The Perpetual Computer Buyer's Guide
Everyone wants to know what I recommend for a basic computer, so I have developed this page to help them along. "Big Box" store advice may only work in North America or large cities.
Very General Guidelines
Computers are much like automobiles these days. There really are no BAD name-brand cars by nature (well, except for Yugo), so it really doesn't matter what brand or model you buy, as far as basic quality goes. Ford has about the same basic quality as Chevy or Honda. The same philosophy goes for computers as well. Any big-name computer maker has good quality control and a willingness to fix whatever is wrong with the occasional "lemon". If you stick with big brand names, they should work fine for most uses.
Most people are only interested to know if a computer can do what they want done, which is usually surfing the Internet, working with email, and doing basic schoolwork. Nearly any new computer can do these things just fine. What follows are my thoughts on some of the options you will be presented with and how to make decent choices based on those options.
Where to Buy Your Computer
I have always told people to go the nearest big-box store (Walmart, Sam's Club, Best Buy, whatever) and buy a computer there. I say that simply because, if the computer doesn't work when you get it home, you can simply box it back up, take it back, and get another one the same day. These are pre-packaged systems, with the options decided for you, and that will fit most people's desires for basic computing, which is what readers of this page are typically after. Most people like instant gratification and if you are like that, go this route.
If you don't mind doing things by telephone or over the Internet, the best choice is always to directly work with the computer maker. You will typically get a better computer package at a good price, if you don't mind making some decisions for yourself and waiting until the computer can be shipped to you. I will talk about options you might care about further down on this page.
I don't recommend mucking around with local computer stores that offer to custom-build a computer for you. These shops are basically around to fix your computer after the warranty expires or to help you with problems your warranty doesn't cover. Their computers will either do more than you really need (and cost more for it) or be pieced together from recycled parts (and cost less for it) but be more likely to break down. Computer shops sell Ferrari-type computers or rebuilt-Yugo computers so, for your needs, avoid them either way.
What Brand should I Buy?
I always go for the big names, like Dell or Hewlett-Packard simply because these companies have good support for their products if they break down after a purchase. Even if you buy the computer at a big-box store, buy a big-name brand just for the warranty and the after-sale customer support that is available 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Yeah, they sometimes have interesting accents, but they can still be helpful at 3am!
How Much Money do you have to Spend?
After you have your store and your brand, the only question left is "Do you have any money left to spend?" You can get a better computer experience if you spend more money. My basic rule of thumb is to never buy the cheapest one. The cheapest one is always stripped down a bit too much, but it gives you important information: namely, numbers. Note the numbers for memory, hard drive storage space, processor speed, and price. You will definitely want higher numbers than these on your computer, because you want a good computer, as opposed to an "economy" one. What you ultimately buy for a computer will be most influenced by one number, the price! You want the highest numbers you can get for the money you want to spend on a computer, so you must set that price number and stick with it!
For the price, nothing makes a computer better than having more memory. Memory is currently measured in gigabytes, which is sometimes called Gbytes, Gig, or simply G. Take the number of gigabytes that the cheapest computer at your store has and double it to determine the minimum memory you will really be looking for. Don't buy a computer with less memory than this number!
Incidently, if your computer measures memory by "megabytes", "Mbytes" or "M", don't even consider it. This must be an older computer that they are trying to dump and doesn't even qualify as the "cheapest".
Since memory is relatively cheap and does the most to improve your computing experience, if you have money left over in your "buy a computer" budget, use that money to buy more memory, if that option is available.
Hard Drive Storage Space
The next consideration is how much storage space you are buying. Normally, computers sell with a good sized hard drive, no matter what the price, so this is less important than a high Memory number. However much storage space a computer model comes with by default is usually fine and you won't need to buy a larger "number".
If you take tons of digital pictures or download lots of movies or music, having more storage space can be more important to you and you should get a bigger "number" than the one from the cheap computer, as much as your budget tolerates.
This number is probably the least important for your purposes. I typically ignore this in favor of getting a better "memory" number, unless you have already decided on the maximum amount of memory currently available for all the computers you are considering. If you have maxed out the memory option, get the highest processor speed available to you within your budget.
Let's just review the important ideas from the page:
Buy big brands from big stores or directly from the maker.
Always get more memory than the bargain model.
Get a bigger hard drive (more storage space) if you do lots of pictures/movies/music downloads.
Get a faster processor (higher speed number) if you can't buy more memory and still have money left.
Lastly, I really recommend buying computers like you buy automobiles. Beyond the "numbers" game talked about above, get the features and accessories (like monitors) that appeal to you as part of a computer package. These package deals are nice in that the store will often include these extras in your larger warranty and be more apt to help you integrate everything together properly. This also helps you keep your budget. If you add these extras later, you are typically on your own for finding repairs and support.
So, fear not, go out there and get yourself that new computer you have been needing!