If you’re shopping for a new computer, you’re certain to be confronted by a number of terms and technical jargon. Sure, 8 GB of RAM sounds good, but what does it really mean? This guide is meant to provide you with some common definitions and things to look for when buying a new desktop or laptop PC.
What to look for in a PC
Choosing the correct form factor is a matter of determining how you want to use your new PC.
- Want something portable, but still capable of many different tasks? Buy a laptop/notebook.
- Need something even lighter for frequent travel and willing to sacrifice a bit of power or functionality? A netbook, Chromebook, or convertible tablet might suffice.
- Want a powerful machine to edit photos/videos, play demanding games, and run lots of applications, all on a spacious display? A desktop or all-in-one will be your best bet, provided you have the space.
Your choice of OS and its corresponding application ecosystem (all the apps and utilities available for a particular family of devices) is probably the most important decision you will have to make.
- Microsoft Windows is installed on the largest market share of consumer PCs. Most of the world uses Windows, and software developers in turn target it for the vast majority of applications. Compared to Mac OS X and Chrome OS, Windows is more flexible and customizable. A wide variety of companies manufacture Windows PCs.
- If you use lots of Apple products, you might want to consider a Mac. Newer versions of Mac OS X integrate well with iOS devices, and the user interface is frequently praised as being easy to use. Apple hardware has traditionally been a step above that of other manufacturers, so you’re almost guaranteed to get a nice display, sturdy build quality, and a sleek look. Macs are very expensive, however—Apple can get away with charging a premium based on name alone.
- Google’s Chrome OS devices are a relative newcomer to the PC market, but they offer an extraordinary value. Chromebooks manufactured by the likes of Samsung, Acer, and HP are available for bargain prices in a highly portable package. There are even Chromeboxes for desktop use. Chrome devices are pretty much useless without an internet connection, however, and they are limited to Google’s fairly small ecosystem of apps.
This is largely a matter of personal preference, as the underlying hardware will be similar regardless of manufacturer. For Windows machines, Dell, HP, Toshiba, Samsung, and Lenovo are all very high-profile brands. Acer, Asus, and Panasonic are also established manufacturers.
This is the processor or central processing unit—think of it as the brains of your computer. More than anything else, this will determine how fast your computer is. CPUs operate at a certain speed, which is measured in gigahertz (GHz).
In the past, CPUs were all single-core, but recent innovations have made dual-core and even quad-core processors widely available. The more cores a CPU has generally indicates that it can perform more tasks at once; applications designed to use more than one core will function faster on a multicore processor.
For Windows PCs, CPUs are manufactured by Intel or AMD. Intel CPUs have been superior to AMD’s offerings for a while, but for a budget machine with modest needs, either type of CPU should be fine. If the device is a Chromebook or convertible tablet, it may have an ARM processor manufactured by Nvidia, Samsung, Qualcomm, or another company.
RAM (or memory) is temporary storage your computer uses to run the operating system (OS) and applications. Simply put, the more RAM you have, the more programs you can run at the same time. RAM is measured in gigabytes (GB). For a basic home machine, 4 GB of RAM is probably sufficient, and 8 GB is plenty.
Hard drive (HDD)
In contrast to memory, which is temporary storage, a computer will have a hard drive (sometimes abbreviated HDD) which provides permanent storage. The hard drive is a spinning disk, and its capacity is measured in GB or terabytes (TB), with 1 TB equal to 1000 GB.
The hard drive is where the computer’s OS and applications are stored, as well as any personal documents, pictures, music, etc. For the average user, a 500 GB hard drive provides plenty of storage space, and you could probably even get away with less. If you have a ton of pictures and especially videos, however, you might want to look into a 1 terabyte (TB) hard drive.
On some higher-end PCs, especially laptops designed to be thin and light, you might encounter a solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard drive. Solid state drives use flash memory instead of a mechanical disk, and as such are faster and less susceptible to damage and failure than hard drives. SSDs are a newer technology, so they’re currently more expensive than hard drives, although prices are coming down. All things being equal, a computer with an SSD will be noticeably faster than one with a mechanical hard drive.
On a laptop, you’ll also have to consider the device’s display. Laptops typically come in 13”, 15”, and 17” models. Netbooks, Chromebooks, and convertible tablets may also come in smaller sizes, such as 10” or 11”. Screen size is measured diagonally, and most screens will have a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is the same as a widescreen HDTV.
Screen resolution is a measure of how many pixels there are in the display panel. Many budget models will have roughly 720p resolution (somewhere around 1368×768), while more expensive models will have a 1080p screen (1920×1080). Higher resolution means greater sharpness or clarity, although extremely high resolutions on a small screen will make text and icons appear very small without scaling to compensate.
A computer needs a graphics processing unit (GPU) to display video and 3D graphics on the screen. For most budget computers, the GPU is located alongside the CPU—this is termed “integrated graphics.” For users who want to do more demanding tasks like play PC games or edit videos, a dedicated video card is recommended. A dedicated video card contains a separate GPU to render graphics and video.
GPUs are manufactured by either Nvidia or AMD, and there are a wide variety of different models. If you want a more powerful GPU (usually for gaming), take note of which model is being advertised and look it up online to ensure it fits your needs.
How to look for a PC
Now that you know what to look for in a PC let’s discuss how to find the right one for you. Stark County District Library offers a variety of ways to access Consumer Reports – a monthly, not-for-profit resource for product reviews and comparisons – that will help you make an informed purchase decision.
Every SCDL location has a print subscription to Consumer Reports. Find the magazine section of your nearest branch and browse the current or past issues. This publication does circulate so feel free to check it out and do your research at home.
Tip: the December issue typically covers tablets and/or PCs. You can also find information on computers in the ancillary Consumer Reports Buying Guide, which should also be at every location.
Use one of our databases and search for Consumer Reports articles from the comfort of your home. Start at the library’s website. Below the search bar on the homepage click on Databases A – Z.
This will display a list of all the databases the library offers. Click on the first one, Academic Search Premier. This will display a search box on the Academic Search Premier site. Click on Search Options and enter the following search:
- In the search box type computers
- In the Publication field type Consumer Reports
- In the Published Date field select January 2014 – December 2014.
This means you’re telling the database you want to search for articles about computers published by Consumer Reports in 2014. Click on any of the results to read more about it. Click on PDF Full Text to read/print the article.
Avoid the print versions or searching databases by using the library’s account for consumerreports.org. Start at the library’s website. Below the search bar on the homepage click on Databases A – Z. This will display a list of all the databases the library offers. Scroll down the page until you find Consumer Reports.org. Click on this link to browse products on the Consumer Reports website. Use the search bar at the top of site to search for information about a specific tope, ie: Computers. From here you can read about recommended products; ratings and reliability; recommended products; review the Buying Guide; or even do price comparisons.
Stark County District Library is committed to helping you stay smart. Knowing how to effectively research PCs can help you make an informed purchase decision. If you are considering purchasing a PC you can use these library resources to help you make an informed purchase decision. All from the comfort of your home (or the library.)