One of the most common complaints people have about their computers is that they are slow. Ten to 15 years ago, a cheap upgrade that people did to make their computers faster was to increase the amount of RAM (also called "memory"), pictured above. Computer manufacturers used to skimp on this component to save costs. However, after 10+ years of people upgrading their own RAM, computer manufactures figured out that an inexpensive way of selling a cheap computer was to upgrade the RAM to make it look faster than it really was.
In order to better understand what makes a computer fast or slow, you first need to know the difference between speed and capacity and between the different components of the computer. Often capacity specifications are emphasized, but what you really need to know is speed.
There are three primary components that affect computers speed for the average user:
- The CPU or Processor (sometimes called APU)
- The RAM or Memory
- The storage, often just called "hard drive," although technically incorrect.
There are other components that affect speed for specialized users, like gamers, engineers, and graphic designers, but for the sake of simplicity, only these three will be discussed.
The CPU, or processor, has two main specifications you need to be aware, of: speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz) and capacity, stated in number of cores or threads. The 2011 MacBook Pro I am writing this on has a 2.3-2.9 GHz Intel Core i5. Laptop i5 processors have 2 cores, 4 threads. The speed tells you how fast a single program can run, and the cores and threads tell you how much the computer can do all at once. Both are important. The processor is the primary determining factor in the speed of a properly functioning computer.
The RAM, the memory—not to be confused with the storage—also has speed and capacity specifications. However, all that you need to know about it's speed is that it is always fast. The capacity specification, often measured in megabytes (MB) or gigabytes (GB), is what you always see and really need to pay attention to. (1 GB is equal to 1024 MB.) In conjunction with the processor cores and threads, it is what allows your computer to multitask. The more tabs you have open in Google Chrome or the more programs you have open, the more memory is required. Almost every computer made today has 4 GB of RAM, which is all that is required for average use. Gaming and heavy multitasking will require 6 GB or more.
Finally, we come to the storage, which usually consists of a "hard drive" or HDD. This is where all of your programs, documents, pictures, etc. are stored. It is usually measured in terms of capacity—how much data it can hold—but an important quality that is often over looked is its speed. Capacity is measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB). (1 TB is equal to 1024 GB.) Speed in a traditional hard drive is given in RPM. Standard speeds are 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM. 5400 RPM is standard for a laptop, 7200 RPM for a desktop. Traditional hard drives found in most lower end computers are old-fashioned magnetic media. The hard drive is one of the most fragile components in the computer and the most overlooked. Traditional hard drives are subject to failure due to wear and tear more than any other component, and often slow down to an unbearable speed before they fail. A failing or worn out hard drive is a top reason for slowness in modern computers. Replacing the traditional hard drive with a more modern and durable solid state drive (SSD) is an excellent way to speed up the computer. SSD capacity is often lower in order to keep costs down, but the speed trade-off is often worth it.