So You Think You Can Tech: Best Computer

Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Tech Tuesday at the Jacksonville Public Library

A question I’m often asked is, “What computer should I get?” This presupposes that there is a platonic ideal computer floating somewhere out in the ether. So before you get excited, before you get to the edge of your seat, I am going to let you down. There is no perfect computer. Well, none accept mine of course, but it’s mine and you can’t have it.

Seriously though, there is no perfect computer. There is only the computer that is perfect for you.

I can hear you saying right now, “But John, isn’t that the same thing?”

It absolutely isn’t. What is perfect for you may not be perfect for me. And that is okay. We all have our own needs and today we’re going to look at a few things that will help get you your best computer.

#How do we get started?

They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Thankfully, we won’t be walking that far. Or maybe at all.

Regardless, we need to establish some criteria from which we can build out our best computer. For today we are going to break computers down into three broad categories; 1) Entry Level, 2) Medium Work, 3) Hardcore Mode. We’ll check out each in turn and try to determine what’s best for you.

Whichever one you choose though, all will be able to do some core tasks. Read and write emails, handle office documents, access the internet, and use Zoom.

#Entry Level

We start here on the ground floor. The most basic of computers. Now if you are unsure of computers or are reentering the computer world after a while away, what we talk about here may seem like the height of power. Believe me though when I say this, what comes next really isn’t that powerful and that’s okay.

When I say entry level, I am talking about a computer that will be able to do the basics of Email, Writing Reports, and some light internet usage. Kids, starter college students, and people of all ages who just want to talk to friends and family, are who we are focusing on here.

  • Price
    • $300 - $500
      • You may find computers with these specs but at a higher price. These are usually because they have fancy add ons like reversible screens. Ask yourself if you need these extras.
  • Processor
    • Intel Core i3 or AMD Ryzen 3
    • This is the brain of your machine. At an entry level we don’t need much because you’re not going to be doing much.
  • Hard Drive
    • Minimum of 128 GB but anything above 256 GB is ideal
    • You will see hard drives listed as SSD or HDD. These days either is fine. SSD is faster but HDD is cheaper for more storage. Many higher computers will have a combination of both.
    • You will see some low-range machines with something in the vein of 32 or 64 GB of eMMC. Do not buy these. These machines are primarily used for people who live in the cloud and can quickly fill up with just system updates. Avoid those like a plague.
  • Memory aka RAM
    • 4 GB
    • Most machines you will find for a lower cost will be either 4 or 8 GB. Either is fine at this level. Though 8 is, of course, better for the long-haul.
  • Touch screen
    • None
    • Unless you are getting one you can fold on itself such as a Lenovo Yoga or a Surface Pro, a touch screen is a gimmick and you don’t need to worry about it.
  • Ports
    • 1 USB
      • You will be hard pressed to find only one USB port on any computer. One is just the bare minimum.
    • 1 HDMI
      • These are used to send data to an outside source such as a monitor or projector, both can be used in a school environment.
#Medium Work

Here we start getting into more pieces than what we discussed above. Most people at the Medium Work level are doing, along with work, some light gaming. Because of this we are going to bump up our requirements a little. Machines in this category are a little more future proof than the Entry Level ones. What I mean by future proof is it will last you longer. The Entry Level specs are fine now, but in five years I can’t guarantee it will be serving you well. Meanwhile, a Medium Work machine can, at the very least, last you five years.

You are going to be considered a Medium Work user if you are handling multiple files at once. Having many windows open for documents, spreadsheets, and internet traffic. Or playing light games such as Minecraft, or classic World of Warcraft.

  • Price
    • $500 - $1200
      • The huge price swing we see here is dependent on manufacturer and other factors
      • Apple computers tend to be between 800 and 1000 dollars more than a similarly designed PC. This is what we call the Apple Tax.
  • Processor
    • Intel i5 or AMD Ryzen 5
    • For both of these expect to see an integrated graphics processor
      • These allow the machine to handle more complex tasks without requiring a dedicated graphics processor. We’re talking about games, 3d rendering, and Photoshop types of activities.
  • Hard Drive
    • 256 GB minimum
    • Here we start seeing mixes of drives with a SSD used for system files and a HDD for everything else. This allows for faster access to the machine while also providing larger amounts of storage for everything else.
  • Memory aka RAM
    • 8 GB minimum
    • You will be hard pressed to find a computer at this level with anything but 8 GB. If you are getting a desktop, this can be easily upgraded. RAM upgrades for laptops depend on the model. If you want to upgrade your RAM make sure your model can accept one before you buy it.
      • Depending on the model, you may be able to get an upgrade to the RAM in store.
  • Ports
    • 2 USB
    • 1 USB C
      • USB C provides a higher data transfer rate and can handle more power than older USB models. Also, USB C solves the old problem of needing to know which way is up.
      • If it doesn’t have a USB C it isn’t the end of the world. Just expect more and more computers to have them in the coming years.
    • 1 HDMI
    • 1 SD card slot
      • Again, if the computer does not have one do not worry. It is highly variable whether a manufacturer adds them. If you are a photographer, it is more necessary than for anyone else. Still, there are plenty of adapters on the market. These plug into a USB port for ease of access.
#Hardcore Mode

Here we come to the real workhorse machines. These will set you back a pretty penny, but they are worth it. With the specifications we are talking about for this category you are going to get probably a decade worth of life out of your machine.

When we are looking at a Hardcore Mode user, we are looking at someone who does everything the other categories do and more. What is more, you might find yourself asking. Well are you someone who is working with hundreds of layers in Photoshop? How about 3D modeling, are you using so many polygons your computer needs to have a lay down? And let’s not forget about the games! Is Frogger really Frogger if you’re not rendering at 4k resolution with each car immaculately lit with high-end ray tracing? If the answer to any of these is ‘Yes’ then you are probably in the Hardcore Mode category.

  • Price
    • $600 - $4000
      • Once you start getting into high-end computers you can very quickly run into astronomically huge prices. At the same time, the more powerful the machine the longer it will last. A full-bore four grand laptop will probably last you a decade while you might go through 3-5 of the low-end models during the same time. Of course, your milage will vary and I have seen low-end models last a very long time.
  • Processor
    • Intel i7 or i9 or AMD Ryzen 7
  • Hard Drive
    • 552 GB Minimum
      • Honestly, with the size of the files you will be dealing with in this bracket 1 TB is a better baseline.
      • While not necessary, if you can get one with a SSD and a HDD combo you are going to get better speed and more storage.
        • Just SSD is good too, these are just more expensive.
  • Memory aka RAM
    • 12 GB Minimum
      • Do your research and, if you can, get yourself one that can have its RAM upgraded
        • If it can’t be upgraded or you are uncomfortable attempting an upgrade then I would bump it to 16 GB.
  • Graphics Card
    • NVDIA GeForce RTX 2080 and up
      • The particular model is variable, but what you are looking for is a dedicated graphics card. NVIDA GeForce and AMD Radeon are the names in the game for these types of devices. When you are looking at a computer it will mention either along with Intel/AMD integrated graphics. Ignore the integrated graphics and focus on the NVDIA and AMD.
      • Graphics cards have their own built-in processors and RAM. This makes them computers you install in your computer. While that might sound insane, having one can be a life-saver for 3D modeling and other intensive programs. It makes my games look good too.
  • Ports
    • 2 USB
    • 1 USB C
    • 1 Thunderbolt
      • Allows you to hook a powerful external graphics card to your machine.
      • Not every manufacturer will make a computer with a Thunderbolt. Because of this, a Thunderbolt port falls in the nice to have but not necessary category.
      • These are great for those individuals who need more power than a laptop graphics card can handle but also need to be on the move.

#Anything else?

Good lord, what more do you need?! In all seriousness though, that’s pretty much it. I mean, we could get into differences between manufacturers but that’s not necessary. As long as you are within one of the categories manufacturer does not matter much. Some people swear by Dell, others Lenovo, I personally like both for different reasons. It’s really dealer’s choice these days. Just find the one that works best for you and your price point. Look forward to more amazingly verbose posts in the weeks to come.

Until then, have fun, find adventure, and stay safe.

The Jacksonville Public Library's E-Services Department is dedicated to helping users learn and master the technology needed in today's economy. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, join us for our online computer classes. All of our classes are free and open to the public.

John Carter

John Carter

Husband, Father, Digital Artist, and Teacher, these are but a few of the hats John Carter wears. If he is not at one of our many public libraries hosting a computer class or helping someone in an appointment you can find John working in his yard practicing hügelkultur, hidden away sketching and writing, making a pilgrimage to Disney World, or trying new recipes in the kitchen.

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