Computers are tough. Unless you know what to look for, the endless specifications start to read like a bunch of gibberish dipped in plastic. That’s why we broke it down into easy basics: operating system, speed and storage capabilities. Focus on this holy trinity of computer functionality, and it’s hard to go wrong.
An Operating System (OS) provides the user interface to manage computer hardware and software resources. For years, this basically meant Microsoft Windows or Mac OS. However, Chrome OS, the Operating system designed by Google, is making a dent in the market with the app-savvy Chromebook.
While there isn’t a ‘best’ operating system, there are ‘better’ ones depending on what you want to use the laptop for. Windows is by far the most popular, and therefore grants access to more programs, games, etc. than any other system. The latest version is Windows 10, and the most common is still Windows 7. It’s tempting to jump at a Windows 10 processor, but 7 isn’t out of the running. Consider that the 10 collects more data than its predecessors, and therefore has more privacy concerns. It also kills off a lot of legacy apps like Windows Media Center and Windows Photo Viewer that some diehards prefer. That said, others argue that Windows 10 maintains the feel of classic Windows 7 (something Microsoft changed with Windows 8), but with faster performance. It also works across platforms with Universal apps. So, when you buy an app, you buy it once for phone, tablet, PC.
Mac, meanwhile, offers the less flexible Mac OS X. To put it simply, everything is made for Windows operating systems, and Mac OS X isn’t compatible with all applications – games especially. However, Macs have far fewer viruses and require less maintenance than Windows systems. Mac also boasts a better reputation with artists. Designers often prefer their superior selection of design applications, since software companies target Mac for design-related tools.
Chrome OS primarily supports web applications. It’s for people who spend most of their time on the internet. If you use web-centric services like Gmail and Google Docs, an inexpensive Chromebook will suit you fine. However, if you play games that require Adobe Flash, then you’re outa luck. Rumor has it that Chromebooks will eventually run as many as a million Android apps, and it currently offers thousands through the web store.
Speed matters. Whether it’s better workflow or whirlwind browsing, speed lets you do more. RAM is fast, short term memory. Unlike a hard drive, RAM doesn’t store data after the computer shuts down. Instead, it lets you open programs and folders quickly. The more RAM, the more programs you’re able to open without your computer slowing to a crawl. Most everyday machines use between 4 and 16 gigabytes of RAM, though users who prefer memory-intensive applications may want up to 64 gigabits. The bottom line: speed matters more for gamers, designers, and video editors. It matters less for casual users.
Long term memory is stored in the hard drive. A hard drive is made of disk platters positioned around a spindle that reads and writes data. Capacity ranges anywhere 320 gigabytes to 6.0 terabytes. For a primary system, get at least 750 gigabytes; more if you plan to store tons of music and movies on the hard drive. It’s important to note that storage capacity of a hard drive does not affect speed. You could have a gazillion gigabytes of hard drive space, but without enough gigabytes of RAM, you’re gonna crawl.
However, for fast long term memory, there is a second option: SSD. Solid-state drives cost more per gigabyte than hard drives, but for good reason. Also known as flash drives, SSDs use integrated circuits to store media on flash chips. They aren’t mechanical, and so contain no moving parts to break or tire like conventional hard drives. With SSDs, users can enjoy faster boot times. However, they also have a finite number of write cycles, and thus a set life expectancy.
Whether it’s a computer for you or a gift for someone else, honing in on operating system, speed and storage capabilities will help make sense of crazy-overwhelming machine specifications. In terms of system, Macs are great for designers, Chromebooks for heavy internet users, and PCs for gamers. While speed matters for everyone, a computer with more RAM is necessary for gamers or heavy multitaskers who use tons of applications at once. For storage, any primary system needs at least 750 gigabytes. For users who like to store a lot of information (files, music, movies) directly on the hard drive, consider terabyte systems.