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.
The all-in-one computer was first popularized by Apple’s iMac and is now the fastest-growing desktop category. These are desktop systems with all of the “guts” of the computer built into the monitor: the components (processor, memory, hard drive, etc.) may be in the base or hidden behind the flat-panel display itself. Because the display and the computer itself are enclosed in a single box, they’re generally more space-efficient than a traditional tower-and-monitor combination. They also tend to be easier to set up than a tower system. On the other hand, one drawback of having the two so tightly integrated is that the PC components will become obsolete faster than the display. Furthermore, it is more difficult to repair or upgrade an all-in-one PC. Also, keep in mind that if the display goes, the whole system is useless, unlike a tower-and-monitor system where you can swap out the monitor.
Also, all-in-one PCs sometimes use notebook components, which mean they don’t tend to offer the same power as traditional tower-and-monitor systems. Otherwise, plan on paying a hefty price premium for equivalent computing power. As it is, you should still expect to pay more for an all-in-one system than a tower system.
If you have a small space in which to set up your computer but are looking for a larger display than what you find with a notebook/laptop system, an all-in-one system may be worth considering.
Mobile devices have been the driving force in the computing world over the last several years. The devices deliver varying levels of computing power in a highly portable package. These devices include netbooks, ultraportable notebooks and media tablets.
Attempting to satisfy the need for highly portable computers with more power, a bigger keyboard and a larger screen than a netbook, computer manufacturers are producing ultraportable notebooks with larger higher-resolution screens and more powerful processors. The same devices offer some of the characteristics of tablet PCs, including instant-on activation, long battery life and possibly a touch screen.
This segment has been defined, thus far, by the Macbook Air, which has a high-definition screen ranging from 11 inches to 13 inches, the latest Intel Core processor, and a solid state drive, all while weighing less than three pounds. The price for a new Macbook Air currently ranges from $999 to $1,849.
In an attempt to counter Apple’s dominance and the emergence of tablet devices using ARM processors, Intel, which is not licensed to produce ARM chips, has defined (and trademarked) a new class of ultraportable laptops running Intel chips called Ultrabooks. They are intended to offer the convenience of tablets and the functionality of larger laptops/notebooks, as well as a Windows alternative to the Macbook Air. The latest specifications that Intel has submitted to manufacturers looking to produce Ultrabooks are as follows: Intel Haswell processor; thickness of less than 0.9 inches; idle battery life of at least nine hours; and touch-screen display. These systems all have some variant of a solid state driveand most weigh less than three pounds. In addition, Intel hopes for prices to eventually come down to around $1,000. Also, “true” Ultrabooks lack an internal optical drive . If this is something you require, you will probably need to purchase an external DVD drive, which generally costs around $50. At this point, third-generation Ultrabooks are few and far between, while second-generation models are being heavily discounted to counteract weaker-than-anticipated demand.
When Intel first announced its $300 million Ultrabook “initiative” in 2011, the company predicted that Ultrabooks would represent 40% of all consumer laptops by the end of 2012. IHS iSuppli had originally forecast that 22 million Ultrabooks would be shipped by the end of 2012, and 61 million would be shipped in 2013. By October 2012, IHS had revised its projections down significantly, to 10 million units sold in 2012 and 44 million for 2013. Most mainstream users were turned off by the relatively high prices of the typical Ultrabook—typically above $1,000. Furthermore, Ultrabooks have not, as of yet, achieved Intel’s desired goal of stemming the shift away from PCs in general and toward smartphones and tablet computers.
Tablet PCs make up the fastest-growing segment of the computer industry, and the availability of low-priced tablets has accelerated the shift away from traditional PCs. Originally pioneered by Apple and its iPad, the market is awash with tablets from a number of manufacturers.
Generally speaking, a tablet PC is a portable computer equipped with a touch screen as the primary input device. True tablets lack a physical keyboard, offering instead a virtual, on-screen substitute. Like netbooks, tablet PCs lack the computing power of a typical notebook/laptop in terms of processing power, full-featured programs and storage capacity. Also, similar to the netbooks they are quickly replacing, tablets are best suited for Web browsing, email, and running native applications, or “apps.” For this reason, tablets are not really a replacement for notebooks, especially if you need to run “standard” software titles or perform a lot of productivity tasks such as work on a long word processing document or a large spreadsheet, Web development, or editing videos and photos.
Today, you will find tablets running Microsoft Windows 8 Pro and RT, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android.
Only Apple iPads run iOS. The latest-generation iPad, iPad Air, was unveiled on October 22, 2013, with a planned release on November 1, 2013. The iPad Air marks the first significant update since the iPad 3, making it lighter and more powerful while adding a number of improvements. The iPad Air is some 20% thinner and 30% lighter than its predecessor, measuring 6.6 inches by 9.4 inches by 0.29 inches and weighing one pound. The iPad Air also runs the same A7 system chip found in the new iPhone 5s, which Apple claims doubles the graphics and computational performance compared to the fourth-generation iPad. The iPad Air has the same 9.7-inch Retina display with a resolution of 2,048 by 1,536 pixels and offers roughly 10 hours of battery life. Just like before, the iPad Air comes in two models, a Wi-Fi only model and a Wi-Fi + Cellular model, and they have storage capacities of 16G, 32G, 64G or 128G. According to Apple, prices for the iPad Air will run from $499 to $929, depending on storage capacity and connectivity.
Responding to the growing popularity of smaller and less expensive tablets such as the Amazon Kindle Fire, Apple introduced a scaled-down version of the iPad in 2012—the iPad mini. Measuring 7.8 inches by 5.3 inches by 0.28 inches with a 7.9-inch display and weighing 0.7 pounds, the mini has an older and less-powerful A5 chip, 1024 by 768 resolution and 16G of storage. It comes in Wi-Fi and W-Fi + Cellular models and currently ranges in price from $299 to $429. In October of 2013, Apple announced the iPad mini with Retina display that will be available in November and that will range in price from $399 to $829. The new mini will have the latest A7 processor and will have a Retina display with a 7.9-inch display and 2048 by 1536 resolution.
The Android marketplace is decidedly more fragmented, with companies such as Acer, Asus, Google, Motorola, Samsung and Sony competing against each other as well as Apple and Microsoft.
Another popular tablet is Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD. Originally released in November 2011, the latest Kindle Fire HD has a color seven-inch multi-touch display, weighs 0.77 pounds, runs a custom version of the Android operating system and has 8G or 16G of storage. The device includes access to the Amazon Appstore, streaming movies and TV shows and Kindle’s e-books. It allows you to check email and surf the Web. It also has a 1280 by 800 HD display, 1.5GHz dual-core processor, and dual-band, dual-antenna Wi-Fi. The Kindle Fire HD costs $139, while the cellular-enabled Kindle Fire HDX costs $229. There are also 8.9-inch versions of the Fire HD and HDX that range in price from $229 to $579.
With the release of Windows 8, Microsoft threw its hat into the tablet arena with the 10.6-inch Surface RT, running the watered-down Windows RT operating system, which does not run traditional programs but instead runs apps similar to that of the iPad or Android tablets. It followed that up with the Surface Pro running Windows 8 Pro in February 2013. The Surface RT debuted to generally positive reviews regarding its hardware but the Windows RT operating system was almost universally panned as being underpowered. Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that most agreed there was no compelling reason to switch to the Surface from either an iPad or Android tablet. This, along with the introduction of the more powerful Pro, led to weak demand, which forced Microsoft to significantly reduce prices and take a $900 million charge during its 2013 fourth quarter.
On October 22, 2013, Microsoft announced the next-generation Surface tablets. The Surface 2, which runs Windows 8.1 RT, is priced at $449 and $549 based on storage size. It has similar measurements as the Surface RT—size of 10.81 inches by 6.6 inches by 0.35 inches and weight of 1.49 pounds—but sports a newer and more powerful NVIDIA Tegra 4 1.7GHz quad-core processor; 10.6-inch, 1920 by 1080 resolution five-point multi-touch display; 32G or 64G of storage and 2G of memory; and up to 10 hours of video playback. Unlike the iPad, which has no ports beyond its Lightning connector, the Surface 2 has a USB 3.0 port, microSD card reader and HD video out port.
The Surface Pro 2 runs Windows 8.1 Pro, which means you can run any type of Windows-compatible software along with Microsoft apps. Unlike the Surface 2, Microsoft has made the Surface Pro 2 thinner (33% thinner than the Surface Pro) and lighter (25% lighter than the Surface Pro). It offers 64G or 128G of storage with 4G of memory or 256G or 512G of storage with 8G of memory; fourth-generation Intel i5 processor; 10.6-inch full HD display with 1920 by 1080 resolution and 10-point multi-touch; USB 3.0 port; microSD card reader; and mini DisplayPort. The Surface Pro 2 is priced from $899 to $1,799. As someone who has been using (and enjoying) the Surface Pro since it was released, I am excited to try out this lighter, yet more powerful model.
In the face of Intel’s apparent failure with its Ultrabook initiative, PC makers have started looking for other ways to attract buyers who may otherwise opt for a tablet. This includes convertible PCs or tablet PCs, which have a physical keyboard similar to of a traditional laptop and a swivel screen that converts it into a tablet. My initial experiences with these systems back in 2012 were more than disappointing, as they were underpowered, awkward and had frustrating keyboards. Currently, expect to pay between $1,000 and $1,700 for a non-touch tablet PC. Industry analysts believe that with the release of the new more powerful and more energy-efficient Intel Haswell processor, more tablet PCs will enter the marketplace and prices will fall.
Once you have settled on the operating system and platform type, you are finally ready to make the actual purchase. But this doesn’t mean the choices don’t end here. You have several purchasing options: you can buy a system directly from the manufacturer or from a retail store. Some companies—such as Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Lenovo—allow you to customize your system and order it online or over the phone to be shipped directly to you (mail order). However, I’ve found that it is getting more difficult to order a truly customized system. The trend is toward base-line systems with the ability so customize certain things, such as the processor, hard disk size and amount of memory. Likewise, these and other companies sell systems at retail outlets such as Amazon.com, Apple Store, BestBuy, Costco, Office Depot/Office Max, Staples, TigerDirect.com and Walmart.
Arguably, the greatest advantage to ordering a new computer directly from the manufacturer is that you are able to customize it to get almost, if not exactly, what you want. In addition, due to inventory practices, manufacturers are usually able to offer the latest technologies more quickly than retailers, who usually have to move their existing inventory of older technology before restocking with the new. However, ordering direct from the manufacturer can sometimes work against you, such as when a lack of critical components delays the delivery of your new system.
One of the biggest trade-offs when buying direct is the lack of face-to-face assistance should something go wrong. Dell Tech Concierge offers a variety of computer setup and support services 24 hours a day over the phone or live chat on a single-incident basis ranging from $59 for file transfer or data backup service or Internet and email setup to $129 for new wireless network setup or virus and spyware removal. Or you can choose a one-year subscription for $239.
Furthermore, most manufacturers include in a system’s purchase price one year of on-site services as part of any warranty. These options should cover the majority of problems you typically might face—at least for the first year of owning your computer.
For repair service coverage after the manufacturer warranty expires, many larger mail-order companies offer extended warranty coverage through third parties. Realistically, there is no reason to pay for extended warranties lasting more than three years, as anything serious that happens at that point may warrant buying an entirely new system. HP and Dell both offer three-year protection plans that cost between $160 and $200, depending on the level of service you choose and the type of system you purchase. Apple’s AppleCare Protection Plan provides three years of telephone technical support and repair coverage ranging from $149 to $349, depending on the system you buy.
Buying retail either from an actual brick-and-mortar store or an online retailer doesn’t necessarily mean paying more for a system that isn’t quite what you are looking for. Popular stores—such as Best Buy, Office Depot/Office Max and Walmart— and online vendors offer competitive prices compared to manufacturers and usually offer a large enough selection for you to find a system that closely matches your needs. These same stores allow you to buy from their websites, as do online retailers such as Amazon.com, NewEgg.com and TigerDirect.com. Generally speaking, online retailers tend to offer better selection and prices than brick-and-mortar stores. Furthermore, there are a number of websites that offers coupons for computer purchases, including TechBargains.com, FatWallet.com and Ebates.com.
You may have to be prepared to compromise on your list of wants, and perhaps your budget, to fit the retailer’s offerings. However, there are enough options that, if you shop around, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a computer system that matches your computing needs and budget.
Table 2 summarizes our recommended specifications for those buying a desktop computer today to perform the most common types of investment analysis as well as general-purpose computing tasks for the next few years.
Given the rapid changes taking place in the computer industry, one certainty is that today’s top-of-the-line PC will be relegated to middle-of-the-pack status within a matter of months. Generally speaking, however, don’t be seduced by the latest technologies, as you are most likely paying for performance and options you don’t really need.
We realize that computing needs are as varied as investment styles. What we have attempted to do with this PC Buyer’s Guide is to provide our thoughts and opinions. Like investing itself, the ultimate decision of whether to buy, as well as what to buy, is up to you.
If there is one piece of advice to take from this article, it’s to buy the best PC you can afford, while avoiding the features you don’t need.