If you’ve ever had to buy a new computer or laptop, then you’ve probably been bombarded with acronyms and metrics that may not be familiar to you. RAM, HDD, CPU; the list could go on and on. Now, salesmen X at computer retailer Y will try to sell you the best so that his commission can buy little Joey a new Xbox. But let’s break down what each of these measurements are, what they mean, and how much you should have.


RAM (Random Access Memory) is probably the one you hear the most about. It is one of the most important things to look for in a new machine. So what exactly is RAM? I’ll use an analogy to help:

Let’s say you are building a new widget in your room. You have lots and lots of tools at your disposal in your room. However, your room is only so big, and you can’t fit ALL your tools in there. If you are missing a tool from your room, you will have to run out to the garage and bring it back. But, the bigger your room is, the more tools you can fit in there to access quickly.

This is essentially what RAM is. It is the amount of data/space that your computer can access very quickly without having to visit the hard drive (garage). Accessing data in RAM is much much faster than accessing data on the hard drive.

Recommended amount: Thanks to Moore’s law, RAM scales pretty quickly. As of 2012, 4GB is pretty standard and will be plenty for most consumers. You shouldn’t get any less than 2GB otherwise you will start to see performance issues. But, the more RAM the better, so feel free to go big! Also note that some machines have the ability to expand their RAM; you may want to look for this feature so you won’t be tied down as hardware gets faster.

CPU (or Processor)

The Central Processing Unit (CPU) or Processor, is a bit harder to define. I’ll spare you the technical details, but the basic idea is faster processor = better performance. You will also hear about dual-core, quad-core, and multi-processor machines. All of these will mean better performance when running several applications at once, but may be overkill if you don’t use your computer for much else besides web browsing and document editing.

Recommended Amount: Doesn’t really matter! Unless you are looking for a gaming rig or extra performance (in which case, this article isn’t going to help you much anyway), then whatever comes standard with the machine will work just fine. Everything happens so quickly in computers anyway that this metric is pretty insignificant to the casual buyer. 

Hard Drive

A quick note: Computer data is measured in bytes:

~ 1000 bytes = 1 Kilobyte (KB)

~ 1000 KB = 1 Megabyte (MB)

~ 1000 MB = 1 Gigabyte (GB)

want more?

Hard drive size is quickly becoming obsolete as they are able to pack more and more disk space into the same amount of physical space. 100GB is enough for most consumers, but they are typically offered in much greater quantities in today’s machines. For reference, an average text document is about 2-3 KB in size, an mp3 song is around 3MB, and images vary greatly depending on size, anywhere from 5KB to well above 500KB.

Recommended amount: 150+ GB should be plenty. Anything more than that is just bonus. On another note, there is a relatively new technology called Solid-State Drives (SDD). While more expensive than a standard Hard Drive, they are much faster and will greatly improve performance. It may be worth checking out if you have the dough to acquire it.

That wraps up this quick little guide. While not a full explanation by any means, it should at least give you an idea of what to look for when purchasing a new machine. Best of luck!