Ideal Specs for a Computer

There are so many models of laptop, desktop/tower, and all-in-ones with specs that only a geek would understand.

What specs are important and why?

I see a lot of low-end computers in my job and I cringe when I have to work on a particularly low-end model because I know there's very little I can do to speed things up. This article discusses the major specifications and why they matter.

Short Term Gain but a Long Term Loss

Buying a cheap computer may save you a couple of hundred bucks or so today, but you will be saddled with crappy performance that will make using the computer unpleasant. And since you'll be using it presumably for a number of years, that's a lot of grief to tolerate.

Poorly spec'd computers take longer to boot up, software takes longer to start, and simply using your software is more sluggish. Software and web sites that we all use today are far more complex than it was just five years ago.

For example, Amazon.com's home page (at this writing) downloaded almost 10,000 lines of code. That code must be interpreted and rendered in a web browser -- that takes time and resources. Plus, that same Amazon page also loaded about 50 images -- which also must be rendered. And so it goes every time you click a link on a web page.

And as the next few years go by, those web pages will become ever more complex and huge. A crappy computer that cannot satisfactorily load today's pages will struggle mightily in a few years when those pages become ever more complex.

A cheap crappy car will take you from A to B. But it will be small, noisy, have a stiff ride, accelerate slowly, have crappy seats, and probably be too small so you can't carry much, etc. All in all, an unpleasant experience. But yeah, sure, it'll take you from A to B. Would you want to live with that for 5-7 years?

Computers are no different except they're a lot cheaper than cars. A poorly spec'd computer will be aggravating as hell to use. Especially in an office where you or your expensive employees will be using it for hours a day.

I simply will not spec a crappy computer. It's a disservice to my clients.

Buying for Today and Tomorrow

Instead, buy with the aim that you'll be using this computer for 6-8 years -- and you want it to perform well during that time. The brand doesn't really matter since most of the big names you're familiar with contract out all the manufacturing to China, Inc. The main thing that matters are specifications.

With that in mind, here are my recommendations for specs that you should buy -- and why. Note that some of these specs aren't yet commonly available as part of a new computer purchased at retail, but rather must be added later on. This is especially true for SSD storage. Adding these upgrades later is cheap and easy.

CPU

 
The CPU (Central Processing Unit) is the big brain inside the computer. Intel's flagship processors are the i-series, namely the i3, i5, i7, and recently the i9.

 

The i3 is the slowest of the bunch and I no longer recommend it.

The i5 is substantially faster but costs only a little more, putting it in the sweet spot price/performance wise.

 

The i7 is indicated when top performance is necessary, usually when running multiple demanding applications. Most users will not notice the extra speed of the i7.

The i9 is a specialty chip featuring as many as 18 cores. Very expensive and definitely not for mainstream use.

The generational increases are more evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But if you stick to the later generations, you'll have the best performance and support for newer processor features such as advanced battery-saving modes for laptops.


RAM

 
RAM (Random Access Memory) is where programs and data are stored while they are being actively used. Contrast that to the hard drive, where programs and data are at rest, and is considered permanent storage.

8 GB of RAM is the absolute minimum today. It's just enough for light use, such as using Microsoft Word or Excel, and for having a few web pages open. But if you tend to run multiple programs simultaneously and especially if you have lots of web sites open, then additional RAM will speed things up.

Why? Programs that are running require RAM and web browsers especially require a lot of RAM. When a computer doesn't have enough RAM, the OS (Operating System -- Windows, usually) must make room by swapping out programs and data that aren't being actively used at that particular second. That swapping out takes a lot of time.

Here's a good analogy to explain what "swapping out" means: Suppose you are a busy CPA preparing your clients taxes. Your desk is totally covered with client tax returns, financial statements, receipts, etc. Then a new client walks in and wants you to look at his taxes. But your desk is too cluttered up to lay out his files and examine them. What do you do? You'll probably have to gather up some other client's files from your desk, put them back in the client folder, and file them away in the filing cabinet in your office (or stack them on the floor). THAT is what swapping out does.

Now imagine your desk is twice or even four times larger. How many more client files could you look at without having to run back and forth to the filing cabinet? How much time do you think that could save you?

Today I'm recommending 16 GB of RAM. Even 32 GB wouldn't hurt but is probably overkill unless you regularly have many dozens of browser tabs open, run CAD software, or edit video.


Storage

 

SSD (Solid State Device) is a relatively new storage technology that replaces the HDD (Hard Disk Drive). It is dramatically faster and more reliable than a hard drive. Hard drives are mechanical and contain several moving parts -- a motor, bearings, rotating magnetic platters, and a read/write arm that moves. They create friction, use a lot of power, and can get very hot. SSDs, on the other hand, contain no moving parts. They use little power thus generate virtually no heat. For more on why, CLICK HERE.

This is one of those features that is hard to find already included on anything less than a premium laptop. Most computers, especially towers and AIOs (All In Ones) still come with HDDs. Why? Because SSDs cost more per GB of storage and the benefits of SSD aren't yet widely understood or appreciated, so computer manufacturers are hesitant to include them.

Make no mistake: The speed benefit of SSD is huge -- it's easily the single best speed boost you a can give a computer. But it's still not widely understood by non-geeks, so selling that advantage is more difficult.

I always spec a SSD in a new computer today and I've replaced probably 200+ hard drives with SSDs in existing computers over the past few years.

Monitors:

 

FHD means Full Hi Definition. That means 1920x1080 pixels. Higher resolution monitors are becoming available, but for most cases, 1920x1080 is plenty and they are cheaper than ever. These cost between $100 and $130 for a decent model.

IPS (In Plane Switching) is a technology that makes the screen viewable at any angle without the colors changing or inverting. On a non-IPS monitor, you have to look at it pretty much straight-on. The farther off-axis you are, the worse the colors look and at some point all the colors will invert. Monitors with IPS panels don't do this -- they look perfect no matter the viewing angle. IPS monitors also reproduce colors more accurately and are brighter.

Other terms such as "contrast ratio" and "brightness in nits" are generally unimportant to examine. It's not that those things don't matter, they do -- it's just that virtually all mainstream monitors that you can buy today are all plenty sufficient in this area, so don't worry about it.

Most popular sizes today are between 21 and 25 inches, measured diagonally -- not counting the bezel that surrounds the active portion of the screen.

Monitors are so cheap these days that having two is now common. One of my clients, a medical billing office, provides triple monitors to all their employees. Two monitors doubles the workspace and is really useful for folks that work in several applications at once, reducing having to switch between programs.

Since the monitor is an isolated and separate component, it can be considered and added later on. e.g. If you have smaller, older monitors and really don't want to upgrade, that's ok. It doesn't affect the specs for the rest of the system.

Please email if you have questions.