Choosing a computer is like choosing a car, a house, even a lifestyle - it is a question of what you want or need to do with it. There are lots of people willing to give advice on this. But, there is a danger of you ending up with the computer that they'd want to buy, for their own situation, or the one that will maximise the profit compared with how long they need to spend on you as a customer.
You can do a lot worse than considering the '3Ws': "Who", "When" and "Where", often used in journalism. Or, their bigger brother, the '5Ws': "Who", "When", "Why", "What" and "Where" (some tag "How" on the end of the list). These are one way of taking a complex problem to pieces, and trying to make sure you don't miss too much.
Who is going to use the computer? What skills they bring to using the machine will affect the choice of computer. Yes, it may be possible to learn new skills but you want to get some use of it from the start. If several different people will be using it then you will need to consider their various needs, or restrictions on its use, such as poor eyesight, or hearing, or the need to avoid sitting too long in one place. Different people have different interests, hobbies that the computer may be used to support, and that also needs considering.
When will it be used? This is both what times during the day, or week, etc., and how long you expect it to last. As an example, laptop computers are typically less "future proof" than desktop ones, sometimes quoted as having a couple of years shorter lifespan, though (if the batteries have been kept charged) they can be used almost any time. A tablet or palmtop might be usable almost any time it wont get wet, but is likely to have an even shorter life than a laptop.
Another important consideration is how often you expect the computer to breakdown, and not be usable. And, the cost and swiftness of the repair, or, maybe the need for complete replacement. The lighter-weight computers are often more fragile, and, less modular, so you can't just replace, say, keyboard, mouse, or screen. Having someone or an organisation you can rely on to keep it usable may be important. Don't forget that software as well as hardware can break, and it is in the interest of some manufacturers to get you to frequently replace your computer, and pay for new software.
Why are you using it? Presumably because it lets you do things that you couldn't otherwise, in ways that are more convenient than not having easy access to a computer. It became a practical social necessity through the early 21st century to have access to a computer, so as to be able to communicate. The computer came to combine the telephone directory, an encyclopedia, and a writing desk. With possibly many other uses, such as a telephone, (alarm) clock, filing system, etc., etc. It also became a 'single point-of-failure' for all the things which depended on it.
What is the computer for? A quick answer might be "anything you like". A more sensible answer might be "for things that are useful to you". There will almost always be a balance of advantages and problems or costs.
As an example, the need for printing might suggest a cheap printer, the need for cheap printing might suggest a more expensive printer that is cheaper to run. Or, looking at your printing might suggest a cheap, recycled ex-office, black-and-white laser printer would do for nearly all printing needs, with a cheap but expensive to run colour printer suiting a limited need for colour prints. That many cheap printers include a scanner is worth considering, but used for copying the print might go to the second-hand laser printer.
The computer will need to communicate, which means a wireless or a cable connection. Wireless is typically less reliable, less secure, and slower (sometimes more expensive and limited capacity), though it provides far more flexibility. Wireless will be a mix of mobile phone and the shorter-range "Wi-fi" technology. Cable will be through a telephone line (ADSL, or fibre) or cable (TV) provider, to an Internet Service Provider (ISP). In all cases the aim is to get to the wider Internet. Some printers can be accessed through Wi-fi, and some cable connections can go to things like media centres, or other computers. Wi-fi extenders may be able to use your mains wiring.
Within the computer you need to consider what it is used for. This tends to be a mix of e-mail, web browsing, word processing, filing and game playing. Images, such as digital photographs, and video, freely broadcast and bought media, are important to some. Then there is sound and music. Video telephone, web forums and even shared virtual worlds may be used to communicate.
The choice of computer will heavily influence what it is used for. Smaller computers may be far more difficult to interact with, particularly if you want much text input, or large clear displays.
Where will you use the computer? If it is a desktop that tends to be in a (mostly) fixed place, but that has the advantage of rarely breaking unless disturbed, as long as it is suitably ventilated. Laptops can be used anywhere they can be adequately powered and communicate. Tablets can be used just about anywhere, as long as they have a Wi-fi or mobile phone connection.
A desktop can often be usefully supplied with a cable connection, which is likely to be faster, more reliable, and more secure. Some laptops can use a larger external screen, keyboard, mouse, if they are often used in one location, but a desktop will be cheaper and more powerful. You may be able to connect an external keyboard to some tablets. One approach would be to use both a desktop and a tablet, so you get the mobility of one, combined with the cheapness, reliability and longevity of the other. Or, a netbook (a small, more portable, laptop) and a desktop.
(c) ROMsys Ltd, May 2013, permission given to use for non-profit making purposes
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