Whether you ultimately decide to buy a desktop computer or a laptop (see Chapter 1 for help making that choice), your strategy for selecting exactly the right machine to fit your particular needs is the same: Look for the best combination of features, quality, performance, support, and price. This chapter tells you how to identify the features and options that your computer should include and how to evaluate the less tangible characteristics that make the difference between a cheap computer and a true bargain.
As in most retail, computer vendors do charge what the market can take. New features tend to cost more upon their first introduction to the public and decrease in price as the novelty wears off; fancy yet useless designs can also rack up the price a bit. But the largest part of a computer's cost is directly related to its performance and the quality of its components. Because the retail computer business is extremely competitive, computers with similar performance and features almost always have similar prices. A cheaper computer contains slower, cheaper parts. When you buy a new computer, you usually get what you pay for.
Unless you can find a special sale or rebate, it's probably not productive to choose a computer based exclusively on price. It's better to identify the features and options that make a difference to the way you use the machine. Let the performance and features drive your choice.
If one computer costs more than another, it probably has one or more of these features:
The CPU has better or faster performance.
The computer has more RAM.
The hard drive is bigger.
The graphics controller has more memory.
The computer comes with a more expensive version of Windows.
The optical drive plays and records DVDs.
The computer comes with a more expensive monitor, mouse, keyboard, or speakers.
The warranty is longer or it includes on-site service calls.
The computer comes with one or more software utilities and applications.
The manufacturer offers more or better technical support.
Quality in a computer is partially reflected in more durable, more reliable parts. Although it's possible to assemble a computer from premium-quality components, most manufacturers and screwdriver shops use less expensive parts that are still entirely adequate for most users. Most of the components inside your computer can last long after advances to the technology make them obsolete.
The Internet is full of detailed reviews and anecdotal reports about every imaginable piece of computer gear, from fully assembled systems to individual cases, motherboards, and plug-in cards. If a particular item has a history of failure or terrible factory support, you can be sure that a bunch of unhappy people have described their experiences online. A Web search on the make and model name or number plus the word "review" can probably direct you to sites that offer praise or warnings about the piece of equipment you're considering. Don't pay much attention to the glowing reports in the manufacturer's own site or those of their dealers, but look for independent reports, especially the ones in user forums and blogs. Don't worry as much about one or two negative stories among a lot more positives-even the best products get those. If you find a ten-page technical review, look for the subjective evaluations on the first and last pages.
There are a few places where a computer maker can cut corners. In a desktop system, the most common cheap parts are cases, power supplies, and memory modules. In laptops, the usual suspects are memory, video displays, and the fit and finish of the case itself.
A cheap desktop case might be constructed of thinner sheet metal inside and out with a less-than-perfect paint job. When you're shopping for a new desktop system, look for a solid case with close fittings between the top and the chassis. If you find rough edges inside the case, if the sheet metal seems a lot lighter than on other computers, or if the case or cover wobbles or flexes, find a different computer.
Shoddy power supplies are not common, but if its enclosure does not provide adequate shielding, a badly designed power supply can generate spurious radio frequency (RF) signals that can interfere with nearby radios, televisions, and even computer monitors. If your radio starts to hum or whistle when you turn on your new computer, or if you see a wiggling line moving up or down your TV or monitor's screen, and it stops when you turn off the computer, the computer's power supply is to blame. It may not be possible to identify this before you buy, but, assuming the computer is still under warranty, you should return it and insist on a replacement power supply from a different supplier.
RF interference is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (the FCC) in the United States, and by similar agencies in other countries, so you are within your rights to expect your computer to be properly shielded. It's the computer maker's responsibility to provide a power supply that doesn't create interference with other equipment.
Memory modules are small, printed circuit boards that hold several RAM integrated circuits. A brand-name module and a less expensive generic product might use memory chips from the same supplier, but the brand-name module maker pays more for chips that have been carefully examined and tested. Most brand-name modules are sold with a lifetime warranty. Cheaper memory chips might be just as good, but if they do fail after they have been in use for a year or two, you have to pay for the replacement module yourself. If you can't open up the computer and look for a brand-name label on the memory module, ask the sales person about the modules in the computer you are considering, or consult the maker's Web site for information about their warranty.
Flat-panel video displays in laptop computers and in stand-alone monitors can suffer from dead pixels that are always dark, or that always display the same solid color regardless of the image color on the screen. A very small number of bad pixels, especially at the outer edges of the display, might be acceptable, but if you discover more than about half a dozen of them, or if they're all in the same part of the screen, return the monitor or laptop and ask for a replacement.
Before you buy, ask what kind of dead pixel policy the seller can offer. Get it in writing.
Finally, the clamshell case of a laptop should feel solid, and the top and bottom should come together without any obvious gap. If the hinge that holds the two parts together seems loose when the computer is new, you can expect it to get worse after you've used the laptop for several months or years.
Another cost-cutting technique is to look out for computers assembled from obsolete or discontinued components. There's nothing wrong with buying a computer with last year's parts inside, as long as you know what you're getting and the price is right. If you can identify the motherboard and expansion cards, you can use the Internet to either confirm that they're current products or that the dealer isn't misrepresenting them. If the dealer seems defensive, or they won't tell you the makes and models of the components inside the box, don't buy it.
If you suspect that a computer contains obsolete parts, run a Web search on the names of the companies that made the motherboard and the graphics controller to find their Web sites. These sites almost always include a Products page that lists their current models.
If there's no obvious manufacturer's name on it, use the FCC's Equipment ID Search Page (http://www.fcc.gov/oet/fccid) to trace the ID code printed on the product.
A handful of major computer makers such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo (formerly IBM) add value to their products with custom software and special design features, but they and the vast majority of other desktop-computer makers use parts and components from the same suppliers. Many smaller companies assemble computers entirely from generic parts that are often equal in quality to the ones used by the big brand-name companies. Their products are often known as white-box computers because the packaging that surrounds the assembled computer does not always identify the company that put it together.
White-box computers (which are really beige or black more often than not) are assembled from standard cases, motherboards, and other parts by wholesalers and retailers as their house brands, and by Internet and mail-order dealers. They often carry an adhesive label with the assembler's name in an inch-square indentation on the front of the case and maybe a serial number on the back panel, but those are usually the only things that aren't completely generic. Assuming the computer has been assembled from high-quality parts, a white-box system is likely to be at least as reliable and perform as well as or better than one from a major manufacturer.
Laptop computers are a different story. Because it's not practical to assemble a laptop from generic parts, a house-brand laptop is really a preassembled unit from a manufacturer who allows the retailer to place their own name on the case. The dealer might plug a hard drive and an internal wireless network interface into some empty sockets, but that's about it. If you can identify the manufacturer's name and model number (look on the shipping box and on the printed material that comes with the computer), and if the collective wisdom of the Internet does not offer any tales of disaster about that model, a white-box laptop might be a bargain worth buying. But without more information, a brand-name laptop is a safer bet.
The biggest differences between a generic computer and a computer from one of the big international brands are the additional software supplied with the system and the quality of before-and-after-purchase support. The big manufacturers often include their own proprietary utilities for things like disaster recovery and online technical support preloaded onto the computer's hard drive, along with a customized version of Microsoft Windows that displays the manufacturer's name instead of a generic Windows logo every time you turn on the computer. Some of these programs are actually useful, but others just take up space. It's up to you to decide whether they're worth enough to justify a higher price.
Some computer makers take their commitment to customer support far more seriously than others. Read Chapter 2 for advice about evaluating support services.
If you have been reading this section in order to find a definite answer to the question in its title, you're probably disappointed and a bit unhappy by now. The truth is that brand-name computers are not always better or worse than the ones that come in white boxes. If you know how to read the computer's specifications and lists of features and options, and how to evaluate the support supplied by the dealer and the manufacturer, either type can be a reliable system that can do all the things you want it to do.