The most important components when buying a Windows PC

What should you look for when buying a new Windows PC – desktop or laptop? What are the most important components and what specifications should it have? Here’s what you need to consider.

This guide is intended to be a non-technical look at PC specifications for a casual buyer looking for a Windows laptop or desktop computer for general use. Some people will want to dig deep into technical specifications, but many people do not need to and you just have to focus on a a few important components.

Laptop computers have overtaken desktops to become the favorite for many users because they offer an all-in-one solution and they are more convenient for many tasks. They can be used on a desk, on your lap, and when out of the office or home, in cafes, hotels and other places with free Wi-Fi.

Before starting, it has to be said that one computer is not perfect for everyone and some people have special needs. For example, if you play the latest games, spend a lot of time video editing, podcasting, music production, and so on, you need a computer specially designed for your activity.

Here I will look at general computing for someone that browses the web, uses email, office software either on the computer or online, a bit of light photo editing, social media, video streaming from from the likes of YouTube and Netflix, website building or blogging and so on.

A mid-priced general computer is good enough for these activities and you don’t need to spend a huge amount of money on the latest graphics card or CPU if you don’t play the latest games. You don’t need to buy terabytes of internal and external storage if you don’t edit video, podcasts or music.

Just because you don’t do anything very demanding on your computer, it does not mean that any computer will do. It won’t. There are some very low specification PCs at the low price end of the PC market that are not recommended because you will outgrow them very quickly and will soon discover how limited they are.

Remember that you should not buy what you need today, instead you should buy a computer that will be useful next year and the year after that.

How much RAM do PCs need?

Windows 11 and 10 will run in 4 GB of memory, but they quickly run out as applications are used. Even opening a dozen tabs in a web browser can cause a 4 GB computer to run out of memory. Insufficient memory has always been a factor that limits the performance of a computer and it is no different today than it was 15 years ago. PC’s need RAM and lots of it.

Applications and operating systems have grown in size over time and they use increasing amounts of memory. Windows XP for example, would run in 0.5 GB of RAM, but Windows 11 requires at least 4 GB just to boot and run a few basic programs.

Laptop computer illustration

Ignore laptop or desktop computers with 4 GB or less of memory because they just won’t work properly. You should not find any new models on sale with less than 4 GB, but beware of old stock, reconditioned PCs and secondhand computers. When memory is all used, which happens fast on PC’s with less than 4 GB, the computer slows down to a crawl and is barely usable. PCs with 4 GB of RAM are not recommended. They work, but only just.

Sometimes you may see the speed of memory quoted and all you need to know is that higher numbers mean higher performance. Speed may be quoted as 2400 MHz or 2666 MHz and so on, and the higher number is faster.

Buy a PC with a minimum of 8 GB of memory and preferably 16 GB. An 8 GB PC will be fine for most tasks, but if you do photo or video editing, music production or gaming, 16 GB is a safer bet.

SSD vs HDD storage: Which do you need?

When it comes to storage, the choice is between a solid state drive (SSD) and a hard disk drive (HDD). SSDs offer super fast high performance compared to HDDs, which are quite slow in comparison. However, there are cases for both. HDD storage is much cheaper per GB than SSD, so often a Windows computer in the budget to mid-price range will either have a big HDD or a small SSD. Which is best?

A PC with an SSD will outperform an identically specified PC with an HDD, so SSD is definitely recommended for speed, but problems can arise with the limited amount of storage that is typically provided. There are still cheap Windows laptops on sale with 64 GB of storage and you will struggle with them because they quickly becomes filled. Even if the storage is not full, there may not be sufficient space to update Windows, which may need around 20 or 30GB to work with. A small SSD may prevent Windows updates.

A light user who does not have much software, photos or videos, might be able to cope with a 128 GB drive and that should be considered the minimum storage space these days. It is not a good amount of storage and you should really get more to be safe because it is easy to fill 128 GB with media, downloads and software.

HDDs are not completely useless and because they offer large amounts of storage at low price, they make good external drives for backup and for storing photo and video collections.

Buy a PC with an SSD that has a capacity of at least 256 GB. If you need extra storage for media files, consider a big, cheap USB HDD.

Which CPU is best?

The other PC components are less important for general computing. There is a choice of processors for example, and you could get an Intel Core i3, i5 or i7, where higher numbers indicate higher performance. However, it is more complicated than it appears because there are different generations of CPU and there are many CPU variations with slightly different specifications.

Generally speaking, the higher CPU number and the higher the generation number, the more powerful the CPU. Only the most recent chip generations work with Windows 11. It means you get odd situations where an i3 works, but an i7 doesn’t. You would think an Intel Core i7 would be fine, but old generations of i7 are not compatible with Windows 11, whereas the latest generation i3 is.

At the extreme budget end of the PC market are Celeron and Pentium processors, but the performance is limited and they are best avoided if possible. Computers using them tend to lack in the RAM and storage departments anyway.  Go for Core i3/5/7. AMD CPUs are sometimes offered as alternatives to Intel’s. Avoid the cheapest budget models. Look for AMD Ryzen 3, 5 and 7, which are good CPUs that are fine and work well in Windows PCs.

It is worth bearing in mind that a PC with an Intel Core i3, lots of RAM and an SSD will feel faster and more responsive than a Core i5 or i7 with minimum RAM and an HDD. Don’t get a powerful processor if it means skimping on other components because it will not perform well in a restricted environment.

Try to find out which generation of the CPU in the computer you want. New generation chips, whatever the model, work with Windows 11, but old ones do not. Make sure you get a chip that is compatible with Windows 11.

Which graphics is best?

Intel graphics are often found in low to mid-priced computers and a simple way to compare models is to look at the number. Higher numbers for the Intel graphics generally indicate better graphics performance. Avoid the lowest numbers.

If you don’t play games, there is less need to carefully choose very high performance graphics and integrated Intel graphics are OK for simple work, browsing and media streaming. Nvidia or AMD graphics are offered in mid-range computers and as with Intel, higher numbers indicate better performance. The screen resolution should be at least HD – 1920 x 1080 pixels.

If you buy a PC with the right RAM and SSD, it usually comes with  reasonable graphics.

Windows on Apple computers

Apple MacBooks can run windows in Bootcamp
Apple computers run Windows and macOS and are an alternative to a PC, at a cost

Apple has moved away from Intel processors and new Macs use Apple Silicon chips. They are not good for running Windows and should be avoided for now. It is possible that Microsoft might make a version of Windows for M1 Macs, but maybe not. Only a developer preview exists, which is not finished. Only Intel-powered Macs are suitable for running Windows.

Don’t forget TPM 2.0

A computer with a TPM 2.0 chip is required for Windows 11. You should not find any new computers that do not have it, but beware of old stock, reconditioned computers and secondhand computers. They may not have it and this will prevent you from installing Windows 11. Ideally, your new computer should come with Windows 11 preinstalled.

Summing up

A laptop offers many benefits over a desktop computer, such as all-in-one design, portability and convenience. Desktop PCs are not portable, but may offer slightly higher specifications for the same price.

Some components on a desktop computer, such as the keyboard and screen, are easy to replace by non-technical users. Just unplug them and plug in a new one if they break. You can’t do that with a laptop and a failure of a component is more difficult and costly to repair. However, the benefits of a laptop may make it worthwhile.

When shopping for a computer, pay attention to the memory and storage above all else. Windows runs poorly on a PC with only 4 GB of RAM no matter how good all the other components are, so get 8 GB minimum and 16 GB for best performance and future-proofing.

SSD storage outperforms HDD, but drives are higher priced and smaller capacity. Go for an SSD, but unless you are a very light user, avoid less 256 GB or you risk running out of space for photos, videos and music. A 128 GB SSD could be used with a cheap USB HDD though.

Make sure the CPU is compatible with Windows 11. In fact, you might want to avoid any PC that does not come with Windows 11 preinstalled.

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