The Quick Version
Don't try and do everything on one device, otherwise you will end up with something that is underwhelming at everything. Get an all-in-one for your desktop and a tablet or smartphone for when you are mobile.
What next? Let's start picking out a computer for you. There are lots of suggestions in the detail of this page.
1. Computers come in 5 basic shapes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
2. Don't get a laptop because that's what everybody does, they're good for some people and the wrong answer for many others.
3. Consider getting the optimum computer for your desk and another that's better for moving around. You don't have to do it all on one device.
4. It's possible to sync all your files so they appear on all your computers (and phone).
5. Most shapes of computer are available with most operating systems.
A typical question I get is should I buy this particular laptop with 4Gb of RAM and a lower price, or this other one with 8Gb and a slightly higher price. Or, as I like to think of it: should I sit in the deckchair on the left on the Titanic, or the one on the right.
The most important thing you need to work out is if you should be running Windows (see Windows or Not?). Most folks won't even consider this question. They will just get Windows because that's what they always do. But hold on there. Read Windows or Not? to understand the downside of that approach. There are some serious issues here.
Next you need to decide what operating system you want (see What Operating System?) That would be iOS (on iPads), Chrome OS, Amazon Fire, Mac OS or Android or Windows.
Only then does it make sense to worry about the details of which manufacturer and what spec (which are actually very minor details compared to keeping you and your data safe).
There are 5 basic shapes of computers on offer, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Most of the operating systems come in most of the shapes, so let's step through the different shapes to figure out what works for you.
The answer is not always a laptop
Before we look at each of the shapes in detail, we have to kill an urban myth: "The only option is a laptop". Why? Because that's what everybody does. Isn't it?
Laptops are nice, I certainly use them for some tasks. The problem is people assume that the answer is a laptop, no matter what the question.
Laptops are great for portability and tidiness. However, in order to achieve those two goals you have to pay with two downsides: small screen size and poor posture.
The Internet is a nicer place if you have a big screen. You have to scroll around less, you can take in documents and websites in one sight. If you have ever used a big screen, you won't need any convincing from me. If you've never tried it, have a go, then you'll know.
Posture is more subtle, but even more important. Look at someone typing on a laptop. Because the screen is close to the keyboard, they sit in a crunched position. It has osteopath written all over it. It's not a problem for short periods of time, but these sorts of problems add up over time. I see grown ups with sore backs because their teenagers told them to get a laptop. It's the age old problem of people recommending what they want to buy for themselves, not what's right for the person they are giving the advice to.
How about this for an example: I remember a system I set up for a guy with serious eyesight problems. We had a 55" screen for his monitor (US $697 - UK £999), a high visibility keyboard (US $19.99 or UK £12.95), a mouse with a magnifier button built in (US $13.29 - UK £11.35). All sorts of tricks to make it work for him, including fonts about an inch high (even then it was touch and go as to if he could see it). Son-in-law came over and said "should have got a laptop". Seriously, he just couldn't see that there was any other option, any more than my client would have been able to see the print on a laptop.
The point is, don't fall into the trap of buying a laptop because that's what everyone does. Make sure you understand the advantages of the other shapes. They might be a better option for you (even if you're not as blind as a bat).
Go on, open your mind, read about the other possibilities, then go buy that Windows 8 laptop your brother-in-law told you to get. No seriously, let's look at the options and figure out what best suits you.
The answer is not always one device
The second urban myth: one device has to do it all. It wasn't that long ago that a home computer came with a queue to use it as different members of the family wanted to do their email, homework, spreadsheets, look at nice ladies who have forgotten their shirts, or just order the groceries. The world has moved on. We now have full function computers in our pockets in the form of smartphones and tablets are common. The average household has all sorts of computers on hand, big and small.
You can make all the devices work together so all your files are accessible on all your devices. Write a spreadsheet on your Chromebook, refer to it on your iPhone when out and about, add a contact on your Android phone, have it automatically appear on your iPad.. That sort of thing. That, combined with lower prices for all devices, means you can have the right device for each situation. Something with a big screen at home, something light and portable for traveling. You don't have to have one device that is poor at everything, you can have the perfect tool for each job.
So here we go, let's look at the different shapes:
Why get an all-in-one?
Great looking and Tidy
All-in-ones are cool. All space age and sexy. They look like they are just a computer monitor, but in fact this is just slight of hand, they have a full computer built into the back of the screen (or sometimes in the stand). The result is a drastic (and very welcome) reduction in leads, typically all you have is a power cable.
Manufacturers go all out to make their all-in-ones designer items. People like them because they are objects of desire.
Lovely Big Screen
That's all the emotional reaction out the way. What are the practical advantages of an all-in-one? Screen size is a huge plus. They are big, bright and you can see so much more of the webpage or document than you ever can on a laptop. It also allows you to sit upright to stop you getting a stiff back (posture is a real problem with a laptop, this is a good way to fix it.)
One top tip when comparing all-in-ones: They often have a touch screen, although that makes perfect sense on a tablet, it's just a sales gimmick on an all-in-one. Here's why: you hold a tablet the same way you would a book or magazine. One hand holds it, the other points at the touch screen. The all-in-one has a big screen in front of you, you hold your arm up to point at it. Do that for a few minutes and your arm gets tired and you go back to the keyboard and mouse. It sounds silly but it's true. So don't choose between all-in-ones based on which one has a touch screen (unless they throw that in on the model you want), you will only ever use it for a few seconds to impress your friends when they come over (and they won't be that impressed because they all have tablets and smartphones anyway. If you want to impress them show them how you have learnt to juggle live frogs, whilst riding a unicycle, blindfolded. You did learn that didn't you?)
Luggable not portable, costs more
A friend of mine once said "You can call anything portable if you screw a handle on it, or pocket size if you wear the right kind of trousers". All-in-ones are practical to move around the house from time to time (typically only having one lead for power), but you're not going to put them into your day bag, they're just too big and they don't run on a battery. However, don't forget you don't have to have one device to rule them all. You can have an all-in-one at home and something portable to move around. In fact that's the ideal combination for most people.
Another top tip: You can achieve the same big screen experience by plugging a big monitor into a desktop or laptop computer, and it's normally cheaper than buying an all-in-one, but it's also messy with more leads.
The Ones to buy:
Chrome OS - LG Chromebase - The Cheapest way to get a good all-in-one.
Mac - iMac - The best of the full function all-in-ones.
Who's it best for?
Anyone but a teenager, they are driven by fashion and they have to have what their friends have and that means a laptop. No point fighting it with logic. For almost everyone else, an all-in-one is a very nice way to use a computer.
Why Get a Laptop?
Tidy, portable, good for creating documents
Laptops are the swiss army knives of computers. You can use them for just about anything and move them around as you want.
Small Screen, poor posture
Think carefully before getting one of these if your eyesight is not what it was. I see an awful lot of retired folks buying laptops because that's what their grandchildren told them to do. Anyone over 50 needs to think about screen size (that includes me now and yes, I have noticed that I have moved my screens a bit closer). You might be better off with an all-in-one on your desktop and tablet or smartphone for moving around.
The posture thing is a killer. A laptop forces you to sit in a crunched position. Over time that messes up your neck and back. People simply don't give this enough attention because they don't link this cause with the outcome of a sore neck and back. They get a sore neck and back and assume it's because they don't get enough exercise, or drive too much, or are just getting old. No one seems to realise there is a connection with using a laptop because the cause and the outcome don't happen at exactly the same time. You have no excuse now, you know what is causing it.
If your heart is set on a laptop, get an extra screen for when you are at your desktop (US $158 - UK £145) and a keyboard and mouse (US $19 - UK £19). Personally I like to mix that with a docking station (US $100 - UK £100), but it is optional. This is a smart little device that lets you plug all your kit into it (monitor, keyboard, printer etc) and then just have one lead that plugs into the laptop. It makes it easier to go from being at a desk to being on the move and flipping back. If you say "but I never move it" , I would say "then why get a laptop?".
Summary on posture: sit up straight, be happy.
The Ones to Buy:
Who's it best for?
Folks who need a full function computer they can take everywhere, but expect your chiropractor to give you a big telling off, unless you plug in an external screen, keyboard and mouse.
Why get a Desktop?
Points For: Flexibility, Cheap
Desktops are as unfashionable as a mullet haircut (what's that you say? you have a mullet? Sorry, Sorry. Desktops are as unfashionable as flared trousers. You have those too? OK, let's skip the metaphors).
Desktops are seen as old fashioned, the way we used to do computing. But they do have one killer advantage: they are flexible. Maybe you are a photographer and you want to have multiple screens to edit your work on. A desktop can do that. Maybe you are an avid gamer who wants to be able to upgrade to the latest kit all the time - a desktop is the place to be. As soon as you want to step off the mainstream, a desktop is the place to look.
Desktops are often the cheapest way to buy a computer, especially if you are reusing an old monitor, keyboard and mouse.
Messy. You can easily have a ton of leads coming out the back of this sort of setup. You can hide all the mess (I put a lot of effort into doing so in my own study), but it takes work and planning.
The Ones to Buy:
Who's it best for?
Folks who need to spend less or go off the mainstream. These are the cheapest ways to get a Mac and to get Chrome OS, but both assume you bring your own screen, keyboard and mouse, which you may well have from your previous computer.
Why get a Tablet?
Points For: Convenience
Use a traditional computer and getting to your email is a bit of a performance. You switch the machine on, maybe make a coffee whilst it boots, login, go to the email program, wait for it to download. Sacrifice a chicken to the god of email (ok, that bit's optional, it just feels like it might be necessary on an old PC).
I have a tablet sitting on the coffee table. I pick it up and read my emails, then put it down again. There's no boot up time, there's no switching it on and off, there no going to a different room to use it. Something appears on the TV and I want to look up, I grab a tablet and Google it. It's so informal, it's a completely different experience. I saw an article recently that said what people do when they win the lottery. It turns out one of the first things was buy everyone in the family an iPad. Often tablets are not things that people feel they need, but they typically want them (and love them once they have them).
Points Against: Overlaps with a Smartphone
Manufacturers are finding it harder to sell tablets as the trend is for smartphones to get bigger. People correctly see smartphones as being small tablets they can put into their pockets. Only it's a bit fiddly to do most tasks on a smartphone, simply because the screen is very small, so a new trend appeared to make bigger smartphones (like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (US $870 - UK £406) or iPhone 6 Plus (US $1080 - UK £930 for example). However, a new survey says that 40% of people who buy such huge phones (they are know as phablets for phones/tablets) get a smaller device when their contract is up. Probably just to regain some room in their pockets. So it looks like there is room for both a smartphone on the move and a tablet at home.
The Ones to Buy:
Who's it best for?
Folk who consume more content than create it. If you look up things on the Internet, read your email (and reply to some), listen to music, store your photos and watch video, you will probably love a tablet, most people do. If you are a professional author or a creator of killer spreadsheets, you will probably want something with a bigger screen. But even for you, in the Den, I bet you end up with an iPad as well.
Why get a smartphone?
Really? Can you do that? Can you really use a smartphone as your main computer? Yes you can. It may not be the optimum device (because the screen is small), in fact for some tasks it can be like getting a cat to play the violin, but a small percentage of people are using it this way. Here's why:
- They have spent their cash on the phone and don't want to spend again on a computer.
- They are in the habit of using the phone and like it.
Don't be fooled by the size of the device, smartphones are computers. Even a basic one can do all the main things you use a laptop for (surfing the Internet, reading your email, writing word documents etc). If you only want to write the occasional letter you can use the phone. It'll be fiddly, but it will work. So why spend another $500 on a separate computer that you rarely use? It might not be the optimum tool for some tasks, but it might just be good enough, and you probably already have it.
Points For: You already own one, you like it, you like a challenge
Smartphones are expensive. Don't be fooled by phone companies telling you they are "free", there're not free. Break one and see how much you are charged to buy one out of contract to see how not free they are. $500 upwards is typical. So why not maximize your value from it? I've devoted a webpage to show you how to do it.
Points against: The screen's too small
When this subject is raised I hear people, even quite knowledgeable people list out a bunch of reasons why this is not possible: screens too small, no physical keyboard, can't print, can't edit Word and Excel documents. But's that's all nonsense, you can do all of those things, it's just that people don't know how (click here for the details).
The only objection that is valid is the screen size and even that's not as bad as it first sounds. It's true that some tasks can be downright fiddly on a small smartphone screen. However, there is a trend for manufacturers building bigger screens into their phones . Notable examples: Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (US $870 - UK £406) or iPhone 6 Plus (US $1080 - UK £930). Those are both enormous, almost comically so, monsters which remind me of the old saying "anything is pocket size, if you wear the right kind of trousers". But even in the normal phones like an iPhone 6 (US $923 - UK £623) or Moto G (US $179 - UK £145), the trend is to increase the size.
The other way to address this is to plug the phone into a big screen. That little phone of yours will power a huge 24" screen on your desk. See here for more details on how to do it.
The Ones to Buy:
Who's it best for?
Folks who live on their phone and only use their home computer for the occasional task (and who like a challenge).
The three things to remember:
- Don't get Windows unless you have to (because of the security problems).
- Don't automatically buy a laptop without understanding the downside of that and the upside of the alternatives.
- Consider having more than one computer (prices keep going down). An all-in-one on your desk and a tablet everywhere else is a popular combination.
This page gives you lots of links to computers to link to. Get clicking. There are excellent machines out there that will serve you well. Choose carefully and you will be safe from infections and have all your files protected by automatic online backups. Cool.
But this is all nonsense!
The slaying of myths and misunderstandings
There's a staggering amount of misinformation and urban myth doing the rounds on the subject of home computers, often nonsense that is most definitely against your best interests. So let's prepare you for when "who knows about computers" comes knocking by covering the popular hogwash in advance.
But it has to be a laptop!
I know above I just gave an example of why this is poor thinking, but I couldn't resist another dig for two reasons: firstly this just keeps coming up and secondly as I was writing this I got a call from a chap whose son had bought him a 11” Mac Book Air. Nothing wrong with a Mac Book Air, check the home page of this site and you will see it is the first thing I recommend. However, Papa has back problems and is little short sighted. So now we have a retired guy hunched over a tiny laptop. Why? Because the son thought it was totally cool. And it was, for the son. But it’s a glorious mismatch for Dad. It’s not even as if Dad needed something portable, he already has an iPad and Smartphone. Keep saying out loud “laptops are very nice, but they are not the only answer for all circumstances.”
I use a laptop and I've never had a problem with posture!
I do get people who find it hard to believe that their laptop is the source of their sore back. They are two data points that they have never connected up. If you are one of these people I don't know what I can say to convince you otherwise, except to invite you to ask your chiropractor, osteopath, physiotherapist, shaman as to what they say. They are normally quite vocal on the matter.
Don't be shy, say what you think. The comment system below is there for anyone to ask a question or make a point. Especially don't hold back if you are a normal person just trying to make sense of it all. Its easy to get the opinions of geeks on geeky matters. Much more interesting to hear how this works out for you or what bits need more explanation. No such thing as a silly question, jump in.