Most of the time a newer computer *is* better
Conventional wisdom dictates the newer a computer is, the better the computer is. This bit of advice generally holds true comparing an earlier version of a system with a later version of a similar system. A 12th generation i3-13100 processor will absolutely crush a 1st generation i7-970 in every aspect I can think of, and do it at less than 1/2 the power requirement. It really depends on the technology you’re comparing, and while processors like the i3-13100 are widely available here in North America, they’re not as easy to get in other parts of the world.
Sometimes something that’s several years newer, may not be a better option.
Take for example the HP 110-039 desktop computer from around 2014. This is an old machine by today’s standards, but let’s compare it to something even older. The HP 110-039 is a very basic computer. It has 4 rear USB ports, VGA, DVI video ports, gigabit ethernet, and an 802.11 b/g/n wireless adapter. The computer sips power compared to most desktops, and sports a 19V 4.74 external power supply adapter. The RAM is DDR3 and can be expanded to 16GB of RAM (according to a script I wrote that detects the information based on manufacturer BIOS info). At the heart of the system is an AMD E1-2500 APU with Radeon HD 8240 onboard graphics.
Compare this to an HP Compaq dc7900 from roughly 2008. The HP dc7900 is considered an ancient computer by today’s standards. It has 6 USB ports at the back, 2 more in the front, gigabit ethernet, no wifi, VGA and DisplayPort video ports, a 9 pin serial connector, PS/2 mouse and keyboard connectors, and a speaker and line in port on the back. The power supply is built-in to the system. The RAM in this system is DDR2 and can be expanded to 4GB (again note above about the RAM). At the heart of the dc7900 is a Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU. All the components in this system are older than the components in the HP 110-039 computer. By all intents and purposes the HP Compaq dc7900 is an inferior computer.
Consider the case use
If the person using the computer just needs a computer for very basic surfing, and would prefer the computer doesn’t draw a lot of power, the HP 110-039 desktop might be worth looking at.
But if the person needs to crunch data, convert files from one format to another, or run any games that require more than a 1.4GHz CPU, the newer HP 110-039 might not be as good a machine as the much older dc7900.
At The Working Centre’s Computer Recycling Project we benchmark all our computers using the benchmarks Xonotic at low settings (graphics), wav to flac encoding (CPU), and GIMP resizing (system).
In the Xonotic benchmark the HP 110-039 beats the HP Compaq dc7900 by a good margin (18 FPS more), however, the HP 110-039 cannot be expanded, it’s essentially a laptop in a desktop case. While RAM and drives can be expanded, there’s no PCIe slots, which means no graphics expansion. By contrast, the HP dc7900 has a 1x PCIe slot, a 16x PCIe slot, a 4x PCIe slot (the length of a 16x slot), and a PCI slot, allowing for a lot more expansion. Expansion cards put into the HP dc7900 would have to be 1/2 height as the case is 1/2 height, but it’s certainly possible to buy PCIe video cards that would beat the overall 52.9FPS of the Radeon HD 8240 onboard graphics of the HP 110-039.
The wav to flac encoding test is where the newer HP 110-039s falls down. With an only 1.4GHz CPU speed, the AMD E1-2500 APU in the 110-039 just cannot keep up with the 3.0GHz speed of the Core 2 Duo in the 2008 HP dc7900. Encoding the same flac file on the HP 110-039 (111 seconds) takes just shy of double the time it takes on the HP dc7900 (58 seconds). This might not seem like a big deal, but if you encode hundreds or thousands of flac files that extra 54 seconds per file makes a difference.
And while newer systems generally have newer connectors, the Display Port connector on the HP dc7900 is a better connector than the VGA or DVI connector on the HP 110-039s. The dc7900 has more ports overall, and while ports like the serial port are older, they’re still quite useful for automation projects.
Both the HP 110-039s and HP dc7900 are old systems. Our project still sells both systems, but we only still sell Core 2 Duos because we have a lot of DDR2 RAM, and not enough DDR3 for all the systems we have. The more powerful HP dc7200 we normally price around $20CDN with 4GB RAM, a 250-500GB Hard Drive and Xubuntu 20.04 or 22.04. We price the less powerful, but also less power hungry, HP 110-039 higher at $40 in part because of the wireless card, but also the external power adapter. Most of our systems have internal power supplies, including the dc7900.
Use cases for each machine
I know at least one person who would like something like the HP 110-039s. That person is conscious about the power they use, they need wifi, and much of the work they do is on the command line using tools like tmux, mutt, git, and more. They also do a bit of photography, so having the SD-Card slot on the front of the machine is handy. I can also see this machine being used by someone who wants to write a book or do simple research. To be clear, there’s some potential for expansion. Right now a single 8GB PC1600 stick of DDR3 runs around $28CDN, add another $20 for a Lexar 120GB SSD and you have quite a speed boost. It’s still not going to match the Core 2 Duo in encoding, but it would be a noticeable difference compared to the 4GB and spinning rust 500GB HDD.
At $20 for the dc7900 it’s really set up for someone that just needs something to plug in and surf. As with the 110-039s, upgrading to an SSD would improve the speed. The technical manual for the dc7900 suggests a max of 16GB of RAM for the dc7900, but you would have to find ultra-rare 4GB DDR2 sticks that are compatible with the system. It’s more reasonable to find 4 x 2GB DDR modules to take this machine to 8GB. At one time 2GB modules were plentiful at Computer Recycling, but we’ve most of those modules are gone now. On the plus side, LGA775 Core 2 Quad processors are cheap, another upgrade if you need the extra cores. The Display Port port is a nice bonus, but it’s worth mentioning it’s a pretty old version of Display Port (1.1), so not all the features of later versions of Display Port are available on this machine. The technical specifications for this machine are still available from HP here:
These two examples are a bit extreme. Both examples are older computers you wouldn’t likely find at big box stores selling new computers. Some of these stores do sell low end computers, especially through their online stores where 3rd party resellers sell systems. Be particularly aware when ordering online from a big box store to make sure you’re buying from the store, not a 3rd party reseller, unless you know and trust that reseller. Often if there’s an issue, there’s no recourse through the big retailer, except to contact the 3rd party reseller.
One of the big computer chains in Canada currently has a listing for a “Intel Celeron with 4GB of RAM, a 128GB HDD (Hard Disk Drive) and Windows 11S.” This particular chain is selling the laptop for $269.99 currently, an $80 savings off the normal $349.99CDN price tag. The 128GB HDD isn’t a hard disk drive, but an eMMC (embedded multimedia card), so it’s faster than a hard drive, but not as fast as a solid state drive (SSD). The description differs from the title in that the description lists the operating system as Windows 10 S (not 11). This is an important distinction as the machine may not officially support Windows 11 if it doesn’t have a TPM 2.0 chip. To be clear, this isn’t a bad deal at $269.99CDN. The laptop has 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, a USB 3.2 Type-C port (modern), but the battery is only 3 cell. Despite the claims of hours of use, 3 cell batteries generally won’t last as long as the 6 or 9 cell batteries that are more common in larger laptops.
Compare this to the Mac Book Air (2015) our project has listed at $230 CDN. The Mac Book Air has an i5-5250U CPU with 8GB of RAM and a 250GB Apple SSD. The wireless adapter is also 80211ac. The resolution of the screen is a bit better than the reseller’s laptop (1366×768) at 1440×900, and the laptop is thinner than the big chain laptop. While our Mac Book Air can only go up to Mac OS X Catalina, it runs Xubuntu 22.04 just fine with a few tweaks. The i5-5250U CPU in the Mac Book Air is more powerful than the Celeron N4020 that’s in the newer big chain laptop, and the thread count (4) on the Mac Book Air is better than the Celeron N4020 (2 threads). Any programs that are multi-threaded will perform better on the MacBook.
Of course our project has other options (but Xubuntu only). There’s a ThinkPad T530 currently on the shelf with an i5-3320M CPU, 8GB RAM, and 500GB Hard Drive for $150CDN. The T530 is a 2012 era Laptop, and it’s a bit chunky compared to the other two options, but the CPU is also still faster at multi-threaded applications. The display is also better than either option at 1600×900. While the wireless card is only an 802.11n (not a newer ac), WiFi access points generally aren’t super fast for most people. The battery in this particular ThinkPad is a bit on the weak side (used, it has a capacity of around 28% the original battery). But add a $49 new battery from Amazon.ca and a $19 128GB SSD from Canada Computers and suddenly the T530 becomes a really superb value ($220 + some taxes from Amazon and CC). A bit more money means a larger SSD. ThinkPads are famously durable, but at the cost of weight.
Buying used does come with some risks, but so does buying new. Often big box stores sell extended warranties on top of manufacturer warranties. If something goes wrong with a new laptop, the onus is often on the buyer to ship it back to the manufacturer, costing time and money, before the manufacturer warranty is honoured. In store extended warranties add to the cost of the hardware, and are not always honoured by stores. If you establish a good relationship with a small local reseller, chances are you’re more likely to get assistance faster, and less costly.