When buying a new computer, you’re often presented with a bewildering array of options and a huge variation in cost. Here are a few explainers of the most important features.
The software that controls everything that happens on your device. It won’t work without it.
From the most complex to the simplest:
Microsoft Windows 10 Pro
Usually only offered on higher specified lap tops and desktops. Gives you more autonomy over your computer so you can set it up exactly as you want to. Good for experienced users
Apple Mac OS
Used by Apple Macs and Macbooks. Apple’s version is considered a competitor to Windows. Some consider it superior, others feel it’s far to limited and constraining
Microsoft Windows 10 (Home)
Installed on basic Windows laptops and desktops and some higher end machines. Perfectly adequate if you’re a regular user
Google Chrome OS
The operating system installed on Chromebooks. You tend to have less control over your device than with a Windows machine
Microsoft Windows 10 S
Microsoft’s version of Chrome OS. Machines utilising this OS are often also referred to as ‘Chromebooks’ but tend to be slightly more expensive
Android is installed on the majority of tablets not made by Apple
Used by Apple in its iPads, and iPhones
Amazon Fire OS
Amazon’s Fire tablet PCs are little more than internet surfing e-readers
Added here for completeness. It’s beyond the scope of this document but Linux is a free, open-source operating system for experienced users willing to put up with slightly more inconvenience in exchange for complete authority over their machines. It’s very difficult to buy a new machine without one of the above operating systems on it, but Linux can be installed on almost all Windows laptops and desktops
The ‘brain’ of your computer. How good it is will dictate how fast (or even whether) it will be able to do certain tasks. In laptops and desktops, these are generally made by either Intel or AMD.
Starting with the slowest and most basic:
Intel Celeron and AMD A4 and A6
Older and slower processors used in Chromebooks and very basic laptops
Intel Pentium and AMD 3020 & Athlon
A slightly better performance than those above but still only used in basic machines
Intel Core i3 and AMD Ryzen 3
More recent, slightly faster processors. Where you’ll probably start if you’re looking for a relatively cheap machine but want to be sure of reasonable performance
Intel Core i5, i7 & i9 and AMD Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7 & Ryzen 9
Increasingly newer, faster and more expensive processors. If you want to be sure of good performance, you’ll be comparing machines with these processors
A note about Apple
Apple has started making its own processors, and new machines will feature them. Old ones will continue to work. We’ll post more details here at intervals.
Not to be confused with storage, this is the amount of information the computer can hold in its immediately accessible memory. It’s often overlooked by buyers but is critical in a computer’s performance. Often, doubling the amount of RAM in a new PC is not that expensive but has a big effect on how well it does its job.
Here are some 2020 figures:
2GB to 4GB (gigaBytes)
The amount of memory you may get in a Chromebook or very basic laptop
If you’re concerned about performance, aim for at least 8GB. More will go a long way towards future proofing your machine
All your computer’s data is held in storage, including the files that make it work, the programs you run as well as your documents, music and photos. How much is important, but so is the way it is stored.
Here are three basic types:
An electronic form of memory often used in cheaper laptops and Chromebooks. Usually quite low in capacity
Solid State Drives. A modern type of electronic memory that is reliable and can be accessed very fast. More expensive for the amount of storage than the other types
Hard Disk Drive. These have been around a long time and, unlike the other types mentioned here, contain moving parts. Although they are now very reliable, the moving parts make them slightly more prone to failure in devices where they can be knocked or dropped. They are relatively cheap though and it’s possible to amass a very large amount of storage without spending too much
This is measured in GB (gigabytes) or TB (terabytes). A terabyte is about 1000 gigabytes. How much you need depends on your use.
64GB and lower
Basic Chromebooks. You don’t have much capacity for local storage
Higher end Chromebooks and basic laptops. You have some local storage but not a great deal of headroom
Most laptops begin around here and we’re starting to be comfortable with the amount of storage. If it’s your only machine however you’re likely to need external or cloud storage too in the future. Some quite high end laptops have this amount as performance might be more important than storage capacity
Laptops with this amount of SSD storage are getting quite expensive
Just about the smallest HDD you can get these days and close to the largest SSD. HDD laptops and desktops with this storage are basic, those with SSDs are expensive and high end
With HDDs this sort of storage and more is easy to get in a desktop. Upgrading is usually easy too as extra drives can be added either internally or externally
Screen size is measured diagonally across it from one corner to the other. These range from 10” (Chromebooks), through 17” (largest laptops) and 22” (basic desktop monitor) to 32” and more for specialist monitors.
This obviously decides the quality of the image you get on your screen. It ranges from Standard (the cheapest models), Full HD (most laptops), Quad HD (high quality) to 4K Ultra HD (the best quality).
It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into a great deal of detail, but if you need to perform tasks that require a great deal of video processing (eg professional photo and video editing, VR, gaming) the quality of your graphics card will have a big impact. A lot of the lower specified machines will have ‘on board’ graphics and this generally basic. A dedicated card in a desktop computer will be able to perform graphics tasks much quicker and smoother. These come in many varieties according to performance and cost.
An essential component for a tablet, and these are also common in Chromebooks. With Windows laptops however, it’s often only a feature of more expensive models.
Not strictly part of your computer, but you may be offered some Cloud storage as part of the purchase – especially if the local storage is not that great. Using this, you will be able to access your files wherever you are and on any device. It’s paid for through a monthly or yearly contract and prices are typically £16/ year for 100GB, £25/ year for 200GB and £80/ year for 2TB.
Score your choice of computer
It’s not a precise measure, but applying the following scores to the specification of any potential purchase will help evaluate relative performance:
|Intel Celeron, AMD A4 or A6||1/5|
|Intel Pentium, AMD 3020 & Athlon||2/5|
|Intel Core i3, AMD Ryzen 3||3/5|
|Intel Core i5, AMD Ryzen 5||4/5|
|Intel Core i7 & i9, AMD Ryzen 7 & Ryzen 9||5/5|
|64GB and lower||1/5|