Stump the Geeks

Q: I’m looking to buy a new computer. Intel has new second-generation core chips, but I don’t know what the various specs really do for a computer. For instance, the i5 is 3 GHz with a 6-MB L3 cache, while the i7 is 2.7 GHz with 8 MB of L3 cache. So the i5 has higher GHz while the i7 has a higher L3 cache. What the heck do either of these mean? And how does the hard drive RPM fit into this? So confusing!

-Randi, Fuquay-Varina

A: There’s nothing quite so thrilling as struggling to parse the techno jargon that surrounds the purchase of a new computer. Even the best advice is full of exceptions. And with rapid advances in technology, you can bet all the research you did when you bought your last system three to five years ago won’t do you much good in a market that’s substantially faster and cheaper. That can be great for your wallet, but not for your sanity.

Luckily, the basics don’t change that often (except when they do), so it’s helpful to remember how a computer performs before prioritizing where to sink your cash.

Craig Petronella, president of Petronella Computer Consultants, likes to put things in terms of food. He says a computer processor’s cache is very fast, with a small memory, and you can think of it like the refrigerator in your house, storing what you eat the most.

“The bigger your fridge, the less trips to the grocery store,” Petronella said. “Using this analogy, the larger the cache on the CPU, the more info the CPU can calculate in shorter periods of time.”

When a craving strikes that your fridge can’t satisfy, your computer’s next stop is the convenience store around the corner. That’s the random-access memory, a little bigger, a little slower. The CPU’s last stop – the grocery store of sorts – is your hard drive, which will always take the longest to access but has the largest amount of storage.

The speed of the processor itself, measured in gigahertz, used to be a bigger factor when it came to a computer purchase, but Petronella says any of Intel’s I-series options should be fine for the average user. Those who are looking to perform processor-intensive work like video editing, drafting or design are the exception.

He recommends investing first in as much RAM as possible and next in the speed of the hard drive before focusing on the CPU. One option is to spring for a solid-state hard drive, which basically uses the same technology as the thumb drive you may carry on your keychain. It has no moving parts and is faster than more traditional, mechanical hard disk drives (which specify, in revolutions per minute, how fast they spin).

Petronella’s only exception would be in the case of a laptop purchase.

“For laptops, most CPUs cannot be upgraded, so it may make good sense to get the fastest CPU available now and upgrade the RAM and hard drives later,” Petronella said.

Like I said, buying a computer is fun. Except when it’s not.


Craig Petronella
Petronella Computer Consultants, Inc.

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