7 things you need to look for when buying a new computer

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Flickr/IntelFreePress

There are tons of lists online that suggest what computer you should buy, but there are so many great computers out there that any list is incomplete.

You’re better off knowing what will cater to your specific needs. That way, you can look for the right computer for you, even if it may not be found in the hundreds of roundups online.

Below, I’ve listed what kind of specs you should consider based on what kind of user you are, whether you’re a professional, power user, casual user, or use a computer purely for email. Everything below applies to both laptops and desktops, as well as Windows and Mac machines.

Check it out:


High-end specs: Smooth, fast performance for professionals, power users, and those who don’t want to wait for things to happen on their computers.

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Huawei

Who it’s for: Professionals. Anyone who wants the smoothest performance no matter the cost. Power users who have lots of open web browser tabs, run several apps at the same time, or use power-hungry apps like Photoshop. Anyone with low patience for waiting for their computer and apps to work.

Price: Around $1,500 and up. More for Apple computers.

CPU: Core i7 processor and up

RAM: 16GB of RAM and up

Storage: 250GB SSD and up

Size and weight for laptops: Can be thin and light, but usually cost more and could have less power. Can be big and heavy, but don’t cost as much with more power


Mid-range specs: Good for professionals and power users on a budget, and probably “most users” in general.

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Newegg/Dell

Who it’s for: Professionals on a budget. Power users on a budget. Those with patience who run lots of open web browser tabs and apps. Casual users who don’t use computers that often but want smooth performance when they do.

Price: Between $500 and $1,000. More for Apple computers.

CPU: Core i5 processor

RAM: 8-16GB of RAM

Storage: 250GB SSD and up

Size and weight: Can be thin and light, but usually cost more and could have less power. Can be big and heavy, but don’t cost as much with more power


Low-end specs: Decent performance for casual users and people who don’t really use computers that often.

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Amazon/Acer

Who it’s for: People who don’t use computers that often. And when they do, it’s for things like emails, general web browsing and shopping, and home-related tasks like tax apps and so on. Can work for power users on a budget, but they’ll need to have patience for the computer and apps to work.

Price: Between $400 and $700

CPU: Core i3 processor

RAM: 4-8GB of RAM

Storage: 120-250GB SSD and up

Size and weight: Can be thin and light, but usually cost more and could have less power. Can be big and heavy, but don’t cost as much with more power


What is RAM and how much do you need?

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Business Insider

RAM stands for “random access memory.” It’s the short term memory for your computer that stores the apps that you’re using actively or have open in the background at any given time. The more stuff you do in those apps, like several open web browser tabs, the more RAM you need.

Some might argue that the amount of RAM a computer has can actually be more important than what processor and power it has. The thinking here is that the common, basic apps you’re running on a computer, like a web browser or Microsoft Word, don’t actually require a lot of processing power. Basic apps will run fine on a low-power processor, but they’ll perform slowly if you don’t have enough RAM.

The standard amount of RAM is 8GB these days. That’s fine for patient, casual computer users.

Personally, I won’t buy a computer if it has less than 16GB of RAM. Having more RAM than you think you need has been invaluable in my experience. I’m very impatient and need the freedom to have as many open browser tabs I want while simultaneously running the Slack office messaging app and sometimes Adobe Photoshop.


How about the processor?

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Thomson Reuters

Once you’ve established how much RAM you think you need – and then doubled it – the CPU (processor) should be the next spec you look at.

Many of the computers you’ll be looking at will come with CPUs from Intel, and they generally come in more-or-less easily discernible performance packages. The Core i3 line is a relatively low-powered line of CPU. The Core i5 is mid-range, and the Core i7 is top of the line. Some computers have ultra-powerful Core i9 models, but people who buy those computers already know what they’re looking for.

With Intel’s latest 8th generation of CPUs, almost all of its models have at least four cores, including the low-power Core i3 models. Higher-end models have six or more cores. The more cores a CPU has, the faster it can open and run several apps at the same time. With that in mind, a Core i3 will actually suit a lot of people for basic tasks, more so than previous generations of Core i3 CPUs that only had two cores.

The reason why you’d want a mid-range Core i5 or high-end Core i7 is if you want to open and run many apps at the same time even faster.

As it is with RAM, casual users who don’t really use computers that often will be fine with Core i3 CPUs. But those who use computers a lot will want to look at the Core i5 at least, and potentially Core i7 models.

Personally, I don’t buy a computer with anything less than a Core i7. I want apps to open quickly when I need them, and I want them to do the things they do as fast as possible for my work. For example, I benefit from using a Core i7 when I run Photoshop to bring you some of the pretty photos of products I write about. I have no time to waste for things to load and render while editing and saving photos. And as for web browser tabs, I have no time to wait for slow tab switching while researching for a story.

Some computers come with AMD’s line of Ryzen processors. I don’t have much experience with AMD’s processors, so I can’t accurately say which one will work for what type of user you are.


How much storage you need is up to you.

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Amazon/Crucial

No matter what, make sure the computer you want to buy has an “SSD” drive rather than a typical “HDD” hard drive. SSDs can drive up the cost of a computer, but they’re much faster than HDDs and make a significant difference in how snappy your computer feels while doing pretty much anything, especially opening apps.

If you’re on a budget, some computers come with both a small capacity SSD for the operating system and apps, and a large capacity HDD for big files like photos and videos. You could always get a computer with a decent capacity SSD and get an external hard drive for bigger files that you don’t always need on your computer at all times.

As far as capacity goes, that’s mostly up to you. I’d check how much space your current computer has and figure out whether or not you wish it had more storage.


Something to think about: Screen size for laptops and monitors.

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Apple

Laptops come with displays that most often range between 12 and 15 inches, and it makes a significant difference in how many apps and windows you can squeeze onto the screen at the same time.

Like storage, this one is up to you. If you like big screens, go for a 15-inch model. Just know that it’ll be bigger, heavier, and less portable overall than a laptop with a smaller display.

It’s also worth noting that some smaller laptops in the 13-inch range might not be available with the specs you want. Some don’t come with 16GB of RAM, for example, or a Core i7. But most computer makers let you configure the specs if the default models they have on display online or at the store don’t meet your needs.

As for monitors, the average is about 24 inches these days, which can suit most people. Whether you go smaller or larger is entirely up to you.


Something else to think about: Screen resolution for laptops and monitors.

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Apple

This is perhaps the least important aspect for many people, but it’s the difference between a “good” experience and a “premium” experience.

The standard these days is 1080p resolution (1920 x 1080), which is sharp enough for most people. But if you want a more premium experience, go for a model with at least 1440p resolution (2560 x 1440), or even 4K/UHD (ultra high definition) displays.

As you’d expect, higher resolution laptops and monitors cost more, so base this decision on your budget.


You may also want to consider the overall size and weight when it comes to laptops.

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Apple

If portability is what you’re after, you’re probably better off with a laptop with a 13-inch or smaller display. Most importantly, some “ultrabook” laptops can be incredibly thin and light.

Just be wary that those ultrabook laptops might have CPUs with less power than thicker and heavier laptops, even if they have the same CPU model numbers. That’s because slim laptops can’t cool the CPU as well as larger laptops, so the chip speed needs to be dialed down a little to prevent damage from heat.

But if you prize performance, you’ll have to sacrifice a little portability. It depends on what you’re comfortable with and how much performance you’re willing to part with.


Mac or Windows?

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A 2013 MacBook Pro (left) and the 13.5-inch Surface Book 2 (right).
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Edoardo Maggio/Business Insider

Again, this is totally up to you, but you can mostly do anything you want on either operating system; it just depends on what you’re comfortable with. Some professional apps only work on Apple devices, but the professionals know what they’re looking for and what works on what systems.

It can also depend on what other devices you’re using, too. If you’re an Apple fan with an iPhone and Apple Watch, it makes a lot of sense to look into Macs because of the seamless integration between all those devices.

For laptops specifically, I will say that MacBook laptops have significantly better trackpads than any Windows laptop I’ve tried. It’s almost worth the entire premium pricing of Apple laptops compared to Windows machines.


As always, the bottom line is your budget.

Casual computer users have the luxury of spending less on their computers, as they don’t need a powerful computer. But those who use computers often for intense work and play aren’t so lucky when it comes to price tags.

The truth of the matter is that better performance or lighter designs usually comes with higher prices. But more often than not, you get what you pay for when it comes to computers.