Here’s the good news: If you’re back-to-school shopping for a new computer, you’ll be able to find plenty of great prices on notebooks and desktops. But by the time you get to the checkout, you might find that the cost of software, warranties and peripherals has caused your total purchase price to balloon out of control. Here are a few ways to keep the extras from adding up when shopping for a new PC.
Pass on Microsoft Office
Microsoft’s (Stock Quote: MSFT) flagship Office 2010 suite is often considered a must-have for students and professionals alike. The cheapest option, Home & Student, will still run you $150, and Office Professional checks in at a whopping $500, more than many computers. The products offer Word, Excel and Powerpoint, all thought to be essentials for any computer. But there are ways to meet your word processing and spreadsheet needs without spending a dime. OpenOffice is a free, open-source office suite that includes a word processor, a spreadsheet maker and a presentation tool similar to PowerPoint. It’s capable of saving and opening such file formats as .doc, .xls and .ppt, so compatibility with Office users isn’t a problem.
Another popular alternative is Google Docs, a free, web-based suite that also includes tools for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. While it requires an internet connection and is somewhat stripped-down compared to Microsoft Office, it also allows for easy sharing and group editing with other users.
Don’t Pay for Virus Protection
It’s possible to protect your computer without shelling out $40-$70 for a year’s subscription to anti-virus services from Norton or McAfee. Most computers come pre-installed with a firewall, and free anti-virus programs such as AVG and Microsoft Security Essentials provide decent coverage against most malware, including viruses and spyware. Combine that with some common-sense browsing habits, and you can feel reasonably secure without a costly (and memory-consuming) anti-virus program.
Skip the Powerhouse
No one wants to buy a computer that will be obsolete in a few years, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to pay extra for a computing juggernaut. Microsoft recommends a minimum of 2 GB of RAM to run the 64-bit version of Windows 7. Even if you also plan on using your machine to run the newest computer games, you still won’t need anywhere close to the 8 GB of RAM that some PCs are beginning to offer. And unless you plan on downloading hundreds of movies, a Terabyte of hard drive space is probably overkill; most users are unlikely to fill a hard drive half that size over the life of the computer. Before you get caught up in comparing specs, consider what you’ll want to do on your computer.
Split the Costs
If you live with roommates, you’re forced to share everything from a bathroom to closet space. But sharing has its monetary advantages, too. Many printers now boast wireless functionality, allowing you to get a single printer for the room and split the cost with your roommates. And it’s not just hardware, either. If you decide you must have Microsoft Office, you’ll find that it’s licensed for use on three home computers, allowing you to share the cost with two friends or roommates. The same generally applies to anti-virus programs as well: For $50, McAfee Total Protection will cover three PCs for a year.
The benefits of sharing extend beyond the college years. Before you subscribe to an internet provider and buy a wireless router, see if any neighbors in your apartment building would be willing to share access to their network for a fee. Sure, too many users on one network will slow you down, but cutting your monthly internet bill may make it worth the reduced download speeds.
Be Sensible About Your Warranty
Extended warranties can save you a lot of money in the long-run if you end up with a fried motherboard or a keyboard full of coffee. But more often than not they wind up being money pits that confer little actual benefit. Consumer Reportsnoted last year that most extended warranties cover just a one- or two-year window beyond the manufacturer’s standard one-year warranty, and can sometimes exceed the cost of any repairs that become necessary. A three-year AppleCare Protection Plan on a MacBook runs $350 while Staples charges $519 for a three-year plan on any computer more than $1,300 (though it will refund the full cost in the form of a Staples gift card if it is unused).
Before letting a salesperson push an expensive warranty on you, consider your actual level of need — if you’re always careful with your electronic equipment and studiously make use of a laptop case, then perhaps you don’t need accident protection. And even if you have a tendency to spill drinks and knock things off your desk, it’s worth noting that many laptops now feature spill-resistant keyboards, as well as roll cages and other durability features.
Computers are cheaper than ever, and these days there are plenty of solid laptops available for $500 or less. By steering clear of unnecessary software and other add-ons, you’ll be able to walk out of the electronics store without spending much more than you should.
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