By Martin Jansen, Owner of Jansen-PCINFO
For me, owning a computer means looking for something new. Computers age rapidly and there is always something new and shiny being developed by popular manufacturers like Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo and HP.
Looking for something new does not mean it has to be brand new. It can be “new to you.” The refurbished market is alive and well and can save the average user hundreds of dollars over a new computer.
Specifications are important
When looking at computers, I always want to know the specifications. What can I get that will get me the most “bang for the buck.”
Processor or CPU (the brains of the computer)
If the computer has an Intel processor, I want to know if it is a low powered Atom or Celeron processor or the best i7 or i9. Even then, I want to know what generation of processor and year it was released. Generally speaking, the newer the processor, the better it should be, however, newer processors come at a higher cost. Intel has released its 11 generation of processors.
Not to be outdone by Intel, AMD also has its line of competitive processors featuring Ryzen with Vega graphics. Their number scheme is similar to Intel with numbers starting at 3 and going to 5, 7 and 9. Like Intel, the higher the numbers, the more costly the processor.
Each processor has a clock speed which can be measured in gigahertz abbreviated as Ghz. After the clock speed comes the number of cores in the processor. The higher the number of cores and clock speeds the speedier the processor. For instance, the latest Rocket Lake i5 processor has 6 cores capable of 3.9 Ghz clock speed plus an ability to Turbo Boost to 4.9 Ghz.
Processing power and graphics are important for gamers and video processors. Light users don’t need as much. Any modern processor can handle daily tasks like browsing the internet, emails and word processing.
Random Access Memory (RAM)
The next specification to consider is Random Access Memory or RAM. This is memory that is in use while the computer is on. More RAM is better. 4 GB is just barely adequate to run Windows 10, but is fine for running many Linux distributions like Linux Mint Cinnamon. The DDR number is important because it indicates how quick the data is transferred. DDR4 memory is better than the older DDR3 memory which can also be an indicator of the age of the computer. DDR4 was initially released for use in 2014, but there is always a lag before manufacturers ramp up to use a new RAM type.
Storage (Hard Drives and Solid State Drives)
Traditional Hard Drives are mechanical in nature. Data is stored and accessed via read/write heads floating above magnetic platters. When the computer starts the BIOS (Basic Input\Output System) retrieves instructions from the CPU and does some basic checks to make sure all is well with the system. The BIOS used to be solely stored in a EPROM chip on the motherboard, but now some BIOS information is stored on a hidden partition of the hard drive. Mechanical drives are slower to retrieve data which results in slower boot times.
Solid State Drives (SSD) have no moving parts and data is stored in flash memory. Memory storage has seen great strides and the last few years and read/write speeds have increased. Boot up times have significantly dropped using SSD technology. The newest computers have NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) drives which look like this: These drives can be up to 6 times faster than SSDs. As SSD and NVME drives have become more popular the prices per gigabyte of storage have decreased.
We have covered the big three components of a computer system, CPU, RAM and Storage. The fourth specification to review is the number of ports on the computer. Computers can output video in several forms, the older VGA followed by the newer DisplayPort and HDMI ports which can be in full sized, mini and micro. USB ports have also improved greatly from the old USB-A port (usually white) that transferred data at 1.5 megabytes per second. Today USB-C ports can transfer data at up to 10 gigabytes of data per second. USB-C is also being used to charge modern devices and can be used to extend the capabilities of the computer through the use of a dongle. Typically a dongle is a hub for a laptop that can provide extra input and output ports like SD cards, HDMI or VGA ports and USB 3.1 ports (blue). They usually look like this:
When considering the next computer it is important to look at the specifications to determine the best value no matter the budget constraints. Personally, I would never buy a computer that didn’t have the specifications clearly identified. I often will ask a seller about the model number of a computer and look up the specifications myself.