Shopping for a computer used to be so simple. You’d walk into a store, buy a desktop (likely one of two or three models the store had) and go home, and then let your new beige box-screen computer spend most of its days quietly, on your desk, only waiting to be used for AOL or maybe a game or two. Certainly not Minecraft yet. But now…
Now there’s thousands. And you want to play Minecraft. What do all these numbers mean? What does RAM even do?!
Desktop or Laptop?
We’re far past the era of desktops being the be-all end-all of computer strength. In fact, a decent laptop can keep up with a trash desktop any day of the week! For casual gaming, games that don’t require fine control of the mouse (although Bluetooth mice are very popular), or games that don’t take up a lot of space in your computer’s storage, a laptop is likely fine and more comfortable to use. After all, you can carry a laptop to the sofa or the desk, but the desktop is stuck where it is. A decent laptop should play Minecraft just fine.
RAM stands for Random Access Memory, and essentially acts like the short term memory of the computer. Think of your amount of RAM as your ability to multi-task, where a higher number means better -tasking; if you have a lot of RAM, you could cook breakfast and write an essay at the same time without burning your eggs. But if you only have a little, you’re gonna have to finish your food before you pick up that pen, because you’ll simply forget that there’s anything on the stove.
But what does that mean as far as Minecraft goes? Games can take a lot of RAM to play right, and if you’re looking to play the game with lots of mods, you’ll need a little more than the standard Mojang has listed on their website – mods are great, but they aren’t always optimized to work with each other at maximum efficiency. 4GB is a pretty standard size for a less-expensive modern computer. For the newest Call of Duty, or CyberPunk 2077 at full detail? It may come up a little short, but for regular minimally-modded Minecraft? It’s totally enough.
What’s a GB?
A GB (Gigabyte) is a unit of data storage, and likely something you’ve seen before to advertise USB sticks and memory chips. The amount of storage a game takes up is not directly linked to how long the game is, or how many areas of the game’s world there are. Things like textures, or the individual designs of the game’s items and environment, can eat up space, even if the game itself is short. The same goes for enemy AI and usable items, but textures can be adjusted to use less memory in play, where AI usually can’t be.
As a recent example, CyberPunk 2077 is notoriously hard on older computers because it’s textures are very, very detailed – players with older computers may be forced to sacrifice some visual quality to get the game to a playable state for their device. Minecraft textures are pretty simple (unless you download something to change that) and the programming that makes playing the game possible makes up most of the storage the game needs.
What’s a GPU? Or a CPU? Are They the Same Thing?
CPU stands for Computer Processing Unit, and GPU stands for Graphics Processing Unit. The two do similar things (that’s the ‘processing’ part of their names) but they do it for different reasons. A GPU is making decisions that get the image onscreen faster, while a CPU is making decisions that allow the computer to do what you’re telling it to. Basically, the CPU has a smaller number of cores designed to complete a wide variety of tasks, while the GPU has a larger number of cores better suited to specifically the graphics of a game, which also includes generating the environment, calculating where the player should visually be within the environment, playing animations associated with tasks, etc. which all involve reacting to player inputs and commands.
Let’s talk about deciding which kind of GPU to get. If you’re looking at Minecraft’s system requirements right now, you’ll see that its minimum requirements are this mess: GPU (Discrete): Nvidia GeForce 400 Series or AMD Radeon HD 7000 series with OpenGL 4.4. What does that even mean?!
Let’s break it down into easier to read bits. The first word there is almost always the brand name. Here, it’s Nvidia and AMD. Next, the series: GeForce and Radeon. Now, looking up the brand will tell you more about what this name means, and unfortunately it seems like these are labeled like this for the same reason cars are named things like “Camaro” or “Malibu” – it’s meant to invoke a sense of something without actually definitively ranking. The numbers are a better indicator of approximate quality, as it’s more descriptive of a particular style’s place in the series – and when in doubt, try to find the manufacturer’s website, and bring a list of equal-to or better-than GPUs to what you need just in case the store or website you go to doesn’t have the exact one your game recommends.
There’s also the number of cores recommended for the CPU. When you see something like ‘quadcore processing’, that means that the machine has four cores that can follow a ‘thread’ of processing each. Quadcore = four threads. Octacore = eight threads. What number should you get? Well, it depends on the machine. Intel recommends a quadcore over a dualcore when upgrading – it’s possible for the CPU to bottleneck the GPU when processing is limited to two cores (which just means that the GPU’s done calculating the graphics before the CPU’s done with its part) and two cores are also much slower than four.
However, it seems like most people don’t really need octacore (eight core) processing – PC Pepper recommends octacore for streamers, and it looks more and more like CyberPunk needs all eight cores to actually work as intended on its highest available settings, but Minecraft seems to be fine on four (at least right now in 2020). Older cores will process more slowly than newer cores – but if the machine is older, it might be possible to shore up the demands of the game by turning down the viewing distance and texture quality, something many modern games include in their settings.
What’s an HDD?
A Hard Disk Drive is a set of disks coated in magnetic film and stacked together that stores and reads data with a ‘transducer’ (a head attachment that reads and writes on them) kind of like a record player’s record and needle. This is different than SSD, or a solid-state drive – SSDs are faster and frequently smaller, but they’re still somewhat cutting-edge; they have no moving parts and draw less power than HDDs. A modern HDD should have no problem keeping up with modern games, but if microseconds make a difference, like they can for streamers or top-tier competitive gaming, an SSD might be better. Depending on the computer manufacturer, the laptop you choose might come with an SSD as default. There’s really no reason to pick one over the other besides cost right now – don’t dismiss a reasonably priced computer based on what kind of drive it has.