Last week on the ChillBlog, we discussed things pertaining to summer, and what you may as well do while you still have the time.
This week, we’ll be discussing things to consider when buying a new computer, while I busy myself with FL Studio Mobile which just came out a few days ago (for anyone interested, the link is here - it’s fairly feature-packed).
I’ve been considering doing this one for quite some time, and I’ve recently been looking at newer models lately, seeing as my laptop is slowly wearing down (but still running impressively given it’s over two years old). My keys are starting to loosen on my keyboard, but given my hardware needs are only increasing by the day, I figure it might be time to start looking at new computers instead of just replacing the keyboard.
The reason I share this little personal anecdote is because I know many people are in similar situations, at least with regards to needing more from their PC. Also, technology is an area I do feel very qualified in blogging about, and so I feel this blog will be much closer to fact than opinion.
There are a number of things one needs to consider when buying a PC, and in this post I will try to hit as many as possible.
One of the first pieces of advice I can give when buying a new computer is to buy online, direct from the makers. While prices can sometimes be similar due to sales on the part of retailers or manufacturers, buying direct from the manufacturer is almost always cheaper than buying from a store. The HP store is good, and I have glowing recommendations for Dell’s online store , which will let you customize your computer, allowing you to follow this general guide more to-the-letter.
As an added bonus, you’re not going to get some pushy salesperson trying to shove a bunch of stuff you don’t need down your throat.
Secondly, if you have a tech-savvy friend, it’s always good to check with them before you buy. What seem like impressive numbers to you may actually be downright terrible. On the other hand, you could be wasting money by getting a computer far over the specs you need.
That said, if you have the money to burn, it’s scarcely a bad thing to get a computer that’s too good; it’s much cheaper to buy a good PC than to upgrade one if your needs change.
With these things in mind, I bring you to the meat of the post – the main things to consider on the hardware end of things.
I have to admit, Intel has been consumer-friendly lately, and I do admire the “processor rating” star system they use; it’s satisfying to see a two-star rating in a Future Shop catalog, because it brings a tinge of honesty to the computer market – something the market is notorious for lacking. That said, it’s important to go deeper into the underlying specs and see what meets your needs.
What I consider the three most important things in looking at a processor are the clock speed, cache size, and number of cores. To put it simply, clock speed is literally how fast the processor runs, and cache size is how much memory the chip itself has; this memory is used to speed up your computing by holding data from some frequently used areas of memory. Memory itself, with reference to computers, is divided up amongst a number of parts, most notably your hard disk (virtual memory), GPU, and RAM (physical memory). More on the others later.
You can think of cores like individual processors. The more you have, the better. While not a perfect comparison, because of the complexities of multi-threading technologies, you can expect roughly twice as much from a dual-core 2.53 GHz processor than a single-core one. Indeed, unless you’re buying older hardware, it’s very hard to find single-core processors on the market these days.
If you need to do nothing but write essays, browse the internet, and chat with friends, you’ll need nothing more than a low-end processor (these days, probably an i3 or i5 processor if you’re buying Intel). Clock speeds for this range will normally run around 2 – 2.6 GHz range; most processors will have two cores, and an average 2-3 MB of cache size.
If you’re into video production, serious music production, or high-end gaming (id est, something that isn’t browser games), you’re going to need some serious hardware, and have to be ready to invest. For these applications, get nothing less than an i7 processor (again, assuming Intel). Processors catering to this market will generally have clock speeds running in the 2.2-3 GHz range, have four cores, and have cache sizes of 6-12 MB.
RAM, or Random Access Memory, is what’s used to store data for your applications while they’re in use. If you’re running FL Studio and using 2 GB of samples, those samples are stored in the RAM so they can be quickly accessed and played back.
RAM is generally much less hard to explain than some other pieces of technology; while there are many types of RAM (the RAM used in your PC is most likely different from than in your PS3, and your 10-year old computer likely uses different RAM than your 2-year-old computer), current-tier technology will generally only have one type of RAM, within the PC market. At the time of writing, this is DDR3.
Two things to consider when purchasing RAM are the amount of memory and number of memory slots (or DIMMs, dual in-line memory modules) available.
Less DIMMs are generally more expensive than more DIMMs if you’re building a computer from scratch, but it’s not necessarily better; 16 GB memory shared across two slots has a similar performance to the same amount of memory shared across four; the latter is cheaper because of using four 4 GB sticks instead of two much more expensive 8 GB sticks.
If you’re doing casual computer use (internet browsing, writing, as listed above), you won’t need much RAM. That said, to ensure productivity, I wouldn’t go below 3 GB, as less RAM will greatly impact your ability to multi-task. Indeed, in the current market, it may be wise to stay around 4 GB.
If you’re doing more intensive things with your computer, you will need a whole lot of RAM; for gaming you’ll probably want 8-16 GB these days, and for HD video editing or sample-heavy audio processing, you cannot have enough RAM – when working with multi-gigabyte sample libraries or entire clips of high-definition video, you will quickly run out of memory. This is why many high-end desktops designed specifically for video editing will have 64 GB or more of RAM; while expensive, this ensures efficient editing, as working on one clip of video will not require the computer to constantly switch what is stored in the memory.
The GPU, or Graphical Processing Unit, of a computer, is used to – what else – process graphics.
There are two major benchmarks for GPU, much the same as for CPUs; memory size and clock speed. Memory size, however, is much larger in a GPU than a CPU, because graphics are memory-intensive; while 12 MB of L2 Cache would be great in a CPU, it would be absolutely awful in a GPU (indeed, that number would be more than a decade old). In addition, clock speeds on processors will often require additional research, as most publications will list only the memory of a given graphics card.
There are two common types of graphics processors; integrated and dedicated. Integrated graphics means the RAM is used to store graphics, rather than anything located on the GPU itself. Dedicated graphics means the graphics chip has memory on it which it uses for graphics only (hence ‘dedicated’).
For casual use, integrated graphics are acceptable, though low-end dedicated graphics cards are better and not much more expensive; for $50-$100 more, one could easily upgrade to at least a 256 MB dedicated graphics card, which would run much more smoothly than integrated graphics. I would recommend this even if the user is working with something such as flash games.
Naturally, for the high-end user, a more expensive, powerful GPU is required. For serious gaming, one would want around 2 GB or more of dedicated video memory – integrated graphics are simply terrible for this purpose. Video editing shares this need.
I’ll try to keep this brief. Despite variations of hundreds to thousands of dollars, there tends to be little difference in sound cards on the market today.
Many sound cards will promise “more natural-sounding audio,” and offer nothing but an optional bass boost (which, as many know, is not only not very special but actually undesirable in audio design). For most people, be they casual users or gamers, whatever sound card comes with the system will be perfectly fine.
That said, to those working with sound as a hobby or profession, there is one thing which not all sound cards provide; native ASIO support.
ASIO stands for Audio Stream Input/Output, and seeks to lower latency in digital sound applications.
While most cards will support ASIO4ALL drivers (found here), ASIO4ALL often results in higher latency than native ASIO support offers, and thus, for anyone working with audio, native ASIO support is well worth the investment.
Hard Disk Drives
Probably the most accessible of all computer specs, the hard drive is what you probably know as “space.” It’s how much storage your computer has; the more, the better.
There is, however, another part to analyzing a hard drive’s effectiveness, which is its speed, measured in RPM. These days, spindle speed typically varies between 5400-10,000 RPM, though many manufacturers do not sell 10,000 RPM hard drives because of apparent instability issues.
For the casual user, a 5400 RPM hard drive will do just fine. While a 7200+ RPM HDD will make a difference, and is often a small investment, it’s an unnecessary one for the more casual market.
For those using access-intensive applications, a 7200+ RPM hard drive is almost essential. For this market, and for those willing to drop serious cash, there exists an alternative to traditional drives; solid state drives. This replaces the spindle and discs with a bunch of solid memory, similar to what you’d find in an SD card.
Of course, solid state drives are much more expensive; a 256 GB SSD costs many times more than a traditional 500 GB HDD. This cost is somewhat justified by the near-instant access speeds.
Naturally, space isn’t necessarily divided so easily along lines of casual/intensive using of the computer. A gamer who plays one game wouldn’t need much space, while someone doing casual internet browsing with a huge music library would need much more.
If you’re doing heavy video editing or sound editing, you’ll almost definitely want at least 1 TB of hard drive space.
If you’re buying a laptop, battery life is probably a significant concern. The battery you choose is a significant factor.
Battery capacity is measured in cells and watt hours.
For any serious use, a nine-cell battery is preferable; a six-cell battery will be adequate if you just need to write a short paper while on-the-go.
Important to note, however, is that you should not buy a laptop with the expectation of playing Crysis 2 for hours without being plugged in. When I got my laptop, I could run World of Warcraft on its highest detail for almost two hours before the battery died (then, I had a top-class battery and a processor with best-in-class power efficiency); now I’m lucky to get ten minutes out of it even doing minor stuff.
Which brings me to another point. Batteries degrade significantly with use, and with that in mind, you should buy more than one if you intend to use your computer heavily when not being charged. Not only can you just switch the battery during a long commute, but the batteries will degrade at a slower rate if you don’t just use one (unless you’re using each of your batteries at the rate you would otherwise use one).
Your needs will dictate what you want with your computer. If you’re just writing casually, a keyboard and mouse will probably do (some people using laptops won’t even want a mouse).
A backlit keyboard is an investment I’ve always deemed worthy of my money. While I’m capable of reconstructing a keyboard in my head, letter-for-letter, the backlighting is very convenient, especially if I’m gaming and my fingers wander off WASD.
More serious gamers may also want a multi-button mouse for their keybinds, or even a special gaming keyboard. It’s almost necessary if you’re playing Command and Conquer competitively, or a Priest at a raiding level.
Though I believe to comfortably bind all these keys, you might need another keyboard and eight arms.
Musicians might want a microphone and/or MIDI controller – in my experience it’s very hard to get production-quality microphones from computer manufacturers, and borderline impossible to get MIDI controllers from them at all.
And, please, don’t forget the printer.
No, this isn’t a computer part. There are other factors in computer performance (power supplies, etc.), but if you’re buying a pre-built or customized system, you probably won’t have to worry about these things.
Remember to buy a wireless card if you need it.
This is my longest blog yet (by some margin), and I’m happy to have put it out – it’s certainly the most useful.
Frederick R. Boutilier