Maybe you are curious about what’s in your computer and you would like to learn how it all works. Perhaps you are simply looking to buy a new computer and you aren’t sure what to look for. Whatever the reason, this guide will help you understand different computer types, a computer’s hardware and components, their specifications, as well as brands that I use and recommend.
Choosing the right type of computer can be confusing since there are a ton of options. There are 5 basic computer types which you can choose from: a PC, laptop, tablet, 2-in-1, or even a smartphone! Seriously! Some people don’t even go on their computer’s anymore because everything they need is on their smartphone, but that’s not an option for everyone.
Each computer has its own advantages and disadvantages. I personally like to use PCs for gaming, but it’s more convenient for me to use a laptop to work on my blog and write research papers because I can bring it anywhere! Laptops worked well when I was a history major in college, because I had to visit the library often to do research. Typing up notes on a laptop was a lot easier than having to write them by hand. Like most things in life, it really depends on your situation. See my article on The Pros & Cons of a PC, Laptop, Tablet, and 2-in-1 to see which type of computer is right for you.
Hardware & Components
A computer is an electronic device for storing and processing data, typically in binary form, according to instructions given to it in a variable program. There are two basic components that make up a computer: software and hardware.
Software refers to the programs and other operating information used by a computer. For example, the new Windows 10 operating system, Microsoft Word, and web browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer are all software.
Hardware refers to the physical components of a computer such as the monitor, mouse, keyboard, processor, memory card, graphics card, and hard drive.
There are 5 basic components that have varying and much different specifications that you should consider if you are looking to buy a new computer and that is the operating system, processor, memory card, graphics card, and hard drive. Depending on how many programs you want to use, the better components that you will need.
An operating system (OS) is the software that supports a computer’s basic functions such as scheduling tasks, executing applications, and controlling peripherals. There are two basic options when it comes to operating systems for your computer: Windows or iOS/Mac.
Macs (aka Macintosh) are owned, designed, and marketed by Apple. They can be more expensive, but they’re less prone to most viruses and spyware. The most recent version of Mac’s operating system is the OS X (Operating System 10). You can see all of its features at www.apple.com.
On the other hand, Windows is owned by Microsoft. The most recent version that Microsoft released is Windows 10, which supposedly brings a more uniform and easier user interface experience. However, there are quite a few programs that can’t run on Windows 10, so be careful when you choose to upgrade to Windows 10. My Cisco wireless adapter didn’t work with the Windows 10 update, so I had to revert back to Windows 7. If you’re buying a new computer, then you shouldn’t worry about this problem. If you are trying to update your old computer to Windows 10, then you should check to see which devices are compatible with Microsoft’s new operating system. You can check out Windows 10 at www.microsoft.com.
Also known as the CPU (central processing unit) by Intel, and both a CPU and APU (accelerated processor unit) by AMD, the processor’s main function is to ‘process’ information. This means that the processor is the brain of the computer. It controls programs and operations within the computer such as moving the mouse cursor or running a program. Performance is the most important factor, and it is determined by the operating frequency (or clock speed, which is measured in GHz), number of cores (quad core), its overclock speed (ability to run faster than recommended, which is measured in GHz). Intel and AMD are the dominant processor manufacturers. Within each company’s product lines are various processor models.
For example, my PC has an Intel Core i5-3500K Quad Core @ 3.3 GHz with an overclock speed of 3.6 GHz, which I purchased 4 years ago. It was one of the fastest processors that I could find at the time, and it is still working great! Today’s desktop processors can run at 4.2+ GHz, but expect those to be expensive!
The computer’s memory, or Random Access Memory (RAM), is used to temporarily store data while the computer is being used. The more memory a computer has, the more programs your computer can run at the same time.
Today, memory is measured in gigabytes (GB). It is common to see new desktop computers come with at least 8 GB of RAM. However, if you don’t use a lot of programs, then 4 GB of RAM is enough. However, I’ve seen some PCs go up to 64 GB of RAM, which can be quite expensive. The best memory cards that I have seen on the market are made by Corsair Vengeance.
My PC has two Corsair Vengeance 4 GB memory cards (totaling 8 GB of RAM), and they work great! I’ve never had a performance problem with them, and my computer never runs my memory at its maximum, but that’s probably because I only run a few programs at a time.
Also known as the video card, GPU, or graphics memory, a graphics card is responsible for everything you see on your monitor. Graphics processing can either be integrated, or it can run on a separate piece of equipment. The vast majority of computers sold have integrated graphics. These integrated graphics aren’t as powerful as separate graphics cards, but they are usually less expensive. They are fine for most computing tasks, but aren’t meant for using media or playing large games.
Integrated graphics use part of your system’s memory, so make sure you have at least 4 GB of memory in your computer. If you choose a system with a separate graphics card and don’t run any high end games or multimedia, then you can probably get away with buying a computer that has at least 500 MB of graphics memory. If you want a high end gaming or multimedia computer to play on max settings, then you will need to buy a separate graphics card that has at least 2 GB. The best graphics card brands are Nvidia’s GeForce and AMD’s Radeon.
I have an AMD Radeon HD 6800 Series graphics card with 1 GB memory. I can play older games on max settings like the original Company of Heroes, but I can’t do that with newer games like Rome: Total War II. My 1 GB can run the best games at normal setting, though. Unfortunately, if you want the best graphics cad on the market, then expect to break your piggy bank. I’ve seen the best graphics cards go as high as $2,500+ for 12 GB memory. Yikes!
Also known as an internal hard disk, disc space, or HD, the hard drive is where everything is stored and files are saved. The more disc space you have, the better! Today’s computers have hard drive sizes of 500 gigabytes (GB) or more such as 1 terabyte (TB). One terabyte is equal to 1000 gigabytes in case you were wondering. Though size matters, speed is equally important. Speed is measured in rpm (revolutions per minute). A slow hard drive will take longer to start up the OS and programs and complete tasks (such as installing programs or scanning your hard drive for viruses). For the best performance, consider getting a desktop that has at least a 7,200 rpm hard drive and a laptop that has at least a 5,400 rpm hard drive.
Be warned when you only save files only to your hard drive! Hard drives are known to either fail or become corrupted, so you should back up your saved data to avoid losing it. The best option is an external hard drive, which connects to your computer through its USB, FireWire, or eSATA port. You can also save your data on a cloud service. With a backup solution such as Carbonite, all your data resides on the company’s servers, which is a scary thing for me, but some people prefer to use third party services to store their data.
Solid-state drives (SSDs, also called flash drives) are a newer type of storage technology, letting your computer access data without the moving parts required by a traditional hard drive.
SSDs don’t have the spinning disk of a conventional hard drive, so they use less power, run more quietly, and access data faster, but they are more expensive than a standard hard drive.
If you save a lot of data, especially media files, then you should consider getting at least 1 TB of hard drive space. The best hard drive brands that I’ve seen and heard about are made by Hitachi and Western Digital.
I have a Hitachi 1 TB hard drive, and it’s plenty of space for me, but keep in mind that I don’t save thousands of videos and photos onto my computer, and I don’t have many games or programs installed on my computer. If you are a media guru, then I would recommend at least 1 TB or more.
Optical Disk Drive
An ODD allows you to put discs into the computer. The ODD replaced floppy disc drives during the stone age of computers. Today, DVD drives and burners are almost always built into computers. However, Blu-ray drives (BD) aren’t always installed. If you like to watch movies on Blu-Ray, then a Blu-ray drive is a must! I didn’t think about Blu-rays 4 years ago, so I didn’t get a built in Blu-ray disc, but I wish that I had!
USB ports let you connect a variety of devices, such as digital cameras, cell phones, external hard drives, and USBs. Having these ports at the front of the case makes connecting devices more convenient, but you can have them located in the back as well. The more devices you have, the more ports you will need.
An Ethernet port or wireless network card lets you link several computers in the household to share files, a printer, or a broadband Internet connection. FireWire or IEEE 1394 ports are used to capture video from digital camcorders and connect to other peripheral devices. An eSATA port lets you connect an external hard drive for faster file transfer than with USB 2.0. However, the USB 3.0 is just as fast as the eSATA-connected hard drives. An HDMI output lets you run a video cable from the computer to a TV, so you can use the computer’s DVD drive to view a movie, or stream from an online service such as Netflix to a TV instead of watching on computer monitor. There should also either be an Ethernet port or an internal wireless-network (Wi-Fi) adapter so that you can access the internet either wireless or connected via an Ethernet cable.
All desktops have a VGA (analog) output, but most either have a DVI (digital visual interface) or HDMI (high-definition multimedia interface). For better images on desktop monitors, use the HDMI. You may have to buy an HDMI cable, which costs around $10 on Amazon or $50 at Best Buy for the same brand. Your choice!
If you don’t have an old monitor that can be used with a new computer, or if your monitor is outdated, then consider getting a new monitor with decent display and screen sizes (measured diagonally). Screen sizes generally range from 15 to 24 inches, but you can find larger ones. Most monitors are wide, which fit widescreen movies better. You should also
Most computers come with a standard wired keyboard. Some keyboards have CD (or DVD) controls that let you pause, play back, change tracks, and change the volume. Some also have additional keys to expedite getting online, starting a search, launching programs, or retrieving e-mail. Some keyboards are wireless, which I also recommend for the same reasons.
Most of these are optical, which uses light sensors to track movement. Some mice are contoured to match the shape of your palm, while others are designed to be stylish. I strongly recommend the contoured mouse. Who cares about the fashion of a mouse? It’s all about function! In addition, they come either wired or wireless. I recommend using a wireless mouse because it’s a lot easier to use. I found myself having to fight with the wired mouse. They are a little more expensive, and you need to replace batteries, but it’s well worth it!
Most computers have a built in sound system, but they aren’t as good as speakers. If you plan to turn your computer into a home theater or a very intense gaming area, then getting surround sound. You can also buy headsets to keep people from having to listen to you play a game, listen to music, or watch a movie.
Let’s Hear From You!
Which components are the most important to you? Do you want a faster processor, more memory, or a better graphics card? Perhaps you need all three?! What are your current computer’s specifications, and what do you mostly use it for? Which brands do you like and trust the most? Which brands do you like the least? Which computers gave you the most/least problems? Are you surprised on how computers have come over the years? Are you excited for what the future might hold for computers?