What's Important When Buying A Computer?
So, you need a new computer… Could there be any more choices? It is truly overwhelming! It comes down to just a few considerations. First and foremost is what are your intentions for this new system? This will most assuredly influence your budget. Higher performance will always cost more. If you are looking for a laptop, lighter units are typically more expensive. I always tell my customers, “Spend as much as you can afford,” whether on a laptop, desktop, server, etc.… Determining your budget will help narrow your choices.
In general, “the higher the number the better.” For example, a 3.1 gigahertz (GHz) is better than 2.5GHz, and 16GB is better than 8GB. Now that you’ve determined your needs and budget you can focus on the technical specifications… This is where the details can become quickly daunting, even for an “IT guy.” The four main components I ask my customers to focus on are the hard drive (specifically the type), the RAM, the graphic capabilities, and the central processing unit (CPU).
The most important component that affects performance is the hard drive, which stores your files. This is where your money will be well spent. Hard drives come in two basic types: mechanical and solid-state drives. Solid-state drives (SSD) will be magnitudes faster than traditional mechanical hard disk drives (HDD). When choosing an SSD, they come in two basic varieties: SATA and PCIe. SATA has a maximum speed of 600 MB/second and PCIe can achieve 32 GB/second (about 50 times faster than SATA and over 200 times faster than HDDs). The second consideration when choosing a hard drive is how much storage you need, which is usually dictated by the intended use of the system. If you are browsing the web and emailing, far less storage is required than if you are editing home videos.
The table below compares common units of storage.
And it goes up from there...
RAM determines how much memory the CPU has available while processing your work. The higher the memory, the better. Modern operating systems like Windows 10/11 or Mac OS X11/12, etc.… require a minimum of 8GB, but always recommend greater amounts of RAM. These are usually in increments of 8 (i.e., 8GB, 16GB, 32GB, 64GB, etc.…), commonly the average system of 16GB should suffice.
Graphics can be one of the most expensive components of a computer. Having a separate graphic processing unit (GPU) can help increase the performance of the computer by reducing the amount of processing the CPU must handle. High-end graphic cards can get incredibly pricey. Unless you’re working for a visual effects company, or playing the newest most graphically intense video games, chances are the onboard graphics card should suffice. Even one of the less expensive “add-in” graphic cards will improve the performance of the system. Remember that graphic cards need RAM too, so the more RAM the GPU card has, the better it will perform.
CPUs are the brains of the whole operation. This chip handles everything the computer must accomplish, from reading files from the hard drive to processing keystrokes and mouse movements to sending information to the internet. There are several manufacturers of CPUs; Intel®, AMD®, and Apple® to name a few. It is well beyond the scope of this guide to discuss the various architectures and differences between CPUs. The rule of thumb applies: the greater the number, the better it is. So, 3.1GHz can execute more commands than 2.1GHz.
There are two other factors to consider, the number of cores (again apply the rule of thumb) and models of processors. A core is a processor inside the CPU which can execute tasks. When CPUs were first created, they had only one core, but now they have multiple cores (essentially putting CPUs inside of CPUs).
Using Intel® as our example, they produce four main consumer processors: the i3, i5, i7, and i9. The i9 is better performing than the i3, and so on. The i9 is more expensive than an i3 CPU (at the time of this writing an Intel Core i3-10100F processor was about $85 USD, whereas an Intel Core i9-12900K was about $610 USD). Always ask questions before you buy, most salespeople are eager to help.