Thursday, May 19, 2016

Understanding Computer Components & their Measurements before Upgrading

When replacing existing computers, laptops, or other like devices, it is extremely helpful to know what the components in an existing device are to better compare to possible replacements. Knowing component specifications is only half of the equation though, as understanding what these parts do and how they are measured is also important. The following is an overview of the purposes and measurements of 5 main computer components.  

But first, some definitions so it all makes sense:

TB - a Terabyte which equals 1000 Gigabytes (GB)
GB - a Gigabyte which equals 1000 Megabytes (MB)
MB - a Megabyte which equals 1000 Kilobytes (KB)
KB - a Kilobyte which equals 1000 Bytes
Byte = 8 bits, each character is represented by 1 byte of data so the word character is made up of 9 bytes or 72 bits
Gbps - Gigabits per second, 1 Gigabit per second equals a transfer rate of 1000 Megabits 
Mbps - Megabits per second, equals a transfer rate of 1,000,000 bits per second


Drives - Solid State Drives (SSD) or Hard Drives (HDD)

Drives, whether solid state or hard disk, are both sold based on their storage capacity which is measured in GB or TB. Hard drives are usually sold in 500GB, 1 TB or larger sized drives, and are relatively cheap. Solid state drives are usually sold in 120GB, 240GB and 480GB sizes, but are much more expensive because they use different and newer technology to store data that makes them much faster.

The size of drive necessary is greatly related to how much data you need to store locally. If most of your device usage is accessing things via the Internet, it might make more sense to get a smaller drive that processes faster, but this is unique to each individual.

An example drive with 500GB of storage capacity available.

Central Processing Unit - CPU

The processor is the brain of the device and is measured by its maximum processing speed expressed in GHz, or GigaHertz. The higher the GHz number, the faster the processing. Processors often have multiple cores, such as when advertised as quad-core which means 4 cores. Multiple cores means faster response times because processors technically only respond to a single request at a time. Response times are so fast that it often does not seem like singular tasking. Having a processor with multiple cores means multiple tasks can be processed at the same time, therefore presenting faster overall response times.

Faster processors are more expensive, but depending upon the intended use, may not always be necessary. The fastest are best for uses like gaming, video editing, and AutoCad.

Random Access Memory - RAM

Memory is sold based on the amount of storage capacity and is measured in GB like drives. The amount of memory and size of the drive are dependent upon one another for a device to be efficient. In-use programs are stored in memory until data is saved or can be written onto the drive. When memory becomes over-subscribed, items are temporarily moved to the drive to free up memory so programs can continue to operate. This process can be time consuming and overall performance will suffer especially for drives whose available storage is low.

Conceptualize the drive to a closet in your home. Memory relates to the drive the way a door to a closet relates to the closet storage. Best practice is to have the size of the closet door be relative to the size of the closet. In other words, the largest closet in the world would be hard to access if the door to it were barely bigger than a child.

The more programs and tabs you have open at the same time the greater the amount of RAM you will want to invest in to ensure a seamless experience.

Wired Network / LAN

A wired network connection is based on the amount of data it can transfer per second, and is measured in Mbps, or Megabits per second. Most network cards are spec'd at 10/100/1000 which means they can transfer at 10, 100, and 1000Mbps based on the capacity of the network it is connected to. These measurements are iterations of Ethernet speeds that have been introduced over the years and obviously continue to get faster. Today, one of the most commonly implemented networking speeds is 1000 Mbps, or 1Gbps, which is commonly referred to as Gigabit Ethernet. 


A wireless network connection is also based on the amount of data that can be transferred per second, which are also measured in Mbps or Megabits per second, but speeds are much lower. Wireless is commonly referred to by using one of the 802.11 industry standards for wireless. There are many versions of this standard and the maximum data rates, which are based on best case scenario, are listed below with the most recent ones listed first.

  • 802.11ac: 433 - 1300Mbps
  • 802.11n: 54 - 600Mbps (the standard specs up to 600Mbps, but the fastest manufactured AP transfers at 450Mbps)
  • 802.11g: 54 - 108Mbps
Note, there are many variations in wireless cards and wireless access points which accounts for the large range for each standard. Sticking with wireless networking that supports the latest standards will almost always equate to faster transfer speeds.

Understanding the major components of computers and laptops can be helpful in many ways. If a device is getting older and needs to be replaced, think about what parts of it were not adequate to make a smarter purchase next time around. If you know the specifications of the previous device, it is far easier to compare those to potential replacement devices to find the best fit. Being informed makes it easier to invest in the right component upgrades and knowing which ones to skip, which will lead to a better user experience and hopefully a longer life of the device.

As always, the more you know the more you can save yourself time and money!
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