NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Your aging computer has finally called it quits -- or it's so sluggish you just want to put it out of its misery. And chances are, it's been awhile since you shopped for a PC, though you frequently upgrade your smartphone and, of course, you have an iPad or other tablet.Well, computers have changed just a bit. Ultra-light portables (sub 4-pound laptops), nettops (mini desktops) and convertibles (touchscreen laptops that flip into tablets) are bringing it. Everything's a little bit faster, bigger or thinner. Solid-state storage drives are widely available. Same with Blu-ray drives, USB 3.0 ports and HD Web cams. Microsoft's ( MSFT) Windows 8 launched last fall, Apple's ( AAPL) OSX Mountain Lion debuted last summer. There's also Google's ( GOOG) Chromium. And you can still get a decent laptop for less than $500. Or a loaded one for $1,000.
But PC sales are declining and it's not just because of perceived cannibalism from the iPad, Kindle Fire and tablet market. It's because people are holding on to computers longer because there has been little to motivate new purchases. Still, if you need a new computer, here's a primer (and reminder) of what mainstream shoppers should look for: The screen: Screen size and quality are one of the biggest motivators to buy a new laptop, says Steve Baker, with market research firm NPD. If you want HD movies to look good, get an HD screen. Look for 1600x900 or 1080p resolution. Apple's Retina Screens, at 2880x1800, are the high end. Also, consider shrinking the screen size. While 15.6-inch is still the most popular, 13-or-14-inch screens keep laptops lighter. If you're looking for anything larger than 15, consider an all-in-one computer, which has larger screens and are lighter than traditional desktops. The other new screen feature is touch. Right now, though, there's a bit of a glass shortage so touchscreen laptops are not prevalent. The operating system: Whether you're a Mac or PC, that debate has nearly become irrelevant. Both sides feel the pain of declining PC sales. But what you do on either system is way easier today, thanks to Cloud-based services. It doesn't really matter which OS you use to check email, store files, share Tweets, add Facebook ( FB) "Likes," or even edit photos and play games. Companies like Microsoft and Adobe ( ADBE) now offer their Office and Photoshop software as subscription services that are OS agnostic and can be installed on multiple computers. "In general, the Web is most people's software and that's pretty agnostic," said Baker, with NPD.
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), 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) 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.