Choosing a computer to buy can seem like a daunting task, with hundreds of machines to choose from. However, if you know how to read the specifications of a computer, you can easily judge if it’s worth buying or not. There are 6 specs you need to look at when judging a computer: Hard disk size and type, RAM, processor speed, video card, and screen resolution. Let’s go through each of them one by one. For this article, I am going to assume you are going to use your computer for some common tasks: surfing the web and using e-mail, editing documents, watching videos, and keeping track of things like music and photos.
The processor is the part that actually does the number-crunching necessary to run the computer. Its speed is usually measured in Gigahertz (GHz). The higher the number, the faster the processor can work. Also, newer Intel processors offer Turbo Boost, which means the processor can actually get faster if it needs to.
This doesn’t matter as much as people think it does. A core i7 processor (3.4 GHz) won’t boot up, load, etc. significantly faster than a core i5 processor (3.3 GHz). If you’re low on cash, don’t worry about getting a top-of-the line processor. It won’t matter as much as many people think it will. Where a processor does matter is if you’re doing something like a physics simulation that requires lots and lots of mathematical computations.
RAM is a computer’s short-term memory, where things like programs you’re using and documents you’re currently working on are stored. It’s usually measured in Gigabytes (GB). The higher the number, the more RAM you have.
While an average computer probably has all the RAM you need, it’s easy to tell when you don’t have enough. If your computer slows to a crawl, and you hear the hard drive spinning the whole time you’re using it, you need more RAM. However, on a computer with 2-4 GB of RAM, you can have quite a few browser windows and Word documents open without any slowdown.
If you’re on a medium-to-big budget, get a machine with at least 4 GB of RAM. Not only will it ensure everything runs fine now, it will help to “future-proof” your hardware so it can continue running the latest software for years to come.
The hard disk is the computer’s long-term storage, where your files are stored. It’s usually measured in Gigabytes (GB) or Terabytes (TB), and one TB = 1,024 GB. The higher the number, the bigger your hard disk.
The more hard disk space you have, the more files you can store. Most computers nowadays have more than enough hard disk space to store what you want. The exception is if you have a collection of, say, HD movies. Here’s a calculator that will figure out for you approximately what you can store on a given hard disk:
Text Documents or
One more thing to consider about hard drives: solid-state drives. A solid-state drive is much faster than a normal hard drive because it has no physical components. While normal hard drives have to spin a platter to get to a file, solid-state drives can read files without spinning. Solid-state drives are the single best investment you can make for performance. If you have a lot of money to spend on a computer, GET A SOLID STATE DRIVE. They massively speed up loading and saving times on your computer.
The video card is what draws the graphics on your computer screen. Since there aren’t really standard measurements for performance of graphics cards, it’s mostly listed by brand name.
Unless you plan to play 3d video games on your computer, it doesn’t matter much what graphics card you have. If you are planning to play video games on your computer, anything by NVIDIA or AMD should work fine.
This one is mostly for laptops, because you can plug a desktop into just about any monitor or HDTV)
Screen resolution is the number of pixels that make up your screen. It’s measured, typically, in pixels long by pixels high (like 1280×720).
What’s more important than actual screen resolution is PPI. You can use this calculator to determine PPI:
The higher the PPI, the sharper things will look on the screen. Also remember to take into account the size of the screen.
Now that you’ve seen all of the different specs and what they mean, here are 4 computer setups that you can look at. One is good for a low budget, 2 for a medium budget, and a the last for a high budget. The computers I chose can be customized online, so if you’d like, you can get a better processor, more RAM, or a different hard disk.
|Name||Dell Inspiron 570||HP G6s Series||Dell Inspiron 17R||Dell XPS 15 (custom build)|
|Processor Speed||2.9 Ghz||2.5-3.1 Ghz (Turbo Boost)||2.2-3.1 Ghz (Turbo Boost)||2.5-3.1 Ghz (Turbo Boost)|
|RAM||2 GB||6 GB||8 GB||6 GB|
|Hard Disk||500GB||500GB||1TB (1024GB)||256GB Solid State|
|Video Card||Radeon HD 4200||Intel HD||NVIDIA GeForce||NVIDIA GeForce|
|Display||Dell IN1930 (18.5″, 1366×768), must be bought separately but included in price||15.6″, 1366×768||17.3″, 1600×900||15.6″, 1366×768|
|Note||If you already have a monitor, you can take out the display and save $130. Also, this computer is very customizable and you can bring the specs up as high as you want. For that reason it’s the only desktop machine I included in this chart.||In picking this machine, I sacrificed the video card for memory and hard disk space. For ordinary use it’s a reasonable tradeoff, but definitely not for video gaming.||The processor in this machine took a hit, but the RAM, hard disk, and 17-inch screen make it more than worth your while. Feel free to use Dell’s customizer to bump the processor back up if you think you need it (and have the cash).||This is essentially the second computer with a solid-state drive and a better graphics card. The solid-state drive is an expensive choice, but well worth it due to the increased performance.|
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