The processor: Standard advice used to be "buy a computer with the fastest processor, because it's easier to upgrade other components." But today, processors are so varied that the fastest one may not be the best one for you. Intel (INTC - Get Report), still the dominant chip supplier for consumer laptops, splits its main chips into good, better, best -- or the Core i3, i5 and i7, which in turn offer mobile versions that maximize battery life. The Core chips also now come with Quick Sync, a built-in graphics chip to convert video for sharing. Intel's next-generation of Core chips, which nearly double battery life, are expected this summer.
Networking: For better or worse, some PC makers have dropped wired Ethernet ports (they're absent in the latest MacBook Pros), which makes sense since most users rely on Wi-Fi or a 3G/4G connection. But that could be a shock, if you haven't been PC shopping in awhile. Meanwhile, the latest version of Wi-Fi, called "802.11ac," offers gigabit wireless speeds, but few laptops have integrated it. The prevalent Wi-Fi technology is still N.
Storage: Huge built-in hard drives haven't been a concern for years, because of cheap external storage drives. But another reason why size doesn't matter today is the ability to store files online in The Cloud. Of course, that means you'll need Internet to access those files. The good news is that storage space is still relatively cheap and laptops come with a lot of it - a 1-terabyte Dell (DELL - Get Report) laptop at Costco is currently $499. Also coming down in price are solid-state drives, which don't offer as much storage space, but are built to be mobile, since there are no moving parts that could break.
Memory: Another straightforward component that continues to be affordable, so new laptops come with a sizeable amount it. Memory companies like Samsung have been innovating more on the mobile side to offer "PC-like performance" for smartphones and tablets.
Desktop: If this category of computer interests you, you probably already know what you want. Still, beyond gamers, video editors and other high-intensity users, desktops have big appeal as the family computer. Also, older consumers and those who don't travel frequently, prefer the desktop's familiarity. Desktops make up 10% of PCs sold at U.S. retailers today, according to NPD. About one-third of those sold being all-in-one models like the iMac.
Follow @gadgetress At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time. This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.