The holidays are rapidly approaching, and some people are probably looking to buy some kind of technology for the gaming enthusiast or geek in their life. But there are just so many choices out there that it’s difficult to figure out where to get started when you’re purchasing a PC or anything similar.

Although I’ve only been writing for TechRaptor for about a year, I have nearly ten years of experience working in consumer and business computer and technology servicing. I’ve done everything from install a 5.1 surround sound system to set up a 30 computer network for a nonprofit and more. Customers often have me help them with purchasing a PC. Over the years I’ve told my customers some rules of thumb about how they can best spend their money, and I figure it couldn’t hurt to put those tips out into the wider world.

Bear in mind that while I’m approaching this subject from the perspective of someone purchasing a PC or PC components, a lot of this advice can be applied to other facets of life as well. Give it a read, and tell me your thoughts in the comments!

1. Decide on your budget first and foremost.

This may be self-evident, but I think it’s smart to give people the benefit of the doubt as to what they do and do not know. Before you begin your journey of purchasing a PC you should figure out how much money you’re willing to spend for what you’re looking to buy. And remember that the cost of a product doesn’t stop at what’s listed on the website. Taxes of one sort or another may be included based on where you live and which store you’re shopping with, and shipping can be difficult to predict until your shopping cart is all filled up.

Figure out how much money you’re willing to spend in advance when purchasing a PC or PC parts and then add in a little wiggle room. If a customer said “I want to get my son a new graphics card for no more than $200” I would probably look for cards in the $170-$180 range and leave the rest as wiggle room for shipping.

Leaving 10-15% aside for taxes and shipping is a good rule of thumb, and remember that you don’t commit to buying anything until you actually put the order through. You can check out the costs of everything before buying it, and if it turns out you have more money because shipping is really low or there’s no taxes in your locality, then you can go back and buy something a little nicer.

2. Check the Warranty Length before buying, and make sure to register your products properly when necessary.

Manufacturers have engaged in the practice of warrantying their products for several decades now. In my experience, very few consumers actually handle warranties properly.

The first and most important thing to understand is that manufacturers of anything (not just electronics) really don’t like losing money. They are not going to guarantee their product unless it reliably lasts for the duration of a warranty period.

When you buy a product with a 1-year warranty, it stands to reason that the manufacturer is only confident that that product will last a year before something goes wrong or breaks. And when it comes to purchasing a PC it’s no different in my book.

As a personal rule, I prefer to have at least a minimum 3-year warranty on anything I purchase for myself or my customers. A higher-quality product with a 3-year warranty might cost a bit more than one with a 1-year warranty. You have to decide if the extra cost is worth getting much more guaranteed use out of the product you’re buying.

Furthermore, don’t throw out your receipts or any important paperwork. You can trash all of that stuff when whatever you’ve bought finally does burn out in a few years. Some products also require (or simply ask) that you register it online at their respective websites. Read over all of this stuff right after you’ve finished purchasing a PC and make sure to get it all filled out right away. You don’t want a part of a computer to fail or your new smartphone dock to burn out only to find that you can’t get it replaced even though you’re still within the warranty period.

3. Save money and reduce risk by buying a generation or two older and research the product(s) you intend to buy.

I honestly can’t recall how many times I’ve heard a phrase like “I want the best computer money can buy,” from one of my customers. When I tell them that purchasing a PC like that would cost over $10,000 they tend to rein in their expectations a bit. And if by chance you doubt that number, start things off by putting four of the most powerful graphics cards into your shopping cart and have a gander at what that alone costs!

Still, some customers might say they want the biggest hard drive or the best new graphics card when they’re purchasing a PC. I tell my customers, as a rule, that you should avoid buying the latest stuff unless you can buy two of them. If you’re dropping $2,000 on a new gaming PC, you ought to be able to spend $4,000 on it just in case something fails.

Now, newer parts failing are an extraordinary rarity in terms of statistics. But there are nonetheless some notable examples out there that are worth bringing to light.

One of the most classic examples is from around 2005-2006. The IBM Deskstar hard drive had so many issues that it was colloquially called the “Deathstar” for its high failure rate which led to data loss. Initially, I recall it being heralded as a quality product with some of the best available storage capacity on the market at the time. Unfortunately, for one reason or another the drives tended to die out within the warranty period at an alarming rate. IBM sold off its hard drive division to Hitachi, probably as a result of the disastrous launch of this product line.

Another hard drive related example was a firmware problem with certain Seagate Barracuda drives in 2009. Brand new Barracuda hard drives had the minor issue where a firmware problem meant that data would just basically disappear sometimes. It was fixed with a firmware update from Seagate, but this particular problem has personally soured me on buying anything from them for a long time.

The last example I would like to use is probably a bit painful for some gamers: the Nvidia GTX 970. It turned out to be not quite what some people had expected in terms of graphical power, and as a result some people feel that they have a lemon on their hands.

All of these problems with these respective products were only evident several weeks to several months after the fact. So if you have a limited budget and want to have a reduced risk when purchasing a PC (or individual parts), you should buy a product that is a year or two older. Read reviews and see what kind of problems people had with it. You won’t get the most power, but you’ll have higher chances of getting a reliable product for your money.

4. Shop around for the best price.

This also may be self-evident to some, but not everyone will think to do this. If you live in a place with an Internet connection, you have never had more choice for places to shop when you’re purchasing a PC or anything else online.

Once you have an idea of what you’re looking to buy, start shopping around. And don’t just take the listed price as gospel because there are a bunch of other things to consider. Some stores offer shipping discounts based on how much you order or which things you purchase. One example is a now-expired promotion from Tiger Direct where you would get free shipping on orders over $100 and under 25 lbs. (11.34 kg).

You can also Google around for digital coupons and checkout codes. Just type in the site you’re using with “online coupon” and/or “coupon code” and see if it sticks. Paying attention to that particular store’s social media and other announcements will also clue you in to any sales or specials they may be having in this regard.

5. Take a good look at package deals—sometimes manufacturers cut corners—but don’t dismiss them entirely.

If there’s one thing I’ve told people to be cautious of when purchasing a PC it’s bundles.

We’ve all seen it in gaming; we buy a gaming bundle that has two or three games we want and a bunch of games we don’t. PCs sometimes work the same way. You’ll have a bunch of high quality parts throughout the prebuilt unit and then you’ll find that the manufacturer has cut a corner somewhere.

One of the biggest and most common hurdles to deal with is that prebuilt PCs inevitably come loaded with some form of bloatware. I would put money on the fact that the only reason Norton and McAfee are still around today is because they pay money to computer manufacturers to preload their software onto prebuilt computers. However, a portion (if not all) of this money is put towards lowering the overall cost of the bundled and assembled components in a prebuilt PC and they’re usually easy enough for a moderately-experienced user to remove.

Another area to look at is hardware. Nearly every decent online store shows you the specs of a a PC. If you look closely enough, you’ll often find that this is the area where a corner was cut. Perhaps the hard drive is smaller compared to comparable units. Maybe it only has 4 gigabytes of RAM as opposed to most of the competition having 8 gigabytes of RAM. Perhaps the power supply can’t really support adding a stronger graphics card and so you won’t get as much long term use out of it if you intend to use it for gaming.

In short, pay attention to what you’re buying when you’re purchasing a PC. That’s not to say that all bundle deals or prebuilt PCs are bad deals—you can often make up for the one or two shortcomings with a little extra work and still save money. Just be cautious and make sure that you make an informed purchase.

6. When it comes to purchasing a PC don’t be shy about buying individual parts and putting them together yourself! It’s really not that hard.

If you can snap two pieces of LEGO bricks together, you can build a PC.

PC components were at some point designed by engineers, and engineers tend to like things to be as idiot proof as possible. PCs are no different in this regard. You can only really plug a stick of RAM in one way. If you purchase a motherboard, the included booklet tells you how exactly you screw it into the case.

Screw a motherboard into a case, slot in the individual components like RAM and the graphics card, wire up the power supply, and you’re pretty much done. I know it seems like a bit of an oversimplification for something that looks really complex, but taking the individual components of a PC out of their boxes and putting them together typically takes anywhere from 1-3 hours. It’s really not that long, and if more of my customers were willing to do it I’d probably be out of business.

And hey, if you’re ever lost or stuck don’t forget that we’re in the age of the Internet. You have countless tutorials available that show you how to do X, Y, or Z whether it’s applying thermal paste to a processor or making sure all the wires are in the correct places. There are people who make their living just making tutorial videos for this kind of stuff and they’re immensely useful.

I hope you’ve found some of this advice useful! Happy Holidays to you and yours!

What are your thoughts on the advice I presented for purchasing a PC? Do you have any other tips you’d like to offer people who are purchasing a PC or buying other things this holiday season? Tell us about them in the comments below!

Robert N. Adams

Senior Writer

I've had a controller in my hand since I was 4 and I haven't stopped gaming since. CCGs, Tabletop Games, Pen & Paper RPGs - I've tried a whole bunch of stuff over the years and I'm always looking to try more!