This topic seems to come up a lot so I thought that I would write a quick post on things to look for when you buy computers for your library. I will address some of the things that I take into consideration when buying items. However, I can’t tell you how to weight these considerations. You know your library and patrons best.
New, refurbished, or used
Obviously we all like getting new gear, and as I have argued before, computers are as important to libraries as books these days. New computers give you the longest possible useful life from computers that you buy. It will also get you the best warranty and the newest, most efficient hardware. However, this comes at a cost. Computer chips have not got hugely faster in the past few years, just more power efficient. You can find very good deals on refurbished computers through places like Newegg or Techsoup or even Woot!. Just understand that it won’t be as efficient and won’t last as long as buying new. Refurbs often have minimal warranties on them too, though you may be able to extend that with third party warranty companies such as Squaretrade.
How much processor you need depends on your workload. Light web browsing and maybe some online flash games? Just about any modern hardware should be fine. Photoshop, editing large spreadsheets and the like? At least a core I3 processor. Video editing, 3d modeling or gaming? Core I5 should be the minimum. Higher powered processors cost more, and use more battery (if you are on a laptop) so be realistic about what you need.
Today, you should not buy a system with less than 4GB of ram today. Even chromebooks come with that much ram these days. 8GB should be plenty unless you are doing very memory intensive work. Most patron computers will be more than fine with 4GB though.
Buy Solid State Drives (SSDs)! They are faster, more power efficient and more reliable than traditional spinning hard drives (HDD’s). You most likely don’t need the extra storage you would get with an HDD (especially for a patron computer). If you want to upgrade existing computers, this is the number one best bang for your buck. Paying extra for a SSD over a HDD is money well spent and will make your computer feel much faster.
Windows is everywhere. If possible, standardize the version you run. Having the same version (All Windows 7 or all Windows 10) on all your computers will simplify your life considerably. If you have more than a couple of computers, look into Microsoft Volume Licensing and get the enterprise edition of your OS. This will open up a lot of nice features for managing your computers that aren’t available on the consumer versions that likely come with your new computer.
If you have Macs upgrade everything to the latest version of OSX. Apple makes upgrades of their software free, so take advantage of the latest features and security improvements. Macs are very common for creative work such as photo and video editing. They tend to have very solid hardware that lasts a long time, but you will pay for the privilege of using a Mac.
There are a few hardware manufacturers offering Linux from the factory. Dell offers their XPS developer edition among others. System 76 has very nice Linux native systems. Other manufacturers such as Lenovo don’t offer Linux from the factory, but are know for supporting it very well. At my library we run Thinkpads with Fedora Linux on them and they work great.
All in ones are popular with some libraries because they include a monitor and computer together. I am not a fan of this form factor as it makes it very difficult to upgrade individual pieces and prevents reuse of monitors when upgrading. The tower is still the most common form factor and there is nothing wrong with it except it takes up a fair bit of space and is probably unnecessary for most applications. My current favorite is the micro form factor like the System 76 Meercat. Using laptop ram and a solid state drive allows a very compact form factor that stays out of the way. With a vesa mount, you can often mount these to the back of a monitor giving you the space savings of an all in one with the upgradability of a traditional tower.
This is up to you. Some people feel like paying for extended warranties is worth it, others don’t. If you do choose to buy a longer warranty, make sure to pay attention to what is covered. Will they cover dropping a laptop? Battery going bad? Do you have to send the computer in to get fixed, or will they come out to fix it, or send you the parts? These are important things to consider when buying a computer warranty.
Finally, consider how long you want to keep your computers. If you want to replace them every 5 years (about the longest replacement cycle as I would recommend) you may want to spend a little more to help future proof your purchases. If you are on a shorter replacement cycle (for example 3 years) you may be able to get away with buying a little less computer because when you refresh it, you’ll get better hardware for the same price. Choose the replacement cycle that works for you and then try to structure your purchases so that you spend about the same on computers every year. This makes budgeting far easier.
I am a fan of choosing a vendor and working with them as much as possible. They will grow to know you and your needs and can work to find you good deals and manufacturer discounts. I would recommend trying out a few different vendors (govconnection, shi, and cdw are all vendors I have tried in the past) and work with the one the does the best job for you. This can save you a bunch of time looking through websites trying to find a solution. However, Amazon also often has really good deals and shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Hopefully this has given you some insight into the important points to pay attention to when buying computers for your library. Remember, the computer you purchase is likely the only access that some of your patrons have to the internet. If we want to help close the digital divide, we have to do all we can to make sure the tools we provide to our patrons are as good as they can be.