What are the basic specifications I need for a new computer?

For people in the process of replacing an old computer, a common question is “What are the basic specifications I need for a new computer?”

That may seem like a fairly simple question, and one that needs to be answered individually for each person’s needs. However, the answer is almost always the same. This is because you don’t need to buy a computer to meet your needs, you need to buy a computer that meets the computer’s needs.

In other words, as new operating systems and software are released, and new updates are installed, the computer needs to be more powerful over time regardless of what you do on the computer there are tasks that the computer needs to do itself, such as running background antivirus and security software that is growing more complex every day.

The Short Answer

The short answer is that you get increasingly good value for your money spent up to a certain point. So, a mid-range or higher computer is usually a good choice for just about anyone. As of February 2016, that means you’d want a computer with a Core i5 or Core i7 processor and 8 or 16 GB of memory. There’s a price jump to go to the faster processor and more memory, but you’ll notice and appreciate the extra responsiveness every day that you’re using it over the next 5 to 7 years.

If you’re a Windows user, visit the Desktop Deals page on Dell’s website to see some good sales, with examples of Core i5 computers that have 8GB of memory and cost about $600 to $700, or Core i7 computers for a bit more money. If you prefer buying an Apple computer, the 21.5″ iMacs are a good value for what you get.

Below are some additional thoughts and considerations.

Getting the Best Value

You want to get the best value for the money spent. At a certain price range, spending a little more money will result in a much better computer, but after a certain point, spending more results in paying a lot more for very little noticeable gain. You want to find the point of diminishing noticeable returns. That’s where the best value is.

When large companies purchase thousands of computers for their employees, it’s not uncommon to buy everyone the same model with the same specifications. This isn’t because everyone does exactly the same kind of work. It’s because there’s a certain computer that ends up being a great value for the money.

A computer that’s unnecessarily fast may be an additional expense you’ll never benefit from. For example, an Apple Pro computer, when fully equipped could cost $10,000. Most people wouldn’t perceive the additional benefits of that computer unless they are doing video editing or other intensive tasks.

Buy for Longevity

Why are you currently in the market for a new computer? Probably because your current computer has become slow over time and it’s no longer economical to upgrade the system. You’d rather just purchase a new one. New computers are more energy efficient. They are faster. They are quieter. They have other advantages. Keep in mind that you’ll be feeling the same way all over again in 3 to 5 years. Over your lifetime, if you can spend a little more money and buy computers that have a longer effective use lifespan, you’ll likely save money since there are other costs to upgrading. In other words, getting ‘cheap’ computers every 3-5 years may be more expensive than getting ‘expensive’ computers every 5-7 years.

A ‘Right-Sized’ Fast Computer Pays for Itself

If you ever need to pay someone work on your computer, installing updates, cleaning viruses, transferring files, or reinstalling the operating system and software, a faster computer (and faster Internet service) can pay for itself in the money you’ll save on labor fees. Given that tech support rates are like other service professions, having a person working on a slow computer becomes very costly. The money you thought you were saving will be gone in the first service call, and what’s worse, you end up having to work on a slow computer. As long as you’re not spending thousands of dollars, it’s generally true that a faster computer will pay for itself over time if you are regularly paying people (technicians or employees) to work on it.

Consider the Alternatives

Other than getting a basic computer, there are some interesting alternatives:

  • Apple iPad Pro. Depending on what work you need the computer for, a tablet device with a keyboard may be all you need. The Apple iPad Pro provides a 12.9 inch display and will do 90% of what most people use computers for. Some households use only iPads, and share a printer, without having any other computers or devices.
  • Laptop Computer. If you anticipate needing some mobility, a laptop computer can be used on its own, or connected to a larger display, keyboard, mouse, and other peripherals to be used like a desktop computer. So, it’s like having two computers in one.
  • Used Computer. Some communities have excellent stores where used computers are sold. In Iowa City, for example, there is a Goodwill Reboot Store. You can typically get a really good value for your money. By adding more memory and a solid state drive, you’ll end up with a computer that’s faster and more reliable than comparable systems costing hundreds more. They do their best to check the systems before selling them, but because of the 3-day exchange policy (in-store-credit only), you’ll want to make sure you test any new equipment thoroughly within the first 72 hours of purchase.
  • Windows All-in-One Touch Screen. The Dell Inspiron 24 3000 Series All-in-One computers are very slim, fast, cable free, and have large sharp touch screen displays. These range in price from about $700 to $900 depending on how they are configured (see the AMD versions or Intel versions). They are also available at Costco.




Here’s Why You Need to Buy the Fastest Computer Possible

Causes of Computer Slowness

I hear from a lot of people who are experiencing slowness on their Apple or Windows computers. Slowness can be caused by a variety of factors, as explained in the article “Eight reasons why your computer is slow.”

  • Insufficient Memory. What seemed like enough memory when you first purchased your computer is no longer enough.
  • Memory Management. Computers that don’t properly manage memory, and release available memory when a program is exited, may become slow because your computer that came with 8GB or 16GB of RAM is reduced to running on 2GB or less. This pushes currently used files and program data onto the much slower hard drive.
  • Old Drive Technology. Those using computers with older internal hard drives that aren’t solid state drive (SSD) technology will experience slower operation.
  • Hard Drive Failure. Computers with failing hard drives will start to run slower. This typically happens when mechanical hard drives begin to have mechanical failures. This kind of mechanical breakdown isn’t an issue with solid state hard drive (SSD) technology.
  • Defective Programs. With Apple or Windows, there are sometimes periods of months or longer where some program, task, or process may be causing problems. For example, if you do a Google search on “apple mail slow” as you type those words you’ll see that the third most popular thing people are searching on is “apple mail slowing down computer.” That problem has been around for a while. For someone with a slower computer, it will become almost unusable. However, for someone who purchased the faster computer, you can still get work done.
  • Anti-Virus Software. The complex anti-virus software that’s required today is increasingly spreading its tentacles into every area of our computers and even our local networks to ensure there are no viruses or hackers. This slows down computers.
  • Using Too Many Programs. These days, people tend to have more programs open simultaneously, drawing from multiple files and websites to complete a task, and sometimes being easily distracted into starting multiple unrelated tasks at one time — call it multitasking or ADHD, the results are the same.
  • The Internet is More Complex. In the past, reading content on the web involved loading pages full of text. Now, browsers are like independent operating systems that run mini programs. Google Chrome for example can run programs and apps that you purchase from their app store just for the browser. Java and Flash are typically used to run processor intensive tasks.

The options are either to speed up the existing computer by addressing each of the above issues separately, or purchase a new computer.

With Windows computers, typically purchasing as much as  you can afford is the best choice. For the money, desktops usually have more powerful processors than laptop computers. So, they are a good choice for people who don’t have a lot of money to spend.

Purchasing a Fast Apple MacBook Pro

I’ve noticed with Apple computers these days, the faster models are really required to get ‘snappy’ and responsive performance. The iMac computers are a good value, but for those who need portability the new MacBook Pro computers are a good choice. http://www.apple.com/macbook-pro/

I’d recommend the 13-inch (13.3″) for anyone who wants something smaller for portability, or the 15-inch (15.4″) if that size would still be easy enough to carry around. That is, of course, personal preference.

It’s important to note that the 15-inch MacBook Pro is capable of a much faster and more powerful configurations.

The 15-inch screen is really much bigger and better to work with for anyone spending a lot of time on the computer. The 15-inch computer is about 1 pound heavier.

Some people want a very thin light laptop they can carry every day. Those people are typically willing to have a smaller screen for portability.

If you’re going to get the 13-inch model, I’d suggest the one with 512GB storage (SSD – solid state hard drive) that’s $1,799 on this page:


Or, for the 15-inch, you’d want the $2,499 model (further down) on that page.

The 13-inch model has options to upgrade to a faster Core i7 processor ($200) and 16GB of RAM ($200) which brings their price to $2,200. You’d want these upgrades.

The 15-inch model (at $2,499) already comes with 16GB RAM and 512GB of storage. However, unlike the 13-inch model, the 15-inch model can be upgraded to a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor for $200 more. This makes a huge difference in terms of processing power and longevity of the computer. The price would be $2,699 for the 15-inch model upgraded.

Because Apple computers are typically more expensive than Windows computers, the small marginal increase in price to get the more powerful Apple models ends up being an economical choice because the faster models may last a year or two longer — and will be much faster during the entire time of ownership.

Computer Workstation Bundle with Intel Core i5

New Egg is currently having a special bundle offer that includes the following:

This bundle was reported on Slick Deals (thanks TP for letting us know) and ends on 14 September 2014. The normal price would be $470, but with the sale price is $329.

A compatible set of components to include with this bundle would be as follows.


Black NZXT Computer Case with Red Trim


The ultimate Windows workstation and gaming computer is configured using the Black NZXT computer case (shown below) with red accent trim as shown below. All components fit neatly inside the case. Credit to T.P. for helping configure this system. Click any image below for a larger gallery view.

Dell Laptop Computer Buyers Guide



It can be hard to make a choice among the many laptop computer options on Dell’s website. This page provides direct links to some of the better choices among the Dell laptop computer offerings.


If you anticipate lots of travel, getting a full warranty, including accidental damage coverage would be helpful.

Battery Life

Plan to order an extra battery for extended times away from power if you travel a lot.


The models listed on this page have 15″ displays. Smaller computers are available for people who want ultra-light computing. Larger 17″ display models are good for those who want a larger screen and don’t care about occasionally carrying around a larger heavier computer. The Inspiron 17 models and Inspiron 17R models are good choices.

How Much to Pay

In general,  you get what you pay for. A more costly computer will be faster and of better quality. There are several models listed here in order by price and performance.

Overview Comparison Chart

An overview of the models listed here can be found in the graphic chart below. Click to enlarge.



Note: The Inspiron 15R Touch i7 ($899) is no longer available as of 28 March 2014 it is not listed as an option on Dell’s website. The Inspiron R series of computers is 17% thinner than previous generations. For $100 more, the Core i7 processor configuration will be faster than the i5, and it comes with 1000GB (1TB) of hard drive storage. Click here to view. (NOTE: This model is no longer available.


Purchasing a New Computer – An Overview of Windows Computers Available from Dell



This page offers a brief overview for people wondering what Windows computer to purchase. Click on the links below to view the  Dell web page for the computers described.


Dell continues to be a good brand, and for purposes of this article, to narrow down the options, we’ll choose Dell.


You get what you pay for. Consider stepping up to a slightly more powerful computer or one of higher quality components if your budget allows. This will ensure that two or three years from now the computer will still feel fast and adequate for your purposes.


There are generally two categories of computer class/quality to choose from.

Option 1 – Standard Home Use

The standard home use computer has good performance and reliability. It’s ideally suited for the typical user. Two possible choices would be:

  • Touch Screen – A 20″ Dell Inspiron all-in-one touch screen computer. Takes up less room and has the benefits of a touch display. (View)
  • Traditional – A traditional Dell Inspiron desktop computer with separate components. Some people prefer this design. A benefit is easier access to internal components. There is more expandability for people wanting to install additional cards (not needed for most users). Also, if one component fails, it’s easier to get that one component replaced or repaired without losing access to the entire computer. (View)

Option 2 – Powerful and Reliable

There is a class of computer that utilizes more powerful higher quality components and offers greater reliability when used intensively.

  • Touch Screen – These Optiplex all-in-one computers with touch screen would be more powerful and possibly more reliable. (View)
  • Traditional – A traditional Dell Optiplex desktop computer with separate components. Some people prefer this design. A benefit is easier access to internal components. There is more expandability for people wanting to install additional cards (not needed for most users). Also, if one component fails, it’s easier to get that one component replaced or repaired without losing access to the entire computer. (View)
When purchasing any of the above computers, it’s recommend to choose Windows 8.1 Pro 64-Bit for the operating system instead of Windows 7. This will significantly delay the need for a future operating system update.