Table of Contents
What makes up a computer?
The main components of a computer are:
- RAM (Random access memory)
- Graphical Processing unit – GPU ( can be integrated of dedicated)
- Internal storage (which can be either in the form of a hard disk drive – HDD or a solid state drive – SDD), displaY
- Input devices (mouse, touchpad, keyboard)
Other features that matter in your purchase, especially for self built machines include the mother board and power supply unit.
We shall tackle four of these in this article in close detail:
1. Processor (CPU – Central Processing Unit)
This is basically the brains of your computer. Its responsible for interpretation and execution of commands from the computer’s other hardware and software. The main manufacturers of processors for laptops, desktops and servers are Intel and AMD. Apple, Qualcomm and Nividia on the other hand are more involved with smartphone and tablet CPUs. There are two main things you need to know about processors to help you make the right choice
Measured in hertz, it is the number of instructions it can process per second. Usually, this figure is given in Gigahertz ( 1 GHz = 1 x 10^9 Hertz). This tells you how fast your processor will get things done, so the bigger the figure, the better. Certain processors have the ability to go past their manufacture specified clock speeds for short periods of time so as to meet demand. This is what is called Turbo-boost. Its a feature that’s found in processors higher up in the price scale. However, this is not the only thing that matters in processors as some may think. Other factors that matter are the number of cores and hyper-threading.
Number of Cores (Multi-core processors)
You may have heard the term single-core, dual-core, or quad-core, etc. This refers to the number of physical cores in one processor chip, where each core is independent and performs both read and executer commands. The prefix of the word actually tells you how how many cores they are. For example, dual-core means = two cores, quad-core = four cores, etc.
As might already be evident, having two processor units working together means that the CPU can simultaneously manage twice the instructions every second, drastically improving performance.
Tasks such as video editing, encryption, file compression, even scientific weather modeling do lots of calculations and can thus be easily subdivided between the cores and solved, thus taking advantage of this feature. Such applications are not very sequential in their nature thus making this possible.
However, not all processes can be broken down into smaller tasks, especially if the tasks are sequential and need to be done one step at a time. Such include games which, more often than not, cannot take advantage of this feature extensively – either because they have not been built from the ground up to take advantage of it or are sequential in nature. So if you’re a gamer, you’re better focusing your resources on getting cores that perform better individually and on other components of your system. But if you’re a video editor or are in 3D modeling or CAD work, you will find this feature quite beneficial.
Contrary to marketing, hyper-threading is not single microprocessor acting like two separate processors. Hyper-threading has no effect on the number of processors (physical or virtual). It is simply intelligent scheduling so that the processor is always at work. With a single thread, the processor may finish working on whatever task it was requested to handle before more is delivered to it. This is not efficient use of time, which created the need for hyper-threading. Hyper-threading is simply adding the number of ‘messengers’ who carry data to the processor. Thus the processor never spends any time idling waiting for the one slow ‘messenger’ to arrive with data’. The messengers are in this case the threads. More of them does not mean the processor works any faster, only that work is delivered more efficiently to it thus no time wasted sitting idly with no work to do.
Hyper threading however can’t do much for single threaded work loads where you can only work on one thing at a time. Computing tasks that benefit from hyper-threading and multiple processing cores are video editing, 3D Rendering and heavy multi-tasking on your PC. Video editing is a great example because one frame of a video can be processed while the next one is queued up because the video is already shot, the processor doesn’t have to guess what is coming next. Most games for example, can’t take advantage of more than a couple of threads. So when choosing a processor, do your best to know what tasks you plan use and whether they support hyper-threading.
# Processor types
The two main CPU manufacturers are Intel and AMD. Choosing a processor may be a very confusing task, especially when it comes to Intel. Performance is not only based on clock speeds as we have seen above, but on several other things, so classifying according to clock speeds is not a direct indicator of performance of one processor over another. Intel names its processor in Core, ie. Core i3, Core i5, Core i7. This naming is based on the features that are supplied in that category over the other. Let’s break it down further.
Intel Core i3
- Two cores and hyper-threading
- Smaller Cache
- Uses less power
- Basic onboard graphics
Intel Core i5
- Mobile Intel Core i5s have 2 cores, and desktops have 4 cores
- What they have in common is improved onboard graphics and Turbo boost.
Intel Core i7
- 2 Cores in an ultrabook to 8 in a work station
- Can support between 2 and 8 sticks of memory
- 10 – 130 TDP
- More Cache
- Faster Turbo boost
- Better onboard graphics
And of course, price goes up with the category.
2. RAM (Random Access Memory)
RAM is a short term memory used to store running programs and data for the programs. It stores information that’s frequently and quickly needed by the processor, and data can be written randomly without regard to order.
The main type of RAM is DRAM – Dynamic Random Access Memory. Modern computers use several types of DRAM. Before 2002, most computers used single data rate (SDR) RAM. Most computers made since then use either double data rate (DDR), DDR2, DDR3, or DDR4 RAM. See here. In most computers today, you’ll find DDR3 and DDR4 RAM.
On thing you should note is that RAM does not increase speed of a machine, but rather makes it able to handle more things at once. Usually the amount of RAM is supplied with the specs sheet, but can also be checked via the control panel.
There are three main types of LCD monitor panels: TN (Twisted Nematic), VA (vertical alignment) and IPS (In-plane switching).
The choice of a display panel depends mainly on the type of work you indent to use it use your computer for. The most common type of panels is TN, and that’s because is the cheapest. If offers the slowest response time, and poorest color reproduction and accuracy than the other two types. The up side to these monitors is that they offer fast refresh rates of up to 120 Hz or even 144Hz on premium gaming displays. That allows them to be 3D vision certified for stereo 3D gaming.
PVA and MVA panels are quite similar they’re significantly better than TN both in terms of their color reproduction and in terms of their viewing angles. They are generally better than TN panels, but don’t quite scale the heights of IPS panels in terms of viewing angle and color reproduction.
VA panels are not as common as IPS or TN panels in most consumer displays.
The king of the hill in this category are IPS panel monitors. They offer the best color reproduction and viewing angles, and are the best choice for enthusiasts and professionals graphics designers. Gamers however do not find them very appealing because they tend to have higher input lag and slower response time than TN panels thus resulting in ghosting and motion blur. The good news is that they are catching up fast, and soon will be just as good for gaming. They may at times suffer from backlight bleeding at the edges of the screen, especially noticeable in dark frames. They are also the most expensive.
Less commonly, but similar to IPS panels are PLS (Plane-line-switching) panels. They are not very common, but are quite nonetheless. They tend to be brighter than IPS and have even better viewing angles – though don’t expect to find them commonly in laptops and desktop monitors.
If you’re a gamer, video editor or are in 3D modeling, this is where your attention needs to be. If you’re an ordinary consumer, the integrated graphics that your processor comes will likely be all you need and you don’t need to worry about it. However, if you’re into any of the above mentioned activities, then you definitely need a dedicated graphics card.
Here are some of the major things to know about graphics cards.
The two main manufacturers of graphics cards are AMD and NVIDIA. When these two manufacture graphics cards, vendors such as MSI, ASUS, Gigabyte take these reference designs and design custom version with unique coolers, IO and sometimes high clock speeds – which take on different names but in general have the same GPU (the physical chip on the printed circuit board).
It is possible to have more than one GPU in one graphics card. This can add tremendous amounts of graphics horsepower to your system. However since you’re technically running two GPUs, the card’s performance will depend on how well those games support multi GPU performance. NVIDIA’s name for their multi-GPU connection is SLI, while those AMD’s goes by the name Crossfire.
When it comes to assessing whether a graphics card can handle the tasks you need it to handle, whether games or common graphics heavy tasks, things can get pretty confusing. However, some of the main things you should watch out for include core clock speed and VRAM (Video RAM). These two can show the performance of one graphics card over another, but only if compared within the same generation, i.e two cards from the same generation. Measuring across generations will most certainly give a false impression considering matters such as efficiency improvements across generations come into play.
So when it comes to VRAM, you want more. 2 GB of VRAM will generally allow you to play games at resolutions of 1366 x 768p and lower, though a light games may run at 1920 x 1080p. 4 GB is generally considered the sweet spot for 1920 x 1080p resolution games, while 1440p and 4K resoutions demanding between 6 and 8 GB of VRAM. However, the best and most reliable way to choose a graphics card is through benchmarks. Do some thorough research on how a graphics card performs in games and other benchmark and you’ll be sure to find the right one for you.