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From Gigahertz to GPU: What’s it All Mean?

A guide to the specs on your new computer

My favorite method when buying a new computer is to read reviews online, go to the big box electronics store to touch some of the latest models, then contact the manufacturer and have them build out what I need.

But even my techie eyes glaze over when the sales person goes into too much detail. “Will you ever be over-clocking?” Well I don’t know (or want to tell you I only have a vague notion of what that means.) That said, it is important to understand the laundry list of technical specs attached to a machine.

A computer’s features can affect things such as performance, how much you can store and price. Matching specs to how you intend to use the machine is important, too. Will my graphics and video work push components harder and faster than the manufacturer designed them to go (i.e. overclocking)? Good question.

Whether you are a newbie, or a geek that is not so familiar with hardware, this handy guide will fill in the gaps. We’ll focus on why it’s important, and not the jargon.

Here is the spec sheet of one of the highest rated laptops for 2019, the Dell XPS 13. Scroll down to see details on each item.

+ CPU: 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8565U (quad-core, 8MB cache, up to 4.6GHz)
+ RAM: 16GB DDR3 (2,133MHz)
+ Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
+ Screen: 13.3-inch, Ultra HD (3,840 x 2,160) UltraSharp InfinityEdge touch display
+ Storage: 1TB PCIe SSD
+ Ports: 2 x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), 1 x USB-C 3.1, micro SD card reader, headset jack
+ Connectivity: Killer 1435 802.11ac Wi-Fi,  Bluetooth 4.1
+ Camera: Widescreen HD (720p) webcam with 4 array digital microphones
+ Weight: 2.7 pounds (1.23kg)
+ Size: 11.9 x 7.8 x 0.3-0.46 inches (3.02 x 1.99 x 0.78-1.16cm; W x D x H)

CPU
The Central Processing Unit, or CPU, is the brains of the operation: it handles all those calculations that keep your computer actually working. The CPU inside your machine is the main (but not the only) contributor to its overall speed and performance.

CPUs have differing numbers of cores- each a mini computing center in itself. By having multiple cores, different activities can happen at once. Each core has a clock speed- how fast it can accomplish its processing tasks, measured in gigahertz (GHz).

In general, more cores are better. Unfortunately, just comparing number of cores and clock speed is not always equitable. How the cores are constructed matters, but this level of detail is not something most users delve into. You can limit this headache by doing two things:

+ Stick to the two big CPU makers, Intel and AMD.
+ Remember that newer is always better because microprocessors are constantly evolving, and they draw less system energy. Look for the most recent year associated to the chip from one of the two above companies.

If you want to take a deeper dive into the best CPUs for 2019, check out this article from TechRadar.

CPU cache is memory specifically dedicated to the CPU to reduce the time or energy required to access data from the separate, main memory.  The CPU cache stores copies of the data from frequently used main memory locations, helping processing speed.

Couple looking at a laptop computer

RAM
Random Access Memory, or RAM, keeps track of data on the various tabs you have open on your computer so you can view and access them easily. If you have got hundreds of browser tabs open, RAM may get overloaded and store some data on a slower hard drive. If you are a heavy user, dealing with big images, large files or several programs running at the same time, the more RAM the better. Increasing RAM, however, will increase costs.

RAM is not a direct measure of processing speed, but it does enhance performance, especially on a busy system. Generally, 8 gigabytes is a good amount for the average user to start, but you may want to check to see if the system you are looking at has expansion slots for the future. If you are doing anything beefy in graphic design or video, you’ll want at least 16GB of RAM.

Graphics
There are several options with graphics on your computer, and which one is best for you highly depends on what you plan to do with the machine. If you use CAD programs, are into gaming, work a lot with video or images, a separate graphics card is ideal.

Many CPUs now come with a fair amount of graphics processing power built in, or offer an integrated graphics chipset built into the computer’s motherboard. These graphic capabilities are generally enough for most users for data processing, web browsing, and using social media (including basic image editing and games). Integrated graphics are a cheaper option but are not as powerful as a dedicated graphics card.

For graphics cards, it’s not particularly easy to know which one is best. To narrow it down, stick to Nvidia or AMD. While there are lots of companies making graphics cards, these two are the only ones making the GPU to run graphics. Another way to narrow it down is by cost. Graphics cards run between $100 and $1,000. If you spend somewhere in the midrange, you will likely end up with very good graphics capabilities, but there are good options between $250 and $300.

There are also separate Graphics Processing Units (GPU) for video editing.

Video cards are like separate miniature computers, with cores (called compute units) and raw clock speeds. They also come with their own RAM. The more RAM your graphics card has, the more pixels it can render in memory at once, which leads to games running at higher resolutions with faster frame rates.

If you decide you need a graphics card, check out these great options to see if the card you are looking at is on the list.

Screen
While the example we are looking at is a laptop, the same basic principals apply for a desktop. Things to look for in a display are resolution, range of colors, brightness and pixel response rate.

Resolution
It’s pretty simple—the more pixels you have on your display, the sharper images look. A movie played on your computer, but in high def you could pick out a stray grey hair in your favorite actor’s head. A screen should be at least 1920 x 1080 pixels, which is also known as 1080p, or “full-HD” resolution. If you can afford it or work requires it, go higher than 1080p to catch more fine details.

The example system we are looking at is 3,840 x 2,160 pixels, which is excellent. It also has touch screen capability, meaning you are not relegated to only using your keyboard. However, here’s why I had Dell take touch screen off my latest laptop build list: A touch screen adds size and weight to the system, has poor viewing angles and significantly less battery life. Plus, it adds to the overall cost. Think about whether you really need to poke and swipe at your computer screen, or if you can do without.

Color
Similar to resolution, the more colors your laptop’s screen can display, the more vibrant photos, videos and other content will appear. A display’s ability to reproduce shades on the internet uses the sRGB (standard red, green, blue) color gamut. Look for a high percentage of gamut output for really vibrant colors.

Brightness and pixel responsiveness
Computers are bright in a dark room, but what about in sunlight? Brightness in a display is measured in nits—a unit of visible-light intensity. Finding a display with 300 nits or higher is great- really bright! Pixel Response Rate, measured in milliseconds, is also important. It is the time it takes for a pixel to change from black to white or one shade of gray to another. The faster the pixel response rate (smaller the number), the better the monitor is at displaying video without also displaying artifacts, such as ghosting or blurring of moving images. Monitors with a fast (1ms) are excellent, but 6ms is good for most applications.

Storage
The hard drive is where all your data gets stored, including programs and files. Every time you save something, it gets stored on your hard drive. The storage capacity of drives has improved immensely, satisfying user demand for large file storage such as movies or memory intensive programs.

The size of a hard drive is measured in megabytes (Mb), gigabytes (Gb) or terabytes (Tb). There are 1,000 megabytes in a gigabyte and 1,000 gigabytes in a terabyte. For most computing needs, a 500Gb hard drive is very good.

Types of drives. The two main types of drives you will see in consumer systems are traditional hard disk drives, or HDDs, and more recent solid state drives, or SSDs. If buying a new system, an SSD is highly recommended. Here’s why.

Hard disk drives are based on rotating magnetic platters and reading heads. Anything with moving parts can and will eventually wear out and fail. Solid state drives have no moving parts, making them much lighter, faster and less fragile than traditional hard drives.

Let this sink in: All good quality external HDD devices I have used to back up files over the years have either failed or worn out over time and died. While slightly more expensive to buy, the reliability of SSD drives is well worth the investment.

My computer has a relatively small HDD and a 2 terabyte SSD. Any files stored on HDD can be backed up on the SSD drive on the same device. A secondary external backup method is still recommended in case your computer is lost, stolen or destroyed.

Other items on the list
As the list progresses downward, the items are less crucial and more self-explanatory. Ports detail how many opportunities you have to connect external devices and cards. Connectivity verifies a computer has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability, there is a specification for what type of camera is installed, and the size and weight of the unit.

Final tip
You do not have to be limited to the package features of a computer at a retailer. Go directly to the manufacturer and customize the features you want such CPU, storage and screen size.

Now that you are armed with all the info, you can make great decisions on your next computer purchase.

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