Computer specs can be a baffling mix of acronyms and numbers at the best of times, but it’s worth learning something about them: It’ll help you choose a new computer, troubleshoot your old computer, and generally understand more about the relationship between the specs on the page and the experience you’re getting.
Such is the complexity of the modern-day computer, we could’ve written an article twice this size on any one of the categories listed below (look at any graphics card forum for proof)—but the main aim here is to help you understand the specs you see listed with desktops and laptops, and give you an idea of the difference they make to performance.
The Central Processing Unit, or CPU, or processor, is the brains of the operation: it handles all those calculations that keep your computer actually working. The CPU inside your machine is the main (but not the only) contributor to its overall speed and performance.
CPUs have a certain number of cores, mini computing units that are effectively CPUs in their own right—they let your computer work on multiple tasks at the same time, so the more cores the better. On top of this, each core has a clock speed, a measurement of how fast it can do its number crunching, usually measured in gigahertz (GHz).
Comparing the performance of CPUs based on core number and clock speeds is notoriously difficult (sorry shoppers). That’s because multiple factors are involved, most related to the microarchitecture of the CPUs. The microarchitecture is basically the way that the cores and the other bits of a CPU are packed together.
The two big computer CPU makers, Intel and AMD, have their own microarchitecture designs. When you see references to Intel Skylake, Intel Kaby Lake, or AMD Zen (on Ryzen chips), this is what’s being referred to, and newer is always better as successive microarchitectures allow the CPU to work faster and more efficiently (and use less power).
Intel and AMD also apply their own labels—i3, i5, and i7 in Intel’s case—to indicate relative performance within a microarchitecture family. It’s a useful shorthand reference to the power you can expect, with i7 CPUs the best of the bunch from Intel. In AMD’s case, you’re talking about Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5 and the top-end Ryzen 7.
If you want the very best processors around, you should also look out for what Intel calls hyper-threading and what AMD calls simultaneous multi-threading. These technologies effectively double the number of cores (virtually, not physically) so you’ve got significantly improved performance for demanding applications like video editing or CAD software.
Unless you’re building your own PC from scratch, that’s probably all you need to know when looking at system listings, but CPUs have numerous other specs, including the amount of high-speed memory cache and the extra graphics processing capabilities that are on board. If your CPU has enough integrated graphics oomph, you don’t need a separate card or chipset, of which more below.
The other big factor in computer performance, particularly if you’re gaming or working with a lot of video and images, is graphics.
We only gave it a brief mention in the processor section, but many Intel CPUs now come with a decent amount of graphics processing power built in, enough for most users to get by with a bit of web browsing, Twittering, essay writing and even light image editing and gaming. You can also get integrated graphics chipsets built into the motherboard…
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