HomeAcademics & ActivitiesMedia Matters

What to consider before buying a computer

Page 3 of 3

By Marian Wilde

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.

Comments from readers

"I've been researching netbook style computers with the intent to buy. Yesterday I read that the MSI Wind U123 models can boot in Windows, OS X, and Linus. There are lots of Wind models out there and I don't know if this is true for all. Also, I put my kids on computers at a very early age (about 3 years old) with programs like 'Read with Pooh', 'Math Blaster', 'Jump Start', etc. They didn't get internet until last year at ages 11 and 13. If they wanted the Internet, we went to the library. My younger child skipped his 6th grade math and went to Honors pre-algebra, and this year, he skipped 7th grade altogether. I believe that his interest in computer gaming with access to LOTS of educational and fun software has been key in his develeopment. Since my older child (a daughter) has a wireless laptop and can use it in her room, I have a problem. I wish it didn't have included wireless, but instead that I could pull out a card to limit her time on the internet. Neither of my kids! do Facebook or any of the usual social networking that you hear about. They are into Deviant Art and Rhunescape. Focus is all about drawing, fan fiction, or problem solving (even if you are fighting a giant bug or strategizing to get supplies for your character.) I'd like a better idea of how Gifted Kids use the internet to network versus those of lower IQ. "
"Maybe a worthwhile topic to touch upon would be how soon to introduce computer-use to children. It seems like we're plugging our children into the media-saturated, high-tech culture without nearly as much forethought as is necessary. We don't even seem to be giving them a chance to learn to thrive in the real world before they're already neck-deep in the inescapable cyber-world."
"With the feature that Apple computers have now that allow the user to boot in Windows or OS, I would highly recommend investing in the Apple computers. They are much more user friendly, sturdier, and cater more to educational software than the PC'c do."
"I am a student at a public high school and I am on my senior year. The best thing to do with computers is to build it yourself by ordering parts. Some might say that it is too complicated, which it isn't at all. It's like a puzzle that needs all the parts to fit together. Looking online for sources with information about computers and building/operating them is easy. There is tons of info about everything you will need to know on the internet. I even help people build there computers and I taught myself how to do this. The only manufactured computer I would ever buy would be an Apple computer. They are beautifully crafted and have the best operating system I have seen. If your child would like to have Windows XP and OSX on the Macintosh computer, they can."
"My wife shared this article with me since she is a teacher and we are in the market for a new computer. One issue which you did not bring up when talking about computer recycling is the need to wipe the hard drive clean. If this is not done, any information that was stored or input (contact info, personal info, financial and credit card info) can fall into the wrong hands and opens up the door for much trouble. There are a number of programs available which can accomplish this since simply deleting information with Add/Remove programs will not suffice in most cases. I cannot vouch for which one is best since I, we have not disposed of an old system yet. I just thought I'd add my thoughts and hopefully this will help someone from unitentionally getting into deep trouble."
"Great & on time as I computer shopping now. Clear explanations without a sales pitch are invaluable. Thank you."
"OK, I get it that Mac's still have a stigma against them about being a 'real' computer. The email I received about this article really made it out that a Mac was only good for graphic design. I feel the article was misrepresented, if not the Mac itself. It's a strong competitor these days and needs to be taken seriously. Apple just isn't for you iPod any more. "
"I am a 53yr old mother and grandmother who homeschools our almost nine year old granddaughter. Our other grandkids go to public school. We have six computers in our home and only three have internet capabilities. The one the 8 year old uses has many software educational and edutainment programs installed on it for her pleasure. She has been using a computer since she was 4. However, I have seen children in classrooms that have 1 to 3 computers in the classroom, get maybe an hour a week on the computer from a reading program the school uses which does not teach the child anything about the computers. I have classes go to a room called the computer lab that has up to 30 networked computers in it with a tech person to assist the classroom teacher and again the students do not get to learn much of anything. So when should a parent think about getting their child a computer? Visit your child's classroom and note how often in the course of a day children are using it, go to the la! b and check what they do in there, then ask your child what they would want to do with a computer. Then decide. As in the case of the Tennessee middle school girl, I would also suggest that if you are going to give this computer internet capabilities, until such time as you are totally comfortable with your child having this in their room away from your ability to see what they are doing, I suggest the computer be set up in a common room like the family room or a corner of the dining room. To the single mom from Michigan, I would say to check out your local church's. We have 2 in our tricity area that twice a year gives away refurbished computers to students on a first come-first serve basis. "
" As the VP of Technology for GreatSchools and a Mac user, I fully concur with the statement 'if your school uses PCs, buying a PC will make file sharing easier.' We have both Mac and Windows users in our offices and the Windows machines work seamlessly with our Windows 2003 Servers, whereas, we regularly have odd connectivity issues with our Macs and we're running the latest OS X and patches. While I agree that in general Macs work well in a heterogeneous environment, it still makes it easier to use whatever your school is using because when you run into problems there will be others that have likely run into the same problem. I know the issue of whether or not Macs are more expensive than PCs is a hotly debated topic but I still agree that PCs are in general less expensive. When you get into the medium to high-end space I agree that the gap closes but when you're shopping for sub $1000 machines then in my opinion you'll get more for your money with a PC. For example, the average Dell desktop we buy at with a 17' flat panel, 1GB of memory, and a 2.5Ghz processor costs us $700 (granted we wait for the sales). We have never spent less than $1300 for a Mac. Even if you were to get the slowest and least expensive Mac Mini (1.5Ghz Core Solo), by the time you add memory and a keyboard and mouse you're at $777 and you'll still need to buy a display for it. I'm a Mac user because I like their design aesthetic and as a software engineer I like that it's Unix under the hood, however, I still feel that I pay a premium to use a Mac."
"I am also a member of Apple Learning Exchange, and the Technical Coordinator for an elementary school in Prescott, AZ. You made a couple of statements - one in the brief leading up to the article - which are not quite correct. The first regards file sharing. I work at an all Macintosh school - 1 of 3 in our district. About the only problem sharing documents is when an older Windows user doesn't have the correct version to open documents - whether Windows OR Mac docs! The second statement regards cost. Over a period of six years, Total Cost of Ownership for the Macintosh was approximately 3/5s the TCO of the Windows machines. The first year we did a Return On Investment, the Macs were slightly higer in cost of actual machine. However, the Macs came with virtually ALL the software we needed, saving thousands of dollars in integrated suite-ware. Also, because AppleWorks includes a database (which the Mac version of Office does not) our students were doing database creation and ! management by the 4th grade. PLUS, the inclusion of iLife allowed us to explore photo manipulation, video production, and some exciting music venues. The greatest complaint among parents of kids going from our all Mac school to the all Windows middle schools has been the lack of furthering their kids' technology skills. Why? It's too expensive for the Windows schools to add those capabilities to the Win machines! By the 6th year, the Mac schools presented the LOWEST Cost of Ownership, with the HIGHEST overall Return on Investment. The greatest reason for this was the cost of updates, upgrades,virus protection and updating costs, and technical support necessary to keep Windows machines running. These expenses should (NEED) to be considered when purchasing a personal machine - it isn't any good if it doesn't work. I say this because I spend about 30 hours a week cleaning and 'delousing' Windows machines. I have yet to see a Mac on my bench for virus. Granted, this will change as the new Macs come out with Bootcamp. But Bootcamp also allows the Macintosh to serve as TWO computers for the price of one. By the way, I am also a full time student at University of Phoenix, working on my Bachelors in IT. I have used a Macintosh since day one. I have have had absolutely NO problems with file transfer. I have had absolutely NO issues with viruses (even when THEIR servers were down with issues). I have had to resort to Virtual PC for a couple of classes, and that has also gone quite smoothly. I am not going to say that every student should have a Macintosh - merely that the objections of cost and file shareing are not valid."
"I'm a single Mom with poor credit, and really need a home computer for my fourth grader and Kingergartner. I've no money to buy one. Is there a way to get a home pc for my children's education?"
"When do you feel a child needs a computer for the classroom. My child is 8 years old and very proficiant as she should be!? Please advise!"
"i'm a girl who just started middle school on friday. i want a computer in my room becaue when i'm doing homework on the computer, my brother always is annoying and makes noise. adults think kids are in chat rooms or just giving away our info. we don't!!! or at lease i don't.. or my friends.. or anyone at my school!!! please forgive me for being rude, but it's true! if you have a kid starting middle school, get one. it doesn't have to be fancy, just a computer. sencerly, a middle school girl"