How does a cheap computer differ from one that costs 3-5x as much?

One of the most common questions we are asked is how a cheap computer sold from the local electronics store (or even CostCo) differs from a business-class computer bought at many times the price.

In general, discount consumer-class computers will advertise a couple really attractive specs (aside from the price) to grab attention, but then they go to the bottom of the barrel on everything else to hit a price point. The end result is a computer that never performs well and isn’t usable nearly as long.

Effectively it’s like buying a car with top-of-the-line tires and a high-end stereo system, but under the hood it has a lawn mower engine, the seats are made of hard plastic, and the safety belts aren’t included.

There are a number of ways a computer manufacturer can tinker with components to configure a computer that looks great at first glance, but will never fully deliver and be much more costly in the long run. Discount computers will always be subpar, and it is not uncommon for the buyer to be searching for a replacement within 1-2 years.

NorthSky exclusively recommends business class computers with specifications that take into account how the computer will be used such that we can reasonably project a useful life of at least 5 years. This means that, provided the functional requirements don’t drastically change and the computer is well taken care of, it will be at least 5 years before that computer needs to be replaced or upgraded. Also during that 5 year period, the computer will dramatically outperform any bargain basement computer, resulting in much higher productivity.

A number of factors go into determining the ideal computer beyond just price. Many components need to be properly selected according to expected usage:

1) Processor - also known as CPU. This is the brain of the computer which determines how fast work can be done. Speed (measured in GHz) historically has been the primary criteria, however modern day processors have important differences in the number of cores, architecture, power draw, and optimization features which also need to be taken into account.

2) Storage - also referred to as the hard drive, HDD, or SSD. This is the most common place where outdated parts are used to cut costs. A poor choice can result in some disk operations being over 100,000x slower on a discount computer versus a business class.

3) Memory - also known as RAM. Effectively this determines how well the computer can handle multiple things going on at once. This is the second most common area where corners are cut to save costs.

4) Display - also known as the screen. The size, clarity, and resolution can have a big impact on form factor, cost, and quality.

5) Warranty - also referred to as protection plans or service plans. There can be vast differences in the duration, what is covered, and available repair remedies. For example, some warranties require the device to be shipped away to a repair center taking weeks to get you back up and running, while others send a service technician on-site within 1 business day.

6) Serviceability. How easy is it, or is it even possible, to upgrade, repair, and replace components after purchase to extend the life of the device even after the warranty expires. A good majority of off-the-shelf computers do not have this ability or require an unjustifiable amount of labor to do so.

7) Operating system - also referred to as the OS. Not just Mac vs. PC. When it comes to Windows 10 alone there are seven different versions of the same Windows 10 operating system - each with increasing levels of features and capabilities. Often consumer computers come with the most basic version of Windows which lacks important features necessary for connecting to business organizations and supporting critical features like backup. Upgrading after purchase can cost many hundreds of dollars.

These are the primary factors that come into consideration, but depending on the functional requirements even more variables can come into play. Things like graphics cards, VRAM, the number of supported displays, ports, weight, style, and touch/stylus support. All of this is a long way to say two things:

1) You get what you pay for.
2) Sometimes you don’t need to pay much as you think.

For as many times as we see clients disappointed after buying a cheap computer, we see clients overspend on something they don’t really need. With a NorthSky recommendation, you can rest assured that you are buying a device that has the right balance of price and performance for your exact needs - and most often we will get you a deal less expensive than the equivalent machine on sale the retailers.