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Beacon Senior News

The non-geek’s guide to buying a computer

Apr 26, 2021 02:30PM ● By Adam Cochran
An open laptop on top of a wood desk

After writing last month about what to look for in a new TV, I had a number of readers ask for a similar guide to help them shop for a new computer.

So, welcome to the non-geek’s guide for finding the right computer for your needs.

There are many factors to consider, so I’ll get straight to the good stuff. In the future, I’ll compare computers to tablets and Apple vs. Microsoft products, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on Windows (Microsoft) machines for now.


Specs are more important than brand

The most common question I get asked about computers is, “Which brand is best?” 

Computers are like cars in that every manufacturer produces different models of machines. DellHP and Lenovo all produce budget computers that barely perform the most essential functions, such as browsing the internet and managing email. Unfortunately, all manufacturers sell some extremely underpowered computers, so shopping for the lowest price can be a waste of money.

Likewise, all manufacturers also produce luxury computers that exceed the needs of everyone except astrophysicists and mechanical engineers. The objective is to find a computer that does everything you need but also has enough performance for future needs.


Deciphering the specs

Most computer advertisements are full of technobabble (think an exchange between Scotty and Captain Kirk on “Star Trek”). And, most of the specs you see in an ad don’t have any relevance to the day-to-day performance of the computer.

The only three specs that matter for most users are processor, RAM and hard drive capacity.


Suggested specs:

Processor: Intel i5 (or higher) or AMD Ryzen 5 (or higher)

RAM: 8GB (or higher)

Hard drive: 512GB (or higher)


Processor

The processor is the information engine of the computer. Like engines, processors vary by performance thresholds. While engines are measured in horsepower and cylinders, processors are measured with standards such as gigahertz (GHz) and cores.

While the power of your engine doesn’t matter when driving 25 mph through a residential neighborhood, the ability of your car to accelerate, start quickly and carry heavy loads are all factors to consider.

The processor’s power doesn’t have much impact on the basic tasks, but it can help your computer run smoother and more efficiently, especially when you’re multitasking.


RAM

Imagine walking into a room and forgetting why you're there. RAM is your computer’s temporary memory, and like your own temporary memory, not having a sufficient amount can drastically impact the efficiency and speed of your computer.


Hard drive

Now, imagine only retaining phone numbers, addresses and names in your temporary memory. The computer’s hard drive serves as the computer’s long-term storage. Photos, documents and default settings are all stored on your computer’s hard drive.

Most people have well under 100GB of personal data stored on their computer, but programs, web browsing, email and backup data also take up a lot of storage. It’s important to have enough extra space to allow your computer to retain system information and history on the hard drive.


Bells and whistles

Many other specs will be listed in computer ads. The computer’s video card will impact what games it can play. The number and types of ports will determine which and how many devices you can connect to the computer. However, the three specs I described above are the most important.

Even the most standard offerings of these specs will be enough for basic tasks like creating documents, browsing the web and looking at digital photos.