This article is by editor Linda Vergon.

Decide to buy a computer these days and immediately you’re confronted with a complex decision process wherein you pit features against price. The choice is intensely personal and a total reflection of your tastes, priorities, and pocketbook. I know how I’ve gone about it in the past, but I was curious to see how other people approach the problem.

It wasn’t hard to get people to talk. (People are passionate about their computers!) But as they did, I identified three basic methods to decide on price:

  1. The features route
  2. The cheap route
  3. The set-price route

Now that I think about it, this may be true for a lot of purchases!

Man compares prices on new computers in store

The features route

Most everyone I talked to went right to the features. Many of them use their computer for work, but a lot of them use it for entertainment or gaming. What the computer does for them is how they establish its value.

“It’s a MacBook Air with a Thunderbolt display!” or “It has a terabyte of memory and I can keep all my movies on it!”

Never mind the fact that it’s $4,000.

Price can be irrelevant to people who are driven by features. But if you need to stick to a budget, concentrating on features can be a bit problematic. (If you’re financially independent, of course, that might not be an issue for you.)

The cheap route

Last year, my hand-me-down computer was on its last legs. I’d kept it well past its prime — a good seven years — but I couldn’t deal with it heating up and turning off without warning. So I went into cheap-computer-buying mode.

The cheap-o version cost me a whopping $249 at Fry’s. It has 256 gigabytes of storage memory, and about four gigabytes of RAM. I mostly use it for correspondence and surfing the Internet, and it’s more than enough computer for me. I didn’t spend a lot of money or a lot of time — and even better, it fit right into my plan to beef up my savings account. (Win-win!)

The set-price route

There’s another technique, kind of a hybrid, which works well for someone that really needs the features but still has to stay within budget. The idea is to set an amount that works for your budget and then find the computer with the most features you want for that set price.

It may take some time to decide what’s most important and then to shop here, there, and everywhere to find the exact model that fits your price point. But if you’ve got the time, you should end up reasonably satisfied with the result.

The flipside

Each method has its benefits and pitfalls, so you should be aware of what you’re doing and why when you make purchases like these. For example, when you spend a lot on a computer, you expect a lot from it and you’re likely to want to keep it for a long period of time. But that might work against you with the pace of innovation today.

On the other hand, if you go the cheap route, you may be disappointed because it doesn’t live up to your expectations at all. But at least it would be easier to replace the computer when something better comes along. The best part of that is you can upgrade your technology more frequently, especially as prices come down.

With the set-price method, you maximize the features and value while you cap the cost – kind of like having the best of both worlds.

Bringing method to Black Friday madness

Black Friday’s coming, and I expect there will be the usual spate of unbelievable electronics products offered at unheard of prices. Are they any good? We purchased my cheap-o computer on November 22 last year — not exactly Black Friday, but I haven’t had a single problem with it.

For now, I’m opting for the cheap route to stick with my budget. Luckily, I won’t need to do any Black Friday computer shopping this year. But if I did, at least I have a method that works for me.

What’s your approach when it comes to buying a computer? Have you ever been burned buying cheap computer equipment? If you use the set-price method, what amount are you willing to spend? What features make an expensive computer worth the money?

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