Help me NOT beanplate a computer purchase!
October 27, 2015 9:58 AM   Subscribe

I have $1400 to spend on a new computer. I have no idea what I'm looking for. Help?

I've recently received a big fat grant that will go towards increasing access to local foods in my area (and expanding our farmers' market) and I get to buy a new computer! Awwww yissssssss as my current work provided desktop is on it's last leg and about to peter out...

I've spent the morning researching and ugh, this is complicated. Hive mind, can you help?!

I also get to purchase an iPad so things like access to apps aren't necessary. I'd rather have a desktop because that's what I'm used to but if that's just silly in 2015, I'm more than willing to think about a laptop...

Here's what I'd like:

-- TONS of storage. I do all the graphic design work for our non-profit and farmers' market and having storage right there (as opposed to having things stored on external drives and what-not) is easiest.
-- Windows. I'm familiar with it and even though I *think* a Mac would probably be my best bet, I genuinely don't have time to fiddle around with learning a new OS when Windows has served me just fine.
-- Publisher. I know, I know, I SHOULD be using Corel or Photoshop or something of that nature for my design work (and indeed, my grant funding also allows for that purchase too!) but I'm familiar with Publisher and I'd like to keep using it, if I can.
-- I DO NOT want a laptop that also functions as a tablet. I have a tablet. If it's something that turns around on itself and has a touch screen, that's really not what I'm looking for.
-- My budget is up to $1400 so anything in that range is good.

I know I don't have too many needs so this should be easy but I'm just having trouble figuring this out.

Can you recommend something for me?
posted by youandiandaflame to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your budget is way more than you need to fulfil your requirements. as such, I would just get any old ~$900 laptop from a good manufacturer, opt for the HDD upgrade if they have one available, and buy an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse so you can use it as a desktop.

The Lenovo laptop shown as #5 on this list comes with 1TB of internal storage, as does the Acer at #4.
posted by 256 at 10:18 AM on October 27, 2015

I don't really know computer stuff but I will say that a laptop + big monitor + keyboard/mouse is the best decision I ever made when buying my last computer.

Sure, I leave it plugged in most of the time but the ability to unplug and move it somewhere is so handy that I would never go back.
posted by magnetsphere at 10:18 AM on October 27, 2015

You have an iPad (and presumably like it?).

You *think* a Mac would probably be your best bet.

You should be using Corel or Photoshop or something of that nature for your design work, and you have grant money to buy it.

You have a decent computer budget in your grant.

But you don't want to get a Mac because you're familiar with Windows and Publisher, and "genuinely don't have time to fiddle around with learning a new OS".

Since you're asking the anonymous internet for advice, here's what I think: you should go to an Apple store (or your college bookstore) and spend 15 minutes trying one of the laptops there - probably the 15" Pro with a Retina display. Get a feel for the trackpad, especially, and look at the display. After that, you'll be able to make a more informed decision. Because reading your question, it sure looks like that would be a better way to go for you (maybe with OmniGraffle instead of Photoshop/Illustrator), and all that's holding you back is your vague sense that it might take a lot of time to figure out a Mac.

Honestly, if you're already using an iPad, are competent with Windows, and not particularly phobic to change, it will take you a day or two to get by on a Mac.
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:50 AM on October 27, 2015 [7 favorites]

You can probably pretty easily find a laptop that meets your storage/performance needs. A desktop build for 1400 would be pretttttty nice, but it's about a flexible as an external hard drive.
I'd recommend one of the slightly older ThinkPads made just as Lenovo is phasing them out. IMO Nothing beats them in terms of durability and build quality. They'll serve you on a desktop with an external peripheral setup just as well as in the non-profit/farmers market field.
The X230 and T430 are both slightly bulkier than their newer, slimmer Lenovo step-siblings but it's because they have things like steel chassis and hinges and spill proof keyboards. Both are less than $900 and are pretty upgradeable.
posted by shenkerism at 10:58 AM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

A desktop isn't silly. I use a desktop. I like that when something in my desktop goes wrong or becomes outdated, I can just swap out a new part, like a new hard drive or whatever, instead of throwing out my entire machine. I have a graveyard of laptops, but I have had the same desktop for many years, at least mostly, because I just update specific parts as needed. If you also intend to you use your computer at home a lot, a desktop is less of a hassle. Overall, desktops are generally less expensive than laptops.

For $1400, you can get a very high-end desktop, especially if you are willing to build it. You sound like you aren't interested in anything that takes time, but if you build, you get the most bang for your buck, and you'll have the know-how to replace parts to keep your computer up-to-date whenever it becomes necessary. Learning how to build it is just an afternoon project -- I used YouTube videos and it took me about two hours for the actual build. Selecting parts was done just by buying a computer components bundle on If you are interested, let me know.

Otherwise, I'd recommend:

-Think about which version of Windows you want. I have Windows 7 (64-bit) and I will probably not switch until I'm forced to. I held on to XP for a long time. If you think you will be comfortable with Windows 8 or Windows 10, do that.

-CPU: i7 processor. That's the top of the line. It will be fast, but more importantly, it will last a long time.

-RAM: 8GB or more. Certain types are better than others, but I wouldn't worry about it.

-Hard drives: If you want a lot of space to store stuff you don't use super frequently, feel free to get a huge 1TB hard drive. (The higher rpm, the faster it is.) But I would recommend you get something that also has a solid state drive. It is faster than traditional hard disk drives and supposedly fails (eventually stops working) less often, but it costs more, which is why it's usually used in conjunction with a spinning disk drive. You want your C: drive or operating system on the solid state drive.

-If you game, get a nice graphics card. There are tons of models so it's hard to give any sort of parameter. This chart will let you see if the card you want is fast or other cards are faster. (That website also offers benchmarks on a whole bunch of components.) But you don't really need one. Without a graphic card, you will still be able to play games just fine. Just not on the highest settings.

-Monitors. I have two 23-inch monitors side by side, which makes it easy to do work across multiple programs or tabs. If you're getting a desktop, do it right.
posted by AppleTurnover at 11:10 AM on October 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you want to keep using Windows, you want something with a touchscreen, as Windows 10 is starting to get good at using them to supplement keyboards and mice.

FWIW, I have a Dell Inspiron 15 5000 with the highest end specs that were offered late spring this year (i7, 16 GB RAM, 1TB HD with 8GB SSD cache, 1080p touchscreen, 4GB video card) and it was well under your budget and has a nice mix of performance and portability. The cache enhanced hard drive does make a nice performance boost by keeping key parts of the OS on the high performance storage while giving lots of space on the spinning drive.

The XPS 13 and 15 are both well reviewed as well. They use tiny screen bezels to keep the size/weight down, but are SSD centric so they may not have enough storage for your taste.
posted by Candleman at 11:40 AM on October 27, 2015

Ok, so $1400 should get you a NICE desktop. However, the software actually eats up most of that, since Office Professional is $400. You COULD use the Live version and pay per-month, but I don't trust that. Are you sure you don't have an old license key you could use for this?

I'm also assuming that you are building this yourself, if not, you'll have to budget for that.

I generally really like TechReport's guides, and the September one is the most recent.

For $1400 WITHOUT publisher:
Intel Core i5-6600K $249.99
Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3 $114.99
Corsair Vengeance LPX 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3000 $64.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB $179.99
OCZ Arc 100 120GB $59.99
WD Green 6TB $222.99
Corsair Carbide Series 200R $69.99
Corsair CX430 $44.99
Acer H236HL bid $165.99
Windows 10 Pro 64-bit OEM 179.99
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $34.99

Total: $1,388.89 (Plus shipping)

However, if you need Publisher and thus to spend $400 on Office Professional, you have to drop down a *lot*. I'm also assuming you can use your current keyboard and mouse. You can also save money in several ways. For example, instead of buying a new case, strip all the parts out of the old one. Also, I'm assuming you need a new monitor, if not that frees up a lot of budget (Or you could just hook up both; I love having two monitors.)
posted by Canageek at 12:47 PM on October 27, 2015

Seconding 256's advice. There's no need to spend all of your $1,400 on a PC for what you need. Buy a reasonably nice laptop with a touchscreen because you can use it for things like scrolling and zooming, but you don't have to. Buy a nice 24" to 27" monitor, keyboard and mouse to go with it.

I would buy a laptop with an internal SSD for speed and an external hard drive for storage. The HP Spectre x360 and Dell XPS 13 are good choices.

Edit - Candleman's suggestion for the Dell Inspiron is also a good one.
posted by cnc at 12:47 PM on October 27, 2015

What I'm hearing is that your iPad will act as a mobile device for you and this computer doesn't need to move ever. If so, you'll be able to get more horsepower out of it by going with a desktop.

That said, there are plenty of laptops that will do the job and if you have a docking station or just a monitor, keyboard, and mouse that you plug in at home it will basically feel just like a desktop.

On the other hand, if it would be nice to be able to pick up the computer and take it with you knowing that you'll still be able to do everything with it that you can do at home (aside from using a bigger monitor, better keyboard, and better mouse), then a laptop will be just fine.

I do think that you're better off with a desktop. Everything will just be a bit faster and easier for the money.

Here are some of the things to look for:
RAM/Memory: The graphics work will eat up a lot of it. 8GB minimum, 16GB is better, 32GB if it's a cheap upgrade. It's by FAR the easiest thing to add later and prices can fluctuate a lot.

Processor: An Intel core i5 or i7. They have just recently released an updated design (called "Skylake" or 6th generation) that uses faster memory. The model numbers will be 6XXX and I think the only two released so far are the i5 6600k and the i7 6700k. Either one will be great for a good long while but I don't think OEMs have started selling machines with those chips in them yet (you should be able to buy them from if you're up for building your own machine). I think the memory thing makes this a CPU worth waiting for but any of the 5th or 4th gen i5s or i7s will be great too. They come out with a new generation of CPU every six months or so and it's a lot of incremental improvements.

Hard drive: You're going to want two. An SSD (at least 120GB, 250GB or 500GB if it fits the budget) on which the OS and all the applications will live and a 2nd mechanical hard drive (in the 1-3 TB range depending on how much space you need and keeping in mind that it's not very hard to add a hard drive later and they get cheaper constantly. Mechanical drives are big and cheap but slow compared to an SSD which is REALLY fast but costs a lot more. It used to be that an SSD would wear and they still do but at about the same rate as a mechanical drive.

Video card: You don't really need one. The processors I mentioned have on-board graphics that are good enough that they're starting to compete with the low-end stand-alone cards and will let you play some older games just fine and nothing else you'll be doing will stress the graphics processing overly much.

Monitor: You want either the 24" or 27" Dell Ultrasharp. I know it's about 1/3rd of your budget but you will not regret springing for the larger monitor and/or TWO of the 24" ones.

Similar things apply to laptops but there a couple of key differences:
1. The processors will be either "U" model or "M" model, mobile processors. Both use less power and are lower performing than their desktop counterparts. U chips are the ultra-low-power versions and place more emphasis on low power consumption trading off some performance. The "M" processors split the difference. It's still a mobile processor so it's smaller and uses less power than the desktop but not the same extreme degree as the "U" chips.

2. You probably won't see an option for 3TB hard drives and you probably won't have the option of an SSD and mechanical drive both. It can be done but you usually have to give up the DVD drive to do it which you may or may not care about. A lot of software can be downloaded and installed online now but you might have stuff that you can only get on disc.

3. Everything is generally going to cost more and go slower than a similarly spec'ed desktop.
posted by VTX at 1:13 PM on October 27, 2015

For business uses, I really don't recommend dickering around with build it yourself systems unless working on computers is your core competence and job duty. It's fine for hobbyists, who can chose to treat their time as free and for whom a failed system might mean not playing games for a few days, but from an employer's perspective, it's not efficient for you to spend hours sourcing, building, and repairing systems because that's time you're not doing what you need to be doing for them. The margins are so thin on everything but the highest end systems that it's difficult to come out an appreciable percentage ahead at this point.

Just get something with a next business day, on-site warranty and make dealing with repairs and support someone (that gains efficiency from working at scale) else's problem. Buying from parts means that you have multiple vendors to have to deal with if something goes wrong, many of whom do not offer top quality or speed support to individual buyers.
posted by Candleman at 1:46 PM on October 27, 2015

I would really recommend that laptop + external monitor + keyboard + mouse. Even if you have a tablet, it's so nice to be able to take your computer to Board meetings or to a coffee shop to write or even just to another part of your house and have everything without having to worry about an internet connection or what's backed up to the cloud.
posted by betsybetsy at 3:59 PM on October 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I too recommend setting aside a bit for two nice 24-inch Dell Ultrasharps. You really can't underestimate the difference a good monitor makes when you have to stare at it as much as you do.

I use a desktop still and built a fairly top-notch gaming computer (minus drives and monitors) for under $800. Tom's Hardware has good guides for several budgets if you don't mind putting stuff together yourself — which admittedly can be a pain.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:31 PM on October 27, 2015

I really don't get the Dell Ultrasharp recommendations. They are OK monitors but very expensive vs the same product from other vendors. Also, didn't they use to come with glossy finish, aka eyestrain in a coating?
posted by Canageek at 5:58 PM on October 27, 2015

If you work for a nonprofit, definitely check to see if you qualify for discounted software through TechSoup. If you do it will drop the prices tremendously.
posted by veery at 6:00 PM on October 27, 2015

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