We continue our series with a guide on what the most important specifications you get with every laptop mean and how you can use them to better choose the right laptop for your needs.
The main specifications of most of todays IT hardware, no matter what you are looking at whether a laptop, tablet, smartphone, desktop PC or even consoles contains these main characteristics. You should have basic knowledge of what they mean so you can better tell individual devices apart.
The Central Processing Unit(CPU)
The CPU, or processor to you and me, is the main peace of hardware that does all the processing and interpretation and that makes everything run. Depending on how good a processor is it can either make everything run seamlessly or make everything slow and jerky or not run at all.
We won’t go into detail of what kind of processors are available on all the various hardware you can buy, we will only focus on our main area of interest, laptops.
In the laptop and desktop PC world there are only 2 main manufacturers of CPUs, namely Intel and AMD. Each has their own lineup of processors in various tires designed for different computing needs. In the past, and mainly still valid today, AMD wasn’t very competitive in the mobile processor sector. Their CPUs are still good and do a grate job but when compared to CPUs with similar specifications from Intel, they are second best. Where they do shine is in the integrated graphics department.
Intel has progressively improved their processor technology and has wisely kept a focus on the mobile industry. Their processors have gotten with each generation more energy efficient while offering better performance at the same time. Their Intel Core i-series of processors, also their most popular in laptops, are now in their 5th Generation. AMD has tried to keep up but still isn’t there yet.
Intel’s and AMDs processors have clear tier specific designations to help you get a quick idea of what you are looking at. Intel’s line up looks something like this:
- Intel Atoms and now Core M processors – these are compact and energy efficient and can mainly be found in Netbooks and Tablets,
- Celeron and Pentium range of processors – these can mainly be found on entry level, budget Laptops,
The main range of processors starts with the Intel Core i-series that then get stacked as follows:
- Intel Core i3 processors – these can be found on most entry level laptops. They offer substantial performance boosts over the previous range, while maintaining a low energy consumption
- Intel Core i5 processors – these are the main processor in their range, present on most laptops and tablets. It is also their most versatile processor coming in multiple versions for various intended usages. It is the best all round I would say.
- Intel Core i7 processors – these are the high end processors from Intel. They are aimed at people who need the processing power and can forgo energy consumption or battery life to get their job done fast and effectively. They still are very energy efficient but compared to the other two these are performance oriented.
AMDs line-up on the other hand is a lot more obvious to get your head around and fits nicely in between Intels line-up:
- the E-series of processors – these compete with the first tiers in Intels line up. The E stands for economy and they are mainly designed toward energy efficiency and can be found in netbooks and tablets sometimes.
The A-series of processors is the main range of processors AMD has to offer and they stack as follows:
- AMD A4-series of processors – these can be found on most entry level, budget laptops
- AMD A6-series of processors – these are their entry level processor and the performance is a bit lower to that of Intels Core i3s
- AMD A8-series of processors – these are their main processor present on most low to mid range laptops. This processors performance is basically the same or sometimes better than the Intel Core i3.
- AMD A10-series of processors – these are the top processor type AMD makes for laptops. While they are a step up from the previous tier they still are performing well in the midrange of Intels lineup. They are able in some versions to perform similar to Core i5s, but generally are somewhere in between the i3 and i5.
The main and most important difference with AMDs processors is that they come with far superior integrated graphics cards then Intels processors do. This means that for the same money and performance level you get better 3D acceleration and almost all laptops equipped with these processors can run most games. You can check our review of the Toshiba Satellite C55D-A5120 that came with a lowly AMD E2-3800 right here and see for yourself.
I’m not going to say much about the number of cores because they are pretty much self explanatory. The more cores, or better said the more inbuilt processors a unit has, the more calculations it can run simultaneously. So a quad-core processor can basically run 4 calculations at the same time. Not that useful for regular users, very useful for simulations. Modern processors have evolved to the point where they can switch between being single and multi-core units depending on needs in an effort to either save energy or bring more processing power under high load to a specific application that needs it. For regular use any dual-core processor will do a grate job.
Depending on your needs you are very well cared for from both manufacturers. One aimed more at overall performance while the other more toward more specific performance. In general for casual everyday usage and office work anything from the Pentium range and up is more than enough to be productive. The people doing photo/video processing, CAD and simulations that require processing power, need to go for Intel Core i5s and up. The people looking for a good multimedia and gaming laptops can give AMD-powered devices a go.
Memory or RAM
The amount of installed RAM can make or brake most devices. The best way I can think about describing how RAM works is like a chalk board. The physical space is limited and to be able to write anything new on a full chalk board you have to wipe away something.
Every time an application runs it needs to load resources into the RAM for easy and fast access for processing and display when you need it. Think of it as scribbling, notes and diagrams on that chalk board. Once available RAM memory gets filled up you start running into problems.
Thankfully Microsoft has noticed this problem early on and has added Virtual Memory to their Windows operating systems. What this does, is instead of writing the resources onto RAM it is written on the storage space available on the hard drive. This sounds very good in concept, and it is. In practice though, the hard drive is still, to this day, the slowest component in any modern computer. This solution lets you run your applications successfully, which is very good, but due to the low reading and writing speed of the hard drive, the applications run a lot slower than they normally would thus severely affecting productivity and performance.
The only solution to this problem is adding more actual RAM to the device which have on average over 100x the writing and reading speed of hard drives. As in the case of processors, over the years the RAM technology has seen steady improvements offering lower energy consumptions for better performance levels. RAM has also become a lot cheaper over the years and having plenty of it is no longer such an issue.
As a general rule, in todays day and age, you need to have at least 4Gb of RAM to run everything at acceptable quality on a laptop. As I described in the Asus T100CHI-C1-BK 10.1-Inch review Microsoft Windows 8.1 requires at least 800mb of RAM just to run itself. Add to this the applications running in the background and on any of todays devices you end up loosing 1 to 1.5Gb of RAM just to run the system. So yes, in an age when an average webbrowser can go through 2Gb of RAM like it’s nothing, I think 4Gb of RAM is the bare minimum to be expected of a laptop for it to be able to run everything smoothly.
I have shortly described some of the problems of Hard Disk Drives (HDDs for short) in the previous section so let’s go into further detail. Most components in computing have seen large performance increases over the years and yet HDDs due to their physical nature have seen little major change since their inception. Writing and reading speed have improved over the years but not nearly as fast as all the other components.
As RAM-modules have become more and more affordable over the years it has become a viable solution to use them to create faster storage solutions. These are what todays Solid State Disks (SSD) actually are. From a cost effective stand point, they still can’t beat HDDs on available storage space/$, but in regards to overall performance they are a huge improvement. Most of them are at least 5x faster than a regular HDD and you can feel that everywhere in the low loading times of applications.
Due to the still expensive nature of SSDs, Hybrid Storage has shown up in recent years. This solution still uses a classic HDD for the large storage capacity, but as a means of speeding the entire thing up uses a SSD that caches the frequently used files for faster access and load times. It is basically an in between solution where you get some of both worlds. Depending on the size of the added SSD speeds get better or worse.
At this moment in time you can find devices with various possible combinations of storage solutions, from pure SSD storages, to pure HDD storage and mixtures of both.
The main purpose of storage space and why it is a basic specification of most laptops is that it tells you how much stuff you can effectively store on your device. Over the years files and applications have gotten bigger and bigger increasing basic storage needs over the years so what would have been enough just a couple of years ago, no longer is.
As a basic rule of thumb you should have at least 64Gb of storage just to use all your applications and overall system. Heck Windows alone uses over 30Gb of storage. If you want to add videos, music, images large games and downloads to the mix then you will need a lot more storage. The basic 500Gb HDD available on most entry level laptops is still enough for most people and it will take you a year or 2 to fill it gradually before you start running out of space. I also recommend looking into Hybrid Storage for new devices, as it does really make a big difference in performance.
Seeing as this post is already getting very long I’ve decided to create another post where I describe other regularly available specifications like USBs, HDMIs and other connectors, display setups and so on and leave this one to only discuss the basics you need to know just to get you started when you look for a laptop. Stay tuned for part 2 soon.