Things to Consider When Buying a Computer

atBuying a computer is a big investment. And with so many different options available, it can be hard to figure out how to meet the technical needs of your nonprofit or library and still stay within your budget.

This guide will help you understand the questions to ask when shopping for a computer. It will also provide a quick reference checklist with definitions of some basic technology terms (not too many!), as well as the minimum standards we recommend for computers.

Things to Consider When Buying a Computer

1. Do You Need a New Computer?

It’s possible some basic maintenance tasks or a simple hardware upgrade can boost performance and give your old computer new life.

2. How Will You Be Using the Computer?

If you do need a new computer, one of the most important things to consider is how you will actually use it.

  • A technology plan, technology budget, and technology strategy are all helpful tools to make sure you understand your current and future computing needs. See TechSoup’s Business and Technology Planning section for resources to help you plan effectively.
  • What kind of work will your staff be doing? Basic office tasks, like creating documents and spreadsheets, checking email, and using the Internet? Or heavy-duty work with video, audio, or images? Audiovisual work tends to be resource-intensive and will require a more robust computer.
  • Will your staff be traveling, or only using the computer in the office?
  • How does the computer fit in with your existing technology?
    • What operating systems do you use? Operating systems, like Windows, use up a lot of your computer’s resources. If you barely meet the minimum hardware standards for using your operating system, you may not have the computing resources to do a lot of other tasks at the same time (multitask).
    • What software do you use? Do you have software that only works with a certain type of computer or only runs on a particular operating system?
    • 32-bit and 64-bit? The key thing to know is that hardware and software come in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. If your computer has a 32-bit operating system or hardware, you cannot run 64-bit software on it.
  • What are your future plans? Are you planning to upgrade your operating system or add a new kind of software? Are you planning to do different kinds of tasks in the next couple of years?

3. Mac or PC?

The choice between Mac and PC often comes down to personal preference. Both types of computers have their merits. Macs and PCs use the same kinds of internal processors, so they are equally powerful. The main difference between Macs and other computers is the operating system they use: Macs run Mac OS X, and PCs run Windows.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Macintosh computers are usually more expensive off the shelf than a similar PC. However, some argue that the long-term cost for a PC is actually higher, due to additional software and maintenance costs.
  • There is some software that will only run on Windows. Make sure the software you depend on is compatible with your new computer’s operating system.
  • The more similar your computers are, the easier your technology will be to manage. If you have different types of computers, running different operating systems and different software, troubleshooting and maintenance become much more complicated. Consider whether you already have a Mac- or PC-centric office and whether or not it’s worth switching some or all computers.

4. New, Used, or Refurbished?

If you plan to use the computer for basic office tasks like word processing, email, and web browsing, you probably don’t need a top-of-the-line or brand new computer. A used or refurbished computer may be just fine. Used and refurbished computers are usually much less expensive than new computers. They’re also a greener option, since you’re extending the life of an old computer, rather than buying a brand-new one.

A refurbished computer may be a better option than a used or donated one. Refurbished computers are older machines that have been carefully inspected and updated by professionals. If you get your refurbished computer from an authorized professional refurbisher (and you always should), you will know it is in good working condition. Refurbished computers also often have a warranty of some kind. Read more about refurbished computers available to eligible organizations through TechSoup’s Refurbished Computer Initiative.

There are some additional things you need to think about when buying refurbished equipment:

  • Fail and return rates. Check the refurbisher’s fail and return rates.
  • Warranty. You probably won’t get a three-year warranty for a refurbished computer, but a three-month warranty is pretty standard. This should cover any out-of-the box problems.
  • Peripherals, software, and documentation. Make sure you know what is included with your computer. Refurbished computers, for example, rarely come bundled with a monitor.

If you are buying a used (rather than refurbished) computer, or accepting a donated one, make sure a knowledgeable person inspects the computer thoroughly first. This will help ensure the computer is functioning properly and that it will meet your needs. Remember that as alluring as a free or very cheap computer might seem, an old one in poor condition can actually be more trouble than it is worth. Learn more about how to avoid receiving time-wasting donated hardware in How to Accept (or Refuse!) Donated Equipment.