RAM? GHz? Understanding PC Specs for Beginners

Posted on | Driver Support Help Articles

If you’re in the market for a new desktop or laptop computer, without 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?
· Which features are most important in your decision?

Your challenges increase exponentially if your intention is to build your own system:
· Can you build a system with the basics and add features later?
· What should you buy first?
· What do you plan to use the computer for – basic computing, internet, video editing, high-powered gaming?

Let’s start with the basics for an understanding of PC specs and their significance.

PC Specs for Beginners

If you walk into a computer store without a basic understanding of computer fundamentals, be prepared to be deluged with computer terms that salespersons will throw your way as “must have” features. Certainly, most of these individuals are honest, reputable individuals that are anxious to help you get the best system for your budget, but a little knowledge will help you decode their information.
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).

Intel i7 Processor:

Source: Starmicroinc.net

GHz – 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. To illustrate, 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 the volatile, temporary memory your computer uses to hold your applications and the documents or web pages you’re working with. RAM is typically installed directly on the motherboard and is measured in gigabytes (GB), with 1 GB equaling 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.


Source: Crucial.com

DDR3 Laptop RAM:

Source: neweggbusiness.com

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 and lightweight

The drawback to SSD use is that they are more expensive, although prices are becoming comparable to HDDs in recent months.

Typical HDD:

Source: bestbuy.com

SSD Storage:

Source: newegg.com

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.

Gaming-quality graphics card:

Source: NVIDIA.com

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:· A processor that is compatible with the socket configuration on the motherboard
· RAM slots that are adequate to support the amount of memory you want to install
A motherboard ready for mounting CPU, RAM, and other components:

Source: newegg.com

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.

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 such items as gaming controllers
Computer tower case with components installed:

Source: pcmag.com

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 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 a 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.

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.

High-powered Gaming Systems:

Source: NVIDIA.com

You Have Your New Computer Running – Are You Done?

Once you’ve made your selection, or have your freshly-built computer running, don’t forget to make one more check for the latest drivers for all your devices.

This could have a dramatic effect on overall system performance.

When you’ve spent so much time and effort selecting or building the laptop or gaming computer that’s right for you, you certainly want to get the optimum performance from your system. Driver Support provides an automated method of ensuring that your computer has the correct and most up-to-date drivers that will keep your system running efficiently, without the guesswork and manual effort.