How the CPU, RAM, graphics, and hard drive are important when buying a new PC or upgrading an existing one, and why it depends on what you use your PC for
Illustration: Gordon McAlpin
There are four main components to a PC, and there are four things most people use a new PC for. That makes sixteen combinations, so we’ve created this handy chart. Whether you want to use your PC for the Web, gaming, office apps or music apps, different components of your PC become more or less important. Follow along with the chart while we discuss!
The central processing unit, or CPU is the brains in your computer. It’s made up of one or more cores (usually two or four) that are able to multitask, or run more than one process at the same time. Better CPUs are faster and have more cores, but are also more expensive.
Random-access memory, RAM, or just memory, refers to the chips in your PC that temporarily store data on the fly. The more RAM, the better, so it’s almost always the right choice to max out RAM, and this sort of upgrade is inexpensive and relatively easy to perform.
Your PC’s graphics are either integrated into the main board (motherboard) of your PC, or are controlled by a card that plugs into this motherboard. Usually, card-based graphics are stronger, faster and better than integrated graphics.
More correctly called mass storage, which covers both hard drives (with a disc, or platter, that contains your data) and solid-state drives (which store data on chips, similar to memory), mass storage is where all your stuff resides, from music, to movies, to Windows to your family photos. Though overseas natural disasters have temporarily spiked prices, mass storage is still very inexpensive. A lot is good, as you’ll fill it up quickly.
If you primarily use your PC for web surfing, including Flash-based games, Google Docs, web e-mail and Pandora music, then a dual-core or better CPU is a must. You’ll want as much RAM as you can carry, as Flash-based sites eat up available memory. Average graphics will get by fine, as web games are on the simple side. And you don’t need a large hard drive at all, as virtually everything is stored in the cloud.
If playing the latest and greatest games, you’ll want a quad-core CPU, a lot of RAM (and 64-bit Windows to get around the RAM limitation in 32-bit Windows), a good graphics card, and a big hard drive. Games take up space. Now, if you’re playing retro games, or even a game made three or four years ago, then you don’t need the latest of any of those things.
Microsoft Office or its competitors don’t require much in the way of PC technology, unless you’re doing crazy 3D graphs or massive spreadsheets. A few hundred dollar PC will manage the task just fine. Just remember that Microsoft Office costs money, and the free Google Docs might do the job just fine.
If you’re running a standalone music app like Spotify or iTunes, it can use up an unreasonable amount of CPU and RAM, because they’re not very efficient applications. Therefore, a dual-core CPU with at least 3 GB of RAM is important. Spotify plays music from the cloud, so a big hard drive isn’t necessary. iTunes plays MP3s, and if you’ve got a large collection, you’ll need the storage space. Neither app needs much in the way of graphics, as the sound’s the thing. Speaking of sound, most PCs have built-in sound capabilities that can handle a five-speaker stereo system with ease.
Now that you know what each component of your PC does, and you’ve got it in your mind what you’ll be using that PC for, you’ll be better informed next time you buy a new one or upgrade!
Steve Horton has been working with computers for over 20 years. He's dedicated to helping people get the most out of their PCs, and likes playing cards and writing comics.
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