This annual Computerized Investing PC Buyer’s Guide is the 17th I’ve been involved with since joining AAII. Even a lot has changed in the industry since my first computing experiences on a Commodore Vic-20 some 34 years ago, and the rate of change seemingly picks up each year. Today, tablet computers are making an assault on traditional PCs, specifically laptops, as more consumers choose these lighter and oftentimes less expensive alternatives. In fact, research firm Gartner forecasts that tablet sales will outnumber the combined sales of laptops and desktops by 2015. To try to stem the tide, software makers and PC manufacturers are starting to integrate features found with tablets in more traditional PCs—especially touch-screen technology. Microsoft’s radically redesigned Windows 8 operating system was a bet that touch is the future of computing.
While tablets and smartphones are garnering most of the attention these days, I think it’s premature to write the obituary for the PC. Businesses and consumers alike still find that PCs will perform tasks and run software that tablets cannot. As someone who owns multiple tablets as well as multiple laptop and desktop systems, I find that tablets are a great way to consume content. While I do on occasion write articles on my iPad using a Bluetooth keyboard, I still look to my PC for most of my productivity work. Furthermore, many of the investment analysis and tracking programs we use at AAII aren’t available on a tablet. This is why I think the PC will still be with us for years to come.
However, as a consumer, you are faced with an ever-expanding array of choices when you walk into your local electronics store or go online to shop. Along with desktops and laptops, you have all-in-one systems and convertible PCs, as well as smartphones and tablets. Having more options inevitably leads to more questions and increases the possibility of ending up with a piece of technology that doesn’t meet your specific needs. The purpose of this annual guide is two-fold: to update you on the latest happenings in the computing industry and to help you make an informed purchasing decision. While numerous buyer’s guides come out around this time each year, ours is unique in that it is intended for those looking for a PC to aid in the computerized investment analysis, research and tracking process. This includes tasks such as portfolio management and tracking, stock and mutual fund screening, and technical analysis and charting. Depending on the level and complexity of the analysis, these tasks require specific software that will only run on certain systems. In addition, the systems we recommend later on will be able to handle typical everyday tasks such as email, Web browsing, word processing and spreadsheet work.
These recommendations are my opinions, but they are also based on my own experiences with investment software and websites as well as the current trends in the software and computer industries. The systems highlighted here should allow you to run today’s crop of investment-related software titles. However, realize that computing is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. The systems we recommend may be too much computer for some readers and not enough for others. But we outline the considerations you need to take into account when buying a new PC for computerized investment analysis so that you can pick the best computer for yourself for today and the next few years.
If you are looking for a new computer it is because you need one, or at least you think you do. As someone who lives on the bleeding edge of technology, I am always interested in the latest and greatest tech gadgetry. Just because you don’t have the latest-generation processor or the biggest hard drive, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to put your current PC out to pasture. Depending on how old your system is, especially if you bought it within the last few years, there are upgrades you can install that should allow you to get by with your current system instead of buying a new one. However, if you are a Windows user running XP or Vista, the time has probably come to upgrade both your operating system and your computer. The same goes for Mac users running anything prior to Mac OS 10.6.x Snow Leopard, which was released in 2009 and was last updated in 2011.
Unless you are a complete tech neophyte, there are some relatively easy and inexpensive things you can do to coax better performance from your computer and add a year or two, if not more, to its life. If you have a PC with a display smaller than 19 inches, you may want to consider buying a new monitor. The added real estate makes it easier to have multiple windows open at the same time and puts less strain on your eyes. You can find dozens of 22-inch and 23-inch wide-screen LED monitors that currently cost between $140 and $175.
If you find yourself constantly having to delete files to free up hard disk space, you may want to consider adding a second internal hard drive to your computer for storing data files or digital media (photos, music or video). It’s easy to find one terabyte (1T) internal hard drives for under $100. An easier option is to buy an external USB hard drive that you simply plug into your computer. Portable, 1T USB hard drives usually run between $50 and $100.
If you find your system is running slowly, especially when you open multiple programs, you may need a memory (upgrade, assuming your computer has the slots available. This requires a little more technical expertise but it is still doable for most individuals. Ideally your PC should have at least 4G (gigabytes)of RAM, especially if you are running Windows 7. Two-gigabyte (2G) memory modules cost, on average, between $25 and $50, while 4G modules typically cost between $30 and $75.
Notebook/laptop systems tend to have shorter life cycles, as they tend to be more difficult to upgrade. If you find yourself experiencing some of the above problems with your laptop system, chances are it’s time for an upgrade.
(If terms such as hard drive or RAM are alien to you, be sure to check out the primer on computer components that begins here.)
If you arrive at the decision that it’s time to buy a new computer, it pays to do some research and take some time for self-reflection, just as you would when buying a stock or mutual fund. As I alluded to earlier, the needs of a computerized investor may differ somewhat from those of the typical computer user. This makes it all the more important to take the time to assess your current and future computing needs before buying a new computer. Be honest about what you need from a new computer and buy accordingly. Otherwise, you may find yourself buying an underpowered PC that needs to be replaced more quickly or spending money for features you don’t need.
With this guide, we focus your attention on the factors that are most important when buying a new computer for computer-aided investment analysis, research and tracking. In doing so, we hope make it easier for you to buy a computer that will adequately address your needs for the next few years.
Before you even start thinking about what size monitor you get, how much memory you need, or any other technical aspects of a new PC, there is one overriding question you must answer: Which operating system do you choose? Luckily, the decision is actually pretty clear-cut, and it all comes down to the types of software you plan on running. This is especially true if you are running specialized investment analysis and tracking programs, most of which are only written for one operating system (OS). As a result, your software needs will have a direct impact on which operating system you choose.
Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS are the two dominant forces when it comes to computer operating systems, with Windows controlling an overwhelming market share. According to Web analytics firm Net Applications, Windows had roughly 91% of the desktop operating system market as of September 2013, down slightly from a year ago. Mac OS had 7.5% market share, up from nearly 7.2% a year ago. Linux, the open-source operating system that, like Mac OS, is derived from UNIX, controlled roughly 1.7% of the desktop operating market share, compared to 1.1% a year ago. Because it is open-source and freely distributable, Linux is a popular choice for many budget systems, which are cheaper because the manufacturers do not have to pay Windows licensing fees. Furthermore, Linux is popular among hobbyists.
Windows 8 is the latest version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system. It created quite a buzz when it was released last year, replacing Windows 7, which was released in July 2009. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s first attempt to create a unified operating system for use across desktop and laptop systems as well as tablets and smartphones. Windows 8 is a radical redesign compared to previous versions of Windows, and it created a lot of confusion among consumers and criticism in the popular press when it was released. Much of the confusion is due to its two interfaces: the “Start Screen” and the traditional Windows desktop. The Start Screen is optimized for touch with tablet-like apps, while preserving the more familiar Windows desktop found in previous versions of Windows for those using more traditional software program. With the initial release of Windows 8, this Start Screen also replaced the Start button that users had become accustomed to. The Start screen displays a customizable array of tiles linking to various apps and desktop programs, some of which can display constantly updated information and content through “live tiles.” A vertical toolbar known as the “charms bar” provides access to system and app-related functions, such as search, sharing, device management and settings. The traditional desktop environment for running desktop applications is accessed via a tile on the new Start screen. Windows 8 includes an online store—similar to Apple iTunes—where you can obtain new applications.
On October 17, 2013, Microsoft released the first major update to Windows 8, Windows 8.1. The update isn’t a major shift in logic, and it does not offer any significant change in the interface. It does, however, address some aspects of Windows 8 criticized by reviewers and early adopters. Chief among the fixes is the re-introduction of the Start button on the Windows desktop (functionality that was achieved in Windows 8 by pressing the Windows key on the keyboard or using the charms menu). Windows 8.1 now also allows you to bypass the Start Screen completely with “boot to desktop.” Other changes include added ability to customize to the Start Screen, such as allowing more control over positioning and sizing of tiles and app group naming; a redesign of the Windows store; and updated system and Internet search functionality with greater integration of Microsoft’s Bing search engine. Windows 8.1 is a free update to current Windows 8 users; for other Windows users it costs $120 ($200 for the Pro version).
New security measures were added to Windows 8 as well. In addition to a built-in antivirus program, the BIOS firmware code has been replaced with the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (technet.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/dn140266., which requires that an operating system be digitally signed before the PC will allow it to load, reducing the potential for malware attacks. Also new is the Early Launch Anti-Malware feature, which allows security software to be first in line once a PC starts up, improving the security of the computer at an early stage. Most security experts agree that this is the most secure version of Windows ever. To learn more about the changes with Windows 8, visit the Microsoft website:
Microsoft, unlike Apple with its single version of Mac OS, has multiple editions of Windows 8: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows 8 Enterprise and Windows RT.
Last year, I recommended holding off on buying a Windows 8 system or upgrading your current Windows system to Windows 8. With the release of Windows 8.1, I am changing my tune. For those who have been putting off upgrading to Windows 8 hoping for a radical redesign to the user interface, it’s time to take the Windows 8 plunge. The Windows 8.1 upgrade shows that, while Microsoft is willing to make some concessions, it is sticking with the multiple interfaces. While Windows 8 is optimized for touch, the reinstatement of the Start button and the ability to boot directly to the Windows desktop make Windows 8 more accommodating for those without touch-screen displays.
Whether or not you opt for a touch display on your new computer is really up to you. If I were buying a new laptop or notebook system, I would go with a touch-screen display. On the desktop side of the equation, unless it was an all-in-one system, I am more non-committal. This really is a question of taste, as some people don’t like the idea of smudging up their display. Furthermore, the touch experience on a desktop display or laptop screen is quite different than with a tablet, given the positioning. Before deciding on a touch display, I suggest going to your local Best Buy or Wal-Mart to try it out firsthand.
If your PC is relatively new (no more than a couple of years old), you shouldn’t have any trouble running Windows 8. When upgrading from Windows 7, the Windows 8 installer checks your system, peripherals and software for compatibility, so there is little or no risk of installing it on a system that cannot handle it. To help in the upgrade process, there are also third-party apps, such as Laplink’s PCMover Windows 8 Upgrade Assistant, that allow you to retain applications, settings and data from your older Windows PC. It is currently available for $29.95 from www.laplink.com.
All else being equal, Windows offers consumers a much broader selection of systems, meaning you can shop around to find the system that offers what you need at the best price. In contrast, there are a limited number of desktop and notebook systems that run the Mac OS and they carry with them a price premium compared to Windows systems with equivalent hardware configurations. In addition, there is a much larger software library for Windows compared to Mac OS.
Apple, by and large, has been the gold standard for technological innovation and quality as well as customer service for over a decade. While some are saying that it has lost its edge with the passing of Steve Jobs, there is no arguing that Apple revolutionized the way we interact with technology, starting with the PC and then moving on to personal audio with the iPod, communication with the iPhone and finally mobile computing with the iPad.
One of the advantages of buying a Mac is that the software and the computer itself come from the same company (Microsoft, by comparison, is, for the most part, a software company that licenses its operating system to PC makers). This integration between software and hardware has led to systems that tend to be more stable than Windows-based PCs. Furthermore, the Mac OS has, historically, been more secure than Windows. This was due in part to its much smaller install base. The notion of Mac’s invulnerability has taken some hits in recent years, which led Apple to quietly revise its antiviral language on its website. Its former, blunt message — “it doesn’t get PC viruses” — has been replaced with a more vanilla claim: “It’s built to be safe.”
The latest version of the Mac operating system—OS X—is version 10.9: “Mavericks” was released on October 22, 2013. This is a free upgrade to users running OS X Snow Leopard (10.6.8) or later. If you are running a version older than Snow Leopard 10.6.8, you can purchase an upgrade for $19.99. Unlike Microsoft, Apple produces only one version of the OS X, eliminating the confusion about which version is right for you.
With Mavericks, Apple continues to unify the user experience across its different devices—desktops, laptops and iOS devices—by bringing more Apple iOS apps to the OS X platform. The update also places emphasis on battery life, Finder enhancements, other enhancements for power users and continued iCloud integration. As an interesting piece of trivia, the release marks the beginning of a change in the naming scheme of OS X from big cats to names based on places in California, with Mavericks being a prime surfing location.
The updated Finder in Mavericks offers several new features, including tabbed browsing and new tags for better organization of files and media. Also, tags offer a way to group files beyond where they reside on your computer. By default, OS X Mavericks provides different colored tags as well as the ability to create your own.
The updated notifications with Mavericks, which were borrowed from iOS with Mountain Lion, now allow you to take action from them directly. For example, you can now reply to iMessages or emails from the notification. In addition, you can get notifications from sources other than just apps as well as from websites.
Mavericks also adds its own native Maps app so that, for example, you can add directions and estimated travel time for appointments in Calendar. The new iBooks in OS X emphasizes textbooks, making the feature especially useful for students. With it, students can copy notes and highlights directly from their texts to notes documents as well as better integrate Web and video content.
OS X Mavericks also updates Apple’s Safari Web browser with expanded social media functionality, including Shared Links from your signed in social networks, including Facebook and Twitter.
As we said earlier, Mavericks also improves the battery life of your MacBook. Apple claims the new OS allows you to get an extra hour or so of battery life from a MacBook Air.
To learn more about the new features and enhancements for OS X Mavericks, visit the Apple website: www.apple.com/osx/whats-new.
As I said earlier, your operating system decision will ultimately come down to the software you run or are planning on running. The harsh truth is that the vast majority of quality, high-end investment software is written for Windows, with some notable exceptions. Unfortunately, too often I get calls from readers who have ditched their Windows PC for a Mac, only to find they can’t run their favorite software titles on the Mac. For all of its supposed flaws regarding security and stability, Windows still has overwhelming market share compared to Mac and most software companies choose to cater to the largest piece of the pie. For the Mac, the majority of investment programs are personal finance managers (such as Quicken Essentials for Mac. Even when there is a Mac equivalent of a program, however, it often lacks some of the more advanced features found in the Windows counterpart (as illustrated by Quicken).
If you are determined to switch to Apple, but still need to run Windows software, you have two options for running your Windows titles: Either maintain a separate Windows system, or use a utility that will allow you to install Windows on a Mac. For many, the former isn’t very convenient. However, as the hardware used on both Mac and Windows systems have converged over the last several years, a number of utilities now make it possible to run the Windows operating system, and therefore Windows-based programs, on a Mac. Boot Camp is Apple’s multi-boot utility included with Mac OS X Lion and Mountain Lion (I have not found any mention of its inclusion with Mavericks) that allows users to install Windows on Intel-based Macintosh computers. The latest version, Boot Camp 5, supports 64-bit versions of Windows 7 and 8 (Windows XP, Vista and Enterprise versions of Windows 7 or 8 are not supported). The biggest drawback with multi-boot utilities such as Boot Camp is that you cannot run Windows and Mac OS simultaneously; you have to reboot your system in order to switch between Mac OS and Windows.
Another option for those looking to run Windows on a “Mactel” system (since 2006, Macs have been using Intel processors) is to use virtualization software, whereby multiple operating systems can be running simultaneously. Keep in mind that running multiple instances of an operating system in a virtual environment can place a significant burden on your system’s resources; in addition, Windows does not get full control of the Mac’s hardware. As a result, these virtual systems may be slower than what you experience with multi-boot utilities.
Two programs that allow you to run Windows in a virtual environment on a Mactel system are Parallels Desktop for Mac 9.0 (www.parallels.com), released on September 5, 2013, and VMware Fusion 6.0.1 (www.vmware.com/products/fusion), released on September 19, 2013. Both support Mac OS X Mavericks as well as Windows 8.1. Parallels is available to try for free for 30 days, after which a new-user license costs $79.99. VMware Fusion 6 also comes with a free 30-day trial, after which a new-user license costs $59.99.
It is important to keep in mind that, in order to run Windows on a Mac, you must also purchase a Windows license in order to install it.
Once you settle on an operating system, unfortunately your decisions don’t end there. Next, you must pick the platform to run it on. For those looking to run specialized investment software, this will probably mean choosing between a laptop and desktop. But even within the realm of “traditional” PCs, you still have the options of desktops, laptops, ultraportables, all-in-ones and convertibles. You also have the option of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones.
Globally, portables outsell desktop PCs, and in recent years their prices and functionality have converged. The line between desktops and laptops is now blurred: Some new desktops are actually smaller than some laptops, while some laptops offer features and capabilities rivaling those of traditional desktops.
Portable PCs and desktops each have distinct advantages and weaknesses, and the decision as to which is best for you often rests on the answers to the following questions:
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may want to consider buying a notebook/laptop system.
Alternatively, the following situations may lead you toward purchasing a desktop system:
Another consideration is the ease with which desktop systems can be upgraded compared to laptops (generally speaking). Desktop systems tend to be easier to repair and upgrade, mainly because of the availability of “generic” components that you can install with relative ease and that won’t present compatibility issues.
Notebook PCs, on the other hand, tend to have hardware designed specifically for the model, making them more expensive to repair and more difficult to upgrade. You may be able to find a new hard drive or memory modules from a local electronics store or through an online retailer, but you are more likely to encounter difficulties installing component upgrades on a laptop. Even the latest Mac laptops and Windows Ultrabooks have batteries that can only be replaced by the manufacturer.
Lastly, there are definite cost considerations when buying a laptop (and cost advantages to buying a desktop). Expect to pay a premium for mobility. As Table 1 shows, the there is a definite price difference between comparably equipped mid-range desktop and laptop/notebook systems.