Electronics Gift Guide to Buying a New Computer (Even if it’s For Yourself)

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Processors: the computer’s brains. Image by Jeff Wilcox

Many computers also come with multiple processors.  The term “dual-core” indicates that two processors are bundled on a single chip while a “quad-core” chip contains four of them.  Since each processor can handle a separate data stream, multiple processors can handle several streams of data simultaneously which greatly enhances system performance.

Processors are generally made by two companies: AMD and Intel.

  • AMD processors tend to be less expensive but many gamers feel that AMD is a better processor for game playing.
  • Intel chips are more expensive but are considered to be more powerful.   Most Intel processors are labeled as 2nd Generation (2nd Gen) or the newer 3rd Generation (3rd Gen) and come in three performance levels: i3, i5, and i7 with the higher number indicating better performance.  3rd Gen processors have a higher clock speed and use less power than their Gen 2 predecessors.

The word “bit” identifies the size of a unit of data that a processor can transmit.  Many computers use a 32-bit OS but a growing number of new models provide 64-bit systems which can handle twice the amount of data flow.  It is important to note that the bit size needs to be compatible with the computer’s other hardware and software components.

RAM: How Much Temporary Data Storage Do You Need?

Random Access Memory helps your computer run more efficiently. Image by Brandon/ImageEverAfter

Random access memory (RAM) improves computer performance by temporarily holding data.  Programs running on the computer could pull data or instructions directly from the hard drive, but loading that information into memory enables the system to access them much more efficiently.

Memory size is measured in gigabytes (GB).  The more you have the better, but the amount of memory a system can have is dependent on the processor.  For example, 4GB is the maximum amount of RAM a 32-bit processor can handle, but is generally considered the minimum for a 64-bit computer.  For gaming or high intensity computing, 8GB of RAM or higher would be appropriate.

Hard Drives: Permanent Data Storage

Software installed on a computer is stored on the hard drive, also known as a hard disk or HDD.  The hard disk is a metal case containing a spindle with multiple flat circular plates that are read by an actuator arm as the disks spin.  Disk speed is measured in revolutions per minute (RPM) with typical speeds being 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM but higher end models run from 10,000 to 15,000 RPM.

Today’s hard drives may store as little as 40GB of data up to 3 Terabytes (TB) of data.  1TB is equal to 1000GB.  Smaller disks may be sufficient for holding business documents and spreadsheets, but files which consume a lot of space such as large photographs, audio files, videos, or other graphic files may require 500GB to 1TB or even more depending on the type and number of files being stored.

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