I Would Buy

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Many of our readers are the “go-to” people when friends set out to buy a new PC. I recently was asked by a friend on what to buy now that her three year old PC gave up the ghost, and it occurred to me that many of you are faced with the same request.

So I’d like to hear from readers how they would respond to the following:

Your good friend asks you for a recommendation on what to buy for about $1,000 to replace an old PC. Your friend is not a “power user” per se – word processing, internet, some spread sheet, Power Point and the ability to use it for some at-home work satisfies your friend’s needs. Your friend wants a “clean slate” – nothing from the old PC will be reused.

Your task: Considering your friend’s needs, what would you recommend? Desktop or laptop, DIY or branded system, which OS, which programs, etc.

I will send a prize to one of the respondents, selected randomly.

11/6/07: Looks like many of you are frequently asked about this – I received a LOT of emails on this topic. Just for the record, I advised my friend to buy a Lenovo T61 for about $1000 – and she is very happy with it. Now to our readers’ suggestions:

Prashant’s checklist is a good start for anyone put onthe spot for a PC recommendation:

I go with the standard formula i.e getting the person who asked the
question to think a bit before deciding on something.

  1. What will you use this machine for? Who is going to be the primary user?
  2. What is your budget?
  3. Would you be willing to put some time in AFTER you build your own rig?

These three innocuous questions cover a wide swathe of territory
and have often saved me a lot of headache. Question three is mainly
directed at six-packs who are gung-ho about building their own rig, but
always seem to pawn off troubleshooting their madness onto me.

DIY – Is It Worth The Aggravation?

I’ve built a fair share of DIYs for friends and while some of you would do this, the majority have opted not to go down this road for the following reasons:

  • “On-Call Techie” – I can relate to this! Basically, you build it, you own it. As much as I love my friends, getting calls of the “I have this problem – can you fix it?” type just wear me down. Support from the likes of Dell are decent and readily available.
  • Branded PCs are Cheap – Used to be you could build a very nice PC and save money in the process – not so today. Based on functionality, it’s tough to build a comparable machine for what Dell, for example, charges. While DIYs are certainly more upgradeable and offer more user control than the truncated BIOS you see on branded PCs, the average user does not need, nor use, these capabilities.

  • Bundled Software – While a lot of “crapware” comes with new PCs, there are some programs that the average user will use that comes with some new PCs at a bundled price that’s hard to beat.

A few readers also mentioned the possibility of repairing the old PC – certainly an option as long as you can accept that you are the on-call support.

Deuce’s take:

“I will always, absolutely, positively ALWAYS recommend a DIY system. Anything to avoid the crap that Dell and Compaq cobble together – cheap motherboards, too little RAM, and they overheat, Man do they overheat. My mom stubbornly refuses anything but a Dell desktop, and the summer after she gets a new machine I have to replace fans in it because they’re ridiculously underpowered (probably in the name of cheapness/quietness) and causing lockups in upper-80s temperatures. Also in favor of a custom-built box is the fact that a friend/family member/etc will invariably call you before tech support in my experience, so warranties and support aren’t worth that much.”


“I have faced this question many times over the last 17 years of building my own and other folks’ computers. I have personally built over 50 computers for others just for the fun and education of doing so. Having done this many, I find that this favor keeps on giving in the form of calls on Christmas or other holidays asking for help to fix the computer you built for that person. While I never mind helping someone fix their computer, it can become very inconvenient.

This is especially true when I can honestly say never once has their problem been with the hardware I put together for them, nor the software I initially installed. The problem has always been what they did after I delivered a working product. They inevitably then went out on the internet and downloaded a virus, visited a porn site that changed their homepage that loaded 5000 popup ads, or installed software based on a popup that said they had a virus that proceeded to install a trojan on their computer. The other problems encountered are the man or teenager that tried to cover his porn surfing by deleting critical system files. I have never once in all those 50+ builds had a hardware failure, other than the operator.

I mention all these issues to explain why I would have my friend buy a branded desktop, or laptop if travel is a prerequisite, from a company with full service and support for at least one year. Let the “Paid Professionals” deal with the above issues.”

A number of readers sent in a DIY setup – a couple of representative components:

Chris’ DIY:

  • “LIAN LI PC-7B plus II Black Aluminum ATX Mid Tower Computer Case – Retail $119.99 -$30.00 Instant $89.99
  • ABIT IP35-E LGA 775 Intel P35 ATX Intel Motherboard – Retail $89.99
  • BIOSTAR V8602GT51 GeForce 8600GT 512MB 128-bit GDDR2 PCI Express x16 SLI Supported Video Card – Retail $109.99
  • Thermaltake W0093RU ATX 12V 2.0 Version 500W Power Supply – Retail $79.99 -$10.00 Instant $69.99
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E4600 Allendale 2.4GHz LGA 775 65W Processor Model BX80557E4600 – Retail $149.99
  • G.SKILL 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR2 800 (PC2 6400) Memory Model F2-6400CL4D-2GBPK – Retail $89.99 -$20.00 Instant $69.99
  • Western Digital Caviar SE WD1600AAJS 160GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0Gb/s Hard Drive – OEM $49.99
  • Acer AL2216Wbd Black 22″ 5ms DVI Widescreen LCD Monitor with HDCP support – Retail $249.99 -$30.00 Instant $219.99
  • SAMSUNG 20X DVD±R DVD Burner Black PATA Model SH-S202G – OEM $27.99
  • Microsoft Windows XP Home With SP2B 1 Pack – OEM $89.99
  • Integrated Sound & LAN on mobo

Subtotal: $967.90 + $30-40 shipping = $1000″

Stephen’s DIY:

Intel BX80557E6550, E6550 2.33GHz 4MB L2 1333 MHz – $169.99

G33 1333Mhz PSB 1-x16 PCIe, 1-x4 PCIe, 2-PCI, 3-SATA, 1-eSATA, 1-PATA
– $119.99

2GB (2x1GB) DDR2 800MHz CAS5
– $55.99

Hard Drive:
Western Digital
Caviar SE16 320GB 7200RPM 16 MB SATA-2 –

18x DVD±RW w/Lightscribe IDE –

19″ 1440×900 widescreen DVI – $20 MIR –

Mouse & Keyboard:
Wave wireless desktop set –

Operating System:
Windows Vista Home Premium OEM –

Office 2007 Home and Student retail –

Mid-Tower w/430w PSU 4×5.25″ 5×3.5″(int)
8.3″x18.6″x18.3″ (WxHxD) 37.3lbs –

Total: $1,061.86

Ian’s DIY:

“The Non-Overclocker’s System:

  • AMD X2 6000+ $160
  • GIGABYTE GA-MA69GM-S2H 690G $80
  • G.SKILL 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2 800 $60
  • COOLER MASTER Centurion 541 MicroATX Mini Tower $49
  • FSP Group 450W Power Supply $58
  • Samsung DVD burner $30
  • Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 320GB SATA Hard Drive $85
  • BenQ FP222WH 22″ Widescreen HDMI LCD $280
  • Logitech X-230 2.1 Speaker System $34
  • Microsoft Windows Vista 64-Bit Home Premium $112
  • Logitech Cordless Desktop S 510 keyboard/mouse $48

Total: $996″


Laptop vs Desktop

Interesting to see that half of you would recommend a desktop, a third of you would go for a laptop and the rest would build a system. Taking the DIYs out, fully 40% would go laptop and 60% desktop. I think this does make sense considering cost and the relatively simple needs of this user. It might also reflect a touch of bias among those of us who have built and used desktops, but that’s a supposition on my part.


“Here’s my suggestion: I’d cruise the sale ads and buy a $500 laptop. You’ll spend a little less for a Celeron M or a little more for a Pentium 21xx Dual Core. Try to buy with at least 1 GB or budget for more RAM. Forget about the extended warranty, just take your chances with the basic 1 year warranty. If you have a credit card that doubles the manufacturer warranty, use it. A desktop replacement that hardly travels should have a very easy life compared to a road warrior.”


“I would tell them to buy a cheaper Desktop system like the Dell 531. For around $5-600 they can get a machine with a dual-core CPU, 2 GB of RAM, DVDRW, more hard drive space than they would ever use and a nice 19-20” LCD. A machine like this is overkill for the average user and should last them a while.

I wouldn’t suggest a laptop unless they needed the mobility. The hardware specs are going to be much lower than a price competitive desktop, and generally it will be more likely to have hardware failures.”


“I would recommend the Laptop, I have built in excess of 40 systems for
friends but now the convenience of a laptop coupled with the advent of
wireless routers means a laptop is a viable answer for most non-power
users these days.

Besides it saves me being tech support as I tell them to contact the


“I always recommend a Desktop computer over laptop if my friend
absolutely does not need to
do anything out side of the house. You can get a better hardware
for the money over laptop’s portability.
I would also recommend the latest operating system which, in this case,
would be Windows Vista.

Although there
are few things I always tell them to upgrade: At least 2 GB of
RAM if the price isn’t ourageous from Dell.
If not, I could always buy a stick from local shop and simply upgrade

Another very important thing is the
monitor. I tell this to everyone: “Buy the biggest and the best quality
monitor you can afford.” Why? Because
that is all you’ll be looking at when using a computer. Besides, people
who don’t really know much about
computers think larger monitor equals a better computer!”


“Probably for the first time I would recommend getting a laptop. They have dropped in price and increased their power and screen sizes to the point where they are affordable and convenient. I have a highend desktop system myself and since purchasing a Lenovo T61 two months ago I barely use the desktop anymore. I was genuinely surprised at the power afforded to the mobile user these days.

I will throw in the caveat that I worry about long term reliability of a laptop. For someone looking to hold onto a system longer than three years I still see a desktop as the best solution. They are more upgradable and components can be swapped if they fail. Laptops are harder and costlier to repair. In fact you are often better off buying a new laptop than fixing one.

So some quick Laptop specs:

  • 15.4″ WXGA screen for easy viewing
  • 2 GHz Intel Core2 Duo CPU
  • Discrete graphics (I know – integrated graphics are okay… but no)
  • 2 GB memory
  • 80 GB+ disk (7200rpm if it is a cheap upgrade)
  • DVD burner
  • Integrated wireless-N
  • Vista Premium (yeah I know – but if you pony up for Business, you then get the privilege of downgradability)

Cost is $900-$1100 depending on manufacturer.”

Preferred Brands

Dell certainly led the list of those specifying a brand, with HP, Toshiba and Apple also frequently mentioned. Dell came up based on price and support – a popular view spported by some survery I have seen in Consiumer Reports and some PC magazine surveys.

Also it was interesting to see a number of Apple mentions – while the majority of our audience have not been Apple users, now that Apple can host Windows along with Apple’s OS, followed by Apple’s reliability and quality, a few recommended an Apple notebok or desktop.

Brian’s view:

“For a gamer friend, I always recommend DIY. But for friends who just want a web-surfing and email box, I always say “go with Dell”. The first reason is because it will likely end up being cheaper than the DIY routes. But I also always point-out that one should never pay base price for a Dell. Wait for a sale or a coupon – deal sites are everywhere with details.

The biggest reason I recommend Dell for my “Joe Sixpack” friends is because I don’t want to be their de facto tech support for the next three years. I would prefer that Dell help them figure out why their PC won’t turn on (when it’s not plugged-in) or why Windows is crashing all the time (when their PC is riddled with spyware).”

OS – Vista or XP?

Reflecting the lukewarm market response to Vista, a number of readers were wary of recommending Vista, although almost everyone recognized its inevitability. Only a handful would recommend a Linux distro such as Ubuntu – while a user who would never stray from Open Office and Gimp could be totally satisfied, hitting a problem with Linux still requires a high degree of hand holding to fix.

PC or MAC?

A number of you recommended going to MAC laptop or the mini – Joshua summed it up very nicely:

“Hands down, I would tell any of my friends (and I do) to get a MAC.
If a laptop would be useful, 1000 bucks can easily get a Macbook
(either a refurb or with a student discount the base models can be had
for 1000). Even the MAC mini’s are not so bad for the everyday light
user. The iMacs are a decent value, in my opinion.

I started overclocking CPUs when I was like 14 with the good ‘ol
Pentium III’s. My friends and family, and their friends and family,
have always looked to me for computer help and buying advice. I
started recommending MACs to PC n00bs a couple years ago.

Ya’ know
what? The number of tech support help calls have dropped
tremendously. It is not the fault of the PC, but Windows just
sucks. It really does. Linux is awesome, but its too hard for the
most part for total n00bs to learn how to use and to maintain.

fact is, MACs just work. And OS X is not that bad. Of course I wish I
could tinker around with the hardware inside MACs (and I have taken a
few apart to replace hard drives and what not in out of warranty
powerbooks), but that’s part of why they work so well.

grandmother’s 80 year old friend is not going to be overclocking her
computer, so it doesn’t really matter what is under the hood or if it
can be modded. If all she (or even my college friends) is doing is
checking email, writing papers, surfing the web, or playing the
occasional game, a MAC will do the trick – and it will cause me a lot
less effort in the long run.”

With Apple now using Intel parts, the “MAC or PC” is not a black and white choice anymore – two words: dual boot.

And Michael’s view:

“OK – using the above criteria and with the limitation that nothing will be used from the old system, I would recommend the Apple iMac. Its 20 inch design and Intel Core 2 duo processor and standard 1 GB of memory will serve the purposes for this friend. Also with that, my friend would have the option of running Windows on the same system. As many of the Microsoft products (Office) will run and are compatible with both Mac OSx Leopard and Windows XP/Vista, this would be the easy choice at $1099 – good value and performance for the money.

Now if we can reuse the display, keyboard and mouse, then the $599 Mac Mini would be a much better choice, as with the money that is saved the friend can put it to other uses such as a new TV or small entertainment system. Again the Intel; Core 2 duo processors and standard 1 GB of memory are hard to beat in such a small package. Also the hardware is compatible with both Windows and Mac OSX. The best part is that Apple will help the customer much more so than Microsoft will and the extended warranties offer both software and hardware support.”

Jeff pointed to an interesting alternative – “Rent-a-PC”:

One word – Zonbu. Since you did not mention gaming, I can see no reason that this machine would not satisfy most home users needs.

Linux for the casual user? No local storage? Interesting alternative to check out.


Many readers expressed a liking for freeware alternatives to Microsoft Office, Photoshop etc.

Daryl has a nice list:

I’d load up some of the usual freeware/open source suspects of course.
Firefox is a given, I like Thunderbird as an e-mail client even if it’s
future is a little uncertain. Filezilla is an easy to use FTP program,
VLC for video playback, Spybot Search & Destroy for the baddies and AntiVir
Personal Edition (free) for Antivirus.


As for software… anything that opens *.doc or *.ppt without any
problems. OpenOffice is a good free alternative, but my limited
experience has been that problems with free software get blown way
farther out of proportion than problems with programs paid for (i.e.
People assume that when this free program doesn’t work it couldn’t
possibly be USER error, but rather that the program is incapable and
then I am personally at fault for making that recommendation to begin

Sometimes for peace of mind, it’s better to just throw money at
the problem initially and just buy that full copy of MS Office. This
again tends to depend on the user. If I think they’re up to the task, my
recommendations would likely change.

Suni’s extensive list:

There’s a long list of programs I always recommend and help with:

  • browser that’s not internet explorer (adblock rules like filterset.g, no-script, third-party builds of firefox, ..)
  • lightweight antivirus like antivir or nod32
  • desktop firewall like zonealarm for the least tech-savvy or rather tiny, kerio, comodo, jetico
  • simple setup that plays all video files like ffdshow+mpc or mplayer+smplayer
  • simple music player, rather foobar or winamp instead of itunes
  • nlite/vlite for regular windows installations with integrated service packs and patches and drivers
  • winrar and 7-zip (both because 7-zip compresses much better but doesn’t batch convert as easily)
  • flashfxp for ftp
  • irfanview to view and save and recompress pictures
  • paint.net, paint shop pro or photoshop elements
  • openoffice instead of blindly installing or even buying ms office
  • simple burning program like imgburn
  • rightmark cpuclock to save energy and keep the pc silent
  • windowblinds to make windows look nicer
  • o&o defrag
  • utorrent instead of azureus or bitcomet or worse
  • gmail
  • pageflakes for easy rss usage and online bookmarks and notes and a backup folder with all drivers and setups for these programs

Lot of interesting recommendations – it’s interesting to note that laptops have become a preferred alternative to desktops – with laptop prices declining as competition heats up and DTR becoming more viable, desktops seem to be morphing to smaller footprint desktops – the line between laptops and desktops may be blurring somewhat. Interesting trends!

And the winner picked at random is Blake Norton – he will receive a Gigapod 3.5″ external hard drive enclosure. Many thanks to all responded!

Email Joe

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