5 Things to Know When Shopping for Business Computers

As a managed IT services provider, my typical day-to-day work usually involves helping my clients resolve various issues on their PCs. Sometimes it’s just a weird networking issue, or a printer that’s stopped communicating with the computer (“What do you mean ‘Cannot locate printer’?!? IT’S RIGHT THERE!!!”) or troubleshooting email woes and resetting passwords. But now and then a computer just gets too old to keep up with current software, and needs replacing with a newer model designed for today’s requirements. And I’m often asked for recommendations as to which model a client should consider. Unfortunately, there are so many manufacturers and models out there; there’s no single, straightforward answer. Fortunately, I’m the quintessential geek at heart, and I like to keep up with the latest trends and breakthroughs in technology, even though I’m not in the market for a new PC. So in this blog post, I’ll walk you through the various components of a computer that affect its price and performance so you can make an informed decision when shopping for business computers.

In the past, a general rule of thumb was “you get what you pay for” and the more you spend on a new computer, the more powerful the hardware would be, and consequently, the longer it would last you. In recent computer iterations, however, this rule doesn’t hold true, because in the world of portable devices (laptops, tablets, etc.) you’re often paying more for a lower powered computer, but that has longer battery life or weighs less. The classic example of this is Apple’s MacBook. It is a very underpowered device… in fact, the latest iPhones outperform it in many benchmarking tests. Yet, you can pay up to $1,750 for a MacBook, because it’s so incredibly compact and portable with amazing battery life. By contrast, you can buy a MacBook Air from Apple with much higher performance metrics for as low as $999. So be aware, if you’re shopping for a portable computer, you need to decide if you’re willing to spend your hard-earned money on performance or on portability. The answer to that question is different for everyone. With that established, let’s look at the performance aspects of PCs and see what the various components do, and decide what you need.
 

CPU

The CPU is the Central Processing Unit (the part of Arnold Schwarzenegger that survived the first Terminator movie to create a new generation of terminators in the subsequent movies). It’s the brains of the operation and does all the hard work. It’s also the part that uses the most battery and generates the most heat. Small, portable devices (iOS and Android phones and tablets) use an ARM CPU, but desktop and laptop PCs use Intel’s CPU architecture. These processors get faster and faster every year, and it can be confusing to keep track of all the iterations and differences. But when you’re shopping for a PC, you’re looking for the phrase “Core i” followed by a number. As you may expect, the higher the number, the better the performance (and the higher the price). Intel makes the Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7, and is currently on its sixth-generation of these processors (codename Skylake), but the seventh-gen are right around the corner. The processors can also be either dual core or quad core. Again, quad core is faster but will also cost more. The decision you make about the CPU affects the speed at which your computer can handle complex operations. So, what does this mean for the average user? If you do mostly Excel and email and QuickBooks and web apps, I doubt very much whether you would even notice the difference between a third-generation Core i5 CPU or a sixth-generation Core i7 CPU. If, however, you do a lot of video editing, photo processing, 3D rendering or code compiling, having the higher end CPU will make all the difference in the world. This is where you can save money on your PC by only buying what you will really use. Side note: Intel also makes a very low powered Core-M and AMD makes competitor CPUs, also, but for the sake of simplicity and clarity, I didn’t include them.
 

RAM

The next component we should look at is the RAM, otherwise known as the memory. This will greatly affect the overall speed of your computer up to a certain point. The memory is where the computer stores all the information and applications that are currently running. When the computer runs out of memory, it very cleverly takes large portions of memory that haven’t been accessed in a while, and moves those ones and zeroes to the (infinitely slower) hard drive. If your app calls for something that it expects to be in memory, the operating system retrieves the data from the hard drive and puts it right back in memory. This is a simplification of the paging process, but for all intents and purposes, this is what’s happening. So, having more memory means less paging, which means a faster PC. Every app you keep open, and every tab you leave open in your browser is consuming a portion of that memory. In my opinion, you really need 8 GB (Gigabytes) of RAM on your computer to not get frustrated at how slow it gets after a while. Incidentally, this is why your computer feels so much faster after a reboot… the memory is starting fresh! If you would like to future proof your purchase, I would recommend springing for 16 GB of RAM, although you likely won’t notice a huge difference from 8. If you buy a computer with only 4 GB or 2 GB of RAM, understand that is going to be horrifically slow right out of the box. If you intend to run virtual machines on your PC, I would say 16 GB is the bare minimum, and 32 GB is optimal. One more note, many laptops cap out at 16 GB (even the top-of-the-line, $4,000 MacBook Pro) because the current generation of mobile CPUs can’t address low-powered RAM greater than 16 GB. Laptops that have 32 GB RAM or greater are using the power-hungry desktop class components, and are sacrificing a LOT of battery life.
 

Hard Drive

The hard drive is where your computer stores all the information you save, all your files, music, photos, and apps. Your next choice when buying a new computer comes down to how much storage you will need. There are two kinds of hard drives, however, and they greatly affect the price of the PC. The tradition spindle drive has spinning platters inside, and can store vast amounts of data, but is slow to read and write, because it has a physical drive head that moves at a set speed and the platters themselves only spin at 5400 or 7200 RPM. By contrast, SSDs are up to 40 times faster at reading and writing data because they have no moving parts, however they cost a lot more per gigabyte. My recommendation is to decide how much storage you need, and plan accordingly. If you have only have a few hundred gigabytes of data, get a computer with a 512 GB SSD. If you have more than a terabyte of data, you may need to get the slower (and cheaper) spindle style hard drive. It’s also possible to get the best of both worlds by having both in your PC. My current laptop has a 512 GB SSD and a 1 TB HDD. A word of warning, though: SSDs are so much faster than HDDs, once you go SSD you can never go back. Upgrading a computer from an HDD to an SSD is probably the biggest performance boost you can get, because the PC is constantly reading and writing to the storage device. More info on hard drives in a different blog of mine.
 

Display

Choosing a display is more important on a laptop than on a desktop, because you’re stuck with what you get, whereas on a desktop you can just buy a larger or better monitor at a later date. There are three variables, though, to look at when choosing the display type. The first is the size. Some people really like larger, 15” or even 17” laptop displays, while other prefer the more compact 11” or 13” models. On a desktop, you should buy at least a 23” monitor, because it sits further from your face than a laptop typically does. But the size is definitely about personal preference. The second factor is the resolution, which is how many dots are on the screen. Most displays are 1,920 pixels wide and 1,080 pixels tall—commonly referred to as 1080p. However, many modern computers now have a 4K option, which is essentially four times the number of pixels, weighing in at 3,840 pixels by 2,160 pixels. You can either use those extra pixels to show more content on the screen, or to show the equivalent of a 1080p screen but with much smoother graphics. The last consideration is whether to get a touch screen or non-touch screen. Windows 8 and 10 have been designed for a touch interface. Windows 7, Vista, XP and macOS are not designed for touch. I personally recommend getting a touch screen, because it makes Windows 10 so much nicer, but the touch feature often drives the price up.

Related to the display options, you may sometimes see a technical specification referencing the GPU. This is the Graphical Processing Unit, which is a little different than the CPU. On most computers, the CPU handles all the work in pushing all those millions of pixels to your display, usually around 60 times a second. But this, understandably, can slow down the CPU overall, since it has to work overtime. So on higher end computers a dedicated GPU chip is installed, and given its own dedicated RAM, to handle all operations to do with graphical rendering. This is known as “discreet graphics”, and the extra horsepower and RAM are so useful, many high-end video and CAD programs use the GPU to take the load off the CPU. It’s usually a significant extra expense, but if you plan to do high-end, graphically intensive work, or wish to connect to 4K monitors, discreet graphics are a must. It doesn’t really matter if you get AMD or NVidia, but the more memory, the better, with 2 GB of GPU RAM being a good starting place.
 

Other Considerations

If you buy a laptop, look at how many USB ports it has. Some tablets and laptops only have one or two USB ports, and you may have to purchase a USB hub to be able to plug in all your accessories. USB-C is emerging as the new de-facto connector, but for now, if you have USB-C ports, you’ll need adapters to go from USB-C to HDMI (for TVs and projectors and external monitors), USB-A (the USB connector you know, that takes three tries to get in the right way), RJ-45 (network cable) and any other cables. You should also look at options to dock your laptop at your desk to connect it to an external display, keyboard, mouse, and network.

If you are buying a PC, I highly recommend buying it from the Microsoft online store for two reasons: Windows Signature PC and Microsoft Complete. Windows Signature PC means there won’t be any bloatware (free trial software) preinstalled on your brand-new PC, slowing it down. No 90-day virus “protection” to hold you hostage when the trial period runs out. Just a clean install of Windows.
Speaking of Windows, be aware that there are multiple flavors of Windows 10 (and I wouldn’t recommend getting a PC with Windows 7 or 8.1, even if on sale), most notably Windows 10 Home and Windows 10 Pro. Home has several key features disabled, so I highly recommend making sure your new PC comes with Windows 10 Professional, especially if you intend to use it in a work environment. Microsoft Complete is their warranty program, and it’s well worth every penny, as it covers your device bumper to bumper for 2 years.

Hopefully this blog post has given you a better understanding of the tech specs listed with new PCs, and what the different components do. Of course, I’m writing this in November 2016, and all the minimum and optimal specs will be changed a few years from now, but hopefully, this will help you make an informed decision! I wanted to write this post as a resource for my fantastic clients under our managed IT services. If your organization is still trying to go it alone with IT, you really should give us a call!

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Samuel O. Blowes, Director of IT
Samuel O. Blowes

Director of IT

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