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Buying computers? What are your tips and minimum standards?

  • When your organization needs new computer hardware, what do you consider? Are there minimum standards you require? And are you a PC or a Mac?

    TechSoup's upcoming article offers tips on minimum standards, but what if you're buying a refurbished machine (or getting one donated to you, either used or factory refurbished)?

    Share your tips on buying computers with the TechSoup Community! We'll point you to our handy guide once it's live.


    Becky Wiegand

    Becky Wiegand is the Webinar Program Manager at
    @bajeckabean on Twitter

  • Becky, sounds like this article will be very informative to readers.

    Just to clarify, are you making a difference here between "minimum standards" vs. the more commonly used term "minimum requirements"?  

    I'm sure some people will assume both terms mean the same thing, but in my mind I'm assuming "minimum standards" specifically refers to the quality standards of the computer (for example: build quality, how old it is, any defective or missing components, etc.)?  Am I correct to assume this?



    Yann Toledano, Digital Marketing Strategist
    Host, Web Building Forum,
    Twitter: @webmanyann

  • I think it depends a lot on what the computer is needed to be used for and what the capabilities of the IT are.

    If the computer is the typical Office / Email setup, the requirements are fairly low as far as hardware is concerned. If it is going to be doing photo / video / database or other intensive usage, the requirements go up significantly. Also, this should be partly determined based on how the IT department is run. If there is a limited or no dedicated IT department, I would strongly recommend always trying to get the same brand and model, or line of model, computers are replacements. This keeps administrative costs down, and when computers break, they can be used for spare parts.

    Based on 10 years of running the IT department for my company, here's my fail safe for personal computers for the small business or low/no IT department company. I've tried just about every brand of laptops, notebooks, workstations and servers. We buy almost 100% refurb and used. In my experience, computers are a lot like cars. They lose almost all their value as soon as you open the box, and the majority of defects occur in the first 30 days of operation. The consumables: power supplies, RAM, hard drives, and fans, fail without any real regard to how long they have been operating so it doesn't matter how old the computer is. No matter what you do, I would recommend sticking to a single brand. Dell is hands down my choice over HP, Lenovo, Sony and others for business usage. But you should use what you're most comfortable with.

    If you need cheap and non-high-end computers that work, the Dell Optiplex GX line is great. GX270 and 280's's are cheap and still run XP and Office and email without any problem. If you need better Core 2 Quad or i7 etc, go with the newer GX 745, 755's, as well as the newer 790 and 990. Also buy the biggest computer possible as they are significantly less likely to fail and you can put normal PC cards in them. You get a single Dell XP or windows 7 disk, and it works in any dell. Don't ever buy computers that don't include actual OS CD's/DVD's. The bundled OS disks will give you serious headaches when you need to do a repair installation or want to install the OS without all the junk programs.

    If you need seriously high-end setups, learn how to build them yourself. You end up getting exactly what you want. A home built PC with a solid motherboard and components will outlast any brand I have ever used.

  • I am most certainly a PC.  Our org involves healthcare and the forever evolving Electronic Medical Record.  The minimum system  requirements get tougher to meet as our computers get a couple of years old.  On our latest government mandated EMR release, our machines require a minimum of 2GB of memory.  When I say minimum, I mean the software drags.  To get the software to be useable, we need our workstations to have 4GB of memory.  

    That being said, I recommend getting more than you think you'll need especially if you'd like to keep the computers for 4+ years.  I think our next batch of computers will be Windows 7 professional 64 bit with 8GB of memory.  

    Gary Network/Systems Admin Berlin, NH
    Host Non-profit Tech Careers, Security Forums
    Co-Host Networks, Hardware, & Telecommunications Forum

  • Good question. "Minimum standards" as we're using it is essentially interchangeable with "basic requirements": the minimum specs that each hardware component should meet in order to support basic office productivity tasks. So, things like processor speed, amount of RAM, amount of storage, etc.

    by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Director, Content, TechSoup

  • Jestep and  Gary Lamontaine, thanks for the input! Such a good reminder that requirements and recommendations will vary a lot based on what your organization is doing (basic office/productivity vs. audio/video/database or other specialized tasks), what it will be doing in the future, and how you'll be maintaining/supporting your machines.

    I think a lot of orgs are in the "limited or no dedicated IT" boat, so these kind of tips for future planning and for simplifying support are much appreciated!

    by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Director, Content, TechSoup

  • Not one mention of Linux. I'd say this article is incomplete.

  • Hi MRDR, and welcome to TechSoup! The article is an introduction to computer hardware, so the operating system question isn't addressed in depth. I also thought Linux wasn't a realistic option for the audience for this particular piece, given the basic nature of the information in the article (what RAM is, how much storage you need, etc) vs. the tech savvy required to implement and support an open source solution. 

    I'm curious what your perspective is on the relative difficulty of running a Linux vs. proprietary (Mac or Windows) environment? If an organization has little internal tech support, I'd think Linux might be biting off a bit more than they can chew, but I don't have any direct experience with it.

    And do check out the other articles addressing open source software, including Linux: see Creating an Open-Source Desktop and Idealware's Comparing Open Source Content Management Systems for example.


    by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Director, Content, TechSoup

  • For most routine office work, the cheapest new computer surpasses your needs. Also I have not found that cheap computers have components failing too often. However, it is very valuable, especially with Windows, to have batches of computers with the same hardware, so that configurations can be standardized or cloned

    "If an organization has little internal tech support, I'd think Linux might be biting off a bit more than they can chew, but I don't have any direct experience with it"

    Linux is much easier (and faster) to install than Windows, and, with a choice of modern GUI desktops (or don't think about choice and just use your distro's default desktop), ease of use is comparable to Windows or Mac. The only drawback to Linux is that a lot of the big software houses do not produce Linux versions of their software.

    You can run some windows software in Linux (or Mac) via "Wine," the FOSS Windows compatibility layer, or via the amplified commercial version of Wine, "Crossover," from Alternately, you could create a virtual machine and install Windows on the Linux VM, but this would be stretching some non-IT NPOs abilities. However, if you're not tied to some particular proprietary software that will not run in Wine or Crossover, straight Linux is great.

    OK, now I remember another drawback: Linux gives you so much freedom and choice, typically for free, that you could get confused at first, or have a hard time picking what great FOSS software to use.

    But it is painless to experiment. With some Linux distros (Ubuntu and probably others), you can download the OS, burn a live CD or USB stick, and test it for free, without even installing it on a computer.

  • Very helpful article....and you do reference Macs.  Your list of reference materials listed only PCWorld.  Should have included  MacLife or MacWorld, both of which regularly run in-deptth reviews of Mac hardware, software, and accessories.

  • Many of the recommendations listed here are fine. It all really depends on what the intended use of these machines are and your budget. One thing that was not emphasized here was warranty.

    The warranty is probably the most important factor next to hardware and software specs. To keep costs relatively low in this area (about 10 - 15% of total), get a three (3) year next business day (NBD) type. Typically, you'll want to go with HP or Dell for your machine and make sure that the warranty is from them, not your reseller, but your reseller can have it included. NBD will give you next day on-site service and replacement parts of most any type. This comes in very handy if you don't have an IT department or your IT department is too busy to do the work right away.

    The standard expected lifetime for your desktop is 5yrs; 3yrs for a laptop. So, expect to renew your warranty's for two more years after the initial warranty expires. If you are late with renewal, expect to pay between $50 - $100 for reinstatement along with the renewal amount. Trust when I say that computers will break and it is much cheaper (zero out of pocket later) to have you parts replaced and computer fixed within a reasonable time.

    Extra: If you have privacy issues, you may want to include the "keep your hard drive" option, otherwise if they think the hard drive is the problem, they will take it and give you a new one. Another option is to also include accidental damage; ex. coffee spill on keyboard, water leaked from upstairs, etc. This is particularly important for laptop users. Happens all the time.

  • Woa, Michael, we've got a winner with you on the TechSoup community! Welcome and thanks for all your advice so far! It's been great! Keep it coming!

    If you want to say more East Harlem Council for Human Services/, feel free to head on over to the Introduce Yourself branch.

  • I second Jayne's wow! Thank you all for the great advice, and keep it coming. Many brains make light work of figuring out technology questions.

    by Ariel Gilbert-Knight, Director, Content, TechSoup

  • No problem. I hope people will benefit from the advice.

  • My recommendations on the used / refurbished route.  Make sure management understands they are buying machine that are already 2 to 3 years old, and the life expected is 2 - 3 years not 4 - 5 years you could get on a new PC.  This can get forgotten and you'll have to explain again why you are looking to replace a machine we just bought "last year".

    I would also take the used / refurbished option off the table if you cannot buy some shelf spares at the same time.  When you have a power supply or mother board fail it is really nice to have the part on the shelf.  This is especially true with the SFF cases with custom power supplies.  If a spare machine or two get red lined on the proposal move to the new machine with three year warranty.

    I unfortunately bought off lease machines a few years ago and had a 50% failure rate due to bad capacitors on the mother bords, I scrambled to find repair services as machines failed, this was with no shelf spares.

    For new machines I've taken a slightly different approach with my local builders and distributors that I trust.  Instead of what is the cheapest machine,  I ask how much machine can I get for my budget price?