How To: Pick the Right Desktop PC or Laptop
I am often asked by friends and family on what they should buy when it comes to picking a desktop computer or a laptop. The huge array of options available makes it confusing for most buyers who do not follow the tech industry. You must first know what you need – what you will use the PC for. Then, understand the components that make up a PC. After that, you will have a better picture of what to go for depending on your usage. Finally, issues such as timing of purchase, DIY vs. OEMs, etc are answered. I hope that this post will be a useful point of reference if you are looking to get your next PC.
Buying a PC is not about the equipment. It is about you. I’ve met a whole range of users and here are the most common ones. Web browsing, Email, Office Applications. Media content creation. Light gaming. Heavy gaming. It is common for most people to set a budget before buying a suitable device. I would suggest knowing your needs first before deciding on a budget. It is better to not spend than to buy something that fails to serve your purpose.
Know your needs first before deciding on a budget. It is better to not spend than to buy something that fails to serve your purpose.
The best way to understand any desktop or laptop PC is to understand what it is made of. In the next section, you should have sufficient info to decide on what will suit your needs. It may also be prudent in some cases to buy slightly more than you need. This is true if you believe your case use scenarios will expand in the near future. ‘Future proofing’ for a year is fine. Anything more than that is not feasible.
Understanding The Components
The PC industry has matured over the past two decades. At this point, products from different manufacturers and even DIY solutions converge on the same components in question. A matured market may not be good news for sellers but it is great news for buyers. Quality gaps are small and you’re basically getting a huge battle for your buck. You should familiarize yourself with the components that make up both desktops and laptops. I won’t go into detail. What you see here should be sufficient to make a smart purchase.
- CPU: This is the central processing unit. It mostly determines how quickly your computer will process data. Think of a CPU as an overpowered calculator. There are multiple things that distinguishes different CPUs but these are the things that you want to pay attention to.
- Number of cores: Most applications are now well configured to utilize 2 to 4 cores. If you are using programs that deal with heavy calculations and are well optimized for multicore processing (e.g. video production, very high resolution photo manipulation, very large spreadsheets, heavy multitasking, etc), make sure you go huge on this.
- Cache: Similar to the above, you will also prefer a higher CPU cache the more intensive your applications are.
- TDP: Also known as Thermal Design Power, it gives you a rough idea on how much power this CPU will draw and also how much heat will be produced. Going for a low TDP is a good move when buying laptops. You don’t want that battery drain to be insane.
- Processing speed / clock cycles ( XX Ghz): This used to be an important figure about 5 years ago. It is no longer as important. In many situations, clock speed figures alone no longer indicate relative performance between CPUs.
- Motherboard: This applies only to those who are building desktops on their own. The motherboard dictates the maximum capabilities of your system. It provides your CPU a socket to call home, a place for your RAMs to slot in, a huge array of internal and external ports (PCIe, USB, Thunderbolt, etc), SATA ports for your to plug your drives in and other onboard functions such as a network adapter, built in surround sound, etc.
- Capability: The first rule of getting a motherboard is making sure it supports everything you want. You don’t want to get a board without USB 3.0 and then regret it a year down the road.
- Compatibility: The second rule is to research on the particular model you have set your sights on. Check for common problems with the board (all boards have their unique problems) and also compatibility issues. Some boards will advertise they can hold 8GB RAM per slot but perform erratically when anything above 4GB is thrown into a single slot. Wait for user feedback.
- Quality: The build quality is an important factor in a motherboard. This is very much down to getting a motherboard from a more reputable brand. If your PC is going to sit under difficult conditions, consider getting a board that is built specifically to weather such. Changing a motherboard is like changing the entire computer. Don’t scrimp on this component. The most difficult problems are those that stem from motherboard failure. You want to minimize this as far as possible.
- RAM (Random Access Memory): This is pretty straight forward. There is little difference between brands and you should just go for as much RAM as your board can support. RAM prices are very low as well.
- Size: A minimum is 4GB today but you will be perfectly safe with 8GB. If you do extremely heavy multitasking or use memory hogging software such as Adobe’s Creative Suite, then you might do well going for 16GB. 32GB is overkill unless you plan to run a ram disk.
- Speed: Faster RAM speeds are not really recommended as this is a usual cause of system instability and motherboard incompatibility On top of that, gains in performance are nearly non noticeable in real world usage. Don’t bother with the speed of your RAM. The minor exception to this rule is if you are using integrated graphics such as Intel’s HD series and AMD APUs.
- Storage: This determines how much data you can store in your PC. And how much you need depends on how much you have or are going to have.
- Type: There are two kinds of storage options. Mechanical drives (HDDs) are cheap and come with generous capacities. However, they are slow. Solid State Drives (SSDs) offer the best performances and prices have been falling over the past 2 years. But, buying anything more than a 256GB SSD will cost you a lot. If you are building a desktop, go for a 128GB SSD and a sizable (1TB and up) HDD. Install Windows and your most used applications on the SSD and use the HDD to store your documents, photos, videos, etc. In this way you can reap the benefits of both worlds. If you prefer not to manage your data in this manner you can go for a caching solution which will handle the management at a lower price at the cost of lower performance.
- Size: If you are a serial downloader or you have a tens of movies, hundreds of songs or thousands of photos, you will want to go with minimum of 2TB of storage for HDDs. This also applies if you plan to install an insane number of applications as well. SSDs are pretty standard. If you have a high number of apps you want to run off a SSD, go for 256GB, else 128GB will do fine.
- Laptops: I would recommend using a SSD for laptops due to the fact that it is shock proof. Mechanical drives are very susceptible to damage when the laptop is moved slightly during operation. If you can deal with having just 256GB of space on your laptop, a SSD will provide you a peace of mind on top of great performance.
- Obviously, you can skip having a SSD if you are price conscious Nevertheless, a SSD will give you the single most noticeable boost in performance and I highly recommend it.
- GPU: The graphics processing unit (GPU) is the most important component when it comes to gaming. If you are not a gamer, you may wish to skip this entirely. In place of a dedicated GPU, get a CPU that has an integrated graphics solution. Intel’s and AMD’s latest line of integrated graphics solutions are well up to task for things like HD video play back and even simple non graphically intensive games.
- Gamer: The GPU you get is always relative to the maximum screen resolution of your monitor. There’s no use getting a top end GPU when you run only a low 1600 x 900 resolution. The higher the resolution of the monitor, the more memory you will want on your GPU. You are better served by reading this excellent article if you are a gamer hunting for a GPU that will serve your needs.
- Content Creation: If you are looking for a GPU that aids content creation, you are basically looking at nVidia’s Quadro line up or AMD’s FirePro. You should ensure that your applications are optimized for the brand / line you are buying. For example, nVidia’s CUDA which AMD has limited support for, etc.
- Do note that on laptops, having a dedicated GPU will almost always result in poorer battery life. You can’t eat your cake and have it too.
- Monitor/Screen: This one is easy. Get as high a resolution and as large a size as you can afford. As mentioned earlier, this is tied with your GPU purchase. For laptops, you want to go for the highest resolution possible on the laptop size of your preference. There are some exceptions to this rule. Some people prefer a lower resolution large sized screen. Other special cases also apply. You should have a look at the monitor in person before purchasing.
- Power Supply Unit (PSU): The last major piece of the puzzle is the humble box that feeds all the components with juice. It’s good to leave this last because you have to first finalize the components you are getting in order to decide how powerful a PSU you require. The information here is relevant only to DIY desktops. You won’t have this choice in a prebuilt desktop or a laptop.
- Capacity: The most important part of a PSU is ensuring it has enough juice which is measured in Watts. Go here and select your components, you will then be told what the recommended PSU wattage is.
- Efficiency: If you are more power conscious, you may wish to look at the 80 Plus certification of the PSU. It certifies products that have more than 80% energy efficiency at 20%, 50% and 100% of rated load, and a power factor of 0.9 or greater at 100% load. That is, such PSUs will waste 20% or less electric energy as heat at the specified load levels, thus reducing electricity use and bills compared to less efficient PSUs. If you want an in depth read, you should look this up.
- Quality: Similar to the motherboard, you don’t want to scrimp on the PSU. Do research before hand on the brand and model you are getting and make sure it is a reputable make. Poor PSUs can do more damage than good and send your other components down the chute.
- Others: You would have noticed that I left out items such as optical storage (DVD / Blu-ray) and sound cards. These items are no longer must haves. Go ahead and grab them if you need one. If you are particular about sound, the integrated audio solutions on motherboards will not do. Get a suitable sound card or an external DAC paired with a good set of speakers. Sound is subjective so there’s little advice I can provide here. Keyboards, mice, touch pads, video cameras, printers, scanners, headsets, etc also fall in the same boat.
Choosing The Shell
When you buy a prebuilt desktop or laptop from an OEM, it is best that you go down personally and test drive the system. Nothing explains the weight of a laptop or the feel of the keyboard than you using it yourself. Online reviews don’t help much because such things are very subjective. Some prefer a magnesium or an aluminium body. Others are perfectly fine with having a plastic shell. Most people ask for which brand to buy. Every manufacturer has released both great and poor products, it is best that you test it personally and buy what you like. Just keep an eye on the warranty options.
Most people ask for which brand to buy. Every manufacturer has released both great and poor products, it is best that you test it personally and buy what you like. Just keep an eye on the warranty options.
For DIY desktops, you will want to make sure that your case is able to hold all your components. This is especially true if you have huge graphics cards or a water cooling setup. Another important point is how well the case regulates heat and noise. These two things usually depict an inverse relationship. Find a balance that works for you.
The purpose of this post is to inform the reader and explain what each component does succinctly so that the buyer is sufficiently informed. Now that you know which components are important for you, it is best you make your own choice on the acceptable range of components for your use.
As a rough guide, the following should be adhered to:
- Web browsing, Email, Office Applications: You may not even need a PC for this. A powerful tablet bearing Windows RT, Android and iOS will serve this purpose well at low cost. If you prefer to buy a desktop or laptop to do the above, you do not need to worry much about the components and specifications. Nearly every system out there can handle such tasks seamlessly.
- Media content creation: The CPU is the most important component of this setup. You may wish to invest in hexacore processors if your needs demand such processing power. Get as much memory as you can. Large SSDs can dramatically speed up video processing if your budget allows.
- Light gaming: You probably do not need a dedicated GPU for light gaming. Also, you can rest easy on the CPU. What you should be looking for is a slight step up from the above mentioned web browsing user. An Intel CPU with HD4000 integrated graphics is recommended. You may also want to try AMD’s Fusion series.
- Heavy gaming: A strong CPU won’t do you much good here. The most important component is the GPU. This is especially true if you want to play games on the highest possible settings / detail. Go with sufficient RAM and an average CPU. The exception to this rule is calculation-heavy games such as World of Warcraft. WoW is one of the very few games that benefit greatly from a strong CPU. Else, the GPU is king here. Know what your games require before buying.
If you are building your own system, you may wish to refer to this helpful thread that maintains a long list of recommended setups that fits most niches.
DIY vs. Buying From A Manufacturer
Going DIY is not an option for laptops, so this portion is focused only on desktops. The basic rule is whether you are willing to be your own tech support. Here’s a brief comparison:
- Works best for those who are not comfortable with opening up their own desktops or troubleshoot their own hardware issues.
- Warranty comes with both parts replacement and delivery / on location service.
- More expensive.
- Limited upgrade options besides RAM and storage.
- Full control of components selected. Build exactly what you want.
- Easy to upgrade and very flexible.
- Best value for money. Higher end systems can cost a lot less than manufacturer built ones.
- You have to be your own tech support.
- Every component has its own warranty, some lasting as long as 5 years. But, you have to disassemble the component and bring it for exchange at the distributor’s location. Or you can lug your entire desktop to the distributor and request for their help in disassembling and reassembling.
The basic rule is whether you are willing to be your own tech support.
When To Buy
This question crops up all the time. When is a good time to buy? The answer is simple:
- Buy when you need it: I do come across questions like ‘I can hold out for another 3 months’. If you can, do it. Buy your system at the exact point when you need it. Something better will always come along in a year. The good news is that upgrades are currently marginal. You won’t miss out much having a 2-3 year old PC.
- If you want to wait and see: There are basically only 2 cycles you should watch if you want to wait – CPU and GPU release cycles. You are basically looking for what Intel and AMD has to offer in the CPU sphere in the next generation. Ditto for nVidia and AMD in the GPU market. Just Google when the next generation will be launched. Again, you don’t lose much by not waiting.
Buy when you need it. You don’t lose much by not waiting.
It is important to know what you are buying when it comes to purchasing a PC. Sadly, most shop assistants I have come across do a very poor job at explaining to a layman. They either have an agenda to push the setup that earns them the highest commission or they do not know enough to make a proper recommendation.
I hope this post has been useful. Remember, a PC is a tool for productivity and/or entertainment. Buy one that fits you perfectly. You will spend years enjoying it.