By Meg Favreau
Buying a new computer can be a serious investment for something that doesn't last long. (The average life of a desktop computer is about three to five years, and laptop life is usually shorter.) Follow these suggestions, and you can save hundreds -– if not thousands.
Know what you need. You might be eyeing a new Mac -– but if all you use your computer for is browsing the Internet, word processing and storing photos, you might be buying more computing power than you need. Make a list of what you'd like to use the computer for and then research your options. For example, if you plan on editing videos, a powerful, media-ready Mac is a great choice -– but if you're doing more basic tasks, you'll likely be fine with a less expensive Windows or Linux machine.
Buy refurbished. Many vendors –- including the manufacturers themselves -– offer refurbished computers that are comparable to new computers but cost less. This is an especially effective technique if do want to buy a Mac, which are notoriously difficult to find on sale. Apple (AAPL) doesn't make it easy to find its refurbished section on its website, but if you do an Internet search for "refurbished Mac," you should be able to find it. Even then, you may come across an empty page.
Use cash back in any form you can. See if the company you want to buy from is represented on cashback shopping sites such as Upromise or Extrabux, which give you a kickback if you shop through their portals. Then, use a cashback credit card to make the purchase. You should only do this if you can pay off the card in full that month. If you let a balance sit on the card, paying the interest will negate any cashback benefits.
Upgrade your current computer. If it's running slowly, add more RAM. Or if your hard drive is almost full, purchase an external hard drive. Updating your operating system might also help.
Buy at the right time. According to the tech blog Lifehacker, July, August and September are the best months to buy desktops. This is when chipmakers Intel (INTC) and AMD (AMD) start releasing new processors, prompting retailers to start marking down the older computers to make room for new inventory. Add on the back-to-school sales, and this becomes one of the best times of the year to buy a computer.
Use open-source software. Software alone can cost hundreds of dollars –- but many popular programs have free alternatives. Instead of purchasing Microsoft (MSFT) Office, you can use Google Docs (GOOG) or OpenOffice -– both of which can open and save documents in Microsoft formats. Or if you're thinking of purchasing Photoshop, try the open-source Gimp instead, which offers similar image-editing capabilities. For other open-source options, search online for the name of the software you're trying to mimic along with the words "open source."
Buy a slightly older model. Instead of buying whatever version of a computer was just released, look at slightly older models. The technical computing difference between the two will probably be minuscule, but the savings could amount to hundreds.
Build your own. It's usually less expensive to buy individual parts than to buy a computer that's already put together –- plus you can customize it exactly as you like. If you're wondering whether this is the right option for you, do an Internet search for "how to build your own computer" to learn more.