How to determine what computer setup you need

How to determine what computer setup you need

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In these trying times, working from home has forced us to move a lot of in-person tasks online. Often this has revealed the need for better equipment to get our work done. From lagging video calls and screen sharing to slow saves on big files, it’s clear that some of us need to upgrade.

This post will briefly introduce what the main components of a computer do, how impactful are they when using certain applications, and explore some critical things to look for if you’re ready to buy a new computer.

The main components to pay attention to in a computer (I’ll use laptops as a common form factor for this) are the CPU (Central Processing Unit), the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit), RAM (Random Access memory), and storage (hard drive, solid state drive). These components fill the core of your computer and can make a large difference depending on the specific application they’re supporting… or trying to support. Let’s get geeky and summarize what each component in your system is and does.

The components

CPU

The Central Processing Unit is the “brain” of your computer; it handles all the logical processes in your system. With CPUs there are a few things you need to look at to determine which one you may need. These include core count, hyperthreading, operating frequency, and, in the case of a laptop, there is usually a max memory specification and wattage limit that you will want to pay attention to.

CPU cores can be compared to lanes on a highway: the more lanes you have, the more cars that can get through. In this case, cars equal input commands. Hyperthreading can be thought of as drawing a line in the middle of each existing lane to create two lanes out of one. Keeping with this metaphor, the operating frequency is like a speed limit rating for each lane on the highway. The operating frequency of your CPU is often listed as “Base Clock”, the regular operating speed of your CPU or the minimum speed limit, and “Boost Clock”, an opportunistic boost of your CPU in which your single fastest core goes as high as it can for a long as it can before reaching a thermal limit, or the maximum speed limit. These spikes often are only sustained for a few seconds at a time.

GPU

The Graphics Processing Unit handles video output to your screen, as well as decoding and encoding video. Over the last few years applications have added features to utilize GPU acceleration, where a discreet GPU can be used to offload tasks from the CPU and allow the CPU to focus on more system oriented tasks.

In the context of a laptop, the GPU can either be integrated, a chip integrated on your CPU package that uses RAM from your system pool, sharing that resource with your CPU; or discreet, an independent processing unit for graphics that uses its own RAM, often being much more powerful than an integrated chip. Discreet GPUs have an additional advantage of having their own memory pool, allowing both the GPU and CPU to work more efficiently.

RAM

Random Access Memory can be a difficult topic. In your system the RAM handles short term data that must be quickly accessed by your processor on demand. RAM is volatile, so when it loses power any and all data stored in its cache is cleared out and lost. RAM, in general terms, is a buffer. It’s similar to a library cart, where you have a variety of books you’re currently looking at and want at hand when you need to look something up. Since RAM is volatile storage, when you leave the library (shut down) all of those immediate data is gone.

There are several things to consider when deciding how much you need. Depending on the CPU in your device, having better specifications on your RAM can have diminishing returns. These specs include capacity, frequency, and timings. Generally capacity is the only thing that will be listed on your laptop spec sheet. It’s the amount of RAM you have access to (i.e. 16 gigabytes, 8 gigabytes) and will have the greatest immediate impact on the overall usability of your computer—the greater the capacity you have the more, for example, browser tabs you can have open without your computer feeling bogged down.

Frequency is how quickly your RAM can cycle data. Inversely, the timings of the RAM can be a bit obtuse: fast RAM with loose timings can be detrimental compared to slower RAM with tighter timings Essentially lower often is better, and the first number in the four digit sequence can be a good indicator on how loose or tight the timings on the memory are.

Storage

This includes your hard drive space and comes in two varieties that most people are already aware of: the HDD (Hard Disk Drive) and SSD (Solid State Drive). In this day and age it’s practically unacceptable to not have an SSD as a main operating drive in your computer. Costing roughly $50 for a moderate capacity drive, the time savings make up for that cost in less than a month. Additionally, SSDs are getting faster as new technologies enter the market with the hardware release cycle this year. For large, long term storage options, it’s still difficult to beat the cost effectiveness of an HDD, often costing less than a cent per gigabyte of storage. When looking at longer term storage, an HDD is hard to beat.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way let’s talk about the components and specs you might need for the general work you may be doing.

The work

Office-related tasks

For general office-related tasks such as writing, spreadsheets, video conferencing, and web-based applications, it’s still hard to beat the value of an i3 or i5 class processor from Intel. With their new 10th generation processor line, the core counts for each of these classes have been increased to match the i7’s from the past generations (i3 is now 4 core, 8 thread and i5 is now 6 core, 12 thread). In addition, roughly 8GB of RAM is needed in a system like this. Since a lot of the applications you’ll be handling will be online, a 512GB SSD should be enough for this sort of system.

Graphic design

Graphic design can have various requirements, with most applications requiring a 6 core processor with 16GB of ram and roughly 1TB of total system storage. A discreet GPU is probably optional, but can prove useful when doing live sketching, video production, or working with massive files. For 3d applications and rendering, more is better. A powerful discreet GPU with at least 6GB of Video RAM would be most effective, along with as many CPU cores as possible (8 or more). For 3d, the first baseline machine I’ve listed would function fine, but time is often equated to money and the faster you can work the more return you’ll get on the investment you’ve made.

Video production

In pure video production instances, a discreet GPU can be the most important component in your machine. Most modern video editing software has moved to GPU-accelerated renderers, so having a better discreet GPU in your machine will save significant time. Otherwise, a 6 or 8 core processor with a high base frequency and 16 to 32GB of RAM also can save time while editing or multitasking between applications.

All that being said, these detailed considerations are essentially redundant when looking at product stacks from Apple. Most of their devices are limited in how you can customize them, though many come stock with what I’ve listed above. For example, with general office use you would likely choose a MacBook Air. For general graphic design use you’d buy a MacBook pro (13- or 16-inch). And for processor-heavy tasks like video editing or 3d you’re better off with an iMac or Mac Pro.

I’ve been asked multiple times just in the past month what laptop or computer someone should buy. It made me realize that most of this stuff that I myself find fascinating, just isn’t common knowledge for most people—so I wanted to share what I’ve learned over the past 15 or so years.

It’s a lot to take in, so I still fully expect people to just keep asking me what they should buy.


Photo by Alexandre Debiève on Unsplash.