I'm in need of a new computer. A desktop, not a laptop. And zoomy.
July 27, 2009 11:22 PM   Subscribe

I need a new computer--a desktop--but I don't know what kind of expectations to have for a new machine versus my 5-year-old computer. Is whatever's on special gonna impress me?

The desktop I have currently is about 5 years old. I use it for work, so generally have Outlook, Access, a bunch of Word docs and a bunch of Excel books open (all 2007 Office), plus Firefox, and maybe iTunes. Yes, this is a lot to have open at once, and my machine is not handling it as well as it used to.

I've been looking at computers online, but I have no idea what is even standard now or what I should be looking for. I have no longer have any computer geek friends to guide me, so I look to you.

Basically, I think I need a lot of RAM and a fast processor, since I want to be able to have all that stuff open and not freeze all the time and not take 2 minutes to open a freaking Word doc. And of course a large hard drive, but storage seems to be super cheap, and I know how much storage I want (really, 500GB is fine).

I guess my question is, if I just buy whatever Dell PC is on special now, will I be satisfied with how it performs versus my current machine? For the stuff I want to do, what type of specs should I be looking at? How much RAM? What processor speed? Anything else I should be particular about when all I really want is an office workhorse?

Yes, I want a PC. Yes, I want a desktop. I'm not particularly concerned with awesome graphics or sound, as I'm not a gamer. We do listen to music through the computer, and stream the occasional movie from Netflix or whatever.

I have neither the skill nor the interest in learning the skill to build my own machine.

Finally, I don't want to spend much more than $800. The monitor I have now is fine, as are all the other peripherals. So I'm just looking for the tower, with all the towery stuff inside.
posted by misanthropicsarah to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Core2Duo, any speed is fine, 2GB for XP or 32-bit Vista (it can't see more), 4GB for 64-bit Vista.
posted by @troy at 11:28 PM on July 27, 2009

Do you know what your current CPU, motherboard, and memory are? 'cause I'd expect a 5-year-old machine to do fine with the apps you mention, and suspect you'd be fine with a fresh re-install of the OS and maxed out memory.
posted by Zed at 11:33 PM on July 27, 2009

Oh, for your $800 pricepoint you can go up to 1333Mhz frontside bus instead of 1066.
posted by @troy at 11:35 PM on July 27, 2009

via Dell:

Studio Slim desktop
PROCESSOR Intel® Core™ 2 Quad processor Q9400 (6MB L2, 2.66GHz, 1333FSB)
OPERATING SYSTEM Genuine Windows Vista® Home Premium ion SP1, 64-Bit
MONITOR No Monitor
MEMORY 4GB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz- 4DIMMs
HARD DRIVE 500GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM) w/DataBurst Cache™
VIDEO CARD ATI Radeon HD 4350 512MB

for $764. Not sure adding the ATI card is necessary for you, but the new Windows UI needs all the help it can get. This also has a free upgrade to Windows 7. You should probably try nuking your current machine and reinstalling everything and see if that improves, and if not just wait for Windows 7 to come out later this summer.
posted by @troy at 11:52 PM on July 27, 2009

Response by poster: System Properties tells me the following (really, I used to be a lot more knowledgable about this stuff...):

Intel Pentium 4 CPU 3.60GHz
3.59Ghz, 1.00GB of RAM
posted by misanthropicsarah at 11:58 PM on July 27, 2009

It sounds like you just need to reinstall Windows, and probably add more RAM. 3.6 GHz is plenty even nowadays, especially if you're not planning on gaming or doing anything similarly intensive. The limited RAM, and probably OS cruft if you've been on the same XP install for 5 years, is likely what's slowing you down.

If your computer uses DDR2 RAM, 4GB of that will run you about $50 nowadays.
posted by neckro23 at 12:06 AM on July 28, 2009

(I won't bore you with the details but I can put together a slightly superior box to the Dell above from newegg for $758.95, shipping & tax inclded)
posted by @troy at 12:13 AM on July 28, 2009

A Defrag, reinstall of the OS (making sure to only put on the software you want/need, not any other kruft) and possibly a RAM upgrade, not too hard to do manually but you said not interested in building your own...

Might help, first.
posted by titanium_geek at 12:24 AM on July 28, 2009

3.60Ghz Pentium 4 is Socket 478, and I believe that motherboard will have 240-pin DDR2 667 RAM, so you can get that.

Crucial has this system scanner which might be able to verify that for you.

Newegg has 4GB of DDR2-800 (which is compatible with DDR2-667) Crucial memory for $46. You should toss the old memory when putting this in.
posted by @troy at 12:28 AM on July 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 5 years ago was 2004, and my roommate bought a computer with a gigabyte of RAM. Today, my desktop has... a gigabyte of RAM. For my modest needs, RAM isn't the problem.

There are 3 basic aspects related to computers you might buy : CPU, RAM and disk speed. You probably won't notice much increase from CPU, though a multicore chip might help a bit when one program decides to start processing. It sounds like you think RAM is getting full, but I'm not certain. If you can find the "working set" after say 30 minutes of usage, and compare that to existing RAM, it can be helpful. On the other hand, 4GB of RAM is so damn cheap, why bother?

One thing that's about to dramatically change is disk speed. That could be your old computer's problem, if you're playing music on Itunes, autosaving a bunch of MS Office documents and running a database (Access) in the background. You may have heard about "solid state disks" in laptops that basically use the same technology as USB thumbdrives. Intel released a new drive that really screams according to benchmarks. It's very pricey, but may soon drop in price. Nevertheless sata and sata-II are now ubiquitous, which has the potential to go much faster than IDE. You could go crazy and try a RAID setup, but I really don't recommend it for personal desktops.

Again, what would really help is figuring out how much of your current computer is "in use". Vista came with some nice tools to show what's in use (and by what program!), but XP does have a few tools available by default. I don't know of a way to track disk requests per second or throughput in XP however. Personally, I think it's possible to keep using that computer, but there comes a point where power supplies and hard drives fail. And if you're going to go to the trouble of backing up and re-installing windows, a second computer is handy when things go terribly, terribly wrong.
posted by pwnguin at 12:31 AM on July 28, 2009

add some ram. (add 2gb. or 3. who cares, it's so cheap!) Reinstall windows. You will be fine!
posted by defcom1 at 12:34 AM on July 28, 2009

Another vote for buying an extra 1Gb memory stick, backing up your data (off the computer) and reinstalling the operating system from scratch (this means reformatting the hard drive during the install).

It's cheaper, you'll see measurable gains (as the extra memory won't thrash your drive and slow you down) and if the worst comes to the worst and it's still too slow then you can buy a new computer (running Windows 7, avoid Vista at all costs) come the January sales.
posted by mr_silver at 12:37 AM on July 28, 2009

For the basics, you can go as for pretty much the cheapest computer out there (I'd at least go for one 2GHZ+ and dual core) and do just fine. That Dell quad core linked earlier is overkill for your purposes.

This HP @ $350 is a good example.
posted by wongcorgi at 12:48 AM on July 28, 2009

As others have said, adding a gig or two of ram may be enough (a 32-bit OS can only make use of 3GB total); If you're set on a new system, I'd suggest scanning bensbargains or a similar such site to get a handle on current deals.
posted by unmake at 12:55 AM on July 28, 2009

You're not a gamer, so you don't really need the expansion capabilities of a tower. Consider a Core Duo 2 Mac mini.

It is tiny, compared with a tower. Its price is well matched to equivalent Dell and HP hardware configurations. With the dual boot, you can run Windows XP, Vista, Linux—whatever you want.

Just plug in your peripherals and go.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:20 AM on July 28, 2009

Best answer: Nthing the suggestion of adding RAM and then nuking your current install from orbit.

The only reason I can see that an actual upgrade might be needed is that I think your Pentium 4 is probably not a dual-core processor, and I definitely appreciate having multiple cores to chug away at my stuff instead of piling it all on one of them---even for day-to-day apps. But really, it probably wouldn't be worth the money.

I'd suggest installing Windows 7, by the way, because it is awesome.


If you don't want to just upgrade your current machine, then the single most important piece of advice I can give you is this: when you get your new computer, nuke its install from orbit and reinstall Windows (again, preferably Windows 7). Crapware from computer manufacturers can make an otherwise very-nice modern machine feel like something from the '90s. I am convinced that this is the real reason that people complain about Vista being slow. That is, anyone with an XP install this late in the game is almost certainly not using the original crapware-infested installation that came with their machine, but people with Vista are often running Vista + crapware, which is full of sadness.
posted by Jacen Solo at 1:40 AM on July 28, 2009

You'll be happy with whatever you get. These days, speed and excessive hardware makes up for user sophistication.

The reason you are unhappy with what you have probably traces back these factors:

XP takes constant care to optimize.

The number of apps you are using requires more RAM than you have and when you open a Word doc, all those unused apps need to be moved to your swap file.


Each of the above has implications, but it takes some curiousity and tweaking to figure out why, and you're not interested. The machine you have is twice as powerful as mine, and mine runs like a scalded dog. Yours could, too, with a little work.

FWIW, I'll suggest that for $50, you can put in 2G more memory and that will fix your upgrade blues for another year or two.
posted by FauxScot at 4:47 AM on July 28, 2009

You can get a dell studio xps desktop with 3 gigs ram , 500 gig hdd, ati vid card , and core i7 cpu for $749
posted by majortom1981 at 4:58 AM on July 28, 2009

As a lot of people said, add in the RAM. That should tide you over until after late October, when Windows 7 will come pre-installed on whatever new machine you may choose to buy, if it turns out you want more horsepower.
posted by chengjih at 5:11 AM on July 28, 2009

Chengjih the computer I posted gets the windows 7 upgrade .
posted by majortom1981 at 5:22 AM on July 28, 2009

Best answer: Be very careful doing just a RAM upgrade if you want to live with it for awhile. You will likely need at least two things at this point to be happy with performance in a new computer:

1) A decent amount of memory (RAM)
2) A dual-core processor.

I'll try to avoid being patronizing and explaining what a dual-core processor is and why you need it--I'm assuming you do know, but if you don't take the time to look into it. A Pentium 4 is single-core, and I would strongly advise against trying to upgrade your computer to Vista or Windows 7.

It is true that Windows 7 retails in a few months, but, if you buy a new computer from Dell with Vista, they will ship you Windows 7 when it comes out. Don't hold out just waiting for it.

If you're going to get a new computer with Vista, get something with at least 3GB of memory (and at BARE minimum 2GB). For the last year or two, a lot of computer manufacturers have been selling machines with 1GB of memory and Windows Vista, leaving a lot of users disappointed with the Vista experience. Vista is not meant to be run on low-end computers. Note that @troy points out "2GB for XP or 32-bit Vista (it can't see more)" -- this is not quite true. These systems will not be able to address a full 4GB of memory, but it will recognize and utilize 3.5GB of it, not stop at 2 GB.

For a desktop, you want at least a Core 2 Duo processor, likely 2.4GHz or better, with 2-4GB of memory (the memory should be marked as "PC2-6400" as well, not any lower). The Pentium Dual-Core is not what you want in the long run, and something higher end like the i7 is probably overkill. If you find a decent Quad-Core machine that's not too expensive (something running the Q6600 processor, perhaps), those would not be a bad choice.

On this page of Dell Inspirons, the deal on the far left ($700 including a monitor) seems pretty solid, though you could probably get a decent deal on any of those--make sure you upgrade to a Core 2 Duo if it's anything less, though, and try to upgrade from 2GB of memory to 3 or 4. Note that you don't want "Integrated Intel Graphics" if you're going to be doing any gaming. It will work fine for playing DVDs, but very possibly not as smoothly if you like to download and watch movies in 1080p--you'll want something like the last PC on that page with "ATI Radeon HD 4350 512MB" as the video card, not integrated graphics.

$800 really can get you a lot these days.
posted by jgunsch at 6:28 AM on July 28, 2009

Upgrade your RAM to 3 to 4 GB (yes, some might be wasted), reinstall your OS, do not upgrade to Vista or Win7.

However much computer $800 (or even $500) will buy you today, it will buy you even more in a year.
posted by Good Brain at 9:34 AM on July 28, 2009

Response by poster: lots of great advice in this thread--i really appreciate it. what i kind of thought i needed seems to be what everyone is saying to get. and while i appreciate the advice to just buy some more memory and install it, i think i'm going to just get a new machine.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 12:19 PM on July 28, 2009

I've had great experiences with the Dell Outlet. They take machines that are returned, check them out, fix them up if necessary, then sell them at a decent discount. Pick out the specs you want and check it every few hours for a few days until a system that meets your requirements pops up.

For example, right now, I see a Core 2 Duo (2800) with a 500GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM for 369 bucks. Since you don't seem to be super picky, this is definitely the way to go.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:49 PM on July 28, 2009

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