Understand the Specifics
Get past the marketing puffery on most computer manufacturers’ websites, and all you have left to compare are product images and hardware specs – which are great for the tech-obsessed buyers who understand what the names and numbers mean, but daunting for the majority of us who just want a computer that runs fast, gets us online, and doesn’t fall apart if we have to take it on a trip.
What, for instance, is the difference between Intel‘s second-generation (i3, i5 and i7) processors, the previous Intel generation, and AMD‘s latest processor offerings? Is there such a thing as too much memory? And besides price, what would make someone choose integrated graphics over discrete graphics? Here, in plain English, we’ve rounded up the critical specs any new computer buyer needs to consider.
Processor: Think of the processor, or CPU, as the heart and brains of your computer. It’s the feature most people refer to when they talk about speed – generally the ability to open and run programs quickly. Nearly every computer, whether Mac or PC, includes a CPU from either Intel or AMD, and you’ll find excellent options across both brands; generally speaking, AMD processors tend to be budget-friendlier than their Intel competitors.
As for how to interpret processor numbers: Well, without getting too much in the weeds, you should try to get the most cache (a sort of mini-memory that speeds up program access time) and clock speed (think of this as your CPU’s engine size) you can afford. If you have serious gamers, graphic designers, or video editors in the home, a pricier CPU such as Intel’s Core i7 Extreme Edition makes a sound investment for working with intense graphics, but if you’re only browsing the Web, sharing images, and watching movies, you can aim for any number of standard processor technologies, many of which (such as AMD’s Fusion series) deliver an impressive graphics/CPU hybrid.
Graphics: Basically, everything you see on your computer screen is the responsibility of a graphics processing unit, or GPU. These technological wonders fall into two primary categories: dedicated (a.k.a. discrete) and integrated. Integrated, besides being the more affordable option, is just what it sounds like: a GPU built into the processor or circuitry of your computer. Both Intel and AMD offer integrated-graphics options that make it easy to play casual games, video chat, and enjoy HD movies; however, if you’re looking to play serious games and immerse yourself in 3-D content, you’ll want a dedicated GPU. These separate chips have their own memory (usually 128MB and above – “above” being preferable, but pricier) and are dedicated solely to rendering graphics.
Memory: While your CPU and GPU both have some memory capability, your computer gets most of its multitasking energy from memory, or RAM. Generally speaking, more memory (displayed in GB, or gigabytes) equals the ability to run more programs at once, or to work faster with the programs you have. However, depending on the model and operating system you select, there may be a cap on the amount of memory your computer can accommodate.
Because they pop into empty slots inside your computer, memory modules (also known as DIMMs) are relatively easy to add even for people without much technical know-how. So, even if your budget prevents you from maxing out memory today, there’s always the chance to add more memory tomorrow.
Storage: From the operating system to your family photos, every file and program on your computer needs a place to live – which is why you need storage. Commonly referred to as a hard drive, storage could be a traditional spinning drive (which rapidly spins to read and write data) or a solid-state drive (a more reliable, if pricier, type of drive that doesn’t spin).
In the case of Google’s new Chromebooks, the computer has no internal storage. You save everything “to the cloud” (read: online) using Google’s tools. As with memory, you should aim for the largest amount of storage your budget can accommodate – those files, songs and photos can add up quickly.
Ports and Connectivity: “Connectivity” means a number of things. If you’re connecting to the internet, it’s the technology that enables you – from Wi-Fi (high-speed wireless) capability to Ethernet (wired) jacks that can be used when wireless isn’t available, to mobile-broadband cards you use to purchase wireless access through a mobile carrier. Most modern computers, including desktops, include both wired and Wi-Fi capability; Bluetooth – which enables the use of wireless mice, keyboards and other devices – is also fast becoming a standard.
Both Macs and PCs also include several other wired connectivity ports alongside their Ethernet jacks. As you’re putting together your new-computer wish list, consider the devices you plan to connect (from keyboards and mice to digital cameras), and get the computer that has the most relevant ports for you. USB connections are common, although SuperSpeed USB 3.0 is a relatively new standard that may not work for older devices. Both Thunderbolt and HDMI also offer super-fast, state-of-the-art connectivity to HDTVs, monitors, game systems and related gadgets; Thunderbolt, however, is exclusive to Apple.
Displays and Monitors: Whether through a laptop screen or an external monitor, your computer needs some means of displaying all the stuff you want to see. And when it comes to visual presentation, all displays are not created equal.
A bigger physical size can certainly be better for things like multitasking and watching movies, but when it comes to the actual quality of the visuals on your display, you should aim to go bigger in factors such as resolution, brightness and contrast ratio, as well as the type of graphics (or GPU) in the system. Laptop and monitor visuals are also affected by their finishes. A matte finish, for instance, helps to deter glare, while a glossy finish lets in more light to deliver a crisper, brighter experience.
Touch screens and 3-D capabilities are also becoming increasingly common as display technology evolves; however, both can add hundreds to your purchase price, so consider how often you’d use either before dipping into your budget.