How to Buy a Laptop: 3 Basic Computer Terms Every College Student Should Know

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As the school year winds down to a close, it’s time to take stock of the damages that the year has wrought: friends lost, friends won, classes passed and failed, and, on the tech side, what shape your computer is in. We may do our very best to protect these incredibly expensive machines from damage, but accidents happen, screens get stepped on, nail polish remover gets dumped everywhere… Even the best of us may need to buy a new laptop for next year.

If you’re covered under warranty, fantastic. But if not, or you’re looking to upgrade your machine before the cold march of progress leaves you behind, where do you start? PCMag.com and CNet.com reviews will only take you so far. Sometimes, you need to cut out the middleman and learn what exactly that product specifications page is babbling about.

Below, I'll explain three of the most basic computer terms you'll see under "specifications" when buying a laptop. Once you know what exactly you're buying, you'll be able to make an informed, smart purchase.

1. CPU

Computer CPU


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The CPU (central processing unit) is the heart of your computer and controls basically every function you might concern yourself with. Faster CPUs mean faster laptops, but usually also mean decreased battery life. If you want a laptop that you’re primarily going to use for lectures and papers, the difference between a fast and a slower CPU isn’t going to mean much to you. Any CPU over 2.0 GHz should be enough to keep up.

2. GPU

Laptop screen


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The GPU (graphics processing unit) is responsible for everything you seen on the screen, whether you’re a hardcore gamer or a complete n00b. More importantly, many GPUs accelerate video decoding, meaning they help online videos from sites like Hulu and YouTube to look better and run more smoothly, among other functions.

Most laptops offer the choice between discrete and integrated GPUs. Discrete GPUs are dedicated solely to graphics, offering better performance, while integrated GPUs are built into the CPU itself but often come with lackluster video decoding. If you play anything other than Web-based games or watch tons of videos, discrete GPUs are definitely the way to go.

3. RAM

Robot holding computer RAM


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RAM, or Random Access Memory, can make all the difference between a fast and slow computer. Long story short: The more room there is for your computer to store data in memory, the less times it has to access and load information from the hard drive. When data access is fast, your computer feels fast and responsive. Generally speaking, 4 GB is the recommended amount of RAM for a new laptop; any more, and prices start jumping exponentially, with little increased benefit.

Laptop memory comes in two types: DDR2 and DDR3. The latter is faster, but if you’re primarily using your machine for schoolwork and casual entertainment, the difference won’t matter much. The RAM number is often accompanied by some kind of clock speed, which will determine how fast the RAM is. But in this case, size definitely matters more than speed. (I.e., 4 GB is better than 2 GB.)

Take-Home Points:

The market being what it is, laptops now come equipped with thousands of bells and whistles that would take years to explain, but the CPU, GPU, and RAM are the three basic considerations that every consumer should keep in mind when shopping for a new laptop.

And remember: Even though money is often a concern for the poor college student, don’t let yourself get seduced by those shiny happy reviews or sweet-talked into buying an expensive machine that does far more than you need it to. Figure out what you need from your machine, then find a machine that fits you.

Your thoughts?

What else do you look for in a laptop? Do you prefer laptops to desktops? Any laptop recommendations for fellow readers? Share your thoughts and more in the comments below.