Computers: Explained (Info for the Layperson)

Seems like if you’re looking for a new laptop or desktop computer, there’s an avalanche of choices, especially in the mid budget range. Almost all of them these days will have 8 to 16GB (gigabytes) of RAM and a 256GB to 512GB SSD, but you may see much higher or lower specifications. What’s the difference? What should you pick?

Well, it all depends on what you use it for. And since computers and the technology inside them are constantly changing, it wouldn’t do us too much good to tell you “if you plan to do X, buy Y”. Instead, we thought we could explain a little bit about how computers work, what all the individual parts do, and what to look for if you’re planning on getting a new one.

Think of your computer like an office. The CPU is the person you hire to do all the work.

So, think of your computer like an office.  In an office, work gets done.  The person at the desk, doing the work?  That’s your CPU.  The smarter it is, the more work it can do, and faster.  These days, CPUs have multiple cores – that’s like having more than one CPU, but inside a single CPU!  So it’s like having several people working together in the office to get even more done.  Newer CPUs are workers that are trained with the newest skill sets and are energetic and efficient – so they typically work even faster. Many higher-end CPUs support HyperThreading, or some equivalent, which allow each individual core to work on two tasks simultaneously, creating “virtual cores”.

Intel and AMD introduce new processors frequently, sometimes with different names, sometimes with different “generations” of an existing name. It’s a bit confusing out there, so we don’t want to make recommendations on the basis of model names that might be irrelevant later. It’s best if you do a little of your own research into what each manufacturer is producing as budget, midrange and enthusiast processors.

Budget processors are entry-level. They get the job done, and that’s fine. But if you do a lot of things at once, you’ll want something in the midrange to enthusiast end.

Budget processors are the entry-level workers. They come in and get the job done, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they typically work at their own pace and don’t always multitask well. They might be fine for you if you just do Facebook and YouTube, word processing and the like. If you do a lot of things at once, or are into video editing, gaming, or 3D modeling, you’ll want a more skilled worker, something in the midrange to enthusiast end.

8 gigabytes of RAM is enough for most basic users… but think about the future, too!

The desk your CPU works at is your RAM. RAM is temporary memory where things that are being worked on by the CPU are stored, much like a desktop. RAM only stores information when the power is on, so when you turn off your computer, it’s instantly cleared – it’s as if the janitor decided to clear the desk after the workers leave for the day.

The bigger the desk, the more the CPU can work on simultaneously. If you have a small desk (that is, not much RAM), then the CPU has to stop and put things in the file cabinet and take out new things to work on, which slows everything down. Most cheaper computers come with 8 gigabytes of RAM, and this is enough for most basic users right now.

In fact, for modern Windows users, we’d recommend 8GB at minimum (all Mac products come with 8GB or more). If you’re the type that likes to open a lot of programs at once, or browse many web pages/tabs simultaneously, you should definitely consider 16GB. You’ll only need more than 16GB if you plan to work on really big projects – large video editing projects, massive Photoshop jobs, and so on. The average person should rarely make “full” usage of 16GB (or even 8GB) of RAM, but the 4GB you’ll find on older and dirt-cheap machines just isn’t enough anymore.

You will want to be mindful while making a purchasing decision and the associated research, that many modern computers come with “soldered” RAM, meaning it’s part of the motherboard and may not be upgradable at all. If the computer you’re interested in is configured like this, you’ll want to buy a bit ahead – get at least 16GB or what you think you might need 3-4 years out – so that you don’t end up with an overwhelmed computer down the road.

Your hard drive is where your personal data is permanently stored. And they don’t last forever.

The file cabinet is your hard drive, or HDD.  This is where everything is permanently stored – the operating system, which is like the employee’s handbook; and all your personal files, neatly organized into folders.

You can typically expect to go without trouble from your (typical consumer-grade) hard disk for around five years (or around 20,000 “power-on hours”, 2-1/4 years’ nonstop use) if they don’t get any abnormal damage (such as being dropped or bumped).  When they begin to fail, it’s as if you’ve damaged your file cabinet – maybe the rails are falling off and the workers can’t open a drawer, so important files can’t be accessed.

Or, perhaps more illustratively, it’s sort of like the file cabinet caught fire. It might start slowly, just smoldering, and things mostly seem normal, but things can quickly get out of hand and everything could be lost if you don’t deal with the situation quickly.

And an SSD?  That’s a solid state drive, which can supplement or replace a hard drive.  They have no moving parts, are battery efficient, and work very fast.  Imagine if the file cabinet were automatic and had a robot inside that, as soon as you think of a file you need, hands it to you almost instantly. SSDs are a bit more expensive than hard drives (at “cost per gigabyte”), but prices are far more attractive than they used to be and they are becoming more common in new computers. Since 2019, we no longer offer hard drives in our repairs and refurbished computers, defaulting to SSDs.

You’ll need to work out what balance of performance to price is best for you, but keep in mind that the average person (with basic workloads) typically uses less than 200 GB of storage in the lifetime of their computer. If you’re the type that saves every photo or tons of music and video, however, you’ll want something bigger.

The average person uses less than 200 GB of storage in the lifetime of their computer. This means inexpensive SSDs are an attractive alternative to traditional hard drives.

There used to be aother option, called an SSHD – a hybrid hard drive that is mostly mechanical storage, but has a small SSD partition where the things you use the most are automatically put, so that things like boot-up and commonly-launched programs will move faster. We noticed that these had an abnormally high failure rate, and when they fail, they tend to fail catastrophically, and you won’t find them in new computers anymore.

Those are the critical aspects of how your computer works, but let’s dive a little deeper into the analogy. A lot of equipment or components can be added to laptop and desktop computers.  Not all of these things can be added to all computers, but here’s a description of what a few of these things do.

A specialty graphics card, or GPU, handles video processing exclusively.  It’s almost like building an additional office that only handles graphic design. Graphics cards have their own workers, and their own desks!

There’s a lot of these, from the super-cheap $50 range (which mainly exist just to give your computer additional outputs), to the latest monster super-high-end gaming cards that run about $1,000+. There’s also specialty cards that can cost well over $2,000, but it’s extremely rare that one of our customers needs one of those. There’s plenty of great options for gaming at the $400-750 price range. If you’re looking to get into VR, $450 should get a graphics card strong enough to handle it (though the rest of your PC will also need to be up to speed!)

The two GPU makers are Nvidia and AMD, who sell their chips (GeForce and Radeon, respectively)  to other manufacturers, called OEMs, such as MSI, eVGA, Gigabyte, and many others, who build the cards in different variations. In 2022, Intel began introducing their own “ARC” GPUs, which may become an attractive option as well.

Don’t underestimate the importance of keeping your computer cool!

Fans, heatsinks, and water cooling devices are all different components that may be included in your cooling solution.  These things work like an A/C unit to help keep the office and the workers cool so they can do their best work.  Just like you tire quickly when you get too warm, computer components will slow if they get excessively hot. Unless you’re shopping for a specialty computer, this is a feature you don’t need to worry about too much, with the exception of dust buildup.

A hazard some people don’t know about is if their cooling solution fails for some reason – the most common cause is dust buildup, especially in laptops.  Imagine the air filter in the office getting so clogged that the A/C stops working.  Busy workers generate a lot of heat, and if they get too hot, they might pass out from heat exhaustion – this is when your computer switches off unexpectedly.  If things get too out of hand, they could even die – “bricking” your computer.

For desktop computers, you may have a choice between traditional air coolers and liquid coolers. We recommend air coolers for the vast majority of our customers, as they perform quite similarly under most conditions but without the added risks of introducing a pump and fluids into a computer. There are exceptions to this, though, for systems that make use of heavy overclocking (intentionally running the CPU or other components faster than they are rated for), or some top-end CPUs that basically require a liquid cooling device.

Power supplies, whether in a desktop or laptop computer, won’t last forever. Expect to replace them eventually.

Downstairs in the utility closet is the electrical room.  This is your computer’s power supply, or PSU, which converts AC to DC electricity.  These things don’t last forever; certain components are only rated to last so long, though you should expect to get five to ten years (or more!) out of a good one.  When they fail, they can usually be easily replaced, much like replacing an old circuit breaker. In a desktop computer, it’s usually a large metal box inside the case (some newer models use an external power supply). On laptops, it’s a plastic brick that plugs in externally.

The motherboard lets all the components talk to each other. There are expensive models out there, but if it has the features you want, there’s no need to spend a lot of money.

The floor of the office is like the motherboard; all the components stand on it and use it to get information from one place in the office to another.  The motherboard might not last forever either – just like how floors can rot, or get scratched up or damaged from heavy foot traffic; components on a motherboard degrade electrically over time.

Again, you should expect a good five to eight years or more out of a decent motherboard. Laptop boards are specific to their models, but desktop motherboards come in many shapes and sizes. Typically, there’s not a need to spend a ton of money on these, but there are expensive models with high-end components designed to last longer, add more features, and be more reliable. Your primary concern, though, if shopping for a desktop motherboard, is that it have all the features you want. There is likely to be a board with the features you want at a price that’s budget-friendly.

Poor build quality means a computer could fall apart even with normal use. You can ask us for advice before buying.

Lastly, the walls and roof of the office are like the case, (or body, if you have a laptop).  A good PC case or laptop body, one with excellent build quality, is like a well-built office.  It will offer adequate cooling and airflow, will have sturdy walls and be attractive, and last for many years.  With laptops, this is particularly important because a poor design means it could fall apart even with normal use.  Brittle plastics, bad hinge construction, and flimsy bits are like a shoddily-built office, that collapses on top of the workers within unexpectedly.

Brands go back and forth on their build quality, so we won’t make any recommendations in this article, but we do urge caution with plasticky computers. All-plastic is not all bad; but things aren’t quite the way they were when Toshiba was making unbreakable tanks out of plastic in the early 2000s. The drive to make laptops thinner and sleeker results in there being less structure inside the chassis, and plastics may disintegrate. Broken hinge mounts are quite common in all-plastic models that are very thin.

Another style to watch out for is the midrange-model aluminum-skin design. These boast a “metal body” or “metal feel”, which amounts to stamped aluminum with a glued-in plastic frame.  This isn’t necessarily bad either, but if screws get loose or things get over-stressed, the plastic can fall apart in a way that isn’t easily fixable. Dell makes some models with a carbon-fiber skin and a magnesium frame, which is also quite tough, but again, these components are glued together and if the glue fails, you may end up with a damaged chassis.

The “toughest” build style is usually milled aluminum. A solid block of metal is carved down into the body and frame of the laptop in one piece, and pieces screw directly to it. These models are mostly quite expensive, however, so don’t feel bad if it’s out of reach!

Finally, we’ll talk just a bit about brands. There’s a lot of computer manufacturers out there, and each one has their ups and downs. We never say “don’t buy this brand” because every brand has some great stuff. We will offer some general thoughts, however, about laptops from the following:

HP – avoid 17″ models as well as the following series: xx-bs, xx-ba, xx-by, xx-ca. These have structural issues and serious repairability problems. HP’s overall quality is a little lesser than some other brands but usually decent. Their customer service is good. Parts availability for repairs fluctuates. Their EliteBook business-class line is extremely expensive, but very well-built.

Dell – Their customer service is absolutely terrible but the products are generally good, at least from the midrange up. Parts availability is usually very good. We particularly like the body style on mid- to high-end Latitude products.

ASUS – Tread carefully as parts usually aren’t available on the open market for us to get, and repairability is low even when they can be found. Their products are overall usually very nice but sometimes a bit complicated (which can mean additional points of failure). Some of their cheapest Vivobook products have serious structural issues.

Acer – Also a little tough to get parts for sometimes, their build quality is kind of all over the place. Generally, though, these aren’t terrible, and many of their products are an excellent value. A great company for an entry gaming laptop. Some of their midrange basic models seem to have motherboard reliability concerns.

Apple – Excellent build quality, generally decent customer service. Make sure to take out third-party insurance, as there is very little repairability in current-generation MacBooks. Accidental damage costs an arm and a leg to fix, and we can’t even work on the latest models. That said, their value proposition on base-level models are excellent considering the overall build quality and premium materials.

Lenovo – Another company with broad variance in quality, their ThinkPad product line is (usually) impeccable, but rarely found in stores. Yoga and IdeaPad products are usually decent, but can be a bear to get parts for if damaged. Solid customer service and a long history. Warranty options on ThinkPads can be extended up to five years, and accidental damage coverage is optional too!

Framework – A new company, these laptops boast the highest repairability of any brand, and they sell replacement parts directly. While we have a few concerns about the structural design of the base frame, the ability to actually source OEM replacement parts means we can give our recommendation.

Razer – Build quality similar to Apple physically, but there seems to be some electrical QC concerns, with lots of reports of board issues.

LG – Some of the lightest laptops in the world with excellent build quality. They may feel like plastic, but it’s actually powdercoated magnesium, and they’re surprisingly sturdy, though the magnesium baseplate uses a plastic subframe for screw retention, which can fail with time. Can be tricky to obtain parts for if broken. Expensive-ish.

Google – Excellent build quality, low repairability. Very expensive.

Samsung – Decent build quality (except for older models), low repairability. Also very expensive. Hard to recommend but they do have their advantages and appeal.

Toshiba – No longer manufactures laptops, thank goodness. If you still have one, it’s overdue for replacement.

Sony – Also no longer manufactures laptops (also thank goodness). The VAIO product line lives on under another manufacturer, but they are not recommended as they are severely overpriced and not very well made.

Huawei, Chuwi, Xiaomi, Redmi, other brands – A lot of Chinese OEMs make laptops now, and some of them are OK, but software support, parts availability, and overall reliability is a game of roulette we don’t advise anyone reading this guide to play.

Gaming laptops – Several brands make these; on the upper end you may encounter boutique brands like Origin, Cyberpower, etc., and most of these are rebadged Clevo laptops. Clevo units are generally very powerful but tend to not be built very well. Parts can be hard to find. Gaming laptops run quite hot and typically have shorter lifespans than productivity laptops, but with care can easily last 5+ years. We are fans of the ASUS Zephyrus line.

Hopefully, this has helped give you an idea of what the components in your computer are doing and what an upgrade may or may not do for you. At The Computer Cellar, we can help you identify your needs and find a cost-effective solution for upgrades and repairs. Why not drop in?