Your brand of computer doesn’t matter as much as the specifications do.
Doing your homework on specs and why some components are better than others is really important in our line of business. The CPU, amount of RAM, and type of hard drive will drive the price up or down by a few hundred dollars at the very least. These tiny little things that take up so little space in our computers can be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful online class.
Everyone’s got their own preferences when it comes to electronic gear. PC, Mac, AMD, Intel…but one thing remains true–you must have a computer for teaching online. I’m not a computer expert, so any advice I give is from hard-won experience. I hope it helps you find the best computer specs for online teaching at the best value!
How much you spend on a computer depends on what you plan to do with it.
What Are Specs?
Thanks to a college course in computer hardware, I gained some vital knowledge that has helped me in choosing a computer. I’ll give you a summary of what I learned. Specs are the basic measurements of your computer. They are listed as the main selling points on websites such as Walmart, Amazon, and Ebay. Being informed about specs will save you money and cause you less anxiety. If you don’t know about specs, you are pretty much buying a computer blindly. Understanding the numbers and acronyms means you can choose the best computer for the money you are willing to spend.
DISCLAIMER–this is only a sample of what the specs of a computer might be. It is in no way intended to advise you on what specific computer you should buy. Any online store will give you a pretty detailed description of the internal hardware and software. Most consumers will be able to make a decision based on the information provided on the product webpage.
The CPU (Computer Processing Unit) is a tiny chip, but everything originates here. From the CPU, directives and calculations will move along the motherboard to their destinations. To give you an idea of how important this seemingly inconsequential thing is–people who build their own computers will probably spend the bulk of their budget on the CPU.
The two main competitors in the world of CPUs are AMD and Intel. I’m not sure the brand matters as much as how recent the model is. If two computers with comparable specs had different processors, the AMD computer would certainly be at least a couple hundred dollars less expensive.
In most cases, CPU models released two to three years ago should be sufficient. Remember that the CPU is the brain behind your computer. Splurging on a recently manufactured, high-end chip is always prudent if your pocketbook allows. Your computer is only as good as your CPU.
Admittedly, choosing the right CPU can be a little tricky. For example, there are various families of Intel chips, such as Intel Pentium, I3, I5, I7, etc. AMD also has its naming schemes. Someone without a technical background can easily be overwhelmed by computer jargon. Fortunately, there are a few key phrases to look out for that can help you make the right decision when it comes to your CPU.
Frequency – Sometimes referred to as Clock Speed measures the number of cycles your CPU can process in a second. This is usually measured in GHz (gigahertz). A CPU with a clock speed of 3.6 GHz executes 3.6 billion cycles per second. The higher the frequency, the faster the CPU performs.
CPU Cores- A CPU core can be simply described as a CPU’s processor. In the early days of technology, each CPU just had one core that could focus on only one task at a time. Thanks to advances in technology, most modern CPU can have between two to eighteen cores, each working on different tasks. CPUs with a higher number of cores would tend to be more expensive but also more efficient. While a dual-core (two cores) processor would suffice for certain situations if your budget allows, you shoot for at least four cores (quad-core) in your CPU.
Is it a city? A space station? Nope–it’s the motherboard of your computer! This is where chips and drives are attached using buses.
Hard drives make a huge difference in price and performance. For laptops or desktops, the main types are the:
Hard disk drive (HDD)
The solid-state drive (SSD)
Smaller devices have a different type of local storage.
Hard Disk Drives (HDD)
The HDD has been around for decades. It is much less expensive, and you will get more storage capacity for less money. Yet, they are clunky and heat up your computer. The CPU is already generating a lot of heat. You don’t want anything else to overheat your computer. An HDD computer will have a loud fan inside, which also takes up space and adds weight!
The HDD has moving parts. Think of a very fast record player. This is your HDD–a disk that spins around at a really high speed. You can hear the noise when you boot up your computer (as well as the fan to cool off the heat created.) The HDD is very susceptible to corruption and failure when the computer is shut down incorrectly. A spinning disc also means a longer boot time. Computations are (in terms of electronics) infinitely longer with an HDD.
As you can imagine, a spinning disc creates friction and wear and tear. If you have your computer long enough, the HDD will crash at some point. Hopefully, you will have backed up your data when that happens.
Solid State Drives (SSD)
Although the solid-state drive has been around for several years, the price is decreasing very slowly. While an HDD spins and causes friction, an SSD is stationary. It doesn’t move, hence the name solid state.
SSDs have so many pros–really, the only con I can think of is its price point. SSDs are more durable. This means if your computer crashes or you have an electrical outage, the SSD is less likely to be damaged. They use less power, create less heat, and have lower latency (meaning the timeframe between accessing data and implementation is shorter). In a nutshell–they are faster and they do more with less energy. Your computer will literally boot and be ready to go in a few seconds. This matters when you are running out of time to enter a classroom, or when you need to reboot mid-class!
With cloud storage and backup being used more often, people don’t need as much local storage capacity. Hence, you can spend less money on a modestly sized SSD, and then use cloud storage for backup. For example, I have a Microsoft Office subscription, which automatically comes with 1 TB (1000 GB) of cloud storage.
The hard disk drive (HDD) looks a bit like a record player. The moving parts cause a lot of heat and friction. In terms of computing, it is much slower than the newer solid-state drive (SSD). Consider spending the extra money for the SSD.
If the CPU is the brain, the RAM is like the central nervous system. It helps your computer to manage different processes simultaneously. RAM is different from local storage. Whereas your hard drive is for permanent storage, RAM is for temporary storage. Your computer can multitask with RAM.
It just naturally follows that the more RAM you have, the more tasks your computer can handle at once. This slim piece of hardware, measuring approximately 1 inch by 4 inches, allows you to have:
Multiple browser windows open while running a word processor
Skype or webcam sessions at the same time
Most online ESL companies state that 4GB of RAM is sufficient for teaching classes. I partially concur. If you are only using your computer to teach classes with no extra frills, then 4GB is indeed sufficient to teach online classes.
Yet…is your computer pulling double, triple duty? Do you have several programs on it, or are you using it heavily? Do you want to use a virtual webcam or other software that would use RAM? If you’ve answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you’ll want to go with at least 8GB. When the computer is supporting and running too many programs at the same time, you’ll find that your video and audio will start to lag. This is one of the worst things that could happen in an online classroom!
Hard to believe that these inconspicuous pieces of silicon and metal are what allows us to see and talk to people on the other side of the planet in real time!
Are these three components the only things that matter? Most certainly not–graphics processor, audio, and picture quality are very important too. However, one can safely assume that the better quality the CPU, HD, and RAM are, the better quality everything else will be. Above average specs are especially necessary to teachers who don’t have great internet quality. Quality hardware will pick up the slack, just as poor hardware will exacerbate network problems.
To ensure your computer is working to its full potential, allow updates at least weekly. If you turn off your automatic update feature, you must set a reminder for yourself. Not only do updates keep your hardware running efficiently, but they also keep viruses and bugs at bay.
I know of one person who has rebuilt his own computers (shout out to Teacher Devin!) and he teaches a very high volume of classes. Alas, not all of us have the wherewithal to build or rebuild computers, so we have to shell out a sizeable chunk of money for our equipment. Let’s make the most of that money–a computer may depreciate, but it is still the most important investment in our careers. For more information about computers, you can also check out Changing “his” to “her”: Teaching Computers English