As COVID-19 spreads throughout the nation, many states have issued a shelter-in-place order to reduce the chances of it spreading further. Those who are able to work or study from home have been instructed to do so. A lot of employees may already know what kind of equipment they need to work from home – a printer, stable WiFi, a phone line – but they might not have a computer suitable for work. Many don’t even know where to start looking for a PC, particularly if their employers did not provide them with one. So I’m here with an FAQ that will make shopping for your work-from-home computer much less complex.
* Note that I recommend using CTRL+F to search for specific key words in this blog if there’s only a few terms you’re confused about or just want a really quick answer to without having to read the entire article.
All these computer terms are whack! Do I really need to care about these specs, or can I just buy something?
Well, yes, you can just buy any old computer without looking at the specs beforehand, but unfortunately, it’s not as easy as “this is the best computer to work from home on, you’re welcome.” Your needs vary greatly depending on what kind of work or studies you do, and you’ll be shooting in the dark if you simply search for “fast 15″ laptop.” Presumably, you don’t want a laptop that takes forever to load, nor do you want to spend thousands of dollars on a PC when you can spend $700 to cover your needs. Hopefully, this FAQ makes understanding different parts of a computer for you much less intimidating.
What’s a CPU? What does “GHz” do? What does any of this mean?
A computer’s CPU (central processing unit) is its processor, a key component for crunching and spitting out actions. GHz (gigahertz) refers to how quickly the processor performs these actions. Unfortunately, a higher GHz doesn’t always mean faster. I would worry more about a CPU family over a CPU’s speed.
- Intel: Core i7 > Core i5 > Core i3
- AMD: Ryzen 7 > Ryzen 5 > Ryzen 3
- Avoid Intel Pentium & Celeron CPU’s
If your work or studies involve software that require a lot of processing power (e.g. huge Excel files, engineering & visualization), I would lean towards either an Intel Core i7 or an AMD Ryzen 7. You can read here to learn more about other parts of a CPU, such as clock speeds & cores.
What’s this about a processor’s “generation”? How do I know if a PC is modern?
If you’re looking at Intel CPU’s, make sure the last batch of numbers starts with a “9” or a “10” (e.g. Core i3-9300, or Core i7-1065G7), which are Intel’s 9th & 10th generation of processors. For AMD, make sure the last batch of numbers starts with a “3” (e.g. Ryzen 9 3900X, or Ryzen 7 3800X). Otherwise, you are getting an older PC.
But what about RAM?
There are two main options: 8GB & 16GB.
If your work or studies are not processing-intensive (e.g. writing reports, coding/software developing), and you wouldn’t use your PC casually outside of shopping and social media, then an 8GB PC may be good enough. Otherwise, I highly recommend getting a PC with 16GB RAM, if your budget allows it (Budgeting note: You are unlikely to find a 16GB desktop or notebook under $600).
And what about GPU?
Hey, I thought you were working! In all seriousness, you only need to worry about the graphics card if you are working in graphics-intensive fields, such as:
- Engineering – CAD / 3D rendering
- Bitcoin mining
- Virtual reality (e.g. constructing 3D views/landscapes)
- Video editing
Otherwise, your computer’s generic “integrated graphics” works just fine. If you’re new to PC gaming and want a PC you can game on after you’re done working/studying, check out my blog on how to figure out which GPU works best for you.
What is HD? FHD? QHD?
These terms refer to your monitor’s or laptop’s screen resolution. The main resolutions to look out for are HD (1366×768), FHD (1920×1080), & QHD (2560×1440). Basically, the bigger the pixel count, the more that can fit on your screen. An HD resolution may work fine for a 13” or 15” laptop. For screens bigger than 15”, I would recommend an FHD resolution. For screens 24” and bigger, I would not go lower than QHD. You can read a more in-depth comparison between screen resolutions here.
What is this “solid state drive” I’m hearing about?
There are mainly two types of storage your computer uses for storing files: HDD (hard disk drive), & SSD (solid state drive). In a nutshell: HDD’s are cheaper, & most modern computers that run HDD’s will have at least 1TB worth of storage. SSD’s are faster, in that the files saved on them load faster than if they were saved on an HDD. Unless you really need to save a ton of files directly on your computer, I recommend using an SSD drive (You can store other files within a portable HDD or two, which is what I do).
I need to use Excel/Word/PowerPoint. How can I access these?
If you’re a student or educator, you can access the Microsoft Office 365 Education Edition for free here.
It’s a bit trickier if you’re shopping for one on your own. Microsoft Office 365 is a monthly subscription-based service. If you intend to uninstall all Office-based products after you return to work/school, then this is definitely the cheaper option. Otherwise, if your budget allows for it and if you intend to continue using Word, Excel, PowerPoint (etc.) at home outside of work, then Microsoft Office 2019 would be the better option.
Windows 10 Pro or Windows 10 Home?
If you’re working from home, then I recommend Windows 10 Pro by far. 10 Pro has security features and other upgrades that 10 Home lacks. You can learn more about their differences here. If you’re a student or otherwise using this new computer casually, then you’ll be fine with Windows 10 Home.
What about Chromebooks?
There are some benefits to using a Chrome OS over Windows, such as seamless OS updates, better battery life, and overall simplicity. However, Chromebooks are generally weaker than Windows laptops when it comes to processing, and many Windows-based applications such as Photoshop will not run on Chrome OS. You can read more about Chrome OS here.
That being said: if you’re a student, or you’re a parent who needs to make sure their kid’s computer is strictly for learning, then yes, a Chromebook may be suitable (and cheaper). Otherwise, I would stick to a Windows operating system for work.
What about Apple?
If you want a MacBook and have the budget for it, nothing is going to convince you out of getting one. If you’re unsure about getting a MacBook, and your work/hobbies/studies aren’t art- or music-related, then I would consider a Windows PC (which may save you money and offer similar or better performance) over a MacBook.
What about stuff like ports? Battery life? Numeric keypads?
If you’re more concerned about the hardware of a PC rather than these weird software-related terms, then I have good news for you! My colleague Dustin Down had already put together a quick FAQ on what to take into consideration, hardware-wise, when buying a PC.
Though I do recommend double-checking what ports your PC and monitor(s) have. For example, if they both have HDMI, then a simple HDMI cable can connect them. But if one has an HDMI while the other has a DisplayPort, you will need to invest in a HDMI-to-DisplayPort cable. If you buy a new PC or monitor without checking for what kinds of cables you need, your ability to work/study from home may be delayed – so please watch out for this!
I’m building a PC. What kind of motherboard—
I’m sorry buddy, I can’t help you there!
What about gaming computers? My child says it’s for school.
If your work or studies don’t have anything to do with engineering or art, and you’re not a PC gamer, then unless you’re into edgy aesthetics, you don’t have to worry about paying $1500+ for a high-end gaming laptop. The same specs (with a downgraded GPU) on a consumer-friendly laptop will be half as cheap.
Otherwise, if your child is absolutely begging for a gaming computer that just happens to also get his homework done… well, it’ll definitely load his essays faster.
In short, there are a few key specs I would look for in a PC used to work from home:
- A higher-end processor (Core i7 9xxx & Ryzen 7 3xxx)
- 16GB RAM
- SSD storage
- FHD or QHD resolution
- Windows 10 Pro operating system
Unless you’re an avid gamer or truly need a high-end PC with a phenomenal graphics card, you don’t need a high-end $1000+ edgy gaming computer to work from home effectively (Just because I have an HP Omen for work doesn’t mean you also need one!). Best of luck getting your remote office setup! Stay healthy, stay safe, and remember to wash your hands and eat your vegetables.
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