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Windows 8 Buyers Guide: Which Specs Are Most Important?

You already know what size of Windows 8 PC you want, but what are you going to put in it? More RAM? A bigger processor? Solid state storage? We’re here to explain a few things for you to help you get the best Windows 8 device for your money.

Welcome to Gizmodo’s Ultimate Windows 8 Buyers Guide! Every day we’ll focus on a different aspect of buying a new Windows 8-powered laptop or tablet — from size, to specs to form factors and apps — to make sure you get the right device. We’re helping you take the guess work out of tech buying.

Before we get started, let’s quickly cover some common sense considerations.

The Basics

Before you start on your quest to buy a shiny, new Windows 8 device, it’s worth considering the basics that should underpin all tech purchases:

Know Your Budget

Setting a budget and sticking to it is paramount when it comes to tech buying, and it’s especially important when it comes to getting a laptop or tablet. Laptops are big ticket items, which means you’ll be living with a device for a long time. If it’s beyond your means or not the right device for you, you’ll be stuck in a rut with something you don’t need or can’t afford. Do a bit of maths, find a figure you can comfortably afford to spend and stick to it. Don’t let yourself be duped by slick talking tech salesfolk. At the end of the day, it’s always you left holding the bag.

Decide What You Need Above What You Want

Make a list of features you know you can’t live without in your laptop. Need an ace processor? Make sure there’s a note of it. Desperate for gaming options? A performance laptop is the one for you. Need a certain amount of battery life? Write that down, too. Don’t get sucked into a certain device because it’s shiny and neglect everything you need day-to-day.

Research Your Device

Once you have one or two devices in mind, hit your nearest search engine to see what people who own that device think about it. You might just find that it goes bang after a month with the device or it doesn’t do something you hoped it actually did. You can read reviews that we and other tech sites write until the laptop or tablet goes out of style, but we can’t tell you what it’s like to live with a device over an extended period of time in the way an owner can. Also, make sure you try before you buy. Even if it involves insisting that a salesperson powers up a laptop for you to try before you sign on the dotted line.

Beware The Options List

All of you will have different levels of technical know-how when it comes to computer DIY. A general rule of thumb to follow when it comes to buying a new machine, however, is that it’s always cheaper to do it yourself, rather than have the manufacturer do it for you when it comes to upgraded internal specs.

Sourcing parts like RAM and storage drives from places like StaticIce — unless hell freezes over soon — will always be cheaper than getting a manufacturer to crack open your new pride and joy to stick overpriced sticks in there for you.

Some of you might not be confident mucking about with your own gear, and that’s ok. In that case, it can be worth paying the extra money for peace of mind.

Armed with that knowledge, let’s get started…


Which Specs Are Important?

There are a few different flavours of processor on the market these days, most of them from chip-giant, Intel. The Ivy Bridge Core i3, i5 and i7 will be the main three processors you see on price stickers and spec lists in your hunt for the perfect PC, and the difference between them is quite simple really.

Frankly speaking, Core i3 processors should be avoided, unless of course you want a sub-$800 machine that you don’t need to respond quickly or use for complex tasks. Core i3 devices are best suited to note-taking machines or web browsers.

A Core i5 processor is the most common and best bang for buck when it comes to your chip. Core i5 processors are middle of the range, dual-core (most often) chips that power devices like ultrabooks and even some convertibles. i5 processors are like Goldilocks chips: they don’t use too much battery, they aren’t too underpowered: they’re just right. Not great for gaming or intensive processor work, but they’ll get the job done for an everyday machine.

Spend the extra $200 or so though and you’ll end up in the big end of town: Core i7 processors. The i7 gives you the best performance you can find in a laptop these days, and usually is found in high-end gaming laptops or even Windows 8 desktops and all-in-ones. The i7 is often a quad-core beast that is designed to handle complex tasks like high-frame rate gaming and image/video tasks with relative ease.

RAM

RAM — or Random Access Memory as it’s known in textbooks — is key to getting a good experience of your computer. It’s the stuff that helps your computer do stuff quick, depending on how much of it is available of course. Lots of RAM equals fast computer, better performance and higher cost, while lower RAM means slower performance, but cheaper for you at the end of the day.

Having the right amount of RAM for your tasks is just as important as having the right processor for the job, and balancing the two is a great idea. The general rule of thumb is that the more RAM you have, the better off your computer will be.

Unless you’re dealing with a Core i3 processor and one of the nastiest laptops known to man, it’s generally sensible to never stray under 2GB of RAM these days. Most ultrabooks will come with between 4GB and 8GB of RAM to help you get your tasks done, while gaming and other high-powered laptops will throw 16GB or more at the problem.

You can only have as much RAM as you do slots on your motherboard to put them in, so if you plan on expanding your RAM in future, it’s worth getting as much RAM as you can in one stick. Some boards only have one slot for RAM, meaning you can’t just throw four sticks of 4GB at the problem like you did in the old tower days.

Keep in mind also that it’s still cheaper to buy RAM from online stores and install it yourself than it is to get the manufacturer to do it at the factory.

Storage

As far as storage is concerned, you have three options: mechanical hard drives which are older, heavier and slower but have greater capacity; solid state drives (SSD) which are small, lightning-fast but have smaller storage capacity, or a hybrid of the two to balance speed and storage.

SSD drives are beginning to replace internal mechanical drives, simply due to the space and power gains that can be garnered from installing the former. Mechanical drives are still based on the idea that several storage platters sit on top of each other within a drive while a magnetic head moves back and forth to read the data. Solid state storage, however, is based on flash storage: smaller, storage packed tightly into a much smaller footprint. Like a USB stick, only good.

One of the added benefits of an SSD drive is the speed at which it runs. Because you don’t need a mechanical head to move back and forth to fetch your data (what are we, cavemen?), you have a result in split seconds rather than a handful of minutes. Installing solid state drives will see your files write quicker, programs open faster and — more often than not — your battery last longer.

The only drawback with solid state is the actual storage size on offer. Because SSDs are still relatively new, getting a big drive to slap into your ultrabook or laptop is an expensive proposition, and even if you do shell out the big bucks, you’ll only end up with a drive with a fraction of the storage space you could have got with a mechanical drive.

If you’re still someone hungry for storage space but desperate for a power boost in day to day computing, opt for a hybrid solution. Hybrid drives means that you have a small SSD — usually only about 4GB-32GB — installed for caching. Depending on how you have it set up, you can boot the operating system from the SSD to speed up load times, or install your most processor intensive programs onto it for faster performance. It gives you the best of both worlds, but you’ll definitely notice the difference on the price tag.

Ports

Ports are a more simple proposition than something like processors or storage.

Imagine for a minute, connecting all of your most essential USB devices to your laptop, convertible or ultrabook. Keyboards, mice, smartphones, USB modems. Now take that number, and that’s how many USB ports you need.

Other port options worth considering include HDMI ports for connecting to external displays, ethernet ports for connecting to wired networks, Thunderbolt ports for super-fast data transfer and daisy-chaining other devices, and even Firewire 800 for those who like to kick it old-school.

If you’re a minimalist, however, it’s worth remembering that keyboards, mice, modems and smartphones can all pair, sync and connect wirelessly these days with the aid of Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. Or, you can invest in a connectivity hub like the Belkin Thunderbolt Express which just went up for pre-order.

Graphics

Graphics cards are usually a sorry affair for ultrabooks, convertibles and laptops. To understand why, first you must know the difference between integrated and dedicated graphics cards.

Integrated graphics cards are bolted directly onto the motherboard, and as a result, can’t be changed or upgraded — unless you have the space in your laptop for one or opt for an external USB-powered device. Intel HD Graphics are the most common offenders these days, and you won’t be doing anything game-related with it unless you love to hear the sound of your fan along with a frame rate under 15fps.

A dedicated graphics card is a luxury that usually lives in the high-end gaming range, but it gives you better grunt for intensive graphics processing work.


Stay tuned for the next instalment of the Windows 8 Super-Guide.


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