Way back in January of 2012 I wrote a post called “The Right Computer for Your Farm”. Outside of the AMS Q&A posts I do it’s probably been the most popular one. A lot has changed since 2012, both in technology and agriculture. While we’re more reliant on the cloud and web apps, there are some things that still require a regular old computer. Here’s my updated guide for what to look for when getting a new laptop or desktop.
Laptop vs Desktop
Four plus years ago I recommended a Lenovo manufactured Windows laptop for most folks, and I’m still sticking by that opinion for most situations. Laptops have really improved in terms of portability, battery life, and capability. Also the price gap between laptops and desktops has shrank to the point there isn’t much difference in pricing for most mainstream scenarios. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with a $500-700 desktop for many purposes as well.
The exception here (in my opinion) is the need for high performance with 4K video editing or stitching high resolution drone imagery together locally. I chose both. I kept my older laptop (and added an additional battery) to keep the portability I needed on occasion, and purchased a desktop for about one third of what a new ultra-high performance laptop would have been. I’m no HP fan, but for the money I went with an HP Envy desktop with an i7 Skylake processor, 16GB Ram, and an NVIDIA GeForce 980ti graphics card. After I received the approx $1,100 system I added a Samsung 950 Pro M.2 SSD. Unbelievable performance for the money; And I didn’t spend anywhere near $3k on a bulky laptop.
PC vs Mac
The good old battle between Windows and Apple, some things never change. Apple makes some great hardware, but I still believe it’s not worth the premium in price difference. Others will feel differently, but there are still programs the can only run on Windows (Apex or SMS desktop version for example). Yes, you can run Windows on a Mac via dual boot or some other kind of virtual terminal, but it just doesn’t seem necessary to me. PC manufacturers have really stepped up their game the last few years. Many make a great product, but it is true not all offer the level of service Apple does. A kind of personal preference and risk vs reward here.
Options / Specifications to Look For..
If you’re buying new it’s hard to find Windows 7 anymore, but Windows 10 is fine for most everyone
I still prefer Intel stuff. Core i5 is fine for most everyone, i7 if you want more speed or work with video. I prefer the latest (6th generation) Skylake processors for their improvements in power efficiency and integrated graphics, but that’s more of luxury than requirement
I’d generally recommend 1920x1080p .. 4k is alright, but it can make some things really small. Another thing to add, especially for laptops, it’s really nice to avoid the glare of a glossy screen. Matte screens are so much better. And by the way, I’m not a fan of touchscreens, they’re kind of a novelty, expensive, and all glossy.
Integrated graphics are fine for most everyone, although cheaper models will not even play 4K video. If you foresee a need of 4K I’d recommend to make sure to get a higher end model of laptop or discrete graphics card. Worse yet are the requirements for hooking up to a 4K television.. you can read more about that here. If you intend to run multiple monitors, make sure to do your research to find out how many monitors can used at once and what type of connectors they use.
Yes, more is always better, but there’s no need to go overboard. 8GB will be fine for most, 12 or 16GB if you’re more demanding of doing multiple things at once
Solid State Hard Drive (SSD) should be considered almost a requirement in laptops. Preferably 256 GB or more. If you’re of the DIY type, you can save quite a bit by upgrading the hard drive / changing it our for a SSD yourself. Prices on SSD have come down at a very rapid rate the last year or so. I don’t think a SSD is a requirement on a desktop, as traditional drives are usually faster in desktops, but it would be a very nice thing to have.
Optical Drive – DVD/Blu-Ray
If you require an optical drive in a laptop you’ll have to be more selective as many laptops no longer have them. For some of you this may be a big deal still, but I’ll stick to the cheap $20-50 USB powered external drives for the rare instance I need to use one. I have computer with a Blu-Ray burner in it, but really haven’t found much of a use it.
Most newer laptops out there tend to have reasonable battery life. I prefer the Lenovo T series systems that have one built-in battery and one removable, or models where you can add a second battery in the modular UltraBay. If you’re getting a desktop, you might consider a battery backup. Make sure to do your homework and get a true Pure Sine Wave model, I like my CyberPower unit.
Bluetooth & WiFi
I don’t get too excited about the which Wifi / Bluetooth chip any laptop or desktop has in it anymore, the upgrades sometimes offered really aren’t worth the money unless you have some very specific reason. It would be nice if the WiFi chip supported 802.11ac, the newest standard, but it’s not a requirement.
Extended Warranty & Accidental Damage
For laptops I think this is probably a no-brainer. Don’t go longer than three years unless it’s super cheap to add on.
Integrated 4G LTE / Cellular Capability
I wouldn’t worry so much about this. Make a WiFi hotspot out of your smartphone or tablet. Most cellular companies now include WiFi hotspot in their smartphone data pricing.
External Hard Drive
Get a 1-3 TB (terabyte) hard drive and use it to make backups! I like the the Western Digital Ultra Passport. The portable ones are nice because they don’t need an extra power supply. I’d recommend keeping the hard drive in a fire safe when not in use
I have no problem with using cloud storage, I’m a regular user of Google Drive and sometimes Dropbox as well. Just remember if you use a service to backup your entire computer, it will likely use a lot of internet bandwidth. This could be a major problem if you’re on a metered connection like satellite or cellular, or have slow upload speeds. Many programs have scheduling and throttling settings to help with this. Still make sure to make backups using the File -> Backup and Restore tool in Apex, or similar tools in other programs such as QuickBooks or SMS.
Monitors / TV
I highly recommend Dell UltraSharp monitors. I like the 2560×1440 resolution monitors because they’re much sharper than 1920×1080 monitors, but don’t make things tiny like 4K monitors. I have a Dell U2715H 27″ monitor and a couple older 1080 ones. Again, if you’re looking to hook up to a 4K TV for a big screen do your research. Not all TV’s support 4K over HDMI and many only do 30hz instead of 60hz. Rtings.com has great reviews of TV’s, plus show a category specifically for computer usage.
Laptop Docking Station
An easy way to gain an extra power adapter and not have to hook and unhook from multiple cables every time. Not all laptops have a connector for a docking station anymore. Some alternative docking stations use USB or Firewire connections, but just know they may slow things down.
Pricing / Service
Yes, you can save a lot of money by shopping around and being patient purchasing anything computer/electronics; But if you’re the kind that will need help with it, please consider supporting your local computer shop. I’ve seen many big box stores and manufacturer’s support services lead customers down a long expensive path that accomplishes next to nothing. If you want service, then you definitely get what you pay for with a local shop. And hey if you like fixing stuff yourself like I do, then by all means, buy from the cheapest reputable website you can find. I like setting up deal alerts on SlickDeals.net, a community based forum that specializes in deals for electronics of all kinds. I’ve saved some money purchasing on eBay and manufacturer refurbished items as well. Again, it’s risk vs reward.
As always, glad to hear feedback and your opinion – @AaronBobeck on twitter