I recently had to upgrade my laptop computer and was amazed at how overwhelming the selection can be these days. GPU, SSD and RAM are just some of the alphabet soup phrases you’ll hear from the overzealous twenty-something salesperson, to the point that your eyes glaze over and none of it means anything anymore.
Having deal with this myself, I called the tech gurus at Toshiba and asked if they’d help me break it down for the average Joe. We covered the RAM factor, SSD (solid state drives that use flash memory) versus traditional platter based hard drives, the GPU (graphics processor unit) question, and some basic budget shopping tips the average user can confidently use.
The RAM Factor:
After talking to many enthusiastic sales staff member, the standard advice has always seemed to be to grab as much RAM as possible. But it turns out the answer is a little more nuanced than that. While entry-level computer users can get by on as little as the two gigs that come standard with basic equipment, most people do need the minimum four gigs that come with the starter machines at the mid-range level. That’s because when jumping from two gigs of RAM to four, you do get a noticeable performance bump.
However, according to the Toshiba tech gurus, four gigs is enough to handle what most average users need to do with their machines. And when you bump from four to six gigs, the performance increase is only a fraction of what your get from the two gig to four gig jump. So yes, it’s a good idea to grab more RAM, but it’s only critical at the lower ranges (at least for the average user).
So if you’re surfing the Internet and running Microsoft Office, 2GB is plenty. If you’re going to be running applications for work, or often find yourself running many programs at once, get 4GB. And if you’re editing videos, playing the latest games, or running numerous virtual machines, the sky is the limit.
SSDs Versus Standard Hard Drives:
SSD stands for solid state drive. The main difference between standard hard drives and solid state drives is that they have no moving parts, so they make for a faster and more stable data storage environment. Since SSDs only tend to be available on higher end machines at this point however, choosing one over a regular hard drive isn’t really an option for the average use on a more mid-range budget. But if you can afford the equipment upgrade, you get a slightly longer battery life, faster response times, and faster read-write times in exchange for the huge premium.
Generally speaking, the price of solid state drives falls along the path of Moore’s law, and we can’t justify the price.
What’s a GPU and Do I Need One?
A GPU is a graphics processing unit, and really only comes into play if you decide to purchase a system with discrete graphics versus one with integrated graphics. Integrated graphics processing takes place in a module bundled with the CPU that comes with every machine and uses the same shared memory. It’s the more affordable option, and more than adequate for the average user.
For hard core gamers and video crunchers, discrete graphics, while more expensive, are a must, as they offload the most intense video processing functions to a special processor much better suited for that sort of thing. Discrete graphics processing occurs with separate memory and on a separate processing unit.
Budget Buying Tips for the Average Joe:
First off, buy the best mid-range machine you can afford and skip the cost of a higher end machine. You’ll get all the functionality you’re likely to need for years to come. Second, go with the integrated graphics. You’ll save money, and unless you’re an uber-gamer or video producer, the integrated graphics option will meet your needs sufficiently. And last, don’t get suckered into buying more than 4GB of RAM. If you really need more than that, chances are you know enough about computers to make that decision without our help.
And Finally, Some Financial Tidbits:
I can’t help but throw in some financial advice as well. With big-ticket purchases like this, people are often tempted to sign up for store credit cards with 0% introductory APRs in order to get “a free loan” out of the deal. But taking out extra credit cards can hurt your credit score and it won’t save you that much money. Instead, you’re better off using one of your existing cash back credit cards and shopping through their online rewards malls, saving 5-10% on the purchase price. That’s guaranteed cash back and doesn’t require you to take on additional credit obligations.
Armed with the proper information, purchasing a new laptop doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can get all the functionality you need and still stay on budget.