Tips to save money for a back-to-school computer

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Companies that sell computers hate this moment.

Computer sales have been falling for two years following a pandemic-related buying surge. That’s terrible for device manufacturers and retailers including Apple, Dell, Microsoft and Best Buy.

But computer sellers’ pain is your gain. If you are hunting for a new (or new to you) computer for back to school or whatever reason, you are in the driver’s seat.

These are ideal conditions to buy a device you want at a price you’ll be happy with.

Let’s talk about how you can shop smart for a computer. You should also ask yourself whether you need a computer at all.

Here’s what to look for in a new (or used!) computer

Read my colleague Chris Velazco’s helpful guide for people who are shopping for a new laptop. Here are some factors to consider:

It’s a personal choice whether to pick Windows, Mac or Chromebook. Honestly, each of the three major computer flavors is fine. Be aware that some software programs might only work on a Mac, work best on Windows or not work on a Chromebook.

Chris says $600 is the absolute least you should pay for a good Windows laptop. (That’s for the list price. There are some wild sales right now.) You can get a great Chromebook laptop for $600 or less. You’ll probably spend $1,000 or more on a Mac.

Look for a computer with at least 8 gigabytes of RAM and 16 to 32GB is better. RAM, the working memory that makes your computer feel zippy, might be the most important feature of a computer.

Most people don’t need to prioritize storage space on what’s called the solid state drive or SSD. David Webb, founder of Hamilton Computer Repairs in Worcester, Mass., said people typically use about 10 to 30GB of storage. Some devices offer 30 times that storage capacity.

Webb advised against a touch screen on a computer if you don’t really need it. The feature adds a lot to the price and Webb said touch screens are prone to breaking. Some people love touch screen laptops, though.

Read more specifications to look for in Chris’s laptop guide.

Consider buying a used computer or an ‘open box’ model

Webb steers people away from new computers designed for home use. He said they aren’t built to last, are difficult to repair and tend to have blah horsepower.

Instead, Webb recommends buying used corporate PCs, which big businesses tend to replace after two to five years.

Webb’s shop buys those used corporate computers, replaces a few parts like the batteries and resells them. One of these four- or five-year-old PCs might sell for $300 to $500.

Those devices “will likely outlast anything under $800 on the shelves at Best Buy or Walmart,” Webb said.

You can also find used (or “refurbished”) corporate computers on eBay and Amazon. You’re looking for models such as the Lenovo ThinkPad, Dell Latitude or HP EliteBook series that are aimed at office workers.

If you prefer a new computer, Webb says those same PC models are reliable — but they can cost $1,500 or more.

I’ve always avoided buying refurbished computers and “open box” models — devices that someone purchased and returned.

But Webb said many refurbished or almost-new computers are good deals and typically go through more quality inspections than brand-new devices do.

Most computer retailers sell lightly used or returned devices, as do computer makers including Apple. On Amazon, you’re looking for the “renewed” label on computers.

“Refurbished” means different things to different people, but you should expect the seller to replace parts, inspect the device and include a warranty.

Make sure to research the vendor, the quality of the computer and its replaced parts, and the return and warranty policies.

Back Market is also a solid choice for refurbished gadgets. Or go with a trusted local computer store like Webb’s.

Where to search for computer deals

Computer prices are about 15 percent lower than they were a year ago, according to Adobe Analytics.

You want to hunt around, be picky and do not pay full price.

I’ve written before about handy price-tracking websites, including Keepa and CamelCamelCamel. You can see the prices that others have paid for a computer model and receive an alert when the price drops.

Coupon-offer companies such as Rakuten Rewards can pop up notifications if there’s a cash-back offer or discounts on websites including Best Buy and Dell.

Chris is a fan of Slickdeals and r/laptopdeals on Reddit. There, you’ll find coupons and robust discussions about whether a computer deal is worth it.

If you can wait, Black Friday and holiday season computer discounts will probably be generous and start earlier than usual, said Mike Crosby, an executive director for the research firm Circana.

If possible, Chris recommends trying a potential new computer in person. You want to find out before you buy if the keyboard feels too cramped or you despise how a glossy screen shows every speck of dust.

How important is a computer to you?

A wrinkle in the gadget economy is that Americans are spending 35 percent more on average for a home laptop than we did before the pandemic, according to research firm IDC.

Sure, there’s inflation, but people are also choosing pricier computers. (That’s happening in smartphones, too.)

It could be that computers and smartphones are so important for our social interactions, work and entertainment that we’re willing to spend more on them.

If a pricier computer fits your budget, go for it. But for some of you, a computer may not be important enough to spend a lot.

Your question is no longer only “Which computer should I buy?” You also want to ask, “Do I need a computer at all?”

My decade-old MacBook Air has been dead for a few months. I don’t think I’m going to replace it.

The Washington Post gives me a laptop to use for work. Perchance I do some shopping and personal video calls on it, too. (If my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding.)

I use my phone for almost everything else or stream video on my TV. Apart from my job, a computer is not that useful.

Everyone’s circumstance is different. But if you’re like me, maybe a phone or an iPad is all the computer you need.

Or if you’re not using your laptop much, you might be happy sticking with an old one until it dies or buying a lower-cost Chromebook or desktop computer for occasional use.

Your choices in computers are more complicated than ever. And that’s amazing.

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