For consumers who aren’t well-versed in the language of technology, shopping for a laptop computer can be a daunting experience. Whether they’re browsing online or in an electronics store they’re presented with numbers, specifications, and abbreviations that can be hard to interpret. In most cases, companies provide consumers with a list that includes processing speed, how much RAM the computer has, and the amount of storage space the hard drive has. But without a solid understanding of the purpose of each of these components, it may be difficult to make an informed shopping decision.
Fortunately, interpreting the specifications of a laptop isn’t as hard as learning Russian. Generally speaking, the more expensive laptops will have more storage space, memory, and processing speed. The tricky part is finding the appropriate laptop for your needs. It’s easy to assume that more expensive is automatically better, but if you just use your computer to watch dubstep videos on YouTube while you spam your Facebook wall with meme photos, then you probably don’t need the highest end laptop. Or, if you enjoy playing the latest and greatest shoot-em-up video games, then you may want to consider purchasing a desktop computer instead of a laptop.
Simply put, a processor is the engine of the computer. It determines the speed programs are processed and it determines a computer’s ability to run multiple applications simultaneously. Processors come in a variety of speeds, labeled as gigahertz, with the faster speeds offering better performance, said Buddy Denman, a system analyst for Willis Independent School District in Willis, Texas.
“The biggest thing that (the consumer is) going to notice is the multitasking. They can have multiple windows and programs open at one time (with a faster processor),” Denman explained. “Generally, when people are doing research for work or if they have several things open, if you have one or two processors open, then everything would be put into a queue, whereas with the faster and quicker technology, you can do that with no problem. You can have many things open on your screen, so you’re going to see a faster response time and less of your processor thinking.”
So is a faster processor automatically better? That depends on what you’re comparing it to. Many laptops on the market come with either a dual core or a quad core processor, but determining how they perform is more complicated than looking at the numbers. For example, a dual core processor that has 2.1 GHZ may not perform better than a quad core with 1.8 GHZ, which seems counter intuitive. However, it’s how the additional processors function that makes the difference.
“The way it works is each core is able to process at that speed, so the more cores you add, you double or quadruple the processing power,” Denman said.
Although the quad core processors are quicker and can handle more processes simultaneously, the average user won’t notice the difference in performance between the two types of processors, said Jeremy Mortensen, senior project manager at Crucial, one of the largest semiconductor manufacturers in the world.
“I think processors are one of the most confusing things for consumers when they go to buy. The naming can be a little confusing and misleading,” Mortensen said. “What’s the customer going to see in real world performance? What would my mom see if I bought this notebook compared to another one? For the average user, they won’t see much of a difference between the 1.8 and 2.1 GHZ, unless they’re editing video or if they’re running applications.”
So how do you decide what to buy? The most important factor to consider is what you’re going to be using your laptop for. If you use it to check your email, watch movies, and use Microsoft Office, then a dual core processor will have all the muscle you need. But if you play games or edit videos, then you will want to consider a quad core processor because it will handle the more demanding programs better, said Louis Ramirez, senior features writer for Deal News.
“Technology is advancing so rapidly that we have more power than we need, which isn’t a bad thing in the long term,” Ramirez said.
Memory (RAM) and the Hard Drive
A computer’s memory, also known as Random Access Memory (RAM), is an integral part of a computer’s system as it helps the processor with multitasking. When you open a program, such as Firefox, the processor loads the executable file (the file that runs the program) into RAM. This frees up space for the processor to continue running other files while the executable file, which can be quite large, sits in RAM. Therefore, a computer that doesn’t have enough RAM will run slowly because the processor is busy with all the other files and programs that are running on your computer.
“Having more RAM gives you more workspace to access data that is used for other applications,” Mortensen explained.
The good news is that interpreting RAM is much simpler than figuring out what processor you need. The more RAM you have, the better off you are. But how much is enough?
“Any laptop you buy should have a minimum of 4 gigabytes of RAM. Even the budget laptops come with a minimum of four gigabytes of RAM. As far as storage space is concerned, at least five gigabits is a minimum. Aim for five gigabytes, nothing less. Even the most basic laptops have that already,” Ramirez said.
Whereas RAM assists the processor in handling several programs at once, a hard drive stores files and other data in a semi-permanent fashion. In this case, think of the hard drive as a filing cabinet or a refrigerator. Its sole purpose is to be the home of every bit of data, including your photos and word processing documents. Therefore, understanding a hard drive’s value is simple.
“It’s the easiest concept for people to understand because it’s one plain number that shows how much data it can store,” Denman said. “A consumer can grasp that pretty well because they can say ‘OK, I can fit more stuff on this computer than this one.’”
However, even if a computer’s hard drive has a small amount of storage space, such as 80 gigabytes, there are easy ways to get around that. There are 164 gigabyte flash drives and external hard drives available to boost the computer’s storage space, which means that a small hard drive shouldn’t dissuade you from purchasing a laptop if everything else looks right.
Other Factors to Consider
There are other factors that a consumer should consider when purchasing a laptop besides speed and storage, but everything ties back into what they’re using the computer for. For example, mobility is an important aspect to consider when purchasing a laptop. If you’re looking for something on the lighter side, then you’ll want to consider purchasing a laptop with a smaller screen. For example, a laptop with a 13.3-inch screen may weigh about 4.5 pounds, while one with a 17-inch screen may be as much as two pounds heavier. That’s just enough to feel inconvenient if you have to carry it throughout the day.
The quality of build is important as well. Although a lower-end laptop will get the job done, it may not be as durable, or have as much battery life, as the more expensive options.
“Sure, they’ll function for their purposes, but maybe it won’t be as rugged,” Mortensen said. “There’s something to be said about aesthetic value, as well for notebooks. That higher price band not only gives you better processing power, but the materials used to build it and the other hardware are better.”
Should I Consider a Desktop Computer Instead?
If you’re thinking about purchasing a computer, whether it’s a laptop or a desktop, you need to think about what you’re going to be using it for and how often you’ll need to take it with you. Obviously, a laptop has a big advantage in mobility as it’s a lot easier to transport, but despite the power it has, there’s a limit to what it can be used for and its longevity.
Generally speaking, a desktop is cheaper because the individual components of the computer are less expensive to make than their laptop equivalents, Denman said. Desktop computer hardware also outperforms laptop hardware because of size and cooling restraints. They are also much easier to upgrade, which can dramatically increase the lifespan of the machine. Although it is possible, and often easy, to upgrade the hard drive or RAM in a laptop, it’s difficult to switch out the processor or a graphics card. In fact, most laptops don’t have the space to house a dedicated graphics card.
“Say a game you wanted to play or a new version of Adobe premiere comes out and your video card can’t handle it. With a desktop computer, it’s just as easy as taking it somewhere or, if you have the know-how, you can buy the part and change it out yourself,” Denman explained. “With a laptop, 90% of the time, you’d have to buy a new one because there’s no way you’d be able to upgrade your laptop with the kind of video card you’d need.”
However, since laptops have closed the power gap, desktop sales have dropped, Ramirez said. A variety of factors may have contributed to this, including the prevalence of console video games and how that’s taken away the need to buy the latest and greatest computer hardware.
“Video game consoles have taken away some of the market for desktops. There was a time when there were 10 different magazines for PC gaming, but now it’s all about consoles. For the most part, they’ve taken those games from the computer and put it on your 42-inch flat screen TV, which can’t be beat. And you don’t have to worry about getting a better video card or upgrading your PC. If you want to play a game, all you have to do is buy it,” he said.
But regardless of whether you purchase a desktop or a laptop computer, you should know what you’re going to use the computer for and how much you’re willing to spend. If you understand how the parts of a computer can suit your needs, then it will be easier for you to make the right choice without spending too much money.