Our subscriber surveys have generally found online retailers superior to walk-in stores for selection and price.
You can save money by using coupons and forum sites such as Techbargains, FatWallet.com, and Ebates, which provide information on rebates.
Buy a la carte
If you have special requirements, order from a manufacturer's website. Menus show you all the options and let you see how a change affects the overall price.
Configure-to-order will often give you choices you won't get if you buy an off-the-shelf model. But be sure to double-check your choices before ordering, and look for unwanted items that some manufacturers include by default.
Shop at the right time
January, July, and October are usually good times to shop; new models show up in stores at those times, meaning older inventory must be cleared out to make room. If a computer you like isn't on sale, ask for a better price.
Apple often offers free iPods and educational discounts to students buying computers during the back-to-school season.
Macs aren't discounted that often, so take advantage of the price cuts that usually occur around the time Apple announces new models. That's when retailers such as Amazon.com, MacConnection, and MacMall tend to clear out older stock.
Models from other PC brands may also be discounted when their successors arrive.
Pay attention to ergonomics
Especially when you're buying a laptop, try it before you buy it, if you can.
The keyboard shouldn't bend under continuous tapping, the touchpad should be large enough so that your finger can cover the span of the screen without repeatedly lifting it, and touchpad buttons should be easy to find and press.
Carry the laptop around for a few minutes and make sure it isn't too heavy or too big.
If it's been on for a while, feel the bottom. A laptop shouldn't get uncomfortably hot during use, and it should run quietly.
Glossy screens are now standard on most laptops. Several manufacturers have added antireflective coatings, with mixed results.
Finally, manufacturers are emphasizing design as much as substance; find a laptop that suits your style.
Think green when you buy
Some computers meet the new Energy Star standard for efficient power use. Energy-use guidelines cover three operating modes—standby, sleep, and running—with systems entering sleep mode within 30 minutes of inactivity.
Power supplies also need to operate more efficiently. You probably won't notice much difference in the operation of your computer, but your electricity bill might go down a bit.
Look for the Energy Star label on qualified computers. Prices won't increase because of the new standard, according to a representative for the Energy Star program.
Another standard is EPEAT, which offers guidelines on what materials can be used in a computer. Depending on how well each computer meets the criteria, it is rated bronze, silver, or gold.
A list of EPEAT-compliant systems can be found at www.epeat.net.
Before you toss, try recycling
Most manufacturers have recycling programs that help you to dispose of your old computer, but the programs vary considerably by company. But don't forget to wipe your hard drive before you recycle your old computer.