What Makes a “Good” Computer? Reviewing the Hardware and Specs for 4 Different Models

Q: I’m interested in learning more about the hardware, processors, and other features of some different types of computers today. Can you give me some info so I can decide what models might be appropriate for different people and communities?

There are so many different types of computers out on the market today, including desktops, laptops, tablets, and a variety of emerging hybrids that attempt to give tablets more functionality or make laptops more convenient.

This post is a review and comparison of 4 different models: the iPad 2, (a tablet), the Toshiba Satellite L750D-BT5N22 (a “budget” laptop now a couple years old), the Dell Vostro 260 Mini-tower (a desktop), and the HP Folio 13 (an ultrabook)

Below the chart is a detailed discussion of what each of these types of computers is best for.

Name iPad 2
Toshiba Satellite L750D-BT5N22 Dell Vostro 260 Mini-tower
HP Folio 13
Form factors (size and shape of case, weight, LCD integrated (e.g., laptop, iMac) or separate) Tablet; Width 7.31”, Height 9.50″ Depth 0.34″ 1.33 lbs Laptop; exact dimensions unknown: based on similar models: Width ~14”, Height ~1.5”, Depth ~10.7”, Weight ~6 lbs Desktop; Width 6.89”, Height 14.17”,
Depth 17.18”,
Weight: ~18.08lb, 20″ Widescreen Monitor
Ultrabook; Width 8.67”, Height 12.54”, Depth 0.7” Starting at 3.3 lbs
CPU type/features 1GHz dual-core Apple A5 custom-designed, “system-on-a-chip” AMD Quad-Core A6-3420M Accelerated Processor Intel® Core™; i3-2120 Intel® Core™ i5-2467M
CPU speed vs. Front Side Bus speed 1GHz; reported to have “dynamically changing clock speed”[i] FSB 677MHz 1.5GHz base (2.4 GHz with AMD Turbo Core Technology), 4MB Cache FSB n/a 3.30GHz, 3MB Cache FSB n/a 1.60 GHz, 3 MB L3 Cache; FSB n/a
Type and size of storage 16GB 320GB HDD (5400rpm, Serial-ATA) 250 GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM) w/DataBurst Cache™ Solid State Drive
Up to: 128 GB
Type and characteristics of memory Not officially confirmed (rumored to be 512 MB)[ii] 3GB DDR3 1333MHz SDRAM (2048MB+1024MB) 2GB Dual Channel DDR3 SDRAM at 1333MHz – 1 DIMMs 4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Type and characteristics of video AirPlay Mirroring to Apple TV support at 720p Video mirroring and video out support: Up to 1080p with separate adapters AMD Radeon HD 6520G Intel® HD Graphics 2000 (VGA, HDMI) Intel HD Graphics 3000
Other hardware features (external ports, networking, etc.) 30-pin dock connector port Built-in speaker Microphone Front and back video cameras DVD SuperMulti (+/-R double layer) drive Realtek® Wireless LAN (802.11b/g/n) HDMI Port 16X DVD+/-RW Drive10/100/1000 Ethernet LAN on system board Ethernet 10/100/1000 Intel Centrino Wireless-N1030 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 3.0 Combo USB 2.0 / USB 3.0


The ideal users and communities for each of these computers

For the iPad 2, a tablet computer with different strengths and weaknesses than a desktop or laptop, the most obvious user community is individuals for personal use. Beyond this, the iPad’s specifications are geared towards a user with particular needs. First, the compact size and convenience—push a button and it immediately starts up—make the iPad2 ideal for computing on the go, whether it be around town or during a major trip.

The best way to describe such a computer is a “consumption” device; that is, well-suited for consuming media such as webpages, books, email, audio and video. The users who will not get the most out of it are media “creators:” graphic designers, database administrators, music producers, and the like. Even frequent writers will often not feel as though the iPad is an effective tool for their creations, although they can purchase a wireless keyboard to avoid the virtual keypad. (This seems to undermine the major advantages of the iPad, however.)

Also, individuals who wish to use a USB or CD/DVD drive will be disappointed, as well as those who want to store and access lots of files in a familiar “My Computer”-style interface. The iPad 2, simply put, is a computer designed for “the cloud” and is most beneficial for users who utilize tools such as Dropbox and subscribe to streaming subscription services for movies and music.

In addition, the convenience and sleek design makes the iPad 2 an effective computer for the workplace as a productivity tool. It can be brought to meetings much easier than a bulkier laptop, can reduce the amount of paper documents printed, and various apps help make the office a more organized and connected place.

In contrast, the Toshiba Satellite L750D-BT5N22 is a different animal altogether. It is a laptop, and although the price is comparable to the iPad, this is considered on the “budget” end as far as laptops go, making it a useful choice for students, professionals or other individuals who want something flexible but powerful enough for more well-rounded tasks.

For one, it runs the Windows 7 operating system, so users can install more programs than the limited offerings on iOs. And for frequent media “creators,” not just “consumers,” the much more powerful memory allows for complex programs to be run easily. The HDMI port is another plus, as it allows the user to play DVDs or streaming video on a large TV or projection screen. And for those who like to store their movies, pictures and other media on their own system rather than on the cloud, the 320 GB hard drive is ideal.

The laptop’s design, while certainly portable, is bulkier than tablet and netbook options, and thus is not ideally suited for frequent use on the go or in the classroom or office. And although the CPU is impressive, power users with very advanced will be left wanting, such as someone needing to do extensive video editing.

While the first two computers are portable and best served for individual, personal use, the Dell Vostro 260 Mini Tower is a desktop with a wider variety of appropriate user communities. With most people opting for laptops, netbooks or tablets for personal use these days, this desktop could be well-suited for shared use in a home or as an office computer.

It could also be set up in a library or community technology lab for use by the general public. Businesses, however, appear to be the ideal user community. The Intel core i3 processor is powerful enough to fuel most business tasks, and it has a wide variety of ports (including 8 USB) to connect monitors, printers and other devices needed in the workplace.

Dell also offers a “small business toolkit” with this desktop, with free business-level security services included. The iPad was also described in this paper as a good business computer, but this Dell Vostro has a separate set of advantages. For employees who need to enter data or manage databases, perform complex research or write extensive reports, this is much more effective than an iPad due to its larger storage, more memory and flexibility for compatible programs—not to mention its full keyboard.

Finally, there is the HP Folio 13, in the emerging category of “ultrabooks.” These are meant to take the convenience and portability of a netbook with significantly more computing power: it boasts an Intel Core i5 CPU for starters. But at the same time, it is incredibly sleek, lightweight and easy to bring on the go, which is a major advantage over the bulkier Toshiba Satellite.

Also, unlike the other computers, it has a solid state drive, which is much faster in reading and writing data. Users will enjoy much faster searching for files, their programs will boot up faster, and multitasking is much easier. This model is more expensive, however, and caters to a user who is willing to invest a significant amount into his or her computer.

An interesting comparison to consider is the iPad 2 vs the HP Folio 13 ultrabook: since both are designed with aesthetics and portability in mind, how do the ideal user communities differ? The previously mentioned consumption vs. creation distinction is again pertinent, as the HP Folio is much more effective for robust and complete computing rather than just passive reading and viewing. It also has significantly more RAM which boosts performance and makes web browsing and other tasks much faster.

The HP Folio is also interesting because has a lot of storage, which benefits people who prefer local files, but also sacrifices a CD/DVD drive, which could favor cloud-service users. All in all, users who often multitask, like things fast, and have regular needs that go beyond just consuming media, the ultrabook is the ideal choice, provided they are willing to shell out the $1000 required to purchase an HP Folio 13.

What makes a “good” computer, anyway?

At its most basic level, a “good” computer is one that provides hardware capabilities and convenience for the core tasks that the end user needs to accomplish. If I make too many blanket statements about specific features, I will inevitably favor a model best-suited to the computing activities I most frequently perform, but that said, I have a few general guidelines.

First, I feel that multitasking is becoming more and more universal, which speaks to a need for a lot of RAM (but also a good CPU) and possibly even a solid state drive as they continue to become more affordable. And with computers as a core tool for more and more aspects of our daily lives, I believe a good one needs to be lightweight and portable for use on the go.

This criterion, though, does not limit the field too much, as tablet computers, netbooks, and ultrabooks (including Macbooks) fit the bill, as well as some sleeker traditional laptops. Another crucial factor of a “good” computer is the battery life, which I feel is sometimes forgotten when users focus too much on their speed and processing power.

I would argue that storage is becoming less important than it used to be with more options for storing files, including cloud services, and cheap external and USB drives for backups. In my experience, just about every computer on the market now has plenty of hard disk space for a typical user to store his or her files, although someone who wants to build a large movie library and store it locally would disagree.

Another point to support the idea that a “good” computer is flexible and depends on the user’s needs is the fact that few people use only one computer these days, and the multiple devices fit different aspects of their lives. Smartphones and many media players, for example, have wifi connectivity and a mobile operating system that can do most basic computing tasks.

To take it one step further, we have the iPad which featured prominently in the major discussions in this paper. Two different people will not only have different “ideal” computers, but they will also usually have different computers that are better for specific aspects of their own lives. For example, I use a smartphone for my most basic personal needs such as checking email and basic online searches, but I need a more powerful computer with the ability to easily write documents, research, design webpages and manipulate databases for school and work. Others would also have different ideal computers for their personal and work lives, but they wouldn’t be the best ones for me.

Beyond all this, however, is the ever-important criterion of price, and a “good” computer has to be affordable for as many people as possible. And since there will always be people who cannot afford their own top-of-the line computer, another important factor in the discussion of a “good” computer is ensuring that there are options ideal for libraries and other public access computing centers.

What are your thoughts on what makes a “good” computer?

[ii] http://www.forbes.com/sites/briancaulfield/2011/03/03/solved-the-ipad-2s-memory-mystery/

andrew walshAndrew Walsh is the owner and editor of Social Web Q and A. He is a freelance writer, academic librarian and web entrepreneur. Check out his book Savvy for the Social Web.

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  1. misterbee180 says:

    This is a very useful post. Im researching available computers right now and this post has helped me to identify the qualities im looking for in a computer without getting too stuck on the details.

    Pointing out things like how the tablets often dont come equipt with usb ports and cd players is not something we think about. Even the battery life as you stated is a huge item that many forget. You also did well in classifying the various models so that even those with limited computer knowledge can have a grasp on the basic concepts.

    If i could recommend anything its that you possibly go deeper into each system now pointing out how each of the qualities of the respective system alters the user experience. For now though thanks for this informative post!

    • Andrew Walsh says:

      Thanks; I’m glad you found this post useful as you look for the right computer. I’ll definitely take your recommendation and work on an update that goes more in-depth on the different systems.

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