» The processor, or CPU: This gizmo does the main computing. It’s probably from Intel or AMD. Different manufacturers rate their CPUs in different ways, and it’s impossible to compare performance by just looking at the part number. Yes, i7 CPUs usually run faster than i5s, and i3s are the slowest of the three, but there are many nuances. Unless you tackle very intensive video games, build your own audio or video files, or recalculate spreadsheets , with the national debt, the CPU doesn’t really count for much. In particular, if you’re streaming audio and video (say, with YouTube or Netflix) you don’t need a fancy processor.
» Memory chips and places to put them: Memory is measured in megabytes (1MB = 1,024KB = 1,048,576 characters), gigabytes (1GB = 1,024MB), and terabytes (1TB = 1,024GB). Microsoft recommends a minimum of 2GB main memory. Unless you have an exciting cornfield to watch grow while Windows 10 saunters along, aim for 4GB or more. Most computers allow you to add more memory to them, and boosting your computer’s memory to 4GB from 2GB makes the machine much snappier, especially if you run memory hogs such as Office, InDesign, or Photoshop. If you leave Outlook open and work with it all day and run almost any other major program at the same time, 8GB isn’t overkill. If you’re going to make your own videos, you probably need more. But for most people, 4GB is plenty and 8GB will run everything well.
» Video chipset: Most motherboards include remarkably good built-in video. If you want more video oomph, you have to buy a video card and put it in a card slot. Advanced motherboards have multiple PCI card slots, to allow you to strap together two video cards and speed up video even more. If you want to run a VR or AR headset, such as an Oculus Rift, you’re going to need a much more capable video setup. For more information, see the “Screening” section in this chapter.
» Card slots (also known as expansion slots): Laptops have very limited (if any) expansion slots on the motherboard. Desktops generally contain several expansion slots. Modern slots come in two flavors: PCI and PCI-Express (also known as PCIe or PCI-E). Most expansion cards use PCI, but very fast cards — including, notably, video cards — require PCIe. Of course, PCI cards don’t fit in PCIe slots, and vice versa. To make things more confusing, PCIe comes in four sizes — literally, the size of the bracket and the number of bumps on the bottoms of the cards is different. The PCIe 1x is smallest, the relatively uncommon PCIe 4x is considerably larger, and PCIe 8x is a bit bigger still. PCIe 16x is just a little bit bigger than an old-fashioned PCI slot. Most video cards these days require a PCIe 16x slot. Or two.
If you’re buying a monitor separately from the rest of the system, make sure the monitor takes video input in a form that your PC can produce. See the upcoming section “Screening” for details.
» USB (Universal Serial Bus) connections: The USB cable has a flat connector that plugs in to your slots. USB 3 is considerably faster than USB 2, and any kind of USB device can plug in to a USB 3 slot, whether or not the device itself supports USB 3 level speeds.
USB Type-C (often called USB C) is a completely different kind of cable that takes its own kind of slot. It has two big advantages. The plug is reversible, so it’s impossible to plug it in upside-down. And you can run a considerable
amount of power through a USB-C, making it a good choice for power supplies. Many laptops these days get charged through a USB C connection.