I've been asked more times than I care to count "What should I look for in a computer?" and I decided to make a post about it. Forewarning: I am talking only about Microsoft Windows capable computers. The uber-Geeks among you will pontificate about running Linux, and the Apple Fanbois are always gonna fanboi, and those are both fine. But since Windows is the dominant OS for end users, that's what I'll be discussing.
First and foremost, much as it applies to quality firearms, "Buy Once, Cry Once" applies to computers as well. Yes, you can find cheaper computers at Wal Mart or Best Buy or similar, but if you want a _quality_ machine that will last you a while*, be ready to cough up $600 or more.
* By "a while", I mean 3-4 years. If you take the cost of a computer at, say, $600, and you get 3 years out of it, that's $200/year. Or roughly 55 cents a day.
Brand: I am not a brand dedicated computer guy. I've used a Dell Latitude laptop for the past 4 years, and last week I got a new Lenovo Thinkpad laptop. But look for a reputable brand. Dell, Lenovo, HP, Acer... They all make decent enough computers. I would not recommend a local PC shop selling you a "Custom Built" computer unless you are savvy enough to be able to talk components with them: How many cores does the CPU have, did you set it up for hyper-threading, what are the L2 and L3 numbers, etc.
CPU: For this, you need to think about how you're going to use the computer. If it is just for basic web surfing, checking your Facebook, and maybe sending email now and then, you can get by with a lesser CPU. If you're doing higher end stuff like graphics processing (i.e., Photoshop) or gaming, you'll need a faster CPU. Get on Wikipedia, and take a look at the information for the CPU of the computer. In general, if it is more than 2 years old, keep looking. Intel and AMD are the two biggest fish in the CPU pond. I'd avoid anything older/weaker than an Intel i7.
Hard Drive: Get an SSD (Solid State Drive). Just trust me here. If the computer you're looking at does not have an SSD, buy one and get the internal drive cloned to the SSD. Amazon has Samsung 500GB Solid State Drives for roughly $80. And Samsung has a migration utility that works great. All you'll need is a USB/SATA adapter. Install the software, connect the SATA adapter to the SSD, plug it into the USB slot, and run the migration utility. When done, shut down the computer, open her up, remove the spinning hard drive, connect the SSD, and turn it on.
RAM: There is, perhaps, no cheaper way to get a fast, smooth, functional computer than to increase RAM. When it comes to RAM, more is better. I would suggest 8 GB as a bare minimum, and 16 GB if you can fit it into your budget. I won't dive into the differences between DDR3 and DDR4, because that's boring stuff. Just get as much as you can.
Here is a decent desktop computer for just under 8 bills. (Remember... spread the cost over the life of the computer. $790 over 4 years is our old friend $0.55/day.)
Here is another.
Here's a rather nice laptop, just over $700.
Here's another decent laptop, this one just under $700.
There's a host of things to do once you have the new computer, but I'll save that for another post.