We are frequently asked what features and specifications to look for when purchasing a new PC. You can save a lot of time and effort by letting us get your new computer for you. But if you prefer to get your own, here is some information to help you.
In order to determine what features you need in a computer, it’s important to classify yourself into the appropriate category of user. Please read the descriptions of the following three categories of users and decide which one best describes you. Once you know that, read the rest of the article to find out what features you need.
This user reads e-mail, surfs the web, edit’s documents and other similar tasks only. May play low graphics games like solitaire. Typically only has 1 or 2 applications going at the same time. Casual user would also include pre-teen/early teen children.
Power User/Business User
This user does everything the casual user does. In addition, this user does occasional editing of photos, graphics, or video. May play games that are somewhat graphics intensive but not action oriented. May have 2-4 applications going at the same time. This category would include students in the final years of high school or college students.
This user does everything the power user does. In addition, this user may play games that are graphics intensive (First Person Shooters, etc.). User may perform tasks like CAD drawing. This user may do a lot of graphics or photo editing. This user may also frequently edit video. Once you have determined which category you fall in, you can then determine what features you should look for in a PC.
Now that you have categorized yourself, here are our recommendations.
The processor, also known as the CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the brain of your computer.
Casual Users don’t need too much processor power. Even so, we don’t recommend low end processors. For Intel processors, get a core i3 processor. Get one that has a speed of at least 2 GHz. For AMD, get a Phenom II or FX.
Power/Business Users need a fairly beefy processor, but you don’t need the latest and greatest. An Intel Core i3 would be OK but an i5 or i7 would be better. Get one with a speed of 3.0 GHz or faster. An AMD Phenom II or FX would be OK but stick with Intel if you can.
Gamers/High-End Business Users will want a core I7. Get one with a speed of 3.5GHz or faster. Although we recommend you get the I7, if money is tight a core I5 will be fine. Get the fastest speed and the most cores you can afford.
There are several different editions of Windows 10. However, if we eliminate the ones for big companies and for education, we are left with two editions. The Home edition and the Pro edition. Their are two mail differences between the Home and Pro versions. The Pro version can join a company’s domain and the Pro version has Bitlocker. Bitlocker is a security feature that allows you to encrypt files. In a nutshell, everyone should get the Home version unless the computer will be used in a business environment with a server or if you need Bitlocker.
64 bit versus 32 bit. In general, we recommend the 64 bit version, but some business users will need the 32 bit version if they have old outdated software or devices that won’t work on 64 bit. 32 bit systems are getting harder and harder to find.
As of March, 2016, you can still purchase systems online with Windows 7 or Windows 8.1 on them. In stores, however, it’s almost all Windows 10.
There are basically two types of memory in a computer. System memory (often referred to as RAM) and hard drive memory. Hard drive space is the amount of space you have to store programs and files. System memory is the computer’s internal work space.
Imagine that the computer’s processor is a person who does the work. Imagine that this person has a desk to work on and that the desk represents system memory. All work must be performed on this desk. If the desk is too small, then the person must move things he’s not working on off the desk and move things he wants to work on to the desk in order to work on them. If the person is working on several things at once, they may spend more time shifting things on and off the desk than they do actually working on things. This is why system memory is so important to the performance of your computer. Even if you typically only run one or two programs at a time, you still need a good amount of memory because even if you are doing nothing, there are still a lot of programs running on your system in the background. Things like Anti-Virus, Anti-spyware, Firewall, Windows internal processes, and the like.
Casual Users should have 4GB or more system memory.
Power/Business Users should have 6GB to 8GB of system memory.
Gamers/High-End Business Users should have at least 8 GB but we recommend 16GB.
NOTE: if you are getting the 32 bit version of Windows, don’t get a system with more than 4GB of system memory. The 32 bit version of Windows cannot address more than 4 GB of memory so it would be a waste of money unless you are planning to upgrade to the 64 bit version in the future.
The video functionality of your computer is the part of the computer that processes graphics and displays information on the monitor. Some computers have the video functionality built-in to the motherboard or built-in to the CPU. This usually means that video processing will take up processing time on the main processor and also will take up system memory. You can get better performance, in general, out of your computer, and better graphics, if you have a video card that is not part of the motherboard or processor. This is called a distinct video card.
Most higher end desktops come with video cards or you can purchase one and add it to your system. Laptops, however, are a different story. You can find laptops with distinct video cards, but they are expensive. In addition, you can’t easily add a video card to a laptop.
The video card provides a dedicated processor for processing graphics along with dedicated memory, thus taking a huge load off of the processor and memory on the motherboard. Note that just because and computer says it has a XXX GB video card, doesn’t mean that the video card itself has that much memory on it. Some video cards steal system memory away from the computer and use that. Make sure you get a video card with DEDICATED memory, not shared.
Casual Users should not worry about what video card is in their system. Integrated video is fine.
Power/Business Users can usually get away with using integrated video unless they work with a lot of pictures, videos, graphics, or drafting or work at a fast pace. In that case, a distinct video card will make a big difference. You you don’t need an expensive one. Model names of video cards don’t follow a nice linear path, so I can’t say get version x and higher. The easiest way to rate a video card is by how much it costs, how much memory it has on it, and what type of memory it has on it. A video card that costs $100 or more with at least 1GB or better of memory will be good.
Gamers/High-End Business Users should get a distinct video card without question. You can spend about as much as you want on a video card. Up to $1000 if you want to be on the bleeding edge of technology. But we recommend going with a card that costs around $200 – $300. Your card should have at least 1GB memory or better on it. The type of memory should be at least GDDR4, GDDR5 preferred. The memory interface should be 128bit or higher. Although you can find laptops that are good for these types of users, they are very expensive. So unless you need/want a laptop, go for a desktop.
HARD DRIVE SIZE AND SPEED
A hard drive has a speed that can be 4,200, 5,400 and 7,200 RPM. 10,000 RPM drives are around too, but not as common. Generally, most desktops have 5,400 or 7,200 RPM drives and you only see the slower speeds in laptops. Check the speed of the hard drive in the computer you are going to buy. Desktops should have 7200 RPM drives. If you can find a laptop with a 7200 RPM drive in it, that’s great, but they are hard to find. Most have 5400 RPM drives. Avoid the 4200 RPM drives.
Sizes of hard drives vary.
Casual Users should get the smallest sized available drive will be fine.
Power/Business Users should get a drive with at 1TB of storage space. If you are going to be storing a lot of videos on your computer, get a 2TB sized hard drive. On a laptop, a 5400 RPM drive will be OK but get a 7200 RPM drive if you can find it. Better yet, get an SSD if you don’t need a huge amount of storage space.
Gamers/High-End Business Users should get the largest 7200 RPM (or 10,000 RPM) drive you can afford. At least 1TB unless you will be storing a lot of video or doing a lot of gaming, then get a 1TB or 2TB drive. If you are considering a dual drive or RAID configuration, we recommend you consult with Cyber Tek Computer Pros before making a purchase. RAID is too complicated to go into in this article.
If you want a fast computer, you should get one with a Solid State Drive (SSD). SSD’s are much faster and put off less heat than mechanical hard drives. The prices for SSDs used to be high, but are coming down fast. It’s fairly easy to purchase a new laptop with an SSD. It’s harder to find desktops with SSD’s, but more and more manufacturers are providing that option.
We here at Cyber Tek Computer Pros can upgrade your laptop or Desktop (new or existing) to an SSD. Desktops with SSD drives generally have a mechanical drive in them in addition to the SSD. An SSD can breath new life into an older laptop or desktop system. Don’t get an SSD any smaller than 256GB. You’ll regret it.
BRAND, WARRANTIES, SUPPORT
Most brands are OK. If you look for the features and specifications we have outlined, you should generally end up with a decent computer. The question then becomes about the quality of the system, how long it will last, the cost of repairing it, how easy it is to find parts, and how the support is.
In terms of quality, the old adage that says, “You get what you pay for” is generally true. The cheaper brands like EMachines and Toshiba tend to have more problems and don’t last as long. In general, most companies provide a 1 year warranty on hardware. Many of them say it is onsite service as well. Many people pay extra for onsite service warranties thinking that if there a problem, someone will show up and take care of them. But it doesn’t always work that way. For example, if the hard drive on your 2 month old PC dies and your system won’t boot, the onsite service technician will come to your home, remove the old hard drive, install a new one, install Windows, and leave. That sounds nice until you realize that all of your data is gone and you are left to reinstall a lot of programs on your system. That is certainly not how Cyber Tek Computer Pros does business. In this example, we would get your data off of your old hard drive, install the new hard drive, and load all of your data and programs onto the new hard drive. We would also try and configure it as closely as we can to how it was before. Also, when you call technical support for any of these big computer companies, you are usually going to get someone in a foreign country that may be difficult to understand. For these reasons, we do not recommend upgrading your warranty. We also don’t recommend store warranties either. They aren’t worth it.
Our favorite brands of computers (desktops, All-In-One’s (AIO), and laptops) are Dell, ASUS, and HP. Dell is our favorite.
We recommend going with a big name brand because it’s difficult and expensive to find parts for the smaller brands. For example, an Alienware laptop is a good, high performance laptop. If it breaks, trying to find parts for it is difficult and expensive. You pretty much have to get Alienware to fix it, which is a slow process and expensive. That doesn’t apply to desktops. Their parts are more standardized.
What store you buy your computer at doesn’t really matter as long as you are buying one of the major brands of computers. Just look for the lowest price with the specs you want. In the Austin, Texas area, good places to look include Best Buy and Fry’s Electronics. Other places include Office Max, Office Depot, Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club. Reminder: We do not recommend purchasing extended warranties or store warranties on computers. You can purchase from these stores websites as well. You can also purchase directly from the manufacturer on their website. You would think that would be cheaper, but it’s not. The advantage, however, is that you can custom configure your computer. In terms of online only stores, some good ones are newegg.com, amazon.com, and tigerdirect.com.
Notebook or laptop computers are a special case. Laptops lag desktops in technology because of size and heat requirements. If you don’t need portability, don’t get a laptop. They are more expensive to purchase, not as upgradable, more expensive to upgrade, and more expensive to repair. And they don’t have the performance that desktops can have. If you do need a laptop, then things to consider in addition to what we have covered are battery life, screen size and shape, size, and weight. In this instance, we are not breaking this down based on user category.
Here are our recommendations:
If you are going to be using it on the go, get a laptop with a long battery life. There is nothing more frustrating that paying a lot of money for a laptop you can use on the go, and then not being able to use it because the battery is dead. Some laptops can be upgraded to a longer life battery.
Screen Size and Shape
Get the biggest screen you can afford as long as the size of the laptop that goes with it is not too big or too heavy for you to carry around. Remember that the bigger the screen size, the bigger and heavier the laptop will be. Also remember that the smaller the screen, the lighter and smaller the laptop is, but it’s harder to read what’s on the screen because everything is smaller. Those of us who don’t have the best vision will want bigger screens and will want to avoid the smaller screens.
When you are not traveling, you can connect an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse to your laptop and then when traveling use the smaller screen on the laptop itself. Hooking up an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse is easier with a desk dock, but not required.
Size and Weight
Size matters in this case. If you carry it around a lot or for long distances, the smaller and lighter it is, the better. A 9 pound laptop doesn’t sound like it would be that heavy to lug around, but when you add in the AC adapter and other accessories, it can get pretty heavy. Even if you just carry the laptop without the AC adapter or other accessories, 9 pounds get’s pretty heavy after a while. Get the smallest and lightest laptop you can afford with the screen size you want. In general, the smaller and lighter the laptop, the more expensive they are. But as we mentioned above, make sure your eyesight is good enough for a smaller screen.
Be careful on the prices of carry cases. If you purchase a case at the same time as your laptop there is often a huge markup. You can always purchase a generic carry case later at a store like Best Buy or Frys or at an online retailer. Make sure you get a carry case that your laptop will fit in. In general it goes by screen size. The specifications for a case will tell you it can handle laptops up to a certain screen size. Most laptops with 15″ or smaller screen will fit in most any laptop case. However, laptops with 17″ or bigger screens won’t. It’s a good idea to get a carry case that doesn’t look like a laptop carry case, for security reasons. One of our favorites are the back-pack type carry cases. These look less professional in a business environment, but the great thing is they don’t look like laptop bags and are, therefore, less likely to get stolen at the airport or hotel.