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The Bottom of The Barrel
For the average user, the minimum and recommended system requirements listed on a product's retail box is an important piece of information. The reason the information is listed is to provide an easy reference that allows the consumer to make an informed decision when buying a new piece of software. Unfortunately, the minimum and recommended requirements themselves can often be confusing.
This brief guide should help you decode minimum and recommend requirements, so that you know what "minimum" and "recommended" mean and how to find out if your computer meets these requirements.
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The Bare Minimum
Minimum system requirements are used by software developers to indicate the bare minimum of what is required to make a piece of software function. It is very likely that if your computer does not meet these requirements, the application will not run. PC technology moves at a fast pace, and newer technologies are not always supported by older hardware.
Minimum requirements do not indicate what is need to make the software run well, which is important to remember, but easy to forget. Computers which just barely meet the minimum system requirements for a piece of software often have to run the software with reduced functionality. For example, software that requires a connection to the Internet will not run well if your Internet connection is too slow. It may be choppy, and should it need to occasionally download files (antivirus programs often do this to keep up-to-date with the latest threats), the program may have difficulty accessing the online content, reducing functionality.
That is where the recommended system requirements come into play. The recommended system requirements represent the kind of hardware the developer recommends that you have if you want the software to run with full functionality. This does not mean that the software will always run perfectly, or at the highest, most robust settings possible, but it does mean that the software should run and you won't be losing any features because of the hardware in your PC. Note that even recommend system requirements are not a guarantee that the software will run, as the developer could have left bugs in the program that cause it to crash. However, any problems you might encounter won't be occurring because your system is inadequate.
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Translating System Requirements
Of course, there is more to system requirements than understanding what minimum and recommend requirements mean. You also need to know what hardware your own PC has and if it meets the requirements listed by the developer. This is a problem that is particularly troublesome for the average user. While those who consider themselves enthusiasts often build their own computers, most people buy their PC from a major vendor like Dell or Compaq. These PCs often advertise the speed of their processors and the amount of RAM they are equipped with, but the owners rarely keep those advertisements, and finding technical information in the user documentation is often impossible.
But discovering what kind of hardware your computer has is not difficult if you know where to look. All you need to do is open up your Control Panel and then navigate to System Properties (or just System, if you're using Vista). Open System Properties, and make sure you are on the General Tab, which should be the default.
Under the System section, you should see information about your operating system, including both what operating system you have and what version you have. For example, Windows XP will be listed as having either Service Pack 1, 2, or 3.
The Computer section will list your processor. Pay attention to both the number of cores listed and the clock speed of your processor, which will be listed in Ghz or Mhz. Also note what kind of processor is listed, such as an AMD Athlon X2 or an Intel Pentium 4. Finally, pay attention to the amount of RAM listed, which will be listed in GB or MB. Write all of this information down for future reference. Also, write down how many GB of hard drive space you have available. You can find this information by going to My Computer, right-clicking on a hard drive, and clicking on properties. A window should open that has a pie graph representing the available space on the drive.
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Other Requirements to Watch For
This information should be enough to decide if your computer meets the minimum or recommended requirements for a certain piece of software, but be on the watch for other, less common requirements. Most games require a graphics card or some sort, and new 3D games often have settings that are not supported by old graphics cards. Some software will need to have access to an online connection at all time in order to function correctly, while others might need to make use of a microphone, a headset, or other such extras.
Keep an eye out for such things. It is impossible to cover every single system requirement that a developer might list, but if you see a requirement that you're not sure your computer meets, it is probably best to hold off on the purchase. Remember - you can always go home and do more research to make sure your system is up to snuff, but once you buy and open the software, most retailers won't take it back except in exchange for the same software!