You know you need a new computer when...
- You experience a hardware failure and get a repair estimate that is 50% of the cost of a new (similar) computer. Where do I get this? Unless you repair it yourself, the labor cost alone might be $200 or more (Best Buy Geek Squad) to replace a power supply or hard disk, for instance) and add $100 or more for the parts and you could have almost bought a new computer
- Your current computer runs so slowly that it causes you daily frustration and you have tried all of tricks you and perhaps your favorite computer guru can think of. What is the cost of daily frustration?
- A program that is important to you needs to be upgraded (either it requires Windows 10 for example and you are currently running Windows 7) or it will not run well on your current hardware. By the way, I do not recommend installing Windows 10 on older underpowered hardware. My experience doing this was very disappointing.
- Your computer is older than 3 years and requires attention from a technician every few months. This is rather vague, I know. There are so many factors to consider, how "powerful" the computer was when first purchased, and many other things. Except for the HDD (and the batteries on laptops) most computers have expected "life" of 6 or 8 years depending on one's expectations and how well they are maintained.
Why you might not need a new computer after all (two cases, one involving hardware, the other software)
- Of course, you may not need to replace your whole computer after all. Here I present a real-life case study of where an imminent hardware failure, specifically a HDD that was going bad, was diagnosed and remedied.
- Hardware issues (a case study):
- A month ago a client/friend reported that his Windows 10 laptop was running very slowly, making it unusable. Besides normal web and email tasks, his principal use of the laptop was photo editing (He is member of the Sandhills Photo Club.)
- He had contacted me in the past when his previous laptop was running slowly and I had gone through my typical cleanup routines and gotten it back in business. Two years ago (Ship date: February 17, 2016) he decided to buy a new laptop to speed up his work on his photos.
- Here is what he purchased: Inspiron 5559. It runs with an Intel Core i7 (6th gen/2.5 ghz clock speed) CPU, at the time the most powerful consumer processor for a laptop. It also has 8GB of DDR3 RAM and a 1 TB HDD.
- Here is what he reported to me on May 9th: "My computer is still running slow and goes into recovery mode quite often that requires a restart."
- These symptoms led me to immediately suspect a failing HDD.
Before getting into the actual problem let me mention the general troubleshooting process for computer problems:
All computer problems fall into three broad categories: Hardware, Software, Network. The first step in any remediation is to determine which is the case.
Since he was experiencing no network slowdowns on his other devices and the slowdown affected non-network related activity as well we were down to either hardware or software. Unless the problem is obviously hardware, as for example, difficulty booting, random shutdowns, blue screen warnings, etc., I always suspect software/OS first because they are far more common than hardware issues.
Now on with the story:
- On first getting his laptop (I picked it up as I knew this was most likely going to be a time consuming effort.) I did not experience any restart/repair blue screens, but Task Manager indicated near steady 100% Disk Utilization. This can caused by a HDD developing bad sectors (especially in the paging file area). This would indicate a failing HDD and the only remedy is replacement of same.
- Initially I tried to run the diagnostics from the Dell support site, but after trying for hours the diagnostics never even began (hung on gathering tests phase).
- To diagnose the HDD manually I ran "chkdsk /f /r" from the command prompt, and it appeared to have completed normally in a reasonable amount of time.
So the HDD was ok, I thought.
- So I set to work going through disabling startup programs, scanning with Malwarebytes, etc. Nothing helped, still steady 100% Disk Utilization.
- So I ran "chkdsk /f /r" again. This time it hung at 13% for about 6 hours. We had our culprit.
- I got a exact replacement 1 TB HDD from Best Buy and used the built-in Windows Image Backup to create an disk image of his old drive. This took overnight to run.
- Next day I replaced the drive and restored the image. Voila! Accordingly his machine is running as well as it ever did!
- Adding RAM, if allowed, can be a simple way to speed a computer if the motherboard supports it. You first have to find out the maximum amount of RAM allowed and see if there are available slots for the upgrade. You should be able to find info on all of this on your computer manufacturer's support web site. Memory upgrades must match precisely the specifications of a particular machine. There are many different types of RAM and the specifics are too complex to be discussed here.
- Software/OS issues: Your computer runs so slowly than when you first started using it. What can go wrong with OS/software issues?
- The first thing to check is Windows Task Manager.
- If you your computer is running much slower than usual for a prolonged period the Task Manager performance tab will show where the problem lies, either the CPU, Memory or Disk. Short periods of slowing are normal, especially when Windows updates are being installed.
- There is no magic formula to find the source of a software or OS orginated slowdown. It requires patience and some acquaintence with things like common startup programs that might cause problems. Some knowledge of Windows processes is also helpful. I have discussed in a previous presentation how a 3rd party anti-virus can severely affect performance.
- Here is a tutorial guide to optimizing Windows 10 (not mine).
- Here is Microsoft's own guide to helping the performance of Windows 10
- And one more for the road: Windows 10 quick tips to speed up your PC, from Computer World.
OS choices: Windows 10, Chrome OS, Android, MacOS, or IOS?
- Windows 10 is the obvious choice if you are a long time Windows user. If you are coming to Windows 10 from Windows 7, I recommend the installation of a small, unobtrusive program called Classic Shell which make the transition easier as it makes Windows 10 behave somewhat more like Windows 7 by "recreating" the Windows 7 start menu. There are many things to like about Windows 10 on new hardware (especially with a powerful CPU and lots of RAM).
- Chrome OS on Chromebooks
Here is a nice intro to Chromebooks from Google.
The latest version of ChromeOS running on many true Chromebooks supports the use of Android and even Linux apps. The ChromeOS is an OS that is like a super version of the Chrome browser. It is lighter weight than Windows, much faster to startup and does not require an anti-virus because of its OS design. Its minimum hardware requirements are much less demanding than Windows 10.
You can even use ChromeOS or a version of it called Neverware CloudReady either running off a USB stick, or installed on a computer that would not support Windows 10. Here is a
demo of Installing Neverware CloudReady on an old laptop. Another one.
Yet another one.
- Tablets use either IOS (Apple IPad, IPhone), Android (many tablets and many phones). If your exclusive use of a Windows computer is web browsing, email, social media then current generation tablets and phones might be all you need.
- Or switch to Apple/Mac? If you already use an IPad extensively, a Mac Desktop or MacBook Notebook might seem a natural (albeit expensive) choice. However there are significant differences between IOS and MacOS, so expecting to feel at home on a Mac after being facile with an IPad is unrealistic. And getting used to the MacOS after using Windows for years is not a trivial hurdle to surmount.
The Form Factor Question: Desktop, notebook/laptop, or tablet?
Issues here include:
- What will you use the computer for? Email, web browsing, games, spreadsheets, Quicken, Photoshop? Desktops can do everything well, but you will need a dedicated space and obviously cannot be easily relocated.
- Do you need portability? Then obviously either a notebook or tablet will do. Do you need specific applications like MS Word or Excel and are not willing to settle for work-alikes such as is provided by Google Docs/Sheets? Six years ago (2012) when I did this talk you would be limited to Windows based computers, as at that time MS Office was not available for IOS. That has now changed. MS Office is available for IOS devices, available for free in the Apple App Store. The same is true for Android, available for free in the Google Play Store.
- A tablet can be used with so-called productivity software, especially if you add a bluetooth keyboard/mouse. The new Ipad 6th generation (2018) supports a pen and therefore should be more adaptable for MS Office work. One's finger doesn't function well to do editing of documents or spreadsheets.
- Will the application run well? Photoshop needs a powerful processor and large screen (perhaps a 17" notebook would do). Email and web browsing can be comfortably done on all form factors. Some games are actually more fun on tablets, e.g., Freecell, crosswords, not to say all the other games that are best experienced when using touch screens because they were designed for them.
- Chromebooks are notebooks designed to run the Chrome OS which are generally smaller screen (10" - 14") notebooks. This category has increased in popularity as they have gained in performance and facility having a large library of Chrome apps and extensions, and widespread use (in education for instance).
- "Ultrabooks" are simply light-weight notebooks, generally with metal rather than plastic housing, lacking HD or DVD drives, using SSDs (solid-state devices) instead of mechanical HDs.
The MacBook Air has popularized this type of notebook. They typically cost significantly more than ordinary notebooks.
- Finally, how about just using a tablet instead of a desktop or laptop/notebook? Depending on your use the latest Ipads and Android tablets might be all you need, for instance if you only want to use email, browse the web, play simple games, like Solitaire, FreeCell, Crosswords.
CPU, RAM, HDD, SSD, etc.
Assuming you want to buy a Windows (Windows 10, that is) machine here are the principal features to look for:
- CPU: Absolute minimum - some dual-core or quad-core processor - Intel i3 or i5 or AMD quad-core. Here is an article on the current choices between Intel and AMD.
- RAM: 4 gig is now pretty standard minimum and plenty for email, web, etc., with 8 gig for photo editing, and perhaps 16 gig for video editing.
- HDD: 500 gig fine for email, web, document prep use, 1 TB or more for photo and or video storage. A good video on Hard Drive Life Expectancy.
- SSD: SSDs have finally entered the range of affordability for consumers. A good thing too! In general SSDs are more reliable (MTBF 2 million hours = 228 years), certainly are much faster than HDDs. A well-produced YouTube video on SSD Life Expectancy.
A SSD for the boot drive is highly recommended and is now quite reasonably priced. I recently setup a computer for a gentleman at Belle Meade, a new HP desktop from BestBuy, that was on sale for $399 that has an Intel I3 CPU, 8 gig of RAM, a 128 GB SSD boot/system drive, and a 1 TB HDD. I was impressed by its performance - mostly arising from the use of the SSD for the boot/system partition. I believe this kind of combination of SSD/HDD will become commonplace this year. As a matter of speculation, were I to do another iteration of this topic in six years, I expect SSDs will have completely replaced HDDs in new computers. By that time HDDs might be as quaint and obsolete as floppy disks are today.
Not long ago SSDs were no match for hard disks in terms of capacity. But that's no longer the case. In fact, SSDs have now begun to push past the capacity limits the laws of physics impose on HDDs. Toshiba expects that by 2020 HDD capacity may reach the 20-40TB range. But they also expect that by then SSDs will have achieved capacities exceeding 256TB. Source
- Here is a simple guide comparing SSDs and HDDs from PCMag.
- Here is another more in-depth guide.
- And finally a thorough overview from Wikipedia
If you are interested in adding an SSD to your existing system or replacing your HDD with an SSD, the two main questions are 1) will your computer support it and 2) is it worth the trouble and expense to upgrade. Since SSDs cost in the neighborhood of 4 times as much as traditional HDDs for the same amount of storage this maybe a moot point if you computer is more than 3 years old. Even though the cost of SSD has dropped dramatically in the last year currently a 1 TB HDD goes for about $65, whereas a 1 TB SSD might be anywhere from $250 to $350.
- Certainly, if you are going to buy a new computer today you want at least a 128-256 GB boot/system SSD and perhaps 1 TB or more of HDD storage for photos and such.
- DVD or BlueRay drive? If you buy or rent DVD/BlueRay movies and want to watch them on your desktop or notebook then you need a DVD/BlueRay player. This is not something I think any except perhaps traveling professionals might want to do so, although the wide availability of WiFI and streaming options make this increasing old hat. You might want to use the DVD drive for archiving photos, etc., but the limited capacity and physical limitations of DVD compared to flash drives makes them less and less useful. CDs and DVDs have become almost obsolete.
- Ports: A SD Memory card reader is now normally present on both desktops and notebooks. A HDMI port is now common on today's laptops and notebooks. HDMI is necessary if you want to play streaming moves from your computer to your TV. Although a better choice would be something like the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku streaming media player that wirelessly connects to your router and uses a HDMI cable to your TV.
- Bluetoooth: Bluetooth is useful on notebooks or desktops or tablets or phones if you want to get audio through external speakers in order to watch videos, listen to music or podcasts without the hassle of wires. Notebook/laptop speakers are notoriously underpowered and "tinny." Bluetooth can also be used to connect a mouse and keyboard.
- Other features: Webcam/mic for Skype. These are now standard equipment on laptops and notebooks. You would have a tough time finding one without these today.
Brands, reliabilty, support
- PCWorld: Desktop PC Reliability and Satisfaction
- Readers' Choice Awards 2018: Laptops and Desktops from PCMag.com
- My personal experience: I use several Windows computers daily, laptops and desktops, (as well as several different Android tablets, an Ipad, Android phone, and Kindle ereader). All my current working machines, desktop and laptop, are HP (purchased from either Staples or Best Buy) because they were the cheapest for the performance at the time and their reliability has been outstanding. My HP support experience is limited to use of their support web site, which is excellent (choosing from excellent, good, fair, poor). Here is the support page for my 4-year old HP laptop for instance. Dell's support site is also in the same class. If you can find your Service Tag Number for your Dell or Serial Number for your HP you are likely to find all the information (and drivers, etc.) you could ever need about your computer, regardless of its age.
- Enough with my partiality for HP products. In general Dell and Lenovo (formerly IBM's PC division) represent good values. You may find that a model from Asus or Acer may also be a good choice. In any case...
- Always research a model via Google - check both user and editorial revews before purchase. A particular model may sound good, but the reviews may note a significant defect, e.g., a poor track pad or screen on a notebook.
Where to find bargains
Buy local (Staples, Best Buy, Walmart) or online?
My preference for computer purchases is to buy locally so if I am not happy I can return it without any trouble. Staples has a 14 day return policy, Walmart's is 15 days, BestBuy's is 15 days.
Often you can find local stores have sales that are quite competitive with online shopping.
Typical online return period is 30 days (e.g., Amazon). You may have to pay return shipping and/or a restocking fee to return computers purchased online.
The following sites will help find the best deals, often even on in-store items.
Some special in-store only deals may not be advertised online.
- Bensbargains.com: Best deals of the day by category
- SlickDeals.com: SlickDeals members comment on and give thumbs up or down on deals - sometimes good to know infomation in the forum threads
- Techbargains.com: Best deals of the day by category
- DealNews.com: Rates deal by "hotness" and price comparison info
- BlackFriday.info: Excellent site for researching Black Friday deals - they say they are "the official site for all of the 2018 Black Friday ads as they are reported to us during this holiday shopping season. As we get closer to Black Friday 2018, we will be posting sale information along with Black Friday ad scans."