How Much Computer do I Need? – 2012


I’ve got four computers in my house. A little excessive, I know, but when you spend ALL day writing about computer parts, it can be tough to keep your wallet closed. I’m proud to say however, that each of my computers, whether built or bought, was chosen carefully in answer to the question, “how much computer do I need?” While, in my case, the better question was probably, “how many computers do I need?” the approach has served me well.

The idea is to identify how much money you need to spend in order to get a computer that will meet your needs, and not a hair more. Sure, grandma could spend $800 on a quad-core desktop, but it’s odds on that she’s spending more time sharing recipes on Pinterest than she is trying to maximize FPS on “The Witcher 2”, so a lot of her investment would be going to waste. I find that most users fall into one of four categories and price ranges:

The Check-Your-Emailer ($200 – $350)

CPU: Anything dual-core
RAM: 3 – 4GB
Graphics: Not important
OS: Windows 7

This computer can: Check email, surf the web, run basic office applications (Word/Excel)

This computer can’t: Play or edit HD video, run Photoshop or other large file programs, perform well in games more complex then solitaire, promise to never let you down

This is the bottom rung of computer requirements, ideal for those users who don’t really nee anything more than a keyboard, mouse and an internet connection. A lot of computers in this range are refurbished (which is nothing to be afraid of).

One thing you should be mindful of when deciding how much computer you need is the operating system (OS). This is be especially true for a refurbished system. While Windows XP was great in it’s time and still remains a terrific operating system in many ways, at 11 years and counting, its definitely beginning to feel its age. Under XP there are programs that won’t run, hardware with no drivers, and so forth. Not to mention that XP will no longer be supported by Microsoft starting 2014.

The Check-your-Emailer tier is one where the users “just want their computer to work” without any fuss or cajoling. Windows 7 is (usually) very good at that. This is also a great computer for a home server used for file serving, network storage, and so forth.

Home-Movies, Facebook, Casual Gaming ($350 – $500)

CPU: Newish dual-core (AMD Phenom II / Athlon II / A-series / FX- Series // Intel Celeron G / Pentium G / Core i anything)
RAM: 4 – 8GB
Graphics: Still not very important
OS: Windows 7

This computer can: Do everything a cheaper computer can do, playback HD video, splice together videos for Youtube and such, perform well in basic games (and at least run advanced games), mostly run Photoshop, last you a pretty long time

This computer can’t: Edit videos, perform well in modern games,

Most users fall into this tier but don’t really realize it. The current reality of computing power is that virtually any processor designed in the last two years can easily handle a good 90% of the activities we undertake on our computers, so, as long as it’s modern, you don’t really need to spare too much for processor choice in this tier. I listed 4-8GB of RAM above, which is a pretty big gap. This is because, as with a low-end processor, 90% of what you do on your PC can be easily handled by 4GB of RAM, while 8GB of RAM will handle closer to 99% of your activities. So, since RAM is so cheap (4GB is only about $20) and you’ll get occasional performance gains, the extra expense is usually worth it.

What PCs in this tier lack compared to their more expensive siblings is a capacity for graphics. This puts anything more than casual, take-what-you-get gaming out of reach without a potentially expensive graphics card addition.

Most Gaming, Graphic Design, DVD-Ripping ($500 – $800)

CPU: Quad-Core (AMD FX- / Phenom II X4 / A8- // Intel Core i5 / Core i7 2nd or 3rd Generation )
Graphics: A discrete card that costs $75 or more (Radeon HD 6600 / GeForce GT 440 / or better)
OS: Windows 7

This computer can: Do everything a cheaper computer can do, run modern games with decent frames per second, edit video & 3D animations (albeit slowly), run Photoshop like a beast

This computer can’t: Edit videos or do anything 3D at a professional level, squeeze out all the awesome today’s games have to offer.

So this is where the computers start getting cool! Desktops in this range can do almost anything, which I think is cool because really, $500 – $800 isn’t too much to pay for a computer. The thing to watch for here is an appropriate ratio between graphics and processing power, which will be determined by its intended use.

If you’re looking to game in this price-range, you can squeeze out a little-bit more value by scaling back spending on your CPU and putting more into the graphics card, which is more often the limiting factor in game performance than is the CPU. If gaming isn’t your thing, you’ll probably benefit from doing the opposite, as many high-level processes, like rendering video for instance, are almost entirely CPU limited. Don’t cut the graphics all-together though, you’ll still want the discrete card to take on some of the CPU load when it can.

Professional Workstations, Enthusiast Gaming ($800+)

CPU: Quad-Core (AMD FX-Series // Intel Core i5k / Core i7k 2nd or 3rd Generation)
RAM: 8GB or more
Graphics: A discrete card that costs $150 or more
OS: Windows 7

This computer can: Do everything a cheaper computer can do, perform very well in any game for the next 3-or-so-years, be used for professional level video editing and design work.

This computer can’t: Defeat Chuck Norris in hand-to-hand combat

Unless you want to get REALLY expensive here, it’s important to have a really clear idea of what niche you’re looking to fill with this computer. For $800-$900 you can build or buy a computer that will be really amazing at one thing, and only pretty good at everything else. Of course, you can spend more to make it really amazing at everything, but we’re talking about needs here, not wants.

My advice at this level is not to make your processor the most expensive part of your system, or at least, purchase another component that costs as much. This is because today’s processors are SO fast and SO capable, that there is really no way you’ll stress them out except in really specific applications (like video editing, NOT like gaming). So, rather than spending on the most expensive processor, your money will be better allocated toward something that makes your system especially good a something. Whether you drop extra cash on a huge or multiple solid state drives for amazing load times, or a terrific graphics card for terrific gaming, or you spend big on a nicer case and cooling system for silence.

A Word on Hard Drives: You may have noticed that I didn’t make any hard drive recommendations on any of the price tiers up above. Hard drive usage can really vary at any tier of computer. My personal computer, for example, cost me around $1,200 all told, but I’ve only got around 200GB of storage on it. That’s because I don’t really care to store pictures or videos on my computer. I only use that space for programs. My wife on the other hand, has a computer worth maybe $600 but has a 2TB hard drive because she’s storing family movies and pictures from her photography business.

So, moral of the story, no matter what tier of computer fits your needs, your hard drive needs should be evaluated separately.

Learn something about where you fit in these common tiers? Take a look at OutletPC’s Desktop Computer selection and find the one that’s right for your needs.

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19 thoughts on “How Much Computer do I Need? – 2012

  1. I have limited desk space, room enough for a 23″ monitor all-in-one with 1TB drive and 6GB memory running around 2.5GHz. That’s what I’m setting my sights on as my next computer I buy… Right now I own Inspiron 1545 laptop and added a 750G drive and 2G more RAM memory…

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