August is almost here, and many retailers (us included) have launched or are planning to launch back to school specials. In the computer industry you often see steep discounts on laptop and desktop computers. Often times these are loss leaders, designed to bring customers into the store where they will buy additional peripherals and software which have high margins. One allegedly "great" deal I read about online is the debut of a sub-$300 PC at Wal-Mart from Everex. The system does not have an Intel or AMD chip- instead it uses a 1.5 GHz chip from Via, called the C7-D. Instead of trialware (preinstalled software which commonly expires after 30, 60, or 90 days unless you pay retail price for it), this Everex machine comes with the open-source OpenOffice.org office software suite, a package which is dually compatible with its Microsoft counterpart (you can read and write to Microsoft Word and Excel files using OpenOffice.org). It runs Windows Vista, but I have not been able to find out how much RAM comes with it- my guess from other budget systems I have seen is it will be 512MB, which is not sufficient to run Windows Vista comfortably.
Back to school deals are tempting, but if you already have a decent computer, buying one may not be much of an upgrade. As I mentioned, these systems usually have minimal RAM, which means you won't see the speed you'd expect from a brand new box. Having OpenOffice.org on this system is a great feature, but you can install it on your existing computer by downloading it free from the OpenOffice.org web site, or by buying it from a community distributor like us for just $3.00 including shipping.
I would recommend upgrading your own RAM, defragmenting your hard drive, and updating your software first- this would be cheaper than even a $300.00 PC upgrade. Spending a few dollars on peripherals is another great way to save. If your computer does not have built-in WIFI, we offer internal and external options for laptops and desktops starting at $9.99. I don't mean to throw in shameless plugs, but just want to demonstrate how much cheaper it may be to get new life out of your existing system.
If you do decide to buy a system from one of these back-to-school offers, if you believe the old adage about teaching a man to fish, you can save quite a bit of money by getting the base package from a PC maker and then upgrading on your own. For example, many PC makers offer several models of the same base PC at $100 to $120 intervals. Often times the only difference is the amount of RAM and maybe 0.2 GHz of processor speed. If you see a $499 system with a 1.4 GHz processor and 512MB of RAM, and the same system with the same chip running at 1.6 GHz along with 1GB of RAM for $619, it may be a good idea to go for the $499 system. You can get great RAM deals on eBay (but be sure to check your manual so you buy the correct type of RAM), 512MB upgrades for newer systems can be had for as little as $20-$30.00, which in the end would give you virtually the same system for $100.00 less.
At the end of the day, just ask yourself two questions. Does my system do what I need it to do, and would I be more productive if the machine was faster? If you answer yes and no respectively, you're good right where you are. If your answers are different, then decide on the cheapest path to achieving the answers you want. Will it be an upgrade to what you already have, or something new?