The Ultimate Computer Hardware Guide

System Specs

How to dole out system advice like a pro

Warning: As a PC expert, you will be called upon often by family and friends for system-buying advice. After all, purchasing a new PC retail can be a daunting task for the average consumer. Remember, you might know the difference between an AMD FX-8350 and FX-6100, but will Aunt Peg?

This machine is probably too much PC for Aunt Peg to handle.

No, Aunt Peg will walk into the local Big Box with the goal of spending $750 on a basic all-in-one and end up walking out with a $3,000 SLI rig. We’re not saying that Aunt Peg doesn’t like getting her frag on as much as the rest of us, but let’s face it, she needs some basic buying tips.

CPU

Peg, what level of CPU you require depends on your needs. If your idea of a good time is Bejeweled, email, and basic photo editing, a dual-core processor of any model except Atom is more than enough. If you’re looking for more performance, the good thing is that Intel and AMD’s model numbers can mostly be trusted to represent actual performance. A Core i5 is greater than a Core i3 and an A10 is faster than an A8. If you are doing home video editing, Peg, consider paying for a quad-core CPU or more.

RAM

There are three known levers pulled when convincing consumers to buy a new PC: CPU, storage size, and amount of RAM. You’ll often see systems with low-end processors loaded up with a ton of RAM, because someone with a Pentium is really in the market for a system with 16GB of RAM (not!). For most people on a budget, 4GB is adequate, with 8GB being the sweet spot today. If you have a choice between a Pentium with 16GB and a Core i3 with 8GB, get the Core i3 box.

Storage

Storage is pretty obvious to everyone now, and analogous to closet space. You can never have enough. What consumers should really look for is SSD caching support or even pony up for an SSD. SSD caching or an SSD so greatly improves the feel of a PC that only those on a very strict budget should pass on this option. SSDs are probably one of the most significant advances to PCs in the last four years, so not having one is almost like not having a CPU. How large of an SSD do you need? The minimum these days for a primary drive is 120GB, with 240GB being more usable.

GPU

There’s a sad statistic in the PC industry: Americans don’t pay for discrete graphics. It’s sad because a good GPU should be among the top four specs a person looks at in a new computer. Integrated graphics, usually really bad Intel integrated graphics, have long been a staple of American PCs. To be fair, that’s actually changing, as Intel’s new Haswell graphics greatly improves over previous generations, and for a casual gamer, it may even finally be enough. Still, almost any discrete GPU is still faster than integrated graphics these days. Aunt Peg might not play games, but her kids or grandkids might and not having a GPU will give them a frowny face. A GeForce 650 or Radeon HD 7770 is a good baseline for any machine that will touch games.