What Computer Specs Really Mean

Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

Buying a new computer, upgrading or troubleshooting on older system can leave you trapped in a mess of acronyms, jargon and numbers that may look like English but can leave you baffled. We looked at some of the key specs on modern PCs and used our nerd-to-human translator to help you make sense of them.

The complexity of the modern-day computer means we could have written an article twice this size on any one of the categories below (look at any graphics card forum for proof). 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.

CPU

Image: Peter Miller/Flickr

Your computer's Central Processing Unit, or CPU, or processor, is the brains of the operation: it handles all those calculations that keep your computer actually working. It's the main contributor to your system's overall speed and performance.

In the old days, most PCs shipped with just one processor. For a little while, systems capable of housing multiple processors where around until chipmakers like Intel and AMD figured out that instead of making CPUs with one big core, they could boost performance by making a CPU with a bunch of smaller processor cores working together.

That's good news for boosting performance but it means there's no really easy way too just look at the numbers on a CPU's packaging to gauge which might be the faster choice. 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.

Adding further complexity is that 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. The simple rule is that newer microarchitectures are better than old ones.

Intel and AMD also apply their own labels — i3, i5, i7 and i9 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 i9 CPUs the best of the bunch from Intel. In AMD's case, you're talking about Ryzen 3, Ryzen 5, Ryzen 7 and the top-end Ryzen Threadripper.

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.

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 grunt you may not need a separate card or chipset.

Graphics

Image: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo

The other big factor in computer performance, particularly if you're gaming or working with a lot of video and images, is graphics. It would be possible to write a book just on graphics card tech so what follows is a summary.

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 as well as the CPU.

Integrated graphics share memory with the CPU and aren't as powerful as having a dedicated (or discrete) card, but it's a cheaper option that also draws less power, which is why it's often deployed on laptops where battery life is important.

Wherever it's installed on your system, the GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) churns through calculations just like the CPU does, but only the number-crunching related to rendering pictures, animations, and videos on screen. GPUs are much better at performing many operations in parallel, as you can see here, which is why they're now being used in other areas like science and encryption.

Image: Nvidia

In terms of specs, it's not particularly easy to weigh one graphics card or GPU against another. You'll see reference to number of compute units (like cores in a CPU) and raw clock speed. As with a CPU, these are two key factors to consider, but also keep an eye out for FLOPS, or Floating Point Operations Per Second — a type of maths operation particularly important in graphics.

Video card GPUs come with their own RAM or video RAM (vRAM). This works in a similar way to the computer's main RAM, but deals solely with graphics (with the same specs references to speed and bandwidth). The more RAM your graphics card has, the more pixels it can render in memory at once, which leads to games running at higher resolutions with faster frame rates.

Essentially video cards are like separate miniature computers, with processors, RAM and architecture all of their own, and the same performance factors apply.

For the non-expert, there are a couple of useful shortcuts to working out how powerful a graphics setup is without having to pour over the specs in too much detail: how much it costs and the benchmarks reported on the web.

RAM

Image: Glenn Batuyong/Flickr

Random Access Memory or RAM gives your computer room to think, and the more of it the better, as long as you can afford it. When you've got 100 browser tabs open, the RAM is the first to suffer, because your computer's trying to remember what's in all of those 100 tabs at once.

More RAM helps your computer deal with larger images and files, or more images and files at once, or more open tabs, or more applications running simultaneously — it's not a direct measure of the raw speed of your machine but it certainly helps performance, especially when you're trying to do a lot.

If the RAM gets overloaded, your computer sometimes stores data it needs on the (slower) hard drive instead, which is one reason more RAM equals a speedier experience.

For the majority of users shopping for a desktop or laptop, all that really matters is how much RAM is installed, but dig deeper and there are plenty of additional specs to consider — especially if you're trying to build the fastest computer you can.

Image: The Beard/Flickr

Clock speeds appear again, usually in terms of a frequency rate, which help to determine how fast the RAM can read and write data as well as how much data the RAM can handle at once (its overall transfer rate). Latency, or how fast the RAM responds to instructions, is an important specification as well.

One other prominent specification is DDR or Double Data Rate, with DDR5 being the best yet although the first DDR5 memory only hit the market this year. More likely, you'll find DDR4 memory in high-end systems for now with DDR3 still common.

Yet more RAM specifications relate to stability and how well your RAM sticks can handle errors, but again, this isn't something that most of us will have to worry about: the performance differences only become apparent in very specialist tasks.

Other computer specs

Image: Marlon J. Manrique/Flickr

The CPU, RAM, and graphics are the main specs to consider when assessing your own computer or looking out for a new one, but there are of course other components to bear in mind as well, which you'll see in system listings.

The hard drive is very simply the amount of room you've got to store stuff permanently (it remembers its data, unlike the RAM). Need more storage? Get a bigger hard drive. But if it's performance you seek, then solid-state drives (SSDs) have no moving parts and are much faster than mechanical hard disk drives. However, they are more expensive.

One of the easiest ways to give an ageing, slow computer a speed bump is to swap out the old hard drive for an SSD.

You probably won't give any thought to your motherboard unless you have to build a PC yourself, but it acts as the nervous system for the whole machine and connects all the various bits together. Motherboard specs, such as they are, don't make a huge difference to overall performance but they can help the key components work together more efficiently and faster. The motherboard also dictates how many input and output ports you've got on your system.


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