How to choose a computer gift

Computers always make a great, unforgettable gift. But this year? They’re more popular than ever. Between working from home, remote learning, streaming video, PC gaming, and video chatting, it feels like now more than ever, a new computer is going to be on a lot of holiday wish lists. But which computer will make the perfect gift that leaves a lasting memory? That’s a good question, and the sheer number of options can be stressful.

The selection can be overwhelming, but I’m here to help you out. The key is to narrow down the choices so you end up with a manageable number of picks. When you start out, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of possibilities. When you’re done, you should be able to narrow that down to handful—and then you can make the final pick based on personal factors like your budget.

How to choose a computer giftLaptop or desktop?

The first big decision to make is form factor: desktop PC or laptop? 

If the user is always going to be using the computer in a permanent location like a home office, or high performance (especially high graphics performance) is a big must-have, or they want the ability to upgrade the computer, then a desktop PC is your best bet. 

How to choose a computer giftWhen a desktop PC is the choice, then you need to decide whether to go with a traditional tower-style, or an all-in-one. A traditional PC tower is easy to upgrade, but you’ll need a computer monitor. All-in-one computers can’t usually be upgraded, but as the name suggests they are a self-contained package. The computer and display are integrated into a single unit—a keyboard and mouse are usually included as well. All-in-ones offer a space-saving and stylish alternative.

If portability is important, you’re looking at a laptop. 

The laptop form factor has evolved in recent years to offer multiple options. Traditional clamshell laptops remain popular, but within that class there is a wide range. Ultraportables are slim, sleek, light, and stylish. They’re ideal for someone who needs basic computing capability but values portability above all. There are also traditional laptops with 15-inch and even 17-inch displays, that are all about productivity, power, and ports. They’re still portable, but a little heavier. In recent years, 2-in-1 laptops have become increasingly popular. These can still be used like a traditional clamshell laptop, but with a 360-degree hinge, they offer the flexibility to transform into other form factors—including a tablet. 

How to choose a computer giftOperating system: Windows 10, macOS, or Chrome OS

The next big fork in the decision tree is the operating system. There are three main operating systems used for consumer PCs. 

Windows 10 is the most popular, by far. At this point, over 75% of computers worldwide are running Windows. That translates into a vast library of software and the widest selection of computers. Apple’s macOS is also popular, and it’s run by all Apple computers and MacBooks. Apple’s recently announced M1-based Macs will also have the ability to run iOS apps. Chrome OS has become very popular, especially among students, thanks to affordable Chromebooks. This operating system has a focus on web-based apps (although users do not need to always be online) and also has the ability to run Android apps.

A final word on operating systems. It pays to know if the person you’re shopping for has a specific requirement in this area. For example, while popular software like Microsoft Office is available in one form or another for all major platforms, some specialized applications might be Windows-only. If you’re shopping for a student, their school may have a recommendation. Someone who is working from home may require a specific OS based on the software they use, and their IT department’s policies.

How to choose a computer giftAre they a gamer?

The next big decision fork? It’s important to know whether the person receiving this computer will be using it for gaming.

Why would you care? Few things put more strain on a computer than PC gaming. Casually playing a little Fortnite or Minecraft isn’t an issue with most recent computers (although with laptops you may have to dial settings down and lower expectations for frame rates). But to get the best PC gaming experience, you’ll want to focus on a gaming PC or a gaming laptop. These are purpose-built computers. They feature fast processors, extra RAM and storage, the fastest Wi-Fi, and most importantly, a discrete graphics card. Gaming laptops will feature a display and keyboard that are optimized for gaming as well. 

If the recipient is going to be using this computer for other high-demand tasks, like editing 4K video or 3D modelling, then you are likely looking at a similarly high-powered computer. In fact, many people choose a gaming PC for these sort of tasks—options are available that are more subtle and not lit up with LEDs.

Do they have a favourite brand?

Brand loyalty is alive and well. In addition, some computer brands are known for being especially good in particular areas. 

How to choose a computer gift

For example, Apple’s MacBook Air is a long-time favourite of students who want a combination of sleekness, power, long battery life, and flair. ASUS is known for its Republic of Gamers gaming computers and innovations like the dual-screen ScreenPad option on some VivoBook laptops (like the one Ted Kritsonis reviewed). Dell’s XPS series laptops with their InfinityEdge displays have been leading the charge to put larger displays in smaller laptops by dramatically shrinking bezels. After decades of focusing on software—including Windows and Office—Microsoft has become a PC design leader with its innovative Surface products.  Apple’s iMac is another favourite, a pioneer and ongoing leader in the all-in-one PC category.

I could go on forever here, but the point is there are a lot of computer brands to choose from. It’s worth looking for hints to see whether the recipient has a preference.

The good news is that once you’ve narrowed your choices down, you’re going to find that perfect computer at Best Buy. Along with all the extras, peripherals, and accessories needed to make it the best gift ever. Chances are you’ll find everything you need on sale as well, so you can give that memorable gift without breaking your budget.

Brad Moon
Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.

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