Hz, GBs, and RAM: How much is enough?

Last week, we went over the differences between Macs, PCs, and Linux boxes.

But when you're out buying a computer, what about all that other stuff? You know what I mean - those extra numbers, talking about memory, and hard disk space, and processor speed, and... WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE SO HARD?!

So, let's break it down, item by item.  I'll only cover processors, hard disk space, and RAM today, but I'll get to the other major aspects of computer buying over the next few weeks!

Processor (Hz): This is the "brain" of the computer - it does all the major calculations necessary for your programs to run.  The faster your processor is, the quicker your programs will run.

How fast of a processor is enough? 1.0 GHz is enough for most basics, i.e. checking email, writing letters, reading the news online, etc.  Most computers these days come with at least a 2.0 GHz processor, which is more than enough.  If you are a gamer, however (which requires a LOT of processing, with all the components of characters, background scenery, etc.), you'll want the fastest processor you can afford - otherwise the rest of the game will be going on around you while you're still trying to turn around.

What brand of processor do you need? There are two major brands: Intel and AMD.  Honestly, they're both good.  Intel has a bigger reputation/control of the processor market, but is thus also a bit more expensive.  Either one is fine.

Hard Disk Space (GB): The hard disk (aka hard drive) is where all your permanent stuff is stored, i.e. your files like photos, videos, songs, term papers, etc.  The larger this space, the more you can store.

How much space is enough? It all comes down to how much storage you think you'll need.  If you are using your computer for storing documents, you won't need more than 50 GB.  Music and pictures will need more space, while videos will need the most.  Computers today come with an average 300GB hard drive, which is really a LOT.  But, keep in mind that you will very easily be able to upgrade your hard drive to even 1TB (1 terabyte = 1000 GB) if you need more space.  Equivalently, consider getting an external hard drive for both regularly backing up your system (which I HIGHLY recommend doing) and storing the stuff that you only need to refer to every once in a while (i.e. your homework assignments from middle school or your tax returns from 5 years ago).

What brand of hard drive should I get? Hard drives are pretty much the same, no matter what brand you choose.  Just get the one that makes the most sense to you financially.  (Note: if you're getting a laptop or pre-configured desktop computer, you won't have much say in the brand of your hard drive, or even processor, for that matter.  Don't worry about it - just choose the size that works best for you.)

Random Access Memory (RAM): The difference between RAM and your hard drive is the difference between thinking about your next article and finally writing it down.  RAM stores your ideas temporarily - when you finally hit the 'Save' button, the information moves from RAM to your hard drive.  The more RAM you have, the more multitasking or heavy processing you can do.  Keep in mind, though, that RAM is cleared out every time you restart your computer - so if you're working on your term paper or the Next Great American Novel, be sure to SAVE your work regularly!  If your computer crashes (which will happen, at some point, no matter whether you have a Mac, PC, or Linux box) and you haven't saved your work, it will be lost.  I repeat: YOUR HARD-EARNED WORK WILL BE LOST.  Just ask any student who breaks down the night before the deadline because the computer ate her homework.  (Yes, I'm speaking from personal experience.)

How much RAM is enough? 1 GB is enough for most people; 2 GB seems to be standard now.  If you are a heavy multitasker, or you happen to use memory-hogging programs for things like gaming, video editing, etc., I recommend going as high as you can afford (i.e. 4-8GB).  You won't regret it.

What brand should I get? Again, this probably isn't a question you need to be asking - chances are the manufacturer of your future laptop or desktop computer will make the decision for you.  If you're upgrading your memory or building your computer from scratch, check out Amazon.com or Newegg.com for reviews - there are so many memory manufacturers now that they're all pretty similar, though certain brands/models have a higher tendency to be dead on arrival.

And that's it!  Simple, right?  (I promise: manufacturers aren't purposely trying to confuse you!)

Next week, I'll cover the ins and outs of Laptops vs. Desktops (and I'll talk about optical drives, monitors, and more in the coming weeks)!

Questions? Comments? Requests for other information? Leave me a note in the comments section below!