Buying a computer? Someone not into the technicalities can be easily bogged down by words like “2.6 GHz Quad-Core processor, 8 GB RAM, 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 680M GPU, 256 GB SSD” and God knows what!
The truth is, for a non-techie, these complex computer configurations help little when all one wants to know is what kind of computer he needs. We now help all these people from non-technical background decode these words as well as help them in choosing the right specifications for their PC.
The Processor (CPU)
The processor is generally specified as “3.3 GHz Dual-Core” or similar. The number 3.3 is simply the frequency or the clock speed of the CPU. It is the amount of instructions the CPU can perform per second. In the early days of computing, this was directly related with the speed. The higher the clock-speed, faster the CPU. However, in the days of multi-cores and multi-threading, there are more effective measures of speed than the frequency.
Now we come to the number of cores. Simply put, more the number of cores, more the number of calculations that the CPU does at a single time. If one plays music and surfs the internet on a single core, that one processor would divide its time between music playing and internet surfing. On the other hand, if one has a dual (or more) core PC, these two processes will be handled by different cores, hence each process would be more efficient and more responsive to the inputs, like playing the next song, clicking on a link on a page, etc.
Today, there are dual-cores, quad-cores, and even octa-core processors. Note that the new types by Intel, popularly called i3, i5 and i7 are not 3, 5 and 7 cores, as is the common belief. i3 are dual cores, while i5 and i7 are quad cores. However, i7 performs better than their i5 counterparts as they support multithreading – one core can handle multiple calculations threads at a time.
How to determine what one needs? It depends vastly on the requirements. If you’re is a basic user who surfs the internet, runs office programs or listens to music and videos, dual core would be perfect. However, if you’re a professional graphics designer running heavy programs, or an extreme gamer, you certainly need the more expensive quad-core and higher versions.
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is basically that memory where the processor puts the frequently, regularly-used data, programs, and the operating system data for regular use. Consider running a program which needs some data regularly, so the processor will put it in the RAM so that it can reach out to it quickly and does not access the hard disk (storage space) every time. RAM is faster than hard disk, hence any data loaded on to the RAM can be accessed quickly thereby increasing the efficiency of the PC.
As for the configuration, RAM comes in 1 GB, 2 GB, 4 GB, 8 GB and so on. Earlier systems also had lower versions like 256 MB and 512 MB, though modern operating systems like Windows 7 run on 2 GB and higher versions. More the size of RAM, faster and more efficient is the PC.
While simple users can deal with 4 GB of RAM (even lower, provided the operating system is Windows), advanced users that run professional graphics softwares or play high-end 3D games require 8 GB and more. This doesn’t mean one can’t play 3D games with 4 GB RAM, it’s just that games like GTA-V or Far Cry 4 will require higher-end RAM for good experience.
The Hard Drive
The Hard Drive is the main storage element of the PC. All the videos, documents, songs, etc are saved on this. Unlike RAM, the contents of a hard drive do not get erased if the PC is off. This is the reason why hard drives are the storage devices.
Now we arrive at the inevitable question: HDD or SSD? To answer this question let’s first take a look at what each of them is.
Hard Disk Drives (HDDs) are typically metal plates and have magnetic coating. Sounds confusing? Okay, here’s what one needs to know: Hard drives consist of mechanical, moving parts. This means that not all parts of a Hard Drive can be accessed in the same time, closer parts can be accessed faster, while farther ones slower. Also, being mechanical, it is susceptible to shock and damage.
A Solid State Drive (SSD), just like Hard Disk Drive stores all data permanently. But here the data is stored on interconnected flash memory chips. This means no mechanical parts, exactly like a USB memory stick. As all parts can be accessed in a very small time, it is faster than the HDD, has instantaneous data access and faster transfer rate, and is shock resistant. As a result of its non-mechanical nature, it also doesn’t heat up like HDDs and is lighter, consumes less power and makes less noise. But then, it is expensive!
A choice between SSD and HDD typically boils down to the amount of money one is willing to shell out, and sometimes, the size of hard drive needed. Typically SSDs are not available in large sizes, though they’re in the making. But again, for a conventional user, HDDs work just fine. For a performance freak able to spend some pounds, SSD is the best bet to go by as it has faster access speed.
As for the size, one can use 500 GB or higher if he plans to store movies and large data. In case you need more, it is always a good option to buy external hard drives.
The Graphics Card
A PC has a graphics card (GPU) which displays the picture and impacts the overall performance. There are two types of graphics cards: Dedicated and Integrated (built-in).
An integrated graphics card is cheaper, and uses RAM to display graphics. Depending on the task, it may take anywhere near 5 percent or lesser memory of RAM. It takes less power thereby improving battery life, and also does not generate heat. However, it’s performance is also limited.
A dedicated graphics card, like the Nvidia or ATI Radeon, has its own memory to use. For instance, 2 GB Nvidia GeForce card has its own 2 GB memory apart from the 8 GB RAM. This leads to extreme performance, capability to play high-end games and run heavy professional graphics softwares, and also heat generation and more power input. They are also expensive and can increase the costs up to hundred pounds or more.
Once you know what Graphics Cards are and their use, it is very easy to assess whether you need it or how much memory is required.
A PC also has USB ports to read flash drives or USB devices. While USB 2.0 is the cheaper and older technology, many PCs today come with at least one port as USB 3.0, which is faster. A new technology called thunderbolt is also fast rising and offers twenty times the speed of USB 3.0. However, as of now it is quite rare.
Then there are the Wi-Fi specs. We have 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac. To put it plainly, ac is the newest and the fastest and it is backwards compatible with others. For instance, an 802.11ac device will work fine with any 802.11n or earlier variant via Wi-Fi.
Here are the examples of typical computer configurations:
Basic Home PC
- Intel Core i3 Dual-Core 3.4GHz CPU
- 4 GB RAM
- 500 GB HDD
- 3 x USB 2.0 ports
- Optical drive
- Windows 7 Home Premium / Windows 8.1
- Intel Core i5 quad-Core 3.4GHz CPU
- 8 GB DDR3 RAM
- 1,000 GB HDD
- 1 GB Nvidia GeForce GT-550M
- 3 x USB 2.0, 1 x USB 3.0 ports
- Wi-Fi 802.11
- Windows 7 / 8.1 Pro
- Intel Core i7 Quad-Core 3.6GHz CPU
- 16 GB DDR5 RAM
- 2,000 GB HDD
- 256 GB SSD3 GB GDDR5 Nvidia GeForce GTX-770M6 MB Cache memory
- 2 x USB 3.0
- 1 x Thunderbolt9-in-1 Card Reader
- Broadcom 4352 IEEE 802.11n/ac
- Windows 7 Enterprise / 8.1 Pro
Once you have the new system, don’t forget to read our guide How to Setup a New Computer.
Need impartial advice on computer configurations? Call IGS Computers on 01482 441033 – we’re glad to help.