seeking my perfect match
March 8, 2009 5:54 PM   Subscribe

help me buy a computer that will suit my needs without spending money on features i don't need.

Hi computer wizards -
Here's your chance to keep me from leading myself astray. I need a new computer and I want to do it right. I'm not a techie so don't laugh too loudly if I say anything bizarre. Here goes.
My desktop, which I bought in February 1999, has finally given up the ghost. It's been getting sicker and sicker and now it just can't go on. I've also killed two or three laptops during the time that I owned the desktop. I bought all of these laptops used. Some worked better than others, but they all had more problems than they should have. I'm currently using a borrowed computer that disappears from my life in a week.
I am looking for a computer that will fulfill the following needs. Just as importantly, I'm looking for one that will not do things I don't need it to do, so I'm not paying for expensive features that I'll never use.
My main uses for the computer will be:
internet - academic research, buying and selling books on ebay, music downloads, general information gathering. Videos and You Tube type stuff are unimportant.
writing and word processing
processing photos for ebay listings
watching movies on dvd

I don't play video games, don't care about great sounding speakers or zippy extras to impress my friends. I want a computer that's reliable, doesn't do stupid and inexplicable things that I can't fix, and preferably will do repetitive tasks on the internet really, really fast.

I was looking into an Acer Aspire One because it's so cheap, but I don't think it can really do all these things.
I've been told that desktops last longer than laptops because they don't have as much trouble dissipating heat. If this is the case a desktop is fine.
My main interest is in keeping the cost as low as possible without sacrificing high performance in the areas where I need it.

I hope that's enough information. Go to it, geeks, recommend the perfect machine for my needs and I will be forever grateful.
posted by crazylegs to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, just about any modern computer you care to buy will do everything you want to. If we had a better idea of your budget it would be easier to give specific recommendations.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:27 PM on March 8, 2009

How much do you want to spend? Cuz, you could spend about $300-$500 and get a fine computer that will do all of this. And if it poops out, you can get another one, even better than that a few months later for the same price.

Go to and see the hottest laptop deals.
posted by k8t at 6:51 PM on March 8, 2009

If I were you, I'd buy the cheapest workstation from Los Alamos Computers. You could also go with one of their small form factor machines. I'd get it with Ubuntu 32-bit (not the default of 64-bit) linux installed.

I love that company. They have absolutely awesome service (including a great warranty). But, they also build their computers from name-brand parts, meaning that you can be quite confident in the quality of the individual components. It also means that when a component fails, you can buy a replacement from any retailer--and if it's out of warranty, the cost on those parts will have undoubtedly come way down. This is in contrast to the big dealers (Dell, HP, eMachines, etc.), who use lots of proprietary components that you cannot replace without going through them.

"But 'Zapper," you say, "Linux? Really? Why would you inflict that on me, a non techie?"

Because it's going to hold up longer. You won't find Microsoft service packs and new IE versions hogging your system resources. I have a 10 year old computer running Ubuntu, and it still fucking rocks. My new machine is faster, but the old one continues to perform those functions you mentioned flawlessly--it did them then, it does them now.

Los Alamos sets up the computer for you, so there's no need to go through the setup process. And, unlike Windows, you'll never need to reinstall the OS... it can upgrade itself in place, automatically. In five or six years, the harddrive will fail. Drop in a new drive and restore from backup.

And Ubuntu, while it doesn't look like windows, is very user-friendly. My wife, who was computer literate but not a geek, learned it in about two weeks with very little help from me. And there's lots of help on the web, as Ubuntu is very popular.
posted by Netzapper at 6:52 PM on March 8, 2009

The Acer Aspire One or any of the other "netbooks" that are proliferating all over the place are more than adequate for your needs. The tasks you mention are all well within the basic performance level of even the cheapest computers these days (things have changed a LOT since 1999), and the netbooks have stripped down the functionality of laptops to the very sort of tasks you've mentioned: websurfing, word processing, playing movies, etc. No frills, no overpowered hardware, and you can even choose between operating systems -- Windows XP, Ubuntu (on the Dell Minibooks) and whatever Linux the EeePC uses (also comes in a WinXP flavor).

Most of the netbooks are pricing between $250-$450.
posted by briank at 6:52 PM on March 8, 2009

Someone had to say it - get a Mac Mini. $599, which is more than the other options listed, but it's a hell of a box that will do all of what you want easily. I have one that's been in daily use for four years with no trouble whatsoever. No downtime at all. No OS reinstalls. Practically non-existent maintenance.
posted by azpenguin at 7:01 PM on March 8, 2009

The cheapest new computer you can find will likely do what you want, but not if you have Windows Vista (which needs pretty powerful hardware to be useful); you'll need Windows XP or a Linux distro like Ubuntu.
posted by Simon Barclay at 7:01 PM on March 8, 2009

Two things about netbooks before you dive in to that:

1. The keyboard. I have a Dell Mini9 and the keyboard can be frustrating to use (the apostrophe/quote key is next to the space bar, WTF?). Make sure you take a look at the keybaord layout of the model you're interested in to see if there are any quirks that might be an issue.

2. No CD/DVD drive inside the unit. You mentioned you wanted to watch DVDs, that means you would also need to purchase an external CD/DVD reader (optional writer) that connects through USB.

There are a few other smaller issues, like playing back 1080p high definition media, stuff like that that you probably wont run into.

Also, if you want a desktop and already have an LCD display, a Mac Mini might be an ideal upgrade. Though you might end up having to buy a new keyboard and mouse (that connect through USB instead of PS/2 (round circular connector with pins). And you don't have to buy Apple's keyboard and mouse, any USB keyboard and mouse will do (from Best Buy, or online from
posted by SirOmega at 7:17 PM on March 8, 2009

My main interest is in keeping the cost as low as possible without sacrificing high performance in the areas where I need it.

Right now computers are so cheap and so powerful you dont need to worry about mixing and matching components for some perfect PC. Any dual-core processor will be fine. You dont need to worry about gamer vs non-gamer PCs. Those distinction dont exist anymore, if they ever really did. A budget box from Dell is more powerful than the custom PC I built 12 months ago. Gamers worry about video performance so they get expensive video cards. You should just get the stock video option.

A dell inspiron 518 is 359 dollars right now.
Add $120 for the Dell 20" monitor and youre set. You may want to future proof it a little by moving up to the Core2Duo processor for 80 dollars more, but thats pretty optional in your case.

Acer Aspire One

This isnt what you want. A netbook is a micro laptop that is terrible for use as your primary computer. If you want several years of reliable use then stick with the desktop idea.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:26 PM on March 8, 2009

I was in a similar situation recently, had some specific needs similar to yours that weren't computationally strenuous, and a low, low budget (~$300). After shopping around a while I got curious about building my own desktop, and while pricing the necessary parts (there are not many; case, motherboard, cpu, ram, hard drive, DVD-R/CD-RW, and then the small, inexpensive fiddly bits) found that so much of the cost of retail computers is the software licenses you're buying along with it, branding, etc. Plus all the proprietary downsides mentioned up-thread. I'm not especially computer savvy, but all it took was a little bit of reading on the webs before I felt confident that I could put something together myself (including free, open source softwares for all my needs and an operating system [Ubuntu, also touted up-thread]).

I wouldn't say building your own computer is easy, but neither is it hard. For me, it just took a bit of research and some time (though really not so much time!); it's definitely something any computer-literate person could work out on their own. Or, you know, maybe with a little help from an excellent online q/a community. =)
posted by carsonb at 7:50 PM on March 8, 2009

I wouldn't say building your own computer is easy, but neither is it hard. For me, it just took a bit of research and some time (though really not so much time!); it's definitely something any computer-literate person could work out on their own. Or, you know, maybe with a little help from an excellent online q/a community. =)

OP: If you're willing to build it yourself (it's basically LEGO-easy, really), post a budget and I'll spec out a system for you. The more cash you drop, the more future proof it'll be.

If you buy the retail packaged components, you'll receive a warranty on each one from the manufacturer. So, you're not without warranty coverage. And since you built it yourself, you can have it fixed well before you'd ever have it returned from the integrator.
posted by Netzapper at 10:08 PM on March 8, 2009

Netbooks are hell to type on, generally don't have DVD drives, and usually have dinky screens that make browsing a pain. I have one and like it but I would never use it as my only machine.

You didn't tell us your budget or if you plan to use your existing monitor so recommendations are a bit tough to make. As your last machine was 10 years old you'll probably be impressed at the speed of just about anything made today.

Laptops have shorter lives because people move them around and, sometimes, drop them. Heat dissipation has much less to do with their reliabilty. If you park it and don't move it too often, it should last just as long as a desktop. That said, anything that does go wrong in a laptop is often more expensive to fix than it would be on a desktop.
posted by chairface at 10:51 PM on March 8, 2009

Don't get a netbook, they have tiny screens and would be a pain to use every day. Any PC will be fine but I recommend getting a huge screen. I have a 1900x1200 screen on my desk now and it's awesome. Only like $300. If you're old PC had a VGA connector it might be a good idea to get a new flat screen monitor with a DVI connection rather then try to use your old VGA monitor. The difference is HUGE.
posted by delmoi at 1:49 AM on March 9, 2009

nthing Mac Mini. Reading your requirements, you could be the poster child for the Mac OS. Software for almost everything you want to do is either included or available free. DVD Player, iTunes, iPhoto, and Safari will cover most of your bases. NeoOffice and Firefox should round out the suite.

If you are a student, visit Apple's online education store for a discount.
posted by dinger at 9:48 AM on March 9, 2009

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