Computer, laptop and monitor

Computer buying guide

Choices among computers are becoming more confusing and the line between categories is getting harder to see. Desktop computers are getting smaller, almost the size of a laptops. Laptops are getting more powerful than desktops. And somewhere in the middle, you’ll find devices that look like laptops on the outside but differ from a traditional operating system in the inside.

This article will help you identify important components in a computer and understand their functionality. Then it’s just a matter of narrowing down your choice based on which options are important to you.

The four most basic hardware components to look for when choosing your computer.

The most important components in a computer are the processor, memory, storage and graphic. They will have the biggest impact on the overall performance of your machine. The processor and memory will determine the speed at which the system is able to process all its tasks. Storage size will indicate how much data you can store on your system. Then if you intend to perform lots of graphic intensive tasks, a graphic card will need to be added to your list.

The CPU

The Central Processing Unit (or CPU) is the heart of your computer. The CPU is the electronic circuitry inside your system that carries out program instructions by performing the basic arithmetic, logic, controlling input/output (I/O) operations specified by the instructions. The processor will have a big impact on whether your system will be best suited for basic tasks or will be a high-performance machine that can process the most demanding applications. For the most part, a dual-core or quad-core processor will be more than enough power for a basic computer user.

Dual-core

If you are like many users who will be using their personal computer simply to work with text documents, browsing the internet and checking email, the dual-core setup would be a perfect match for you. Dual-core CPUs are designed to be affordable and energy efficient with the ability to perform basic computing tasks. You’ll find dual-core CPUs like the Intel Core i3 powering many budget desktop computers today. Now besides saving energy and being more affordable, there are not many more benefits for having a dual-core processor over a quad-core.

Quad-core

There is a misconception that having a processor with more central processing units will be performing twice has well, but this isn’t always the case. It’s true that a computer with a quad-core has more computational power versus the dual-core computer but many users will not take advantage of this extra power with their non-intensive day-to-day work.

That said, there are benefits of using a quad-core processor if needed. Not only is it faster and more powerful when it comes to highly intensive tasks, the quad-core processor can be an investment in the long run. Because some programs like internet browsers nowadays require more processing power, a computer with more core could be considered entry-level in a couple of years allowing you to extend the life of your computer an extra year or two.

More cores

For the ultimate in processing performance, some computers are equipped with CPUs that have six or even eight cores. Intel’s Xeon and the AMD FX are the two main examples of 8-core processors. Most people won’t ever need this kind of power, but if you need workstation-class capabilities, these are the CPUs you should be looking at.

Memory

Random Access Memory (or RAM), is the physical hardware responsible for temporarily storing data, serving as the computer's "working" memory. Put simply, the RAM provide quick read and write access to a storage device the computer uses while performing tasks like running a program. Using the RAM to load data using read/write operations is much quicker than accessing that same data directly off a hard drive. Without enough RAM, your computer will have a harder time running multiple tasks at the same time and you may be unable to install and run your operating system.

Current Windows and Mac operating systems require a minimum of 2GB of RAM, but this is considered the bare minimum. With today’s systems, it is more advisable to aim for 8GB of RAM, allowing your computer to run productivity apps, having multiple windows open, and multitasking.

Storage

Hard Disk Drive (or HDD) is a physical hardware in the shape of a disk plate enclosed inside a metal case. The hard disk drive is used to store data, serving as the computer long term memory that permanently store files like documents, pictures or applications. Unlike volatile storage like RAM, a hard drive keeps a hold of its data even when the computer is powered off.

Solid State Drive (or SSD) are smaller storage devices that serve the same purpose but use a different technology to store data. They offer an incredible speed boost compared to traditional HDDs and are significantly more affordable now, while new options have become more popular. The combination of a Solid State Drive and HDD in the same system offers a huge performance gain by storing the operating system on the SSD for faster performance while using the HDD for mass storage.

How much storage do you need in a computer? Like anything else, it all comes down to how much data you need to store on the machine. The good news is that installing additional drives later if needed is easy. The chart below will give you an idea of storage requirements based on common file sizes.

Capacity
  • 250 GB = 8 Games Installed or 50 Full HD Movies
  • 500 GB = 16 Games Installed or 100 Full HD Movies
  • 1 TB = 33 Games Installed or 200 Full HD Movies
  • 2 TB = 66 Games Installed or 400 Full HD Movies

These results are based on average PC game installation size and average 1080p movie file size of 5 GB. Also remember that you need to save room for Windows minimum installation requirements of 16 GB for the 32-bit OS or 20 GB for the 64-bit OS.

Graphics

Graphics Processing Unit (or GPU) is the electronic circuitry responsible for processing standard calculations and graphics operations and transfer that data as images to your monitor. When running productivity software, accessing the internet or watching Full HD movies on a 4K monitor, the integrated graphic that is part of the CPU is usually enough. However, if you plan on playing video games or using applications that can take advantage of graphic acceleration, a dedicated video card is a requirement. Those type of applications use video acceleration to dramatically speed up tasks like rendering, so a video card is a good investment. A dedicated video card is relatively easy to install later if needed.

The most popular operating systems to manage the tasks and resources on your computer.

An Operating System (or OS) can be thought of as a huge program that manages computer hardware and resources and provides common services for smaller computer programs. An operating system will schedule different tasks for efficient use of the system like managing allocation of processor time, mass storage, printing, and other resources. The operating system acts as an intermediary between programs and the system hardware. It is usually pre-installed unless you build your own computer.

Windows 10

Windows is the most widely used operating system. It is installed on nearly 90 percent of the world’s computers as of October 2018. Windows 10 is a series of personal computer operating systems produced by Microsoft, and it’s running on over 400 million devices. The successor of Windows 8.1, Windows 10 offers an intuitive, touch-friendly interface and strong security features. It also runs across a wide range of desktop PCs and has the largest software library of any PC platform.

macOS

Formerly known as OS X, macOS is the second major series of Apple operating systems. This UNIX-based PC operating system is reliable, secure and you’ll find it on every recent Mac computer. Although some applications like Microsoft Office are available in native versions, macOS does not match Windows for software availability. Macs have a thriving ecosystem of software, but some programs still only support Windows. It is possible however to run Windows programs on a Mac using a virtual machine.

Chrome OS

Chrome OS is an operating system designed by Google and uses the Google Chrome web browser as its principal user interface. This means that Chrome OS primarily supports web applications. This operating system is designed from the ground up to be optimized for use on inexpensive hardware like the Chrome Book. It’s highly secure, easy to use and primarily runs free, web-based Google applications. All these qualities make the Chrome OS especially attractive for educational use.

Each desktop category has its own purpose. Consider what you plan to do with your computer and then how much you want to invest.

What kind of desktop PC should you get? The faster, the better? Not necessarily. The reality is that most computers are overpowered for what the average user will be doing with them. Now that we covered the basics, you can take a harder look at the different types of Desktop PCs on the market today and look at what your computer will be used for before buying.

Everyday computing

Many homes need a computer that can cover all the basic tasks your family might need. When you simply do homework, updating social media accounts over the web, maintaining your budget and storing all your digital photos, a system too powerful would be a waste of resources and money. A basic everyday computer with a dual-core CPU and 8 GB of RAM sitting on a 250 GB hard drive is an affordable solution to covering your everyday computing needs.

This basic configuration can always be updated later if you run out of space to store your data or you need more RAM. Like mentioned earlier, a good setup would be to use a 250 GB solid state drive to run Windows and have a standard hard drive attached as a secondary drive to store your data.

Performance PC

While an everyday basic computer ticks most of the boxes for many people, there are cases where more power is needed. Performance computers are mostly associated with entertainment systems used to play games because of the huge amount of power such machines requires to run those games.

If playing video games on a 4K monitor at 60 fps is your thing, you’ll want a gaming PC. This system should be equipped with a quad-core CPU, a powerful graphic card, plenty of storage, loads of RAM and the latest high-speed connectivity. Gaming PCs provide the ultimate in desktop graphic performance.

All-in-One PC

Sometimes you want the power of a desktop computer in a more compact package. All-in-One computers have all their components enclosed inside the monitor, so they are the perfect solution when you want to save some space. Add to that a wireless keyboard and mouse and the only cable you must deal with is for power. However, should something go wrong with the monitor, you lose your entire computer. All-in-One computers use the same components you'd find in a laptop and, as such, don't have the performance capabilities and/or upgradability of a desktop. Because of this, choose specifications that will serve not just now, but for the life of the computer.

Here are some of the key technologies to watch for when getting your computer connected to the internet or external devices.

One of the big advantages of a desktop computer is the choice you have in term of connectivity. The computer will either be connecting to a network using an ethernet cable or wirelessly through radio waves using a Wi-Fi network adapter. Perhaps you wish to connect a wireless keyboard and mouse, in which case Bluetooth will be the technology of choice for connecting those devices.

Wireless

A Wi-Fi network adapter is key to wireless internet connectivity. This adapter will add wireless connectivity to your home computer and allow it to connect to a router or other devices and peripherals like a wireless printer. In many cases, the Wi-Fi adapter is either built into the computer itself or integrated as an add-on accessory.

Bluetooth is the wireless standard most commonly used for connecting to peripherals like wireless keyboards, mice, speakers and headphones. A USB Bluetooth adapter is what you’ll need to add that functionality to your computer. Many Wi-Fi PCI cards come with Bluetooth built in, so your computer might already have that feature.

Wired

An Ethernet network adapter is required for a wired connection to a network and/or the internet. Wireless connections tend to be more popular for connecting devices to the internet now that Wi-Fi is in virtually all homes, but you can include Gigabit Ethernet capabilities on your system in case a faster and more secure wired connection is needed.

Universal Serial Bus (or USB) is the most commonly used connectivity for wired accessories. USB was designed to standardize the connection of peripherals like external hard drives, keyboards and mice, printers and thumb drives. Almost all computers are equipped with USB ports these days but to fully enjoy what the latest standard have to offer in term of speed, you’ll need to look for USB 3.0. Running out of USB ports is not an issue since you can always add more by installing a USB 3.0 PCI card, which will add four of the blazingly fast ports to your PC.

HDMI (or High-Definition Multimedia Interface) is the latest standard used for transmitting uncompressed video and audio data from your computer to a compatible device. Other methods include DVI, VGA and DisplayPort. These are the primary methods for connecting a computer to a monitor. VGA is an older, analogue connection that’s still useful if you need to connect an older monitor. The other standards are digital and able to support higher resolution video.

Other than the PC itself, the most important factor to consider to fully enjoy using your computer is the monitor.

Without a strong display, everything you do on your PC will seem boring, whether you’re looking at a game, photos or videos. The technology has exploded in the past several years with all sorts of different options. You can have a monitor that offer 4K, Full HD, or just plain HD resolution. Some panels can be over 27-inches in size, widescreen displays, curved displays, and monitors that provide ultra-fast response times for gaming.

If you’re trying to avoid spending too much money on a specialized monitor, you have many options for your everyday computing. The first thing you should be looking for is a VA panel with a good contrast. These monitors can offer three to five times the contrast of IPS or TN screens. They are similar to TN panels, but have some improvements to help produce a better image quality.

Eric Lacroix picture

By January 15, 2020

I’ve been working in IT as a technical support technician and quality assurance analyst for 20 years. I completed high school with a passion for computer technologies and that passion followed me up until today.