay for…up to a point. Much of what you pay for in electronics is longevity. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand since about 1984, you know that technology gets left behind. If you pay a huge wad of money hoping to get 10 years out of a computer, you will find yourself 5 years from now wishing you had an updated machine. Moderation.
- What do you want to do with your computer? You would be surprised how often this question is overlooked. If all you ever plan to do is check email and FaceBook the answer becomes “neither Mac nor Windows.” Go buy yourself a cheap netbook, Google Chromebook, or a tablet of some sort. If you are doing bookkeeping for your home business you need to be looking at the software you plan to use. A lot of the small business finance software is only available for Windows machines. Check it out. If you are doing primarily word processing and running typical office software you could go either way. Microsoft office is available on both platforms so that one won’t help make the decision. If you are needing the typical office software and your budget is thin look at OpenOffice or Google Docs. Both are free. If you are looking to do graphic design and/or photo editing do yourself a favor. Invest in a Mac. It just does a better job. They started the digital arts revolution. Their user interface was based on good typographic and design principles from the start. Color matching is easier and more accurate in the Mac environment too. I would extend this advice to video and audio producers as well. Mac just does it better. If you are a writer, it’s almost an even split. The only argument I can give writers for going the direction of the Apple is that the Mac environment seems to promote creativity.
- Who is it for? It makes a difference who will be using the computer. You don’t want to hand a $2,000 MacBook Air to a 6-year-old. If it’s a kid’s first computer you should really consider buying used. That’s tricky because it’s hard to know how old is too old. Sometimes you can tell by the Operating System running on the machine. That isn’t always the case though because it’s possible to install upgrades. Processors, RAM, and hard drives can get a little overwhelming. A good rule of thumb is to buy something less than 3 years old. I would prefer less than 2 years, but there again it depends on the intended use. As far as used Mac versus used Windows, again I point you to the other discussions here. Just apply them to the intended user. If you are a man buying for your wife my first advice is, “Don’t.” Don’t go out and buy for her. Include her in the selection process. Pay attention to how long she spends picking out a purse or a coat. She takes forever choosing because she knows she will be stuck with it for a while. It not only needs to function well, but it needs to look good too. She doesn’t want to go sit in a coffee shop with a laptop that looks like her teenaged son handed it down to her. Help her figure out the necessary tech specs, but really listen to her concerning appearances. If you’re buying for your parent, usually you want to go simple. Have you seen the funny picture floating around the internet of the remote control with most of the buttons blocked off? It’s only funny because there’s truth to it. Computers can be confusing to those who did not grow up basking in the glow of a CRT. You want your parents/grandparents to get to see all of the pics & vids you’re posting of your precious snowflake of a child. In order for that to happen, they need to be comfortable with the technology that brings it to them.
- What kind of computer are you using now? So it’s time for a change. How big of a change do you want? Are you sick to death of your old computer? Are you looking forward to lovingly placing it in the driveway and running it over with your car until it’s unrecognizable? Or, are you just ready for something a little faster and more modern? The answers to these questions will help you in the selection of your next machine. If you hated what you had, what did you hate? Go to a retailer and play on their computers. When the sales person approaches ask them to give you a few minutes to explore on your own. Play with them. Get a sense of the look and feel of each. After you’ve had a chance to explore a bit call them over and ask them for their sales pitch. Make them give you information on all of the different models that you are interested in. Tell yourself ahead of time that you are not going to get all glassy-eyed about any one machine and that you’re not going to let the sales person lead you around by the nose. Their motivation for pushing a certain computer may not work to your best interest. For instance, they may steer you away from Macs because they don’t get as much commission, or because of their personal preference. Go with the goal of learning as much as possible about several computers. Take a note pad. Make notes. Walk out without buying anything. Once you’ve collected some info, go home and think through what you liked and didn’t like about your previous computer. Compare that to your notes from your shopping trip. Which one best solves your problems? Make sure to consider the software you are currently using. Will your existing software license transfer to the new computer? If not, will your important files be compatible with the replacement software?
- Can you still afford to buy a computer? Now that you’ve done all of that shopping and research, was your original budget reasonable? Most people get to the end of the process and find that they can no longer afford a computer upgrade. Maybe you need a second job to feed your technology habit! People usually end up asking me if I think they can get some money back out of their old computer. Usually the answer is no. If you don’t want it anymore, what makes you think they do? Find a good recycling place for it, and raise money for its replacement some other way.
Technology upgrades are hard. They’re even harder if you don’t know what you are doing. Take your time. Try to find a way to enjoy the research and replacement process. Ask for advice
Side Note: If you have sensitive documents on your computer, don’t let that information go with the computer to the recycle center. Remove the hard drive (usually a simple process) and keep it. Store it in the attic until it’s so old that it will never work again. There are processes for erasing hard drives, but realistically, the best policy is to not let anyone get ahold of it. You could also destroy it with a hammer, use it for target practice, set it on fire, or whatever makes you comfortable that it won’t be readable again.