“What’s the difference between a hard drive and memory?” “What kind of processor do I have?” It is difficult enough to read and understand a list of computer specs. Add to that the fact that you are still trying to figure out what type of system you already have or want to upgrade, and the entire process can become daunting.

In this guide, we will explore the role that every computer component plays, as well as how to determine what hardware specs your computer already has. A lot of consumers end up paying tons of money for a system or component that is considered “overkill” when compared to the tasks they are performing. This article can not only help you better understand computers, but it can also save you money when you want to upgrade your computer or buy a new one!

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Types of computer components

First, let’s look at the type of components that you will find in your computer. Once you know what to look for in a component, you will know what the specs mean when you inspect them on your own computer and be able to determine if you need to upgrade the components on your computer, buy a whole new computer, or leave everything as is.

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Motherboard

In recent years, motherboards have improved, and because of this, you should have less to worry about when it comes to video and sound. The integrated graphics built into most motherboards are more than capable of handling most computing tasks, unless you are playing high-resolution video games or editing videos.

The same can be said for your sound. Previously, you had to buy a separate sound card to plug your speakers into the computer, but now the built-in audio should be adequate for most speaker setups.

An excellent piece of advice on motherboards is to get one that fits both the case and Processor (CPU). Don’t forget to check that it has enough Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) and PCIe slots for your peripherals, as well as extra memory (RAM) slots for future expansion.

Processor (CPU)

Your CPU is one of the most crucial, but also one of the most expensive, parts in your computer. It plays a major role in the speed of a computer. A processor’s type will also influence the size and shape of your computer. The Core i5 Processor makes a computer faster than one with a Core i3, but you’ll have to pay more for it. Therefore, it really is up to you if it is worth spending the extra money on a faster computer.

Smaller netbook and notebook processors are used in compact PCs and some all-in-ones. The performance of these CPUs is lower than desktop processors, but they are smaller and generate less heat. Buying a CPU requires finding a motherboard and socket that can support it. So, if you purchased a CPU with the LGA 775 socket, then your motherboard must also have the same socket to fit. You will not need to worry about this if you are purchasing a pre-assembled computer or notebook.

Intel Core i3 CPUs can perform basic computing tasks such as surfing the web, playing music, streaming movies, and typing documents. For users who play high-end games or edit hours of audio or video clips, the i5 and i7 are recommended.

Memory (RAM)

The more memory your system has, the more smoothly your programs will run. If you run multiple programs and web browsers simultaneously, you will need a sufficient amount of RAM. Accordingly, you should have at least 4 GB of memory. If your budget allows, get 8 GB or even 16 GB. Gamers, programmers, and other users that need more memory may need 32 GB or even 64 GB.

Let’s take a quick look at the different types and speeds of memory. DDR2, DDR3, and DDR4 RAM are currently available, and each one in this list is faster than the one before it. In addition, the clock speed is given in MHz, and the greater the number, the faster it is. When it comes to prioritizing, which one should you choose first? You should put most of your attention on RAM (4 GB, 8 GB, etc.). In other words, if you have a choice between 4 GB of DDR4 and 8 GB of DDR3, you should pick the second option because you will see better performance.

Hard drive

There are two types of hard drives on the market today: hard disk drives and solid state drives.

A majority of hard disk drives are Serial ATA-300 models, which spin at 7,200 rpm. You don’t need to worry about the hard drive’s speed unless you plan to do a lot of disk-intensive tasks. The main concern will be the hard drive’s capacity. As the price per gigabyte has plummeted in recent years, you shouldn’t have to break the bank to get a decent hard drive. For your basic computing needs, I’d recommend getting at least a 500GB hard drive. A 1TB or bigger drive is ideal.

But if you can, it is best to get a solid state hard drive, especially for the main hard drive that your operating system will use if you plan on having more than one. At one time, the cost of solid state drives was prohibitive, but now you can get one for only a little more than one with a spinning disk. They are a lot faster at reading and writing, draw less power, and have a longer lifespan.

Graphics card (GPU)

In most cases, the video card can be optional unless you are a hardcore gamer or need to run video editing software on your computer. With motherboards that include built-in video adapters or graphics processing units (GPUs), you won’t need a separate video card anymore. As a result, you will experience less visual quality, but as a regular computer user, most of the difference will probably not be noticeable.

If you plan to play computer games or run software that requires high-quality graphics or 3D rendering, you will need a separate video card. This way, your RAM won’t be overwhelmed, resulting in higher speed and performance. There are many types of video cards out there, but PCIe cards are most common because most motherboards support them.

Power supply

You may not know this, but your computer actually doesn’t use the alternating current (AC) that comes from a power outlet directly. It actually runs on direct current (DC). The power supply of a computer converts AC power into the DC power that your system uses. It also converts the voltage to the three types of voltages that various types of computer components use: 3.3 volts, 5 volts, and 12 volts.

There are also three types of power supplies: AT, ATX, and ATX-2. You will want an ATX-2 power supply for modern computers, but an ATX power supply will also work.

When you are looking for a power supply for your system, the most important things to consider are the wattage rating of the power supply and the type of power connectors it uses. Power supplies can come with a wattage rating from 200 watts to 1,800 watts. You need a power supply for your system that can supply enough watts for all of its components. High-performance computers with gaming GPUs and a lot of memory will need more power. Some power supplies come with power connectors that are hard-wired to the supply. Others are modular and allow you to detach and replace the cables.

Desktop case

A good case can make a world of difference when building a desktop PC. Having a well-designed case means having tool-free access to the interior, easy slide-out trays for mounting hard drives, easily accessible USB and memory slots, color-coded cabling, and ample interior space.

As a gamer, you will want to focus mainly on the case’s cooling capabilities. A lot of the newer computer games can be extremely demanding on the system, which can lead to overheating. What is the maximum number of case fans that can be installed in the case? Is there a cooling system in place?

Alternatively, the Micro-ATX case is smaller than the standard ATX case. People who are building a home theater computer (HTPC) should look into these. Although these systems follow ATX specifications, they often require Mini-ITX motherboards and come with fewer expansion slots.

Other Important Specs

USB ports

You should at the very least have USB ports available for your mouse and keyboard. There may be other peripherals that require a USB port, such as a wireless network card, flash drive, external hard drive, printer, web camera, phone cable, etc. Besides USB and USB 2.0 ports, there is now USB 3.0, and each step up can make a significant difference when transferring documents. Since the plug differs from the other USB plugs, you must have a USB 3.0 device to take advantage of USB 3.0.

Network card

Most systems come with a network interface card (NIC), but not all of them include a wireless network interface card (WNIC). If you purchase a wireless network interface card that meets IEEE 802.11 standards, you should have no trouble connecting to any network wirelessly. There is also a USB WNIC that you can plug into any system, and they are available for as little as $15 at most stores.

Sound card

There’s no need to worry about the sound on motherboards because they’re already built-in (like the video card). If you have expensive speakers or are using your system for sound editing and recording, consider a separate sound card with more features and functions.

Screen size

In a product image, the size of the screen is shown as the actual viewing size. A 17-inch monitor, for example, will have a 17-inch diagonal measurement, indicating a 17-inch viewing size. Laptops usually have a 15.6-inch display.

How to check computer specs

How you check the specs on your desktop or laptop depends on what type of operating system you are using. In this article, we will cover both Mac OSX and modern versions of the Windows operating system.

How to Check What Motherboard You Have

To determine the type of motherboard you have in a Windows machine, follow these steps:

computer motherboard

To find what type of motherboard you have on an Apple computer, do the following:

How to check what processor (CPU) you have

To find the processor you are running Windows, follow these steps:

To check your processor on an Apple computer, do the following:

How to check how much memory (RAM) you have

To determine how much memory you have in a Windows machine, follow these steps:

To find how much RAM you have on an Apple computer, do the following:

How to check how much storage (hard drive space) you have

To determine how many gigabytes of storage you have in a Windows computer, follow these steps:

To find how much hard drive space you have on an Apple computer, do the following:

Graphics card

How to check what graphics card (GPU) you have

To determine the type of graphics card you have in a Windows machine, follow these steps:

To find what type of GPU you have on an Apple computer, do the following:

Now that you know your computer specs

Now that you know your computer’s specs, you can decide if your computer is good enough for the work, game playing, or web surfing you do. If not, you can decide whether it is time for a component upgrade or a complete computer upgrade.

If you plan to upgrade the components, then the computer components you currently have will determine what type of components you can replace them with, especially your motherboard. Your motherboard will only fit certain types of CPU and RAM and will have a limited number of card slots. Upgrading your graphics card will depend on the type of power supply the motherboard already has, since more powerful graphics cards use more power and could overtax a smaller power supply.

If you have an older system, it may just be better to either build or buy a whole new computer. But now you know what to look for when it comes to computer specs and can find the perfect computer to fit your needs.

Page Last Updated: October 2021

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