When shopping for a new computer you will likely be faced with a list of specifications for each one. There’s not enough space here to go fully in depth, but for the main components below a brief explanation will hopefully shed some light and provide some guidance.
- Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The CPU is used in all areas of the computer’s functionality. Nowadays a CPU will contain several “cores” which are essentially separate CPUs contained within one physical unit. Certain applications will be able to use many of these cores at once for some of their functionality however others will primarily run on a single core.
- Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
The GPU is a specialised card used to perform many specialised calculations simultaneously. Primarily this assists in graphics calculations hence the name, but is increasingly extended into other functionality such as simulations. There are two main variants, “Professional” grade such as Nvidia’s Quadro range and AMD’s Radeon Pro range, and the “Consumer” grade such as the NVidia GeForce series. The main difference is that the pro grade cards prioritise stability over raw performance by using some slightly different drivers/components and offering better enterprise support options. A consumer grade card is often the way to go when purchasing a machine for yourself since you’ll get more raw performance per pound/euro spent, however a bundled workstation package will generally contain a Quadro since those are aimed at the Business/Enterprise market.
- Memory (RAM)
Measured in units of Megabytes (MB) and Gigabytes (GB), this is something where the amount you need depends on what you’re going to be doing. As noted earlier, with a desktop or some gaming laptops you have the option of starting with a basic level then adding more later. Not to be confused with storage which use the same units of measurement.
- Internal Storage / Hard Disk Space
Measured in Gigabytes (GB) and Terabytes (TB). This is something where you’re probably going to need more than you think you do, but luckily you have a lot of options to expand it later even on a laptop. As well as storing your files (which will take up increasing amounts of space as you learn and work on more projects) it can also have an effect on the speed of your machine. If at all possible you should use a 256GB+ Solid State Drive (SSD) as your main Operating System/Application drive, and a larger (cheaper) traditional mechanical drive for your projects/data/caches.
- Data Backup
By far the most overlooked aspect in most people’s thought process, but one of the most important not just for your academic work but your entire digital life. NEVER assume that someone else is taking care of your data for you, and NEVER have only a single copy of your important data. Your options in this regard are numerous and going into depth is beyond the scope of this article, but at minimum you should have an external drive that you regularly update with copies of your data (1TB size bare minimum). If you’re using that drive to bring your work to and from the studios, then ensure you copy that data to your home machine on a very regular basis. Remember that if you are carrying your external drive and laptop always together, that is effectively only a single copy of the data since you could lose the laptop bag and be left with nothing. To mitigate that risk, it’s worth considering one of the many cloud services available such as Google Drive or Dropbox as an additional layer of protection. A good option is Microsoft’s Onedrive which has an Office 365 plan with a 1TB storage allocation (which can be used for all file types) plus access to Office 365 on the desktop and a mobile device, or a family version for only a little more money per month which grants these same benefits to five users.
The table below gives a general idea on the major components. The technology moves fast and new releases occur all the time, but the pre-built systems found by the major manufacturers such as HP and Dell can provide a good idea on the general current components.