Computers

What to look for in a new computer

As of August 22, 2011, there are a lot of choices when it comes to spec’ing out a new computer – either desktop unit or laptop.  The sky is still the limit when it comes to high end gaming rigs, and powerful graphics workstations.  However, we get questions a lot from readers and friends about what they need to look for in a new computer.  For geeks and techies alike, this seems like a rather simple question that can be answered just as easily.  However, for non-techies and people who don’t really know much about computers besides using one to surf the Internet or using a public computer at a library or Internet cafe, this can be a real challenge.  To put it plainly, there are A LOT of choices out there.  Different manufacturers, models, numbers, packages, so on and so forth.

We wanted to put together a list of some of the specs that we tell people to look for in the big areas that most manufacturers present to us as consumers – CPUs, memory, video card, hard drive, and optical drive, and networking both wired and wireless.  We will also touch on a few other areas that many ask about including, USB, Firewire, HDMI, card readers, etc.

CPUs

The CPU or Central Processing Unit is unquestionably the heart and brain combined of a computer.  This is where “all” the work takes place.  We use that term in quotes as these days a lot of other components actually have their own processing units internally on the component itself to offload some of the work to make things run faster.  A good example of this is the video card which in modern terms has a tremendously powerful processing unit of its own built onboard, known as the GPU or Graphics Processing Unit, however, we will get into that in more detail later.

There are many choices when it comes to models, speeds, etc in choosing a CPU that fits your needs.  One way to spend A LOT of money is to buy the latest and fastest CPU out there.  Usually the fastest top of the line, flagship model, is about twice as expensive sometimes as the next model down.  If you crave the need for speed and have the extra cash to spend, you won’t be dissatisfied with your performance, however, this is one area that you don’t necessarily need to max out to have a very fast computer that runs all the programs you need it to run and still come under your budget.

As far as CPU brands there are really only two out there – AMD and Intel.  In my honest opinion, both manufacturers make great CPUs.  They would not be where they are today if they did not make the best of the best.  However, typically genuine Intel processors are more expensive than AMD and usually big hardware manufacturers sell cheaper models that have AMD processors instead of Intel.  Do we think that AMD is inferior because they oftentimes are less expensive?  No.  For most a current AMD processor will perform noticeably as well as an equivalent Intel processor for less money.

If you purchase a desktop/laptop with either a rather current Intel or AMD CPU and want good solid performance for home/office, we feel you would be satisfied with either.  Intel’s “Core i” series is still going strong while AMD is running strong with the “A” series processors.

So a truly non-scientific formula to go by is look at the absolute fastest processor you can buy in desktop/laptop varieties and simply back it off a click or two with a click being models.

Memory

Here is where we depart from the above mentioned “reasonableness” when it comes to shopping for Memory.  With today’s memory hungry software and web applications, you simply CANNOT have too much memory.  That is the bottom line.  Many are also either flirting with the idea of running virtual machines on their desktops/laptops or are already doing that.  The more memory you have installed, the more virtual machines you can run and the better they will perform.  The standard used to be 2 gigs for a desktop, then 4, and now we would have to say that anywhere from 6-8 gigs of memory should be your standard.  That may sound a little wild and crazy to some, however, you will not go wrong by installing too much as opposed to having too little installed.

The one caveat to having more than 4 gigs of memory installed is that this calls into question the variety of operating system that needs to be installed.  With 32-bit versions of OS’es out there, it can only read slightly under 4 gigs of memory.  So with anything above and beyond 4, a 64-bit operating system would be required to receive the full benefit.  This would be more of a challenge in considering building your own computer, as most manufacturers will match up the needed operating system version to accommodate the amount of installed memory.  This is not really a challenge so much as a detail that needs to be scrutinized with operating system choice.  However, the bottom line is still the more memory the better.

Video Card

Video cards these days are a lot like the CPU in that they provide so much power at the hands of the end user.  Video cards now have tons of built in memory and have their own brain which is the GPU that handles most if not all of the graphics processing work that a game or graphics software needs.  As with the CPU business, there are a couple of major players in the field – AMD and nVidia.  AMD acquired the graphics company ATI and have positioned itself as a tremendous graphics player in the market.  AMD has a seeming advantage to nVidia in that they of course have access to all of AMDs power and knowledge of the CPU market.  There has been tremendous speculation as to whether or not Intel will eventually acquire nVidia to even things out a bit.  It would seem that may be a wise course of action for the company, however there are a lot of unseen variables to that potential acquisition.

Again, the consumer wins in today’s hardware world in that either manufacturer should provide great graphics processing power.  Like CPUs, the latest and greatest video card will set you back a sizeable chunk (almost a good sized house payment).  Like the CPU, a good rule of thumb is to buy a good middle of the road unit that provides a good deal of memory.  Most new computers produced by manufacturers should have an adequate video card.

An area to look at here however is the fact that many machines come with what is known as “onboard” video which usually winds up being a very watered down version of either the AMD or nVidea based chipset.  If you are at all looking to do any gaming or more intensive graphics editing or video at home or at the office, the much more powerful PCI express “card” version of either the AMD or nVidea family will serve you much better.

Hard Drive

The stance on hard drives is much the same as memory.  Space is VERY cheap these days and your money will buy a tremendous amount of storage area.  However, 500GB and up should be the target of consumers.  Don’t buy less than that as you can always use the extra space and going cheap here will haunt you sometime later when you are attempting to copy more CDs and DVDs to your hard drive and you get errors that your disk is full.

The standard these days also is Serial ATA or SATA drives.  The days of the older Parallel or PATA drives are numbered.  SATA is now the industry standard and provide easier hookup and faster performance.  The speed of the hard drive is also critical to having satisfactory performance.  Do not buy a huge 4800 RPM drive – doubt they even make them, but to emphasize the point, we want to toss it out there.  7200 RPM drives are the sweet spot of performance and you access times and load times will be thanking you later if you choose these over 5400 RPM drives.  There are also 10,000 RPM consumer drives out there, however, unless you are running a high-end RAID array or home SAN, these probably won’t benefit you.

Optical Drives:

Optical drives start getting into the area of the usage of the workstation or laptop.  Do you need the functionality and capability to burn DVDs or CDs or do you simply need to read DVDs and CDs?  Most new computers come standard with both the read/write drives already installed.  By default most DVD burners can also burn CDs as well so once you buy the DVD burner you should have both capabilities.

Networking:

The networking component is often overlooked by consumers when it comes to their desktop or laptop purchase.  However, with today’s integrated networked applications and endless connectivity hotspots, a consumer does well to consider this component very closely when choosing a desktop or laptop.  In today’s wired world, gigabit networking is the standard which is 1000Mbs.  Most gigabit cards are backwards compatible and support uplinking at the slower 10/100 speeds as well.  As for wireless, wireless N is the current standard which provides blazing connectivity to hotspots provided the hotspots are N capable.  As with the wired world though, the N standard is backwards compatible with the B/G standard also.

Other components:

  • USB ports – USB is standard on today’s computers.  In fact, if you had a computer without a USB port, it is safe to say that you just about would not be able to hook any of today’s peripherals to your computer.  Almost all devices today require USB – mice, keyboards, printers, web cams, joysticks, external drives, etc.  Make sure your new computer has LOTS of USB ports
  • Firewire – Firewire ports were once the competitor of USB, however, USB has definitely one the battle.  The 1394 ports are still a nice port to have though as some cameras, audio devices, and others may require access to this port
  • HDMI – High Definition Multimedia Interface ports are becoming a standard component on most new laptops as these ports allow easy hookup to external video devices such as projectors and other imaging screens such as LCD televisions.  Do yourself a favor and make sure if you are purchasing a laptop especially, you check to make sure this is a standard feature as you will thank yourself later when you are asked to give a presentation or create a slideshow for the upcoming family reunion.
  • Card Readers – Card readers are a handy feature to have built into your laptop and even desktops as it will allow you to quickly and easily take a storage device out of your camera or other peripheral device and plug directly into your computer and be able to read the contents.  This will allow you to bypass any intermediary device that may be required to access the SD card or other storage

Final Thoughts:

It is a consumer’s market out there when it comes to purchasing computer hardware.  There are a lot of really great choices and competition that helps to keep prices low for consumers.  Keep in mind the standards we mention above are simply a guideline for today’s hardware.  There is no hard and fast rule as money is always the bottom line.  However, even in lower end and middle of the road configurations, consumers get great performance at very reasonable prices.

 

 

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