There are a lot of technical- names and acronyms in the description of any PC. RAM? Gigahertz (I’m pretty sure I have a cream for that one!)? What does it all mean?

The time has finally come: The computer that has seen you through many years just doesn’t work as well as it used to. Maybe it runs slowly, isn‘t compatible with newer applications, or can’t support your streaming needs. Whatever the problem, you’ve decided that it’s time to upgrade to a new PC. But what should you look for in a new computer? You’ve researched a few replacements online, but you’re not sure how to decipher the technical specifications. Not to worry, we’ve got the answers.

Desktop or laptop?

We’ll start from the beginning: What kind of computer is it?

A desktop is a stationary computer typically used on a desk. These usually have a “tower” that your keyboard, mouse, and other accessories are connected to. There’s another type of desktop, called an all-in-one, where the computer is built into the monitor or screen. While this makes it easier to transport, it also means you don’t have to purchase a monitor separately. Whether you use a traditional tower or an all-in-one computer, these devices do not have batteries, and have to be plugged in to work.


A laptop is a portable computer that has an internal battery, meaning that you can take it anywhere. Your mouse, keyboard, and monitor are built into the laptop so you don’t have to buy anything separately. Since laptops are more portable, they tend to be more expensive. If cost is a concern, decide whether portability is a requirement. Another point to consider is that a traditional tower desktop is much easier to repair than a laptop or all-in-one computer.

HDD vs. SSD?

Not all storage is created equal. When looking at the technical specifications for a PC, you may see things like “1 TB HDD” or “256 GB SSD.” Let’s break this down.

First, we’ll talk about what 1 TB or 256 GB means. GB stands for gigabyte, which is a way to measure the size of data. So, 256 GB means that the device can store 256 GB of data. Similarly, TB stands for terabyte, which is 1,000 gigabytes. That’s four times as much storage capacity as the 256 GB computer. Even though the 1 TB computer might be cheaper than the 256 GB one, the decision isn’t that simple . In fact, the way data is stored matters just as much as the amount of storage space.


An HDD, or “Hard Disk Drive”, is an older style of storage device. It needs to move parts into position to access your data. An SSD, or Solid-State Drive, has no moving parts and is much faster than an HDD. The difference in speed is dramatic, as an HDD computer will likely still be getting warmed up for a few minutes while an SSD computer is ready and waiting for you to sign in.

It isn’t that one type of storage device is better than the other. If you have a lot of pictures to store, consider getting an HDD, as SSDs are much more expensive for the same amount of storage. For example, my phone takes pictures that range anywhere from 2 – 5 megabytes (MB) in size. Since 1,000 MB is equal to 1 GB, and 1,000 GB is equal to 1 TB, that means that a 1 TB drive can hold at least 200,000 pictures from my phone. It’s cheap and easy to find a computer with a 1 TB HDD. It’s much harder and far more expensive to purchase a computer with a 1 TB SSD.


RAM and Memory are tricky terms. Lots of people use “memory” and “storage” interchangeably, but memory serves a different purpose than storing files on your computer. RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and this is your computer’s resource to run many programs at the same time. Think of RAM as countertop space in a kitchen: The more countertop space you have, the more you can handle multiple tasks (or even bigger tasks) simultaneously.


If you don’t have lots of countertop space, you need to put things away before starting something new (or close programs in the case of a computer). If you’re someone who has many web pages open when browsing the internet, then you’ll benefit from having lots of RAM. Thankfully, your computer doesn’t need nearly as many gigabytes of memory as it needs for storage; most people will be fine with 8 GB or even 4 GB of RAM. If you work with many programs open, or use your computer for video editing, gaming, or streaming, you should consider 16 GB of RAM.


The processor, sometimes called the CPU, is probably the hardest to understand. For the sake of this article, we’ll just look at two terms you’re most likely to see: gigahertz (GHz) and cores. Gigahertz is a measurement of processor speed. It’s not a linear measurement, as the number of cores in a CPU can affect processor speed.

Cores help with multitasking. Think of cores in a processor like people inside of a kayak: The more people in the boat, the more help you have to row the boat. Processors with more cores or higher gigahertz are more expensive, so it’s important to think about the types of tasks you’ll be doing. If you mostly browse the web, check emails, and compose documents, a faster processor isn’t necessary. I mean, how fast can you open a Word document? If you’re doing heavier tasks, such as video streaming or editing, gaming, or3D rendering, spend a little extra for a faster processor.

Other important details

There’s more to consider when purchasing a PC. Make sure that you think about more than just what’s inside. How light is the device? How does the keyboard feel? How long does the battery last? Is the screen nice? Can the parts be replaced? Is there a specific software you need to run? Many software applications will have “minimum” and “recommended” specifications for the computer listed on their web pages.

Another question that people often ask is, “Who makes the best PCs?” It isn’t about who makes the computer than what they make. The model of computer matters a lot more than the manufacturer. You can read reviews of the model that you’re looking at before you commit to purchasing.

The search for a new computer can be an intimidating process if you don't know what to look for. Now that you can read technical specifications and ask yourself the right questions, you’re on your way to finding your next computer. Instead of spending money on features you won’t use, spend time ensuring that your new PC can keep up with your computing needs. Whether you're composing documents and emails on your PC or streaming videos and playing games, you can confidently choose a PC with the right specifications for you.