what to do if you want to buy a computer

this post is dedicated to melanie and pj in tennessee


first you have to decide laptop or desktop. let me make this easy. if the laptop you’re looking to buy weighs more than 4lbs, you’re not going to enjoy carrying it around–which in my mind defeats the purpose of getting a laptop. best case scenario for laptops: 3lbs or under. i highly recommend the IBM thinkpad X-series.

memory (RAM)

the most important (and expensive) variable in a computer purchase is memory. when you’ve got several programs open (firefox/internet explorer, microsoft word, winamp, kazaa, etc.), they are all loaded in memory, so the more programs (including the operating system) you want running smoothly at the same time, the more memory you should get. presently 256 megabytes (MB) is standard bordering on low, 512MB is great, 1GB (1024MB) is out of this world. anything higher than that is obscene. don’t worry about the type of memory, you won’t notice the difference.

hard drive

a hard drive is for long term storage of data. because laptops are small, you’ll usually only have two options: 20 gigabytes (GB) or 40GB. if you actually have an 60 or 80GB option, your laptop is going to be as heavy as a cinderblock (or you’re reading this from the year 2005). desktops apparently start at 80GB and head for the stars, like 250GB, or 800GB in a RAID configuration. my laptop from feb 2002 has a 30GB hard drive with 2300 mp3s (which take up 10GB). i still have 7GB left.

CPU (the processor)

the red herring of computer purchases is processor speed. people buy new computers because they run at 3 gigahertz (GHz) rather than 1GHz, but what they don’t realize is that their memory and their hard drives will slow them down first. desktop processors range from 2.4GHz to 3.6GHz. laptops run from 1.5GHz to 3GHz. IBM’s latest X40 laptops actually have slower processors than their predecessors so that they consume less power (which equals longer battery life)! save money by choosing a slower processor.


summary, circa sept 2004

desktop Good Better Best
Memory 256MB 512MB 1.0GB (1024MB)
Hard Drive 80GB 120GB 250GB
CPU (Processor) 2.5GHz 3.0GHz 3.5GHz
laptop Good Better Best
Memory 256MB 512MB 1.0GB (1024MB)
Hard Drive 30GB 40GB 60GB
CPU (Processor) 1.5GHz 2.0GHz 3.0GHz

(grayed options = justin’s sweet spot)


Great timing, though ex post facto for me. I just rebuilt my desktop PC with a new motherboard and chipset (Soyo micro ATX and Intel Celeron 2.6). XP is installed and everything seems to be working, save the resolution of my flat panel monitor. Your overview is excellent, and I think my upgrades fit your specifications. Thank you, and thanks for the offer to help with my system.

i love new motherboards.

hmm, maybe you to need to install special video card/monitor drivers? or just right click on desktop > properties > settings and make sure the screen area matches your flat panel’s max resolution (probably 1280×1024, unless you’ve got some gargantuan behemoth screen).


Wherefore doth thy website think me anonymous?


My company just upgraded me to a ThinkPad X40 + dock. It’s a perfect match for your sweet spot for laptops, except it has a 1.2 ULV Pentium-M (Banias). I cannot agree with you more: having used a thin-and-light ThinkPad T40 (~5 lbs) and the ultra-light ThinkPad X40 (~3 lbs), *two pounds* makes a huge difference if you use your computer all the time and take it everywhere.


You rock my world, Justin. Thank you!


justin this is the most helpfull site I have found for a computer purchasing virgin like me can you update to 2006?

jimmy, thanks. Essentially I would say, find a model in your price range, don’t worry about the processor, get at least 1GB of memory, and a 60GB hard drive (if it’s a laptop). If it’s a desktop get a hard drive that spins the fastest (7200RPM).


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