What to consider before buying a computer

Whether you're buying your child her first laptop or replacing the dinosaur in the family room, consider these basic points.

By Marian Wilde

Before you pull out your credit card, you'll want to make some basic decisions.

Mac or PC?

Don't get your heart set on a Mac or a PC, until you find out what the primary platform is at your child's school. If, for example, your school uses PCs, buying a PC will make file sharing easier.

Gayle Berthiaume, an award-winning teacher and GreatSchools' technology consultant, also advises considering what projects you intend to do on the computer before making the platform decision.

"You want one that will be multi-purpose for everybody. If it's going to be used for game playing, that's different than if you're going to use it for production and making things. I think all the way through school, it's better to use the computer for more creative projects."

Each platform has its strong advocates. Graphic artists and other arts professionals have historically tended to prefer the more user-friendly Macs, while PCs are less expensive and more pervasive in the workplace. As a member of the Apple Learning Exchange, Berthiaume's preference isn't surprising. "If you're going to make presentations or do multimedia, or if you're going to make photo books, I would go with a Mac, not only because I love Macs but also because now, with MacBooks, they run either Mac OS or Windows."

Desktop or laptop?

The next issue to consider is screen size versus portability, as this is the basic trade-off when selecting a desktop or a laptop.

Says Berthiuame: "I personally prefer notebooks because you can take them wherever you want to." Others, however, prefer desktops because of the larger screen size and the more ergonomic screen position and keyboard design.

Internet access

What's a computer in today's world without access to the Internet? Now considered equally as important as the computer itself, Internet access is a critical part of the package, and not an insignificant one financially.

There are many types of Internet access, such as:

  • Dial-up. This is the slowest method of getting around on the Internet and also the cheapest. If you're going to go with dial-up you'll need to make sure your computer has the right kind of modem, usually 56K.
  • Broadband (DSL or cable). Make sure your computer has a Network card or USB port. Check with your local broadband provider for exactly what you'll need.
  • Satellite. Currently, satellite download speed is faster than dial-up, but slower than broadband. A satellite connection may be a good option if you live in rural area without cable or telephone lines.
  • Wireless. This service for laptop and handheld users allows access to the Internet wherever there's a Wi-Fi network. You'll need a Wi-Fi card that is compatible with your Wi-Fi Internet service.

One-to-one computing

Many school districts have one-to-one computing programs where students are given a computing device - a laptop, handheld computer or a tablet PC - for their use during the school year. If you live in a district with such a program, you may not need to purchase a computer for your child.

According to Education Week, nine states and 25% of the nation's school districts have financed one-to-one computing programs. Maine is the standard-bearer in the one-to-one computing movement and renewed its program by purchasing 36,000 Apple iBooks to be distributed to all seventh- and eighth-graders. These laptops are not for students to keep forever. They must be returned to the school for the next year's incoming seventh- and eighth-graders.

Even in districts with such programs, many grade levels do not participate. Also, schools that don't have full-fledged one-to-one computing programs may have a relatively good ratio of students-to-computers, but any ratio greater than one-to-one often means that a student cannot bring a computer home, at least not regularly.

Don't forget accessories

Check with your child's teacher to see what projects are planned for the school year. This will give you a better idea of what will be useful to you. You might be able to start simply and build your repertoire of accessories over the course of your child's school career.

A few basic add-ons to consider are:

Printers

  • Inkjet printers are the standard home printer because they print in color as well as in black and white, and they're typically cheaper than laser printers.
  • Laser printers are great if you want to churn out reams of black and white text and you're concerned with speed and quality.
  • A multifunctional scanner/fax/copier/printer saves desk space and can be had for about the same price as a stand-alone printer. What you sacrifice in quality, you'll gain in convenience.

Software

Most computers come equipped with a bundle of software supplied by the computer manufacturer. In fact, the value of the bundled software can be greater than the value of the computer itself. Always check your new computer's bundle before making any further software purchases. And keep in mind that the amount of memory you have on your computer will determine what software you can run on it.

Parental tracking software

Most Internet service providers and Web browsers have some free parental controls available. If you want additional protection for your children, you might want to purchase:

  • Tracking software. This software will allow you to check the sites visited by your child.
  • Blocking software. This type of software uses a list of predetermined Web sites to block sites deemed to be offensive.
  • Filtering software. This software uses a list of key words to sort sites and keep the bad ones from showing up on your computer.

Anti-virus software

These programs are designed to protect your computer from viruses that can be introduced through email, Web sites or removable media. Anti-virus software now also combats worms, spyware and adware.

Thumb drives (also known as USB or flash drives)

You'll need a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port in order to use these little gizmos. Most newer computers come equipped with USB ports, as they're now the preferred way to connect to printers, Palm Pilots, digital cameras, Web cams - you name it. Says Brenda Lofton, Louisiana's 2006 Teacher of the Year: "My school requires that students in the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grades have thumb drives. They each bring one to school. The students can save the work they have there, and then go home and continue working."

Refurbished computers

Many manufacturers offer warranties on refurbished products making them a low-risk option. Check with manufacturers, Amazon, eBay or Web sites specializing in refurbished computers. What you should know:

  • Expect to save 20-50% off the retail price.
  • You can never know the history of a refurbished product. The box may have been opened or the first owner may have returned it before the end of the 30-day money-back guarantee or it may have had a defective part. Whatever the reason, refurbished computers are repaired, if necessary, then tested and repackaged.
  • Check on the warranty being offered.
  • If it's a laptop, ask if the batteries are covered in the original warranty.
  • Ask if the computer comes with the original operating system and installation disks.

Recycle your old computer

Whatever you do, don't throw your old computer in the trash. The plastics and heavy metals in your old machine will harm the environment if it's not disposed of properly. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, somewhere between 300 and 700 million computers will be retired from service in the next few years, which could mean more than 4 billion pounds of plastic and 1 billion pounds of lead will be added to the world's ever-expanding landfills unless they are recycled into useful products.

Always prepare your computer for recycling by erasing data from the hard drive. Some e-waste recyclers will scrub the data from the hard drive as part of their service. If this service is not available, there are software programs that will make sure that all of your data is permanently removed from the computer.

Visit these sites for more information on how to recycle your old computer and other electronic products:

Additional resources

Check out the Apple site for special pricing on new computers for college students, K-12 teachers or staff members, and homeschooling families.

HP also offers special pricing for students and educators.

Visit Consumer Reports for ratings and reports on most electronic products. You will need to pay a small monthly subscription fee to access Consumer Reports information.

Visit HowStuffWorks for clear explanations of, you guessed it, how things work, including computers.