September 23, 2008

Be a savy buyer

Choosing a brand and style of computer is only the first step when deciding to buy a new computer. Another, choosing the software you need, is as important, and can potentially change the amount you spend more dramatically than choosing to upgrade the RAM, processor or the hard disk.

Before you head out to the shop to buy your computer you'll need to decide whether you want to use Mac OS X or Windows Vista. This software is referred to as the operating system. While both operating systems perform similar functions, Vista and OS X differ in their appearance and their functionality.

Most pundits agree that Mac OS X is more stable, secure and easier to use than Windows. However, if you opt for Mac OS X you're also locking yourself into one brand of computer - A Mac.

But if you choose Vista, you'll need to choose the version of Vista that suits you best. For consumers, Vista comes in in three different varieties; Home Basic ($149), Home Premium ($199),and Ultimate ($379) with 'upgrades' costing around about 30% less. Mac OS X Leopard, as a comparison comes in only one version and is included with all Macs (you can also upgrade an older version of OS X to Leopard for $158).

As you move from Vista Home Basic through to Ultimate you'll get different features. For instance, Home Basic doesn't come with the new 'Aero' user interface that you find in the Premium and Ultimate versions. Likewise, only Vista Ultimate ships with Windows BitLocker Drive Encryption which lets you encrypt your private data in case of theft, and Shadow Copy for easy backup.

Luckily, when purchasing a computer, most manufacturers allow you to upgrade the version of Vista at OEM pricing - special software pricing that you can only access when you actually buy a computer.

Another program that you'll likely need for your new computer is Microsoft Office. Office includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and in some cases Outlook (or Entourage if you're on a Mac). Buying an OEM version of Office 2007 Professional edition, for example costs approximately $383, while buying the same package at retail costs $758 - an instant saving of $375 for the exact same product.

If however, you don't want to spend extra on Microsoft Office or other software, there are plenty of free applications that can do a similar job, some of them are even online. OpenOffice for example, is a free office suite and comes with a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program. The documents it creates are compatible with Microsoft Office.

For email, and as a replacement for Microsoft Outlook you can use Vista mail (this is included with all versions of Vista), try another free alternative program like Thunderbird (from the same people that make Firefox) or even use web based email like Gmail.

You'll also need to decide how you want to backup your computer. Most commonly, backups are done to an external hard drive. When buying one, it's a good idea to choose a model that is at least as big as the internal drive on your computer - that way, you can backup everything on your hard drive. You should also consider an off-site backup solution too, in case your external drive is lost or stolen.

If you're buying a new PC, one area not to skimp on is virus protection. While many manufacturers ship computers with trial versions of virus software, they often expire after a few months, leaving you exposed. Spending on good solid virus and spyware protection is therefore a smart move. You should also be able to buy this software at OEM prices.

Thinking about the software you need on your computer is an important first step in the purchase process. Getting it right can potentially save you money and lots of hassle down the road.