So far in this series I’ve discussed what kind of computer you should consider, who to get it from, and talked a little about screen size and weight for laptop/portable computers.
Next I want to look at some of the many options around what goes in just about any computer you might get.
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To be clear, we’re talking RAM, not hard disk space which I’ll get to shortly.
Windows, and in fact most modern operating systems love RAM. It’s one of the simplest, cheapest and easiest ways to improve system performance. It’s the one upgrade that can have immediate payoff and can extend a computer’s useful life.
When getting a new computer I recommend that you:
I put 16 gigabytes in my desktop computer computer when I got it about a year ago. That’s probably a tad more than I need today, though my needs are probably above average compared to the typical consumer. More importantly, that desktop computer can be upgraded to 64 gigabytes in the future, so it should last me a long time.
I ended up maxing out the laptop I got a few years ago at 16 gigabytes of RAM as well, mostly because upgrading a Mac laptop isn’t quite as easy as doing so with a PC.
In general today (2014), I wouldn’t bother getting less than four gigabytes and I’d make sure that the machine was upgrade-able to at least 16. As you can imagine, this recommendation changes over time as operating systems require and machines are capable of holding more RAM.
Processor speed seems to have leveled off lately. Maximum speeds seem to be hovering at around the 2.6 to 3 Ghz level.
What’s new are the number of “cores”. My current desktop machine has a 12 core CPU (the reason I got this specific model), which means that there are effectively 12 CPUs or processors within the single CPU chip.
I now recommend that you get at least a dual-core processor, but as I update this, single-core processors are actually rare, so getting at least two cores is almost a given.
Having dual cores has immediate impact as it allows your PC to remain responsive, even if a single process is trying to use the CPU heavily. As software adjusts to the availability of multiple core technology, you’ll see it start to have a significant impact in overall speed.
The very highest speed and maximum number of cores typically come at a premium price that isn’t proportional to the increase in speed. So processor speed isn’t something into which I recommend you invest a lot of money. Normally I typically shoot for the middle of the available options on speed (though I’ll admit to violating my own rule with my most recent purchase).
Most people look only at processor speed when selecting a system, and while it’s important, it doesn’t necessarily make as much difference as you might imagine. If you’re browsing the web, for example, processor speed is almost irrelevant. It’s your download speed that limits you. If your machine has a slow disk, that may make a larger difference for many applications than processor speed. And as I said earlier, having enough memory perhaps makes the biggest difference of all.
The original version of this article had the following quote:
I haven’t filled up the 20-gig drive on my old laptop and haven’t filled up the 60-gig drive on my desktop, so clearly disk space wasn’t a terribly important issue for me.
My, how times change.
My current laptop has a 500-gigabyte hard drive in it.
My desktop has 2.5 terabytes of storage, and while there’s plenty of elbow room, it’s getting used.
For normal word processing, email, and internet browsing, the smallest currently available hard drives are often more than sufficient. If you plan to have a lot of images or music, or if you do videos, then hard disk space becomes more important.
Wireless and networking
For mobile devices there’s no question: you need wireless – specifically Wi-Fi. There’s no reason not to get at least 802.11b/g/n wireless capability in any laptop or tablet. The incremental cost is low and the flexibility later can be significant.
What I explicitly recommend avoiding is mobile broadband hardware included in the machine. This is the equivalent of a cellular modem built into the PC. It sounds very handy, and I’m certain that it’s a perfect solution for some. The problem is that it does require a contract with a mobile provider, often for up to two years, and the hardware installed is often specific to that provider; so you’re locked in.
I much prefer to get my connectivity outside of my computer, be it a USB cellular modem (which I have), a portable Wi-Fi hotspot (which I also have), or open Wi-Fi access where I travel (which I use, carefully). There’s significantly more flexibility doing it this way rather than tying your hardware to a specific provider.
In the wired world, PCs should come with gigabit ethernet connections; there’s no longer a reason not to have this.
Peripherals & Other Upgrades
I tend to add very few additional components at the time when I purchase a machine. I let my future needs drive what to purchase, and more importantly, when.
The peripherals that make sense for you will vary based on your expected needs. An external USB drive is
almost a must for backups if you don’t have another approach already.
USB ports, in particular, should now be USB 3, which is significantly faster than USB 2 or 1, and backwards-compatible as well. Having multiple ports is often a big convenience, particularly in desktop machines, as more and more external devices – everything from microphones to cameras to scanners and printers – can all typically use a USB interface.
Interestingly, my laptop has only two USB ports, and my Microsoft Surface Pro (first edition) has only one. In both cases, that means if I want to plug in more than two or one USB devices, respectively, I need to first plug in a USB hub. And yes, I now carry a USB hub when I travel; I use it occasionally.
Currently, almost all new PCs come with Windows 8.1. I expect that will transition to Windows 10 once it’s released. Macs include OSX Yosemite (10.10). Both operating systems are just fine, and there’s no real reason to consider any other version of those OS’s. (Yes, even Windows 8.) Naturally if you’re of a Linux bent, then it doesn’t matter which OS is pre-installed on your PC. Take a backup image of what gets delivered for safety and archival purposes, and then install your favorite distribution. My current favorite is Linux Mint.
Try to get the installation media. Unfortunately it’s getting harder and harder to get that with new machines. As a result I strongly recommend that you use imaging software to take a snapshot of the machine’s hard drives the day that it arrives. This becomes your fallback reinstall-from-scratch image. If you don’t have an imaging utility already, Macrium Reflect’s free edition will do the job quite nicely.
You’ll often be offered security software pre-installed. I recommend declining it and installing any of the good, free alternatives immediately after you’ve received your machine.
Other applications and utilities … well, that’s up to you! This is where it really depends on exactly how you plan to use your new computer.
Obviously, price is an important component for most of us. There’s no real rule of thumb that I can offer here, other than to state that all of the decisions that lead up to this are trade-offs against the final price. Bigger, faster hard drives, more memory, name brand network cards, and so on all incrementally add to the price.
It’s one of the reasons why I like the Dell website for ordering; I can craft a machine to meet my needs and make trade-offs against my budget. Even if it’s only a guide to configuring a computer you might purchase elsewhere, it’s an easy way to see the impact of some of your choices and decisions.
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