*Updated as of January 2022*
I know that there are lots to consider when buying a computer. It can be overwhelming and frustrating. Not everybody has the time or the patience to do the research.
That’s why we wrote this handy guide to help you.
We will not be recommending specific brands. This is NOT a sponsored post. We’re trying to share some know-how to help YOU make an informed decision. So you can get the right computer, for the right job, at the right price, and not just buy whatever the sales guy recommends.
We previously released a PC buying guide for Virtual Assistants who were looking to purchase a new daily driver for their online work. While that guide is a little outdated, I would strongly recommend you read it first to get a general idea of
- how different computer components work
- how these components affect online work and
- how other parts can affect your budget.
For those who want to get Macs, our Mac buying guide still applies. We just updated it to include the “cheesegrater” which is a workstation system.
When buying a computer, always consider your budget and your needs first. Once you have that figured out, it’ll be easier to shortlist what components you really need. Just because something is newer, more powerful, or more expensive doesn’t mean it would be best for you. The simplest way to choose is still based on your needs and budget.
Getting The Right Tools For The Job: The CPU
There are so many different CPUs in the market because they’re designed for different tasks and have different price points. If you are shopping for a laptop or prebuilt for VA work, you can use this table to guide you on what computer you should get based on the CPU model.
|Ideal Tasks for Intel Core i3/AMD Ryzen 3*||Ideal Tasks for Intel Core i5 or i7/ AMD Ryzen 5 or 7**|
|Office & Admin VA||Advertising (with graphics/video)|
|Project Management||Software Development|
|English Tutorial||Web Development|
|Finance Management||Wordpress (with graphics/video)|
|Customer Service||PHP Programming|
|Marketing and Sales||Marketing and Sales (with graphics/video)|
|Professional Services||Graphics and Multimedia|
|Social Media||Social Media (with graphics/video)|
Many employers will have minimum required computer specifications for their VAs, but the tasks on the first column can still be done with some Pentium and Athlon CPUs. Suppose your workload isn’t that technically demanding. In that case, you can get away with using late model Pentiums and Athlons as long as you have enough RAM to back it up. UPDATE: Even newer generation Celeron, Athlon, and Pentium computers struggle to keep up with Core/Ryzen series powered PCs several generations older. It can do light general VA work but is challenging and time-consuming to open multiple tabs and applications. That’s why we don’t recommend them for serious VA work.
** If you really want to save money, some of these tasks can still be done using 3-series CPUs. However, you may see some performance lags when doing video editing or working on really high-resolution photos and graphics.
In addition to the series number, you may have noticed that CPUs also come with letter suffixes. What do these suffixes mean?
For INTEL CPUs –
- F (9100F,9400F) – These are basically the same CPUs as those without F suffix (9100, 9400) but cheaper because it has no integrated graphics. This means, even if your motherboard has a VGA, DMI, or DisplayPort output, as long as you got an F processor, you will need to make sure you buy a graphics card.
- K models ( 9600K, 9700K, 9900K ) are “unlocked CPUs” that allow overclocking to squeeze more processing speed from the CPU. It might be tempting to get this if you want a blazing fast processor. If you’re used to overclocking, or you want to give it a try, be my guest. But if you are new to computers, don’t do Triple-A games, and your workspace doesn’t have air-conditioned, I wouldn’t recommend overclocking as it could break the costly CPU and may void the warranty.
- U – U CPUs stand for “ultra-low-power” and can be found on most laptops right now. While they are decent, their low power consumption also means lower performance than their desktop CPU equivalent.
For AMD CPUs –
- G (3200G,3400G) – On AMD’s camp, if you see a G suffix, it means that it has integrated graphics support. Because all Ryzen CPUs are unlocked, they are all overclockable, but the same warnings apply as above when overclocking.
- X (3600X,3700X,3900X) – The X suffix indicates a higher power draw for more performance, so you will need a better motherboard and a higher wattage power supply when you opt for those.
- U – AMD also uses the U suffix for their standard laptop processors to indicate ultra-low-power.
Another thing salespeople might use to convince you to buy a computer is the clock speed or GHz, which is used by CPUs. Their pitch would be to sell you a laptop with a higher GHz because it’s ‘faster,’ but that’s not always the case.
Most CPUs run between 2.4 to 4 GHz. But the 4 GHz computer from several years ago may be slower than the 2.4 GHz computer of today.
Why? Because of generational improvements on CPUs.
As their parts become smaller and smaller, CPU computing power increases even if the number of GHz doesn’t change.
Instead of looking at clock speeds, check when the CPUs were released. Compare them to those within the same generation. Even with “slower” clock speeds, CPUs released later are generally better than older CPUs, especially when released three or more generations apart.
Another characteristic you may want to look into are the CPU cores and threads.
CPU Cores are the actual number of processor hardware in a CPU. If a CPU has four cores, it has four hardware CPUs.
When talking about thread, it refers to the tasks that a CPU core can do at a time. If a CPU has four cores and eight threads, this means that each core can handle two things at the same time. Your processor sees a 4core/8thread CPU as having 8 CPU cores.
While more cores mean more work done, many programs do not benefit from multi-core CPUs because they rely on a single core to work.
Most of the CPUs available in the market today have at least 4 cores, which is more than enough for most VA work. But if you do video editing, programming, or graphic design professionally, you’ll need at least 6 cores.
Getting The Most Bang For Your Buck on Parts
A limited budget will give you limited options. But that PC still needs to perform well if you need it for work and personal use. This is often defined by how fast your PC works.
As mentioned in our previous guide, the performance of your computer does not rely solely on the CPU. It’s the interaction of the 3 main components (CPU, RAM, Storage).
This means you need to align your budget based on the performance that you want to get from your PC. If your task has intensive graphics (graphics editing, video editing, 3D editing), having a better GPU with more VRAM will factor in the performance. This means you will have to consider GPU cost in your budget. But if you don’t need a GPU, you can afford to splurge on other components that can improve your computer’s performance.
In my previous article, I have explained how more RAM helps in the performance by easing the bottleneck to the CPU.
I would still recommend a minimum of 8GB of memory for most tasks. If you are doing video editing or motion graphics, I recommend a minimum of 16GB.
Additionally, taking advantage of RAM channels gives better performance.
What is this “channel”? In simplest terms, the channel is how the computer communicates information from the RAM to the CPU and vice versa. Having more lanes for the same amount of memory allows faster data movement from the RAM to the CPU. So when buying RAM, you need to consider what your motherboard is capable of.
For example, which do you think would be the better option? A single stick of 8GB RAM or 2 sticks of 4GB? It depends. If your motherboard only has single-channel memory, the single 8GB RAM is your only choice. If your motherboard supports dual channel memory, go with the 2 sticks of 4GB to maximize your computer’s performance.
When buying a new computer, it may be tempting to go for bigger storage when you see “1TB HDD” over “240GB SSD,” but don’t be fooled. SSDs are now cheaper than ever, and the speed benefits of SSD are leaps and bounds compared to HDD.
Most laptops being sold still come with a very slow 5400RPM hard drive and has been frustrating many consumers as soon as they start using their laptop. This is why it was a breath of fresh air last September when Lenovo Philippines has announced that all their laptops, including their cheapest ones, will have SSDs as standard storage.
UPDATE: Most laptops no longer rely on hard storage drives. In my last visit to computer stores, most of what’s available have 128GB SSDs. Although that seems like a lot of storage, I recommend that you find something with at least 512GB SSD because 128GB can fill up really fast.
Suppose you can’t find a computer with more storage. In that case, you may want to invest in cloud storage and/or external hard drives, so you don’t fill up your computer’s drive quickly.
If your system supports it, choose NVMe M.2 SSDs over SATA SSDs. NVMe is really fast, especially if it is rated at 4x speed.
That’s not to say that HDDs are a terrible choice. It’s just that if you’re going for speed, SSDs are the way to go. But if you need a system that can support long-term storage, HDD is a good option.
Not everyone will need high-end graphics. But if your tasks require video and graphics, you’d definitely need a graphics card.
There are two GPU manufacturers you will consider, NVIDIA and AMD. The brand doesn’t really matter here. Base your choice on your budget and needs.
Unfortunately, most graphic card reviews are geared towards performance on gaming, not so much on how they perform in video rendering and motion graphics. So after checking which graphics cards would be compatible with your motherboard, CPU, and budget, go for the one with more VRAM and more graphics processing power to get the best performance.
Video cards tagged as LHR (Low Hash Rate), though still costly, are cheaper than those used by cryptominers. Remember that the graphics card may be the most expensive component, so budget accordingly.
There are 2 essential things you will need to know when choosing the right motherboard: size and CPU compatibility.
Choosing the right size (form-factor) depends on the case you are using and the amount of internal expansion you are looking to have. These are the most common form-factors you’ll find on the market:
- mini-ITX – The mini-ITX size is a small motherboard and has limited expansion. The most you’ll be able to add to it internally is 2 RAM sticks and 1 graphics card. Some modern mini-ITX motherboards may even have support for m.2 SSDs. This size is your go-to if you are building a tiny PC.
- micro-ATX (mATX) – Micro-ATX is larger than mini-ITX and more expansion options. Most modern mATX motherboards will have 2-3 PCIe slots for expansion (graphics card, a better sound card than the one built-in on the motherboard…) and probably 2 m.2 SSD slots. While a few mATX boards will have 2 slots for RAM, most of them will have 4. If you have 2 RAM sticks and 4 slots, you’ll have to make sure you attach the 2 sticks on either 1st & 3rd or 2nd & 4th slots. This is to ensure you are taking advantage of the dual memory channel advantage I discussed above. Attaching them on consecutive slots will only use a single memory channel and you will lose out on the speed that dual channel can give.
- ATX – You get the point. Bigger motherboards, more expansion. This can get really big, and the case for it can get impractical if you don’t have dedicated space for your PC. For my money, go with mATX as it’s the best middle ground.
The other consideration is CPU compatibility. Your friendly computer store should already have compatibility recommendations. Still, I will tell you that it’s better to check online if a particular model works with your chosen CPU. PC Partpicker is a go-to for all PC building enthusiasts.
SPECIAL INTEL NOTE: Intel’s CPU socket looks the same, and may even have the same number of contacts, but different generations could have different configuration. So make sure you get the right motherboard with the compatible socket. The wrong motherboard can fry both the board and the CPU, and it’s a costly mistake that you cannot warranty.
SPECIAL AMD NOTE: AMD has been using the same CPU socket (AM4) for their 1st to 3rd Ryzen generations and technically should work after an update on the motherboard’s firmware (often referred to as the BIOS). When buying a Ryzen motherboard, ask the computer store if they can update the BIOS for you if the motherboard you are buying was released before the Ryzen 3000 series. Also, the Ryzen 3000 series may not work with boards that have the chipset lower than B450 (you’d see this code on the motherboard’s model number).
Many people will try to save money by purchasing a computer case with an included generic power supply. This was fine more than 10 years ago. But now, this is a dangerous cost-saving measure due to the power requirements of today’s computers.
There are two reasons why I would not recommend generic (a.k.a, “ketchup and mustard power supply” due to the red and yellow cables) power supplies:
- Inconsistent power or unreliable true-rating
- The quality of wire gauge of the cables and thickness of the insulation.
With the amount of power draw most computer components require nowadays, it’s safer to just get certified power supply units from trusted brands. Generic PSUs may not be using quality wires of the correct gauge and proper insulation. This means they may not deliver the power your PC components need, which could brick them in the process. Thinner gauged wire with thin insulation can easily heat up, becoming a fire hazard.
Check for the 80PLUS certification on the power supply you’ll be getting. Generic PSUs will not have that. Also, you may want to check the wattage of your setup to the PSU you need. I’ve found this a really good tool for quick computation of the minimum wattage requirements.
One last consideration is to make sure you have suitable power connectors. Newer graphics cards will require additional power from the PSU, and they come in either 6 or 8 pins or a combination. Just make sure to have it checked for compatibility by the store so there won’t be any headaches when you bring it home.
I hope the previous buyer guide and the additional information here can help you choose your next daily driver for your work.
About Jae Manuel Sta Romana
Jae Manuel Sta. Romana is Onlinejobs. ph’s social media administrator and resident tech geek. He’s been working on computers since the1980s and is a tech support veteran. In his free time, this work-at-home dad likes to game, cook and arrange music for band instruments.