The Layperson’s Guide to Computers
This guide covers the two elements that make up all computers — hardware and software — and helps you choose which combination of each is best suited for your needs, wants, and budget.
Computer = Hardware + Software
All computers combine two elements: hardware and software.
The hardware is the physical stuff, everything you can touch: the computer’s body, keyboard, display, speakers, microchip, storage, battery, etc.
The software is all of the programming code that makes the computer operational. Millions of lines of ethereal text, hidden but omnipresent.
Here’s an analogy that might be useful: the orchestra. The hardware is the instruments and the software is the musicians. You, the user, are the conductor. Besides the keyboard, mouse, and maybe the touchscreen (your conductor batons), you don’t touch the instruments. Instead, you conduct the musicians and they produce the music (i.e. computing activities like web browsing, Netflix, photo editing…).
The most important software is the operating system (OS). It makes up the majority of the musicians in your computer’s orchestra. Some OSs are better at playing certain instruments, and others require a little more patience from the conductor.
While there are many companies that make hardware components, there are only four main OSs: Windows, Mac, Chrome, Linux. Each has its own particularities and advantages.
Computer companies ( i.e. the brand you see on a computer) is simply the ultimate assembler of hardware and software. They deliver a packaged product made up of hundreds of components from dozens of manufacturers, install an OS, and assume the responsibility for the whole. You, the buyer/conductor, simply need to pick which orchestra best suits your musical needs, wants, and budget.
Once you buy your computer, you probably won’t ever upgrade its hardware (especially true for laptops.) In other words, you’re stuck with the instruments you bought. So spend as much as you can afford, and in a couple of years, you’ll be happy you did.
There’s a lot of hardware that goes into a computer, but the below are those components that most affect performance and cost.
Memory, storage, ports, and chips. Everything else is secondary.
CPU: Central Processing Unit (aka microchip). This is sometimes referred to as your computer’s brain. It’s where the computing happens. Two manufacturers dominate: Intel and AMD. Both are excellent and have a range of CPUs suitable to varying task complexity. (read a lot more here)
For simple tasks (web browsing, netflix, etc.) an i3 or Ryzen 3 is fine. For basic programming, photo/music/video editing, and gaming, the i5 or Ryzen 5 will work; but an i7 or Ryzen 7 will be faster. Serious gamers and media editors will want to splurge on an i9 or Ryzen 9.
GPU: Graphics Processing Unit (aka graphics card). This turns data (ones and zeros) into visuals. If you’re working on video editing, or playing modern, fast-paced highly detailed games, there’s a lot of visual data to process. Without a good GPU, the output will be slow and choppy.
My controversial advice for readers of this basic guide: don’t worry about the GPU. Chances are you don’t have a choice in the matter anyways.
RAM: Random Access Memory. This helps with faster multitasking. Unless you’re buying a ChromeBook, you shouldn’t get less than 8 gigabytes (GB). Opt for 16GB if you can.
SSD: Solid State Drive. This is where your documents and files are stored. Make sure it’s SSD and not the older, slower, HD technology (Hard Disk Drive). 250GB capacity is ok, but if you download lots of videos and games, you’ll want 500GB.
Ports: ports are how your computer connects and communicates with external devices. There are two worth mentioning: HDMI and Thunderbolt. HDMI is the universal port for easy connection to monitors and TVs. If the computer doesn’t have an HDMI port, you will need to buy a dongle adapter. Thunderbolt is the latest and greatest data transfer technology. If you want to quickly transfer files to and from an external storage, you’ll like that. (You could even plug in a powerful external GPU.)
The following table is a quick hardware reference guide:
Desktops vs Laptops
The above hardware guide is true regardless of whether you get a desktop — a computer that must be plugged into an electrical outlet — or a laptop.
If you know you will only be using the computer at one desk, for the price, you can’t beat the value of a desktop. That’s because the computer company doesn’t have to worry about weight, space, or aesthetics. They just pack all the hardware components into a box. Yes, you’ll also have to buy a monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and webcam… but you’ll still come out on top. (Besides, you’re probably going to buy most of these accessories for a laptop anyways.)
If you opt for a portable computer instead, here are a few additional hardware considerations.
Display: The bigger you go, the heavier and bulkier the laptop. But you don’t want to strain your eyes either. I find that 14” is a sweet spot. Remember: you can always upgrade the display with an external monitor. Make sure the display is at least 1080p.
Battery life: Most laptops have a minimum 5 hour battery life. Does this meet your needs? Or do you need/want 20+ hours?
Build material: Laptop bodies — the physical shell —can be made of aluminum, other metal alloys, or plastic. If your budget allows, avoid plastic.
Weight: Weight might or might not be important to you. Thankfully, modern laptops are quite light.
Now that we’ve covered hardware basics, let’s look at operating systems.
Ignoring the obscure, there are four main OSs: Windows, Mac, Chrome, and Linux.
ChromeOS is built and maintained by Google. They released the first version in 2011. It’s a simple, clean, and reliable OS. Laptops running ChromeOS are called ChromeBooks.
While Google sells their own ChromeBooks, they also sell the ChromeOS to other computer companies. So you, the consumer, have lots of ChromeOS computers to choose from.
With respect to software, ChromeOS is somewhat restrictive. You have access to Google’s suite of applications (Chrome web browser, Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, etc.) and a small but growing list of third-party applications.
With respect to hardware, you’re getting the basics. Typically you’ll get little storage, so you have to be comfortable with using external storage or having your data in Google’s cloud. (For $20 a year, you get 100GB of cloud storage.) RAM is often 4GB, sometimes 8GB; suitable for basic tasks. You won’t get anything special with respect to the CPU either.
Many smartphones are more powerful and versatile than most ChromeBooks. That said, if you’re looking for a no-fuss computer for simple web-based tasks, it’s hard to beat a sub-$300 Chromebook.
Personal note: Chromebooks are perfect for kids and seniors, or as a secondary beater laptop.
MacOS is built and maintained by Apple. First launched in 1984, it is the second most popular OS in the world. Unlike ChromeOS, MacOS is fully capable of tackling even the most complex tasks.
MacOS has a lot of die-hard fans because of its zen-like minimalist aesthetic. It’s very robust; MacOS rarely crashes. It’s also a more secure OS than WindowsOS.
Most software applications you’d find for Windows also have a Mac version (Photoshop, Microsoft Suite, Steam…). MacOS also syncs perfectly with iPhones (e.g. iMessages).
Apple does not sell MacOS to competing computer companies. This means that if you want a computer that runs MacOS, you have to buy it from Apple. Let’s take a quick look at their laptop offerings (as of April 2021).
MacBook Air: The base-model MacBook Air sells for $1,000. It is beautiful and well built. It has a 13" display, 256GB SSD, and two Thunderbolt ports. Only 8GB of RAM but some say performance is good nonetheless thanks to their innovative M1 chip. Would you prefer 16GB nonetheless? For that, you’ll have to go with an upgraded MacBook Pro.
Macbook Pro — Upgraded: The upgraded MacBook Pro costs $1,800. It has a 13” display, 16GB of RAM, 500GB SSD, four Thunderbolt ports, and swaps the M1 chip for an Intel i5 (good for medium complex tasks).
Apple computers are stylish and robust. The MacOS they’re paired with is user-friendly, clean, and efficient. If your heart is set on MacOS, there’s literally no other option than Apple.
The Windows OS is built and maintained by Microsoft. Like Google, Microsoft sells their OS to other computer companies. Ever since Windows launched in 1985, it has come to dominate the computer OS market.
The Windows user interface (UI) — that’s nerd-talk for a software’s personality and appearance — doesn’t match the intuitive simplicity of MacOS, or ChromeOS for that matter. Nonetheless, Windows is a very capable OS. After all, 75% of computers run Windows. (Monopoly power, maybe?)
A big bonus of Windows is that, because of its dominance, software developers typically make their programs compatible with Windows first. This is particularly true for games. (If you are a serious gamer, Windows is your best option.)
Because computer companies can simply buy the WindowsOS, they can focus and compete on the hardware and packaging. For consumers, this results in lower prices, but it also leads to paralysis by analysis. BestBuy.com sells over 900 Windows laptops! This means you will have to spend a little time comparing models and specs before making a selection.
HP Envy 13: 13" display, 16GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, Intel i7 CPU, 1 Thunderbolt port, Bang&Olufsen speakers. Price: $950.
Windows doesn’t care about being cool, it just needs to work. For the price, you won’t find better performance than a computer from one of the top computer manufacturers sold with WindowsOS.
That last sentence is a lie. For the exact same price, the best performance is that very same computer, but with a Linux OS.
Linux was released by Linus Torvalds in 1991. It is now built and maintained by a community of volunteer programmers. The OS is open source, meaning it belongs to everyone and is free to download.
Free does not mean hacky. Linux is very efficient, reliable, and possibly the most cyber secure OS. It is used for most enterprise servers and mainframes. It’s also the OS inside all of the top supercomputers. And if you care about data privacy, it’s worth underlining: there is no company involved.
As for the UI, it’s far more customizable than the other OS. Want a floating dock along the bottom with all of your applications, like Mac? You can do that. Prefer the no-nonsense look and feel of the Windows taskbar? No problem.
Third-party software applications usually have a Linux version (including Slack, Steam, Spotify…). That said, there are notable exceptions like the Microsoft Office suite (Word, Excel, etc.), and Photoshop.
A few companies sell computers with a LinuxOS pre-installed, but it’s rare. That said, you can take any Windows computer and follow instructions to install Linux yourself. (Computers with Intel CPUs work best.)
With a LinuxOS, you get a very customizable experience that focuses on performance, security, and privacy. It is free but there is a cost: a little patience.
There you have it. Everything you, the consumer, need to know about computer hardware and software.