In the last lesson, we covered each type of computer and the major-brand OS basics. Now that we've learned more about what makes each type so different, we can decide what we need in order to thrive in the digital world. We'll go over how to read specifications, find legitimate reviews, and make educated decisions. We'll also go over what stores across the world are reputable and why.
When deciding on a device, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves:
- What will I mainly be using this device for? (Contacting friends, business, gaming, school, etc./hardware, software minimums)
- Do I need a specific set of apps or functionality? (Beginner friendly, customizable, Apple/Android/Windows-specific applications, etc.)
- Will I need protections? (Built-In Security, network protection, VPNs, TOR)
- How mobile do I need my device to be? (Laptop/tablet/phone mobility vs desktop stability)
- What is my budget?
These questions help us to determine specifications, or specs, that will serve as the requirements for our device. If you need a computer you can take with you on business trips or on vacation, a desktop is not your solution for light travel. Similarly, if you want to play badly optimized games as large as Starfield, for example, you'll need something powerful and stable which is something a desktop can provide.
When companies show off their specs for computers, they tend to be really complicated at first glance, especially if you don't know much about computers in the first place. Thankfully, we've taken the time to already learn most of the basics.
When looking at specs, here's a short list of what you'll usually see for laptops and desktops (you may remember these from the hardware section!):
- Graphics Card
- Operating System
- Battery Type/Life
- Display Type (LCD/LED/OLED/etc)
- Number of USB Ports
- Number of HDMI Ports
- Wireless Connectivity (Bluetooth/Wifi)
- Ethernet port
Because computers vary so widely, there are a lot of options that may effect what we want to choose. A strong graphics card won't help you if you don't have the RAM and processor to give it the power and memory it needs to play a computer-intensive video game.
What will I mainly be using this device for?
Depending on your needs, whether it be gaming or college homework or simply typing a novel in plain text, you'll require different things from your device. The best way to determine what you need is to figure out what will be the hardest thing for your computer to run. Do you like to use big art applications that take up a lot of RAM, like the Adobe Suite or Blender? Are you only going to be typing and surfing the web? Do you like to play online multiplayer or high definition games? Determining what will be the biggest strain on your computer will help you decide how big (or small) you'll need to go.
(Pictured: System minimum/recommended/optimal requirements to run 3D Modeling Program Blender)
So what the hell is a dual core? Or an eight core for that matter? Some of these words are familiar to us but it's starting to get really technical.
The first lines in these three batches are CPUs. Your CPU has a core in which it executes all the data processing it needs to do. Back in the day, every CPU only had 1 core, but now we can increase our processing power with multiple cores. When you see something like Intel core i7 or AMD core Ryzen 9, these are the CPU processors the computer comes with. The numbers are not associated with the amount of cores, but rather the generation in the line of the brand. Intel core i7 is just the 7th generation of Intel's CPU. Most of the time, you'll see these CPUs labeled out with how many cores they possess.
So now we know what a core is, but what does the 64-bit mean? Back a few lessons, I mentioned how all data is really just sets of 1s and 0s that mean things in different combinations. Each one of those digits is a bit, and that's the foundation of what makes up kilobytes, megabytes, and gigabytes. A 64-bit processor refers to a microprocessor that can process data and instructions in chunks of 64 bits. Older computers run 32 and 16-bit processors, which means they process requests from the user half or a quarter as well as 64-bit. Some older machines can be updated from 32-bit to 64-bit if they're new enough.
The first half of the CPU spec is a processor with 64-bit computing and at least two cores. Ghz is the clock speed for the CPU - the clock speed is how quickly the signal switches from 1 to 0 and back. This unit is divided into two parts: Giga and Hertz. Giga literally means "billion". Hertz can be translated to "per second". A 1 GHz CPU would cycle 1,000,000,000 times every second. Clock speed is frequently given as the speed of a processor, but this isn't entirely accurate. It would be like measuring steps per second to calculate a runner's speed. While it gives a general idea of how fast they are, a runner with longer strides will be faster than another runner with the same steps per minute rate. Likewise with CPUs, some processors will be able to do more calculations in a single cycle than other processors.
A 64-bit computing processor with two cores that can cycle 2GHz... But what about that last part? "SSE2" refers to Streaming SIMD Extensions 2, and "SIMD" is an abbreviation for a protocol known as "Single Instruction, Multiple Data." This is an instruction set designed by Intel. It gives programs the language they need to perform operations on data stored in a CPU. If you are using an intel based processor in computers built in the last 20 years or so, or any other pc architecture starting around 18 years ago, then you most certainly have an SSE2 enabled processor.
We've already talked about RAM, but as a refresher, Random Access Memory is the amount of storage your computer has for active, unsaved tasks. Whether you're typing a text file or playing a game - until you save, you're using the RAM. So for a minimum setup, we need 4GB of RAM storage, but up to 32GB if we want something optimal.
Those display numbers should be familiar too! We've talked about Monitors in the hardware section - but we also talked about resolution. 1280x768 is the minimum pixel width and height we need for this program. Full HD Displays (as of 2023) are 1920x1080.
We've also already talked about peripherals like the mouse and keyboard!
Back in the hardware lesson, we covered a little about a graphics card, but why does it have its own RAM? Graphics cards have their own memory called VRAM (Video Random Access Memory) that stores textures, sounds, and other vital information during gameplay. This VRAM is nowadays is installed directly onto the graphics card, though older models may find expansion slots on their card. OpenGL (Open Graphics Library) is a programming interface for 3D graphics which helps computer programmers make their 3D graphics perform better and faster by running parts of their programs on a video/graphics card (GPU) rather than just the CPU. Programming tools like OpenGL are usually called an "API," which stands for "Application Programming Interface". The version OpenGL 3.3 was released in 2010, so it should be easily available if not already pre-installed on most modern desktop PCs and Laptops.
With all of that, suddenly the spec requirements don't look too foreign! If Blender is going to be the biggest program we'll run, we know exactly what type of CPU, RAM, Display, Peripherals, and Graphics Card we need to run it.
Do I need a specific set of apps or functionality?
Like I mentioned before with different operating systems, each brand has their own set of applications. Some can be shared across Operating Systems, but a portion are exclusive to that system. Some smaller software companies can only afford to code into one OS. Linux tends to struggle the most with application support. MacOS apps are exclusive a lot of the time because of their strict guidelines for app creation. WindowsOS has certain features you can't get on other devices like Windows Defender and PC Manager. If you're completely new to applications, it may help to check the Microsoft and Apple App Stores just to get an idea of what both have.
Third-party applications (meaning applications made by any other developer than the OS brand) can range in their availability. Blender will run on all 3 of the major OS, but something like SAI Paint Tool only runs on WindowsOS.
You should also consider your willingness to learn more about your computer. Do you want to be at a beginner, intermediate, or expert level? I suggest Linux if you're looking for a real challenge but Windows can also be an expert level OS if you dive deep enough. MacOS I can only truly suggest for people who want nothing to do with the technical stuff. If you value aesthetics, simplicity, and status symbols, Apple products are perfect - just don't break it or you'll face a pretty bad repair fee.
Will I need protections?
As we move further into using computers, we'll be identifying the threats an average user faces. Most of these threats can be handled with the right software, blocking nefarious code or other users from your data and privacy. However, some threats are larger, like your ISP (Internet Service Provider) or surveillance from higher powers (coughUSAcoughLeadershipcough) or maybe even your boss looking at all the sites you visit while in incognito (they can still see that btw).
If you intend on getting some things for free that maybe shouldn't be free, you should consider learning about VPNs, TOR, Firewalls, and anti-virus software. I'll be discussing these in the "Browsers, safety, extensions, oh my! - Part 2" lesson later on.
How mobile do I need my device to be?
Deciding between a laptop and desktop can be difficult, but we narrow our choices based on what we need. Do you have a desk to set up a dedicated desktop? Would you rather sit in bed or at the kitchen table when using your device? Would it be better to have a desktop PC and a tablet, but you lack functions when you're on the go, or a laptop, but you miss out on certain functionality entirely? Maybe a tablet or phone alone may suit your needs better? Asking these questions should give you answers that help you narrow down what you actually need.
What is my budget?
Now, your budget can make picking a device difficult. I'm just about at the poverty line, personally, so I can barely afford much of anything - but with proper saving and gifts from friends and family, I've managed to scrape together enough for an $800USD PC. Desktops can range anywhere from $600USD to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Refurbished (pre-owned, cleaned and updated) computers are a way to save money, as well as donations and second-hand places like eBay. These factors will probably make you hesitate and give up certain aspects for a better price. A high resolution monitor may not matter to you as much as long as you have a computer within budget.
Being more familiar now, where do we even buy a computer? A few years ago, I would've just told you Best Buy or any other box store. Nowadays, I know a little better. There are two options when buying a desktop PC - you can get something pre-built, or create a custom model of your own. There are benefits to both: pre-built is less expensive and there's less work involved upfront; custom PCs you can build yourself, or have an expert build it, while getting to choose all the specifications you need down to the letter. For the custom PC experience (even if you're someone who wants something prebuilt), you should check out NZXT or iBuyPower. However, if you really want something pre-built, Best Buy isn't a terrible option, but you'll need to do the legwork of research in order to know exactly what you're looking for. No need to be upsold by a Best Buy employee or algorithm. I'd recommend the same for laptop shopping. iBuyPower also allows you to build a PC and have an expert build it, though it comes at a lofty fee.
Now for phones and tablets, you may benefit from visiting whatever service provider you're using. Payment plans and warranties make paying for a phone and keeping it safe mostly manageable, but again, you should do the research so you aren't being influenced to get something you don't actually need. If you want a phone that can surf the web and make calls, but not much else, you probably don't need the newest Google Pixel or iPhone.
In the next lesson, we'll go over the most common file types you'll see on your computer and what they mean in order to help you get more familiar with the File Explorer.