If you haven't sold your soul to Apple yet, your options for computers can get really overwhelming.
There are laptops, desktops, tablet hybrids...not to mention different brands, memory sizes, CPU speeds…
And most of the tech words used on computer descriptions won't even make sense to someone who's not big into computers.
Like, what in the world is RAM? You'll be RAMming your head in the wall by the time you're through your little PC shopping trip.
So it's good to take a step back, reassess, and learn a little bit about computers before you drop close to a grand on one (or more if you give up and go with Apple).
So let's talk about:
- storage (HDDs and SSDs),
- other things to look for, and
- how to navigate the in-store or online labels.
Storage: HDDs and SSDs
The storage on your computer determines how much space you have for everything you save. You essentially have 2 options for this – an HDD (hard disk drive, or just hard drive) or an SSD (solid-state drive).
HDDs are older technology, so you can get a lot more space for a lot less money.
The cons for an HDD is that they're slower and have more chance to fail. They physically spin disks at thousands of RPM (rotations per minute) while reading it with a spindle. Imaging a record player spinning at 3200rpm and you bump into it while it's moving…
If it fails, you could lose everything you saved. Make sure you have a backup, folks.
A lot of computers these days come with a 1TB (terabyte) hard drive, which means 1,000 GB.
To put this in common terms, you can store about:
But please note that this is just an estimate since the quality and size of each file can vary greatly.
But how much space do I need?
For a lot of people, 1TB is a lot more than you'll ever need. If you just use your computer for browsing the internet, you can get by with 250GB storage just fine – especially if you make use online storage, like Google Drive or OneDrive.
Think of your cell phone. You probably have 32-64GB on there and a good chunk of that is taken up by the phone's operating system. How often do you need to move your photos from your phone to your computer? Or delete apps to free up space?
You'll want enough space to be able to rely on your computer as the photo dumping ground, but you still don't want to overpay. 500GB is probably a good place for most people.
Solid state drives are much faster than HDDs, but are also more expensive – you can get a 2TB HDD for around the same price as a 500GB SSD. That's 4x less storage.
Another thing to note is that SSDs have no moving parts, so they're less likely to fail. It's always good to have that extra peace of mind.
Because of this, a lot of people who build their own desktop computers tend to get a 125GB or 250GB SSD and pair it with a much larger HDD. They then put their operating system files (what your computer runs on) on the SSD so their computer boots up faster, and they have the extra space on the HDD.
But when you're buying a computer from the store, this might not be an option for many laptops since they have more physical space restrictions in the case itself.
Mix it up: SSD and an external HDD
Your other option for getting the speed of the SSD with some extra space is to get an external HDD. This is a plain old HDD, but with a protective case so it can sit outside the computer. This is a good solution for some extra laptop storage.
Just remember not to keep it plugged in at all times – it can shorten the life of the hard drive. And again, remember to backup your important files.
Plus a travel bonus worth another $150.
Quantities are limited.
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is kind of similar to storage in that it remembers things, but it's probably more accurate to think of it as short-term memory.
It's where your computer stores what it needs to use right now or in the near future, but everything is forgotten once it's powered off – kinda like when you forget all the info for that test you crammed for as soon as you go to sleep.
Basically, every application, program, and tab you have open right now is taking up some RAM space. The more RAM you have, the more things your computer can handle doing at once.
This really only becomes a problem when you're doing intensive things, like gaming or editing huge video files.
If you just have your email client and internet browser open, 4GB of RAM will be enough for your computer to keep running smoothly. But 8GB is probably better to aim for so you don't have to worry about it.
The brains: CPU
The CPU stands for the Central Processing Unit and it's basically the brains of the computer. It processes all the information you throw at it, performs calculations, stores the results in the memory, etc. It's pretty important.
You can have more than one "core" in a CPU, which allows it to do more work at once. Having 2 cores is referred to as dual core, and 4 cores is referred to as quad core. Generally speaking, the more cores you have, the more tasks you can perform at once.
A good number to look at is the GHz (gigahertz). This is a measure of the processor's speed, telling you how fast it can process information. If you're comparing 2 computers, look for the CPU with more GHz.
The eyes: GPU
GPU, or Graphics Processing Unit, is what processes everything you see on your screen.
A lot of laptops have integrated graphics, meaning the CPU handles the graphics on top of everything else. This is a cheaper solution and will work fine for you if you're just performing basic tasks.
As soon as you want to play a game or something more graphic-intensive, you'll run into problems. That's where "dedicated graphics" come in – this means it has a GPU that handles all the graphics, so the CPU can focus on other things.
GPUs are also faster than CPUs at rendering images. It's essentially a CPU that's really good at geometry.
Other things you may want to consider
There are a couple less technical things you might want to look for when choosing your new laptop:
- Screen size: Laptop sizes are usually between 11.6 and 17.6 inches, measured diagonally. Bigger laptops may be a bit less portable, but the smallest can impact visibility a little. It's safest to aim for the middle ground, but you're likely to get used to whatever size you go with.
- 2-in-1 laptops: These come with touchscreens and can function as a tablet as well as a laptop. If you're not interested in this, make sure you're not paying extra for a touchscreen you won't use.
- Battery life: You'll probably want to aim for at least 8 hours of battery life if you're planning on using it unplugged for any extended period of time.
Navigating the labels at the store
Now that you've learned about some of the most important parts of your computer, you're more equipped to make that trip to Best Buy. But once you get there, you'll notice that they aren't the clearest about what number or name refers to what.
The usual format is:
Computer manufacturer + model number + Size of screen in diagonal inches (CPU manufacturer + name / Storage type and size / RAM size / GPU / Operating system)
Let's look at a couple examples so you can learn to work through it and better understand the sales pitch.
A lower-end example
If you're just looking for what is essentially a giant cell phone that's more comfortable to navigate – and cheaper – you might want to consider a Chromebook.
Asus: The company that makes the laptop.
C223NA: The model of the laptop, useful for price checking so you can be sure you're looking at the exact same product on different sites.
11.6": The size of the screen, diagonally.
Intel Celeron N3350: The CPU.
32GB HDD: The size of the hard drive – this is smaller than some phones.
4GB RAM: The amount of RAM – almost the smallest it can get.
Chrome OS: The operating system.
You'll probably notice there's no mention of either a GPU or the CPU's speed.
There's no GPU because it's integrated with the CPU. And the CPU isn't great so they hide the speed in the "Specs" tab – It's a dual core at 1.1 GHz.
But, like I said, if you're just looking for a basic computer and won't do anything other than browsing the internet, this is a great (and pretty cheap) alternative.
Let's look at something with a bit more performance.
A mid-range example
Acer: Company name.
Aspire: Model name with no specific numbers.
15.6": Size of the screen, diagonally.
AMD A6-9220: The CPU.
1TB HDD: Storage space – lots of room.
6GB RAM: Decent RAM for everyday activities.
Windows 10: The operating system. Windows 10 is what you'll get on all new laptops that aren't a Mac or a Chromebook.
Again, there's no mention of a GPU or the speed of the CPU.
The GPU is still integrated at this range since it's not a necessary expense for browsing the internet.
The CPU is better than the Chromebook's and can be considered lower-mid-range – it clocks at 2.5GHz and is also dual core.
An upper-end example
Lenovo: Company that made the laptop.
IdeaPad 320: Model name and number. Again, this is useful for price checking.
15.6": Size of the screen, diagonally.
AMD A12-9720P: The CPU.
1TB HDD: The storage capacity – again, that's lots of room.
8GB RAM: The RAM, a good amount.
AMD Radeon R7: Finally, a GPU!
Win 10: Windows 10, the operating system.
This is a nice computer that can even handle a bit of light gaming, if necessary.
It even comes with a dedicated graphics card (GPU), helping take some of the strain off the CPU...But the CPU has 4 cores (A.K.A. quad core) anyway.
For everyday use, you won't have to worry about performance. But if you're just using it for Facebook, it might actually be too much for you.
The bottom line
Most people need a computer these days. It's up to you how much you want to spend on it.
As with many things, it depends on what you'll be using it for, your personal needs, and your budget.
If you're someone who just likes to browse email and Facebook, a Chromebook can serve you well.
But if you're a student and need to have 20 sources open in your tabs, you might want something with a little more RAM and CPU power.
And if you want to play some games on the side, look into a dedicated graphics card.
Hopefully with this new knowledge, you'll be better equipped to navigate the aisles of Best Buy and other electronics stores.
Drop us a note in the comments if anything is still unclear for you!