When people ask which computer is the best one to buy, frequently they're looking for a machine that will be reliable. Reliability is a difficult area to assess as almost every computer vendor has their share of problems scattered throughout their production assembly line. Consumer Reports frequently lists all computer vendors as existing along the same level of consumer satisfaction. The truth of the matter is that no vendor in particular has stood out amongst the crowd in the past ten years in terms of being "better" or "more reliable". In fact, this is a misleading question.

Too many people jump right in to purchasing a computer only to discover later on that the system requirements of a particular piece of software you own are different from what your machine can provide. Worse, sometimes the computer can be so new that it is incompatible with some of the programs you already own. Often, upgrading these programs can be expensive and especially jarring if the user interface has changed from one version to the next.

Add to this is the opposing goal of finding a "cheap" computer. One cannot simply go bargain basement hunting and expect to have a computer that will be able to keep up with everything you decide to throw at it over the course of the next several years. Having some basic understanding of some common technology terms such as RAM, gigabytes and so on will help you make appropriately informed computer purchase decisions.

Based on our experience with our clients over the past 20 years, we've gathered up and summarized 10 Computer Buying Tips to help better prepare you in choosing your next computer:

1. Any computer you buy should have a planned lifespan of 2-4 years

By "practical," this means how much investment you'll get out of the computer as you throw money at it to repair and maintain it. Consumer Reports encourages people to avoid repairing any computer older than four years; even those three to four years old are considered "grey areas" in terms of repair costs versus a return on investment. Make certain to be realistic; a budget computer will begin to show its age after a year more than its moderately-priced counterpart on the shelf next to it.

2. Match how you use your computer with what you buy

This one is fairly obvious, but we felt obliged to include it as it's often neglected in the decision making process. Essentially, the computer you buy should fit your needs. For example, if you are only going to surf the Internet and check e-mail, you don't need a high-end computer with a dedicated video card capable of incredible speeds. A simple bare-bones computer will do. If you want something more powerful, but don't have any specific needs, consider buying a "middle of the road" computer that is neither too expensive nor too inexpensive.

3. Choose the highest amount of computer memory (aka "RAM") you can afford.

This, more than anything else, should dictate what you buy. Forget about hard drive sizes; most are incredibly huge and will outlast most people's needs during their course of ownership. Random Access Memory (RAM) is used to describe how much capacity the computer has for active, short term memory and is typically measured in gigabytes (GB). An analogy would be our ability to repeat a phone number that someone has asked us to memorize; most people can memorize five to seven digits, but anything longer with an out-of-state area code tends to be forgotten rather quickly. The more RAM a computer has, the more numbers it can memorize "on the spot" and the faster it will be. When comparing computers, this is where you should focus the majority of your money towards. If given a choice between a computer with 4 GB (gigabytes) of memory (RAM) and 6 GB, go for the higher RAM.

4. Allowing for expansion from current to future needs vs. saving money now

The computer should fit your current needs. However, you also need to keep an eye out for future use or you may wind up with a computer that can't grow with you. This is the trade off previously mentioned between a low enough price to get going compared with a more hefty investment which could save you buying an entirely new system in the near future.

5. Choosing a PC versus a Macintosh

One of the most interesting things reported by Consumer Reports is that the level of satisfaction amongst Macintosh owners far outpaces that of PC owners. This could well be due to brand-bias, as Apple has done quite a bit towards promoting itself over the past several years. Your main consideration here is your familiarity with the system and its compatibility with your existing software. With the former, consider sticking with what you're used to. However, software compatibility may be a major issue if you switch, as you'll need to purchase compatible software for your new computer. If you haven't purchased a computer for the past five years or so, chances are you'll have to learn how to use a new operating system which may require a steep learning curve. If this is the case, it may be just as easy to switch to a Macintosh at this point as it is to stay with a new PC with a new operating system. It's worth noting that the majority of my clients who have switched to a Macintosh frequently state later on, "Why didn't I do this sooner?"

6. Accessory peripherals and equipment

There are many seemingly inconsequential items which are needed to maintain the functioning and longevity of your computer. A surge protector (not a surge tap) is a must! In selecting a surge protector, choose one that has a warranty of at least the cost of your computer equipment. The important bit here is that their lawyers feel comfortable enough to back up such a statement, so it's doubtlessly been scrutinized for protection. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) isn't needed for a laptop with a built-in battery, and not everyone needs this for a desktop unless your work is critical. Having an external hard drive to back up your critical files is a good thing to invest in. Adding a few USB flash drives for extra backup won't hurt either.

7. Accessory software and protection

Often, a new computer will come with a trial version of some type of anti-virus program. What you use doesn't really matter as long as you at least use something. Make certain to activate it and renew your subscription on a regular basis. While Macintosh users don't have as much of an issue with viruses, it might be work considering as more Mac-compatible anti-virus products become available. You'll also need to actually have a backup program that you can use to back up your files; simply having an external hard drive won't help. Modern computer systems have this ability built-in, but not active by default. Anti-theft and whole-disk encryption software are both becoming a popular addition to most computers these days. Regardless of the platform you choose, you'll likely need to purchase some type of word processing software.

8. Computer portability vs. durability

Most people buy laptops as they're lighter and easier to use. However, desktops tend to have a longer lifespan as they have more space for air ventilation to help dissipate heat and aren't moved all that much. Laptops are much more vulnerable to a spilled cup of coffee than an external keyboard connected to a desktop. Convenience in mobility is the main reason to select a laptop; if you won't be moving it from your desk, consider investing in a desktop.

9. Don't forget to try them out side-by-side!

If at all possible, test out several computers before buying one. If they're not plugged in, set up and ready for you to try out, you won't be able to get a sense for if this computer is right for you. Playing around with them gives you an opportunity to compare each computer "head to head". In spite of all the technical jargon listed, you will find that each computer is different in terms of your perception of its speed, ease of use, keyboard feel, screen glare, weight, how how it gets, and other hardware and included software considerations.

10. How good is the store's return policy?

This is, perhaps, the most important part to consider. If something goes wrong with the computer shortly after you get home, it's the store you'll be dealing with. Most computers, if they are going to have a serious hardware problem, will exhibit symptoms during the first month of use and just after the first year. Essentially, the most critical bit of information you can come across during your research is discovering the return policy of the store itself. It really does matter if they give you two weeks, a month or 90 days to return your purchase. What possibly matters as much is how difficult they'll be with you: Will they easily let you return the computer if you're not satisfied, or will they look at you disapprovingly as they point out that you've dared to open up the cardboard box containing the computer (hint: this happened to one of our customers)? For this reason alone, Costco continues to stand out amongst the competition for their non-harrassment, 90-day return policy. You may save a few bucks elsewhere, but the value of a return policy far outweights everything else.

11. Transferring your old data

Ok, we said 10 items. This one technically doesn't belong to the realm of computer research, but still it's extremely relevant in how it affects your time. Transferring programs is often a frustrating task and often they must be reinstalled. The promise of many of these "automatic programs" that can move your programs from one computer to another tend to result in glitchy results and unexpected behavior, so installing by hand is the best and most reliable method to use. Don't forget about bookmarks/favorites or other software that you might use but not recollect the name of. Chances are you'll need installation codes or product keys to reactivate your new software. Once you've transferred your documents, pictures, music and other important files, don't forget to erase your old hard drive. If in doubt, drilling a hole through the old hard drive will leave it impossible to access for the majority of curiosity seekers.

To sum it all up...

Ironically, the most expensive investment in purchasing a computer is you. It takes time to install programs, set them up, learn how to use it and get everything configured. The time commitment needed to actually get a computer set up can be overwhelming and, as a result, things such as protective backups and critical software updates are never actually performed comprehensively. When things go wrong, people are surprised at how much of their time is spent waiting for their computer to be returned after being sent in for repairs.