Shopping Checklist: Desktops and Laptops
Here what you need to know to decipher the spec sheet on any given desktop or laptop PC.
An often overlooked component in the computer, the motherboard is what all other components of the computer plug into and acts like the central nervous system of the computer.
The two main brands of processors (AMD and Intel) have different motherboard sockets, meaning they are not cross compatible - this is not an issue when buying a prebuilt computer, however if you are selecting parts for a build ensure that your motherboard is compatible with your processor.
There are two main manufacturers of CPUs (central processing units) - AMD and Intel - and competition in the processor market hasn’t been this strong in decades.
Whichever way you go, ensure that you choose a laptop or PC with at least four processor cores - with eight and sixteen-cores common at the higher end of the scale, as it will perform better when running multiple applications simultaneously or multi-threaded applications such as video rendering.
Gaming is less reliant on multiple cores to achieve higher performance than the above tasks, but if you plan on streaming games or video editing, ensure that your CPU has the grunt to handle the task.
The CPU is an important component of any computer and its speed will affect the performance significantly.
Within any specific range of CPUs it’s safe to assume that the higher the frequency (e.g. 3.0GHz, 3.5GHz, 4.0GHz) the faster it is. CPUs with a higher core count are able to spread the processing load over more cores. Additional cores and higher clock speeds are desirable because they allow your computer to do more things in a more efficient manner.
RAM (random access memory) is important because it provides the power to run programs at the same time.
It is important to know how much RAM the system has and how much it can be upgraded to at a later point - each motherboard (the circuit board which all the parts connect to) only has a certain amount of slots in which RAM can fit.
Up to a point, more RAM will speed up your computer, with 4 or 8 GB of RAM enough to handle day to day applications. Serious gamers and multimedia creators will want to start with 16 GB to ensure the memory can keep up with the rest of the system.
RAM is available at different speeds i.e. 2666MHz, 3200MHz, 3600MHz. Faster RAM increases the speed at which the memory can process data from the processor and communicate with the other elements of the computer.
Find out what graphics card the computer comes with.
The better the graphics card the better you will be able to play games - so if that interests you, this is critical. The two biggest brands to take note of in the space are AMD's Radeon line and Nvidia GeForce series.
Some laptops don’t come with a dedicated graphics card, instead integrating graphics into the CPU. While this is plenty to deal with regular productivity tasks, it’s not going to cut the mustard when it comes to gaming and other intensive applications.
Check what size and type of storage the computer has.
Hard drives used to be all the rage, but these days they’ve mostly out of favor, especially for thin and light laptops. This is because they can be slow, somewhat bulky, and produce noticeable heat and noise.
A solid state drive (SSD), on the other hand, offers a lot more speed than a hard drive, runs silently, and can be installed in a form factor that doesn’t add too much to the weight and bulk of a laptop. As a result of these clear benefits, most OEMs have embraced SSD storage as the standard for laptops.
Stick to an SSD for your new laptop and you’ll love the speed with which it can load programs, access your data, and also how quickly it can boot up your system.
If you're buying a new laptop in 2020, you'll want one with an SSD. However, that being said, don't feel overly pressured to spend extra on the latest model here. While it is true that more recent SSDs boast better speeds than older models, the biggest advantages you're enjoy here are tied more to the fundamental advances that SSDs offer over traditional hard drive storage.
For desktop PC shoppers, weight is rarely a concern. However, for would-be laptop buyers, it's critical.
If at all possible, be sure to check how much a laptop weighs or even go into a retailer like JB Hi-Fi to test out the weight yourself before dropping the cash on a new laptop. While all laptops are technically portable, the way in which that quality is realised can vary and it might not always be in a comfortable equilibrium with the desire to offer good performance on the part of the manufacturer.
Weight can vary greatly between regular and gaming-focused laptops, which require more space and larger components as well as a larger power cable. Taking this into consideration is important before you start carrying around a big, heavy and noisy gaming laptop to work or the classroom. Lugging around a behemoth like the 4.2kg MSI GT76 Titan DT might be technically possible but it doesn't quite live up to the ideal that you'd want from a laptop.
This one applies for desktop buyers moreso than laptop users. Nevertheless, it's usually worth checking just how many USB ports that your next PC or Mac comes equipped with. They remain the most common connector port in the industry and, while you can find a dongle for anything on Amazon, it's usually a better bet to just make sure your next PC has enough of them to begin with.
USB ports are needed to connect extra devices, so if you have lots of devices you will need multiple USB ports. It's also good with a desktop PC if there are USB ports at the front of the computer that are easy to access.
USB ports will generally support either USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 - USB 3.0 ports are identifiable by the blue plastic used inside the port. USB 3.0 is capable of faster data transfer speeds than USB 2.0, and is common on higher-spec laptops and computers. Many modern peripherals also tend to deliver the best performance on or require USB 3.0 to function at all.
Remember, you're usually going to lose two USB ports to having keyboard and mouse. If you regularly use a webcam or microphone, there's another two gone. So be sure to keep your USB port requirements in mind when looking at buying a new PC.
Most laptops will have built-in wireless networking but PCs require a wireless network card installed in one of the motherboard’s PCIe slots in order to be able to connect to a wireless network over Wi-Fi. Most modern desktop PCs have them as standard nowadays but if yours doesn't, you're going to need to invest in one or settle for only being able to connect to the internet via a physical ethernet connection.
Wireless networking allows your computer to connect to the internet as well as stream video from the laptop to a screen connected to the same Wi-Fi network - this can also be achieved via cable connection to a video port.
DisplayPort and HDMI are the best quality connectors to connect a PC to a monitor or HDTV, with DVI also available and capable of providing 1080p video.For desktop PCs, video ports do matter because they can limit the types of monitors that you have to choose from. If your PC doesn't have any DisplayPort ports but your monitor relies on that specific connection-type, you're going be in trouble. These kinds of situations can usually be resolved through a connector dongle of some sort but it's usually easier to avoid them outright.
Laptops will generally have a single HDMI port for video output or, alternatively, rely on the increasingly popular Thunderbolt 3 connection standard, which uses a USB-C port to transmit video and audio. If you're likely to give presentations using your next laptop and a projector or external display, having a video port is going to make that process significantly easier. Click here for our guide to the best HDMI cables.
For more information, check out our guide to computer cables.
Desktop computers generally don’t come with speakers, with ports at the back or front of the case allowing connection to a pair of headphones or external sound device.
In the case of laptops it may be worth investigating the quality of integrated speakers, and while some manufacturers enter partnerships with established audio companies to integrate speakers into their laptops, quality varies greatly.
Keyboard, mouse and other peripherals
Some desktop PCs don’t come with any peripherals, such as a keyboard or mouse, and this will add extra cost to your purchase. Be sure to check out our guide to the best keyboards: Ergonomic and productive home office options.
Laptops, for obvious reasons, don't usually come with any peripherals aside from a charger. This is because their form-factor incorporates these things in the form of a build-in keyboard, trackpad, speakers and monitor. That being said, if you are looking to get some heavy usage out of your laptop, it might be worth investigating pairing it with a proper mouse. Trackpads work in a pinch but aren't always super comfortable to use over longer stretches of time.
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Next Page - Jargon Buster: Learn the difference between your ethernet and Thunderbolt ports!