Your faithful old computer has finally reached the end of its life and it's time to buy a new one. But do you get laptop, desktop, PC, Mac or Chromebook? What specs do you need and what's a good price?
You don't need to panic; I have the answers. Let's start with finding out what kind of computer you want. Then I can direct you to the correct buying guide for more details.
Computer or tablet?
A few years ago, this would have been a silly question. Today, however, tablets can handle almost everything a basic computer can. You can surf the Web, send email, watch videos, listen to music, read books, play games and - if you don't mind the on-screen keyboard - even type up documents. Click here to learn how to choose the right tablet for you.
Of course, for serious creative work - researching and writing long documents, editing photos and videos, etc. - or anything that requires a Windows or Mac program, a computer is still the way to go. Plus, you might prefer the computer's larger screen for marathon browsing sessions.
PC, Mac or Chromebook?
The PC vs. Mac debate seems to have no beginning or ending. Historically, PCs were cheaper and ran more software while Macs were the expensive, high-quality domain of graphic artists and creative types.
Nowadays, the argument is mostly academic. Many creative types use PCs and Macs run most software you'd need.
Macs are still considered premium computers, but more people are buying them for everyday use thanks to their stability, build quality and air of coolness. And Microsoft didn't help itself much with the unpopular Windows 8 - click here to learn how to make Windows 8 more usable.
Still, Macs don't go as low in price as PCs, so you could be paying more than you should for what you need a computer to do. Plus, contrary to the hype, Macs aren't immune to viruses - you still need security software.
Then there's Google's new entry into the computing world - the Chromebook. These run an upgraded version of Google's Chrome browser, use apps and Web services in place of programs, and store their information online.
They're generally fast, cheap and easily replaceable. On the other hand, they don't run standard computer programs and don't work well without a fast Internet connection.
Desktop or laptop?
More people are choosing laptops as their main computer - even if they never take them anywhere. That's because laptops take up less room, they're more energy efficient and you can move them around the house at will.
Desktops, however, still have some advantages. They cost less for the same speed; they're better suited to high-end gaming and media editing; and you can upgrade or repair a desktop yourself.
For productivity, a desktop's full-size keyboard and mouse, along with better support for multiple large monitors, are often better than a laptop's smaller screen, keyboard and track pad. However, you can also add a third-party mouse, keyboard and monitor to most laptops for a similar experience.
What is the budget?
For many people, money is a deciding factor in what computer they buy. Sure you'd love to spring for the high-end Ultrabook PC or Mac Pro with Retina, but they don't come cheap.
If you're looking for a budget system, you can't get any cheaper than a $250 Chromebook laptop. A little higher up the price scale are desktop PCs and then laptop PCs. The Mac mini settles in at $500 and mid-range PCs go up from there. At the upper end are Mac laptops and iMacs, PC Ultrabooks and high-end desktops.
Before you buy the least expensive computer you can find, however, remember the saying from good old Ben Franklin, "A penny wise and a pound foolish." Trying to save money in the short term might leave you with a computer that's barely usable or breaking down within a year.
Consider spending more for better components that will run better and last longer.
What are you using it for?
Not every computer is suited to every task. Any computer you buy will be good at surfing the Web, watching online videos, sending email, creating text documents and photo organizing.
However, if you want photo editing, video editing, gaming or similar activities, a budget computer isn't going to be the best. Expect to spring for a mid-range or high-end computer.
If you travel a little, a budget laptop that's heavier will work OK. If you travel all the time, though, you'll want a lighter laptop, which is generally more expensive.
The next step
Hopefully you have some idea what kind of computer you're looking for. Now you can pick the appropriate buying guide for more specifics on that type of computer.