RAM? GHz? Understanding PC Specs for Beginners
No one likes being taken for a ride unless it’s in a horse-drawn chariot. And with everything moving online faster than a rollercoaster in freefall, it pays to be at least a little bit savvy when it comes to PC tech. Even if you’re going into a bricks-and-mortar computer shop to get yourself some gear and get going in the world of personal computers, some ABCs are worth learning so that you don’t come across as that sucker looking to be taken for a ride on your credit card.
Where to Begin?
Unless you have a degree in computer science or electronics engineering, it’s to your advantage to have at least a basic knowledge of computer architecture. What are the critical components of a computer? If you’re looking to buy a Mac, a PC, a laptop, or a chrome book, which features are most important to consider in your buying decision?
Think of it as owning your first car. You don’t just want to buy a car. You want something safe, or you want something that’s suitable for the family, or you want something that’s fast and flashy. Personal computers, like cars, come in all shapes and sizes. What do you plan to use the computer for – basic computing, internet, video editing, high-powered gaming, or simple video chatting with the family?
PC Specs for Beginners
Let’s start with the basics for an understanding of PC specs and their significance. Some of the most important factors in your computer purchasing decision are common to both desktop and laptop computers.
Your processor is the engine for your computer. Anything you ask your system to do will be managed through the processor on your motherboard (more on the motherboard later).
Processors are affordable, thanks in part to the straight shootout between Intel and AMC, which keeps our chips cheaper and more powerful than ever before. If you’re building your own box and after a CPU (Central Processing Unit) for high-end gaming, then the AMD Ryzen 9 5900X is the talk of the town in 2021.
A good processor speed is between 3.50 to 4.2 GHz. That’s gigahertz. Computer processor speed is measured in gigahertz (abbreviated as GHz). Today’s computers are typically powered by processors rated in GHz speeds such as 2.4 GHz, 3.5 GHz, etc. 1 GHz means that the processor can execute 1 billion cycles per second. That being the case, the higher the GHz rating, the higher the performance (power) of the processor.
GHz speed is not the only factor in selecting your processing power. Processors also vary considerably in their performance in the number of “cores” in their architecture and the number of “threads” for processing cycles. “Cores” is a hardware component, whereas “threads” is a virtual component that manages the computing tasks. Cores fast track the amount of processing work a PC can accomplish at a time, whereas threads improve throughput, computational speed-up. Cores use content switching while threads use multiple CPUs for operating numerous processes.
If you are gaming AND wanting to live stream your gaming, for example, then you’d need a good processor. A quad-core processor with 8 threads (4 cores, 8 threads) will out-perform a dual-core processor with 4 threads (2 cores, 4 threads).
Random Access Memory (RAM) is essentially short-term memory where data is stored as the processor needs it. It’s the part of your computer brain that’s thinking, “Where did I leave my keys?” RAM isn’t to be confused with long-term data that’s stored on your hard drive even when your computer is turned off. It is the volatile, temporary memory your computer uses to hold your applications and the documents or web pages you’re working with.
It’s got a reputation for volatility because sometimes we humans have a tendency to overload our computers with too many simultaneous tasks, slowing down our PCs and causing them to crash. This is often a RAM thing and why people get confused with RAM having to do with a computer’s speed.
RAM is typically installed directly on the motherboard and is measured in gigabytes (GB), with 1 GB equals roughly 1 billion bytes or characters.
For basic computing such as browsing the web or working with simple documents, simple computers and devices such as Chromebooks can get by with 2GB. Most users who expect to have several web pages and multiple documents open at the same time will benefit greatly from 4GB, with 8GB being even better for heavy computer applications such as gaming, editing, or 3D applications.
For heavy graphics and modeling applications, 16GB makes life even better, boosting performance significantly. 16GB of RAM is the sweet spot for gaming too.
A word of warning when it comes to RAM: Never combine two memory kits, i.e., don’t buy 8 gigs of RAM from one vendor and 8 gigs from another and expect them not to have stability issues. For the best plug-n-play experience, choose RAM that coincides with the official memory frequency supported by your processor. DDR4-3200 is the baseline for Intel’s 11th Generation Rocket Lake and AMD’s Ryzen 5000.
In the past, this was one of the more easily understood components of your system. Like RAM, storage is measured in GB. Storage is now available in two major formats:
HDD (hard disk drives) consists of spinning platters and moving heads that read and write data to the storage media. HDD storage has become increasingly inexpensive, with 1TB (1,000 GB) drives now included in many computers with very acceptable performance.
SDD (solid-state drives) storage units are now utilized in many lightweight, high-performance laptop computers due to their many advantages:
- Performance: With no moving parts, SSD drives exceed the performance of HDD storage.
- Size: SDDs are extremely thin, lightweight, and superfast
The drawback to SSD use is that they are more expensive, although prices are becoming comparable to HDDs in recent months.
How much storage do you need? A minimum of 1TB is required for gaming. Likewise, if you’re storing documents such as videos or photos with a large file size, then upwards of a terabyte is the way to go.
4. Graphics Cards
If you search the internet for graphics cards, you may be even more confused than with other computer components. There are many manufacturers providing sophisticated add-on graphics cards to give you the highest performance in such activities as video editing, 3D graphics, and powerful gaming programs.
For more basic computer users, the integrated graphics features that are packaged with your system are quite acceptable for web browsing, non-3D games, watching videos, and more.
If your computer use calls for intensive gaming and complex 3D applications, installing a graphics card from a leading manufacturer such as NVIDIA can significantly impact your performance and gaming experience.
If you’re going to build your own desktop computer, you will need to purchase a motherboard to mount your electronic components on. This will include the RAM, Processor (also referred to as the CPU), and other components. Your online retailer or local computer store can help you determine the right motherboard for the mix of items you intend to install, ensuring you don’t run into any surprises.
You’ll want a processor that is compatible with the socket configuration on the motherboard, as well as RAM slots that are adequate to support the amount of memory you want to install.
6. Cooling Fan
Cooling your system and the components installed on your motherboard is a critical consideration – especially when building a gaming computer. Be sure you have the cooling fans or another system (some high-powered computers incorporate liquid cooling systems) that will keep your electronics from overheating.
7. Other System Components
You will also need other hardware components to complete your system:
- Case: You need a tower or desktop case to house the system. Pick a case that is easy to open for access to the internal workings of your system.
- Power Supply: Your system will need a power supply to run the processor, cooling fans, and storage. Don’t underestimate the power needed.
- Peripherals: You will need the usual mouse, keyboard, monitor, and items such as gaming controllers.
What to Buy, and What to Buy First?
Some components are, of course, required just to get started – case, power supply, cooling fan(s), processor, some amount of RAM, and storage. You can always add graphics cards later in the process, as well as adding RAM and storage. If your budget permits, invest in the best processor you can afford – such as an Intel Core i5 CPU. This processor is even suitable for most gaming systems.
Additional RAM and storage are easily added, so if you’re on a budget, you can save a little on the initial expense on those items (within reason – don’t shortcut RAM and go for under 4GB).
Laptop System PC Specs – What’s Right for You?
Laptop computers come with a wide array of options, including processors, memory, storage, screen size, battery life, and portability (weight). How do you know what’s best for your needs? There are multiple elements to the equation:
- Laptop Use: Are you using it for basic computing and internet use, video streaming, or gaming?
- Cost: Your budget will play an important role in the features you select.
- Portability: If you intend to travel regularly with your laptop, weight and battery life will mean a great deal to you.
Some guidelines for selecting the right mix of features for your laptop include:
- CPUs with respectable performance are processors in the Intel Core series, such as i5 processors. You can achieve better performance by stepping up to i7 processors, but at an increased cost.
- Spending a little more on an SSD drive pays off in performance and reduced weight.
- Opt for at least a 12.5 to 14″ screen, especially if you intend to use the laptop for regular video streaming. Larger screens are even better but at the expense of being less portable due to size and weight.
- Anything less than 4GB RAM will also limit your performance and usability for working with multiple applications and browsing the web at the same time. 8GB is preferable. 16GB if you’re planning on winning a gaming competition.
These basics are meant only as guidelines and apply to both PC and MAC systems.
What About Gaming System Specifications?
Good specs for a gaming PC are somewhat different from their non-gaming counterparts. Serious gaming activity will benefit greatly from additional power:
- Graphic cards: Add-on graphics cards with their own processors and video memory is the lifeblood of a quality gaming system.
- RAM speed: Make sure your memory rating is fast enough to keep pace with your processor. For gaming, make 8GB RAM a requirement, with 12 or 16GB even better. If you have specific games in mind, check the minimum RAM requirements for that game to avoid surprises.
- HDD vs. SSD: SSD storage is faster and lighter, but you can store more for your dollar with HDD. Games and add-on features can use a considerable amount of storage space, but keep in mind that if you’re using a desktop gaming system, you can always install additional drives later, if needed.
Whatever your choices, the goal is to have a gleaming, powerful computer ready to tackle your workload or entertainment needs. We hope this post provides just a bit of guidance when it comes to understanding the different components and specs available to you. Happy shopping!