What PCs to buy?
March 31, 2012 7:41 AM   Subscribe

What PCs should we buy?

We need to get 2 new laptops and 2 new desktops. 1 laptop and 1 desktop can wait for ~6 months.

- We both do intense data analysis (MPlus, R, SPSS, Excel, Access) for many hours of the day
- We both do a lot of multitasking
- Windows preferred, unless you can convince me that it would be worth it to shell out for all the extra software
- We'll need 2 monitors, maybe 3
- Building our own isn't in the cards, although I'm willing to buy RAM or monitors separately


~ 6 year old Dell desktop, Win7 32 bit, 4 GB RAM, 2.66 GhZ, 24" monitor
~ 3 year old 13" HP laptop, Win8 64 bit, 4 GB RAM (upgrading to 8 now), 2.27 GhZ processor

I like having 2 computers running at once. I will need 1 work desktop and 1 home desktop and I'm okay with toting the laptop between the 2, or using my current laptop in 1 location and the new laptop in another location. I like 13" and 15" is too big for me. I don't want to get a Mac and have to buy new software for it.

- .5 year old MacBook Air
- just got rid of ~3 Dell laptop
- uses work computer now, but needs something for fulltime at home work

He thinks that he just needs a laptop. In the past he's either gone for a huge monster or a tiny but powerful laptop. I think that with the MBA he could probably tolerate a medium sized laptop.


We have ~3 year old media PC, 3 GB RAM, 2.8GhZ processor that could be repurposed as long as the replacement had BluRay, a good graphics card, and a good fan. I suspects that leaving the media PC as is might be the best thing to do.

SO... at least 1 laptop and maybe 1 desktop need to be purchased soon. It might be worth waiting until October when PCs are shipping with Win8 rather than having to do an upgrade (even if it is free.)


What's good out there right now? What deal sites should I watch? What brands are the most reliable right now?

What would you do with all of this?
posted by k8t to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In roughly the same order as your post:

Why is building your own not an option--at least for the desktop? Do you need the warranty or is it just the labor that's bothering you?

How many cores are the processors in your current machines? I'm guessing the 6 year old processor is single core, but anything more recent than that is probably at least dual core.

What price range are you looking at? What spec range are you looking at? (What price range were the machines that you're replacing when they were new?) Keep in mind that processors have been adding cores but not necessarily increasing the clock speed over the past couple of years... That will certainly help with multi-tasking, but not necessarily so much with crunching a single, large problem (depending on what you're doing)... On the other hand, if I remember correctly you're university affiliated, so hopefully you're offloading any problems of that type onto your university servers.

Windows 8 is primarily aimed at tablets... I'm not sure I would even put it on a desktop. 7 is still reasonably fresh and will likely be supported for a very long time to come.

My generic recommendation is to keep an eye on NewEgg, simply for the large number of reviews that end up there, and that the major manufacturers are, at this point, basically indistinguishable -- all of them have the same variable-quality, out-sourced customer support, all of them cut corners on the same specs... heck, most of them even use the same components.
posted by anaelith at 8:12 AM on March 31, 2012

I think most laptops with the new i7 core will be pretty beefy. (econometric modeler here). For the desktop I had a great experience with xi computers. I would advise calling them, an actual knowledgeable person will pick up and walk you through all your choices, they build it and send it out
posted by shothotbot at 8:13 AM on March 31, 2012

May I ask why building your own isn't in the cards? At least on the desktop? You say you like deals. Unless you bill at a thousand dollars an hour, the best deal you can do is this: put the cats in the other room, take everything out of the packaging, and put together a machine based on Tom's Hardware, anandtech, or techreport guides. If you can put together a LEGO set marked "3 and up" and own a #1 Phillips screwdriver, you can put together your own machine and save a ridiculous amount of money.
posted by notsnot at 8:17 AM on March 31, 2012

Building my own isn't an option because
1. I don't have the time (really, time is very precious right now) even though I have the ability (I worked as a computer tech for years)
2. I will have to submit these for reimbursement from my employer and I've heard that building-your-own does not appeal to the powers-that-be that approve the expenses
3. I need the warranty/support just in case

What am I looking to spend? $700-900 on a deal would be best, but maybe a little more.

Yes, the 6 year old is single core, all the newer are dual core.
posted by k8t at 8:22 AM on March 31, 2012

Although if you can point me to a build-your-own that is really worth doing, I'll listen.
posted by k8t at 8:23 AM on March 31, 2012

If you were able to get your work done on a 6-year old desktop, any more modern PC with current generation processors and plenty of RAM will blow them away. So, after that, it becomes a question of how much you went to spend.

More cores will help you with multitasking, but won't get your data crunching done any faster unless the software is designed to use them. But it looks like the latest versions of R can do that, and you can also use add-on packages with older versions. And of course if you are running several different data crunching processes at the same time, more cores will help.

More RAM might help you if the processes you run are large and/or benefit from holding a large amount of data in memory. One consideration if you ever want to use Unix-only tools (which in your field I guess you well might) is that it's nice to be able to run a virtual machine and throw it a GB or two over and above what you are using on Windows.

I have a Dell 620 with a Core i5 quad-core processor and 6GB RAM. You could get something like that together with a decent monitor within your price range, and you'll probably be delighted with how much better it is than what you've been used to.

Whether you want to spend the extra for an i7, more RAM etc is matter of what trade-offs you want to make between cost and power. But in my case, most of my cores are sitting around doing not-very-much most of the time, and less than 3GB of the RAM is usually really needed.

Your usage might have a different pattern, but I find it's easy to get needlessly anxious about how much power you really need.
posted by philipy at 9:11 AM on March 31, 2012

If it's the case that your employer is a university and you have like $3-4K to spend on computers...

I'd blow it on a single fuck-you desktop that seems ludicrously overpowered now. And I'd concentrate the money in the parts that you have to swap out to replace, rather than add more -- so throw their money more at processors than ram, and more at hard drive performance than space. Big fancy monitor. Make sure there are empty dimm slots.

Why? Startup money is one-shot, refreshing computers is rarely a priority, and you're in the social sciences so you probably can't count on grants to buy you a new box. So that machine or machines you get now? That's what's on your desktop in five years, and likely in eight years too.

Anyway, I was in that position at my last job and bought two desktops that were pretty good but not fabulous. That was a mistake. Both were clunky inside three years, and by the time I left my office machine was almost unusably clunky (the admin people had loaded with so much antivirus crap that it was horribly unresponsive).

The home desktop and laptops I'd buy with my own money. I favor cheap laptops that are semi-disposable -- last maybe three years before they break and then fuck it, get a new and better one. We've done pretty well with $500-600 laptops.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:15 AM on March 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

check out HP business outlet...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:19 AM on March 31, 2012

@ROU_Xenophobe - yup, exactly the sitch, but I have 5k. And I usually go with the $700 disposable-ish laptop usually too.

Going for 2 total badasses and spending all the money is a good idea too and then make due with the laptops.
posted by k8t at 9:21 AM on March 31, 2012

I would seriously consider waiting a month for Intel's Ivy Bridge architecture to hit the streets before buying something like the Dell Studio line with All The Upgrades.

At the very least make sure that the operating system and all the cache files for your programs are on the fastest SSD you can afford. That's critical.

$5k buys an awful lot of computer these days; that would likely get you two of the beefiest Studio desktops Dell is willing to sell you and two competent low-end laptops.
posted by mhoye at 9:45 AM on March 31, 2012

I don't disagree with the spend-it-when-you-have-it, but consider taking these two factors in:

- Price/performance ratio of computers drops like a stone above a certain point. Get the nice CPUs but not the most expensive ones. Get lots of RAM, but use 4GB chips not 8GB. Get nice fast SSDs, but not the most expensive ones. And ...

- There are some extras that are always useful. The most significant are backup drives or -stations and external monitors. Backing data up is so so so important. Please make the arrangements to be able to so now. Productivity gains from multiple monitors have been scientifically proven. Two monitors are a step up from one, and three a step up from two in my experience.
posted by krilli at 1:32 PM on March 31, 2012

Building my own isn't an option because
1. I don't have the time (really, time is very precious right now) even though I have the ability (I worked as a computer tech for years)
2. I will have to submit these for reimbursement from my employer and I've heard that building-your-own does not appeal to the powers-that-be that approve the expenses
3. I need the warranty/support just in case

In that type of situation, I'd be looking into locally-owned computer shops to see if any offered custom-built rigs backed by an in-shop warranty. Not as cheap as rolling your own because you'd be paying for their labor and the warranty coverage, but still potentially cheaper than the national manufacturers, and you get a nice professional invoice that'll make the beancounters happy.
posted by radwolf76 at 5:29 PM on March 31, 2012

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