In 2021 How Good of a Computer Do I Need for Online Courses?

So, you’ve decided to take an online class but your computer is slow. Can you still complete the classes and online courses with a bad computer? The answer to the question is probably yes, as I recently dusted off 4 terrible, slow, under-powered and obsolete computers to see if I could complete online courses with them.

What Are the Minimum Specs to Take Online Courses

After directly trying 4 of the lowest-end systems for this article, I can say from experience the following is the recommended minimum computer specifications for online courses:

  • CPU: Core 2 Duo or above
  • RAM: 2GB or more
  • OS: Windows 7 or newer
  • Browser: Chrome, Firefox or Safari
  • Accessories: Some courses require a webcam

Completing Online Courses With an Overheating Computer

Yes, I threw this computer together in a box. It’s by the far the “best” computer I used here today for this article, despite how ugly it might be.

This low-end computer I used for this experiment had an Intel i3-3220 CPU (released in 2012) that I used without any heatsink. Yep. Total thermal throttling at all times, with temperatures spiking up to a near fatal 106C.

This probably shortened the life-span of this system, so on day 2 I set a heatsink and a couple of fans on top of the CPU for the rest of the courses and took the picture above. In this picture, you can see the other components, including a GeForce GT740 graphics card, 4GB of single channel DDR3-1333 RAM and a 1TB SATA SSD to round out this old i3 system in a cardboard box.

With or without a heatsink, I was able to complete a course on the following platforms with no slow downs, stutters or any other issues:

Taking Online Classes With an Under-Powered Tablet

I have the NuVision TM800W560L Signature Edition 8″ Windows 10 tablet from 2016 that I used for my next low end computer. This system use a low-power 2.2W quad-core Intel Atom Z3735F CPU (released in 2014), 2GB of single channel DDR3-1333 RAM, 32GB of slow eMMC storage space, most of which is eaten up by the Windows 10 Home 32-bit operating system that is pre-installed.

The biggest issue with it is that it runs Windows 10 Home 32-bit and only has 2GB of RAM. On a fresh boot, it’s common for 1.5GB to 1.75GB of RAM to be in use with nothing open, which means opening a web browser and a few pages exceeds the 2GB of actual RAM that you have, forcing Windows to use some of the really slow eMMC storage as a page file. This causes frequent stuttering and slow performance when taking online courses from all 3 platforms.

I was able to fix this and make the tablet much more performant by disabling a bunch of Windows services until a cold boot used between 1GB and 1.2GB of RAM. For the average user picking up a machine of this caliber, it is not usable.

A low-powered Windows 10 tablet was not ideal on it’s own for taking online courses. Using the on-screen keyboard is tedious, so I hooked up a USB hub and used a keyboard and mouse. Videos at 720p and below seem to play with little issue, but 1080p video was often too much for the system.

If you have to use an old low-end Atom processor with Windows 10 and 2GB of RAM, you can make it work, but unlike the i3 in a box, I don’t recommend using this for online courses unless it’s all you have. In fact, I would recommend the lowest-end Core 2 Duo with 2GB of RAM and an IDE hard drive running Windows 7… because that is what I tried next and it worked way better than I expected.

Taking Online Courses With a Core 2 Duo & Windows 7

Spoiler alert: I killed this system while writing this article which is why I am holding the dead CPU in this picture.

Windows 7 may be end of life but that doesn’t stop people like me from using it on older hardware like this, because it was surprisingly fast for being more than a decade old!

For this computer the specs are:

  • Core 2 Duo E6300 (1.86 GHz dual core CPU from 2006)
  • 1.75GB of mismatched sticks (4 sticks of random DDR2 of different speeds and manufacturers.)
  • 120GB 7200RPM IDE hard drive with Windows 7 Pro x64 installed.
  • Firefox web browser

Most of the time, this was a far superior experience to the Atom powered tablet. I could easily take courses from all 3 of the e-learning platforms I already mentioned. The only time it became unpleasant was when I opened too many tabs and hit the page file… oh man was that a nightmare.

Speaking of nightmares, I also tried to run this one without a real cooler for overheating purposes. I used a tiny heatsink as seen in the picture above… but I fried this chip in the experiment. I’ve been using this processor for over 10 years, so it served me well.

Yes, you can take courses on the lowest end Core 2 Duo processors even today, even with just 2GB of RAM. Just use one or two browser tabs while taking your course and everything is pretty smooth. At it’s worst, this computer is even slower than the tablet when hitting the pagefile.

Before I destroyed this computer, I was able to take courses on all of these platforms with no slow downs, stutters or any other issues:

Can an Old AMD Laptop Be Used for Online Courses?

For the final low-end system, I’m testing an AMD powered laptop from 2011 running Windows 10 x64. The laptop is the HP 2000-2c29wm which has a 15.6″ screen and uses the dual core AMD E2-1800 processor at 1.7GHz. I’ve paired this with 8GB of dual channel DDR3-1600 RAM and a 500GB hard 5400RPM drive.

I expected this system to do better than it did, but this is no Ryzen. In short, the old AMD E2-1800 CPU maxes out at 100% on both cores when you do almost anything. Open a browser: 100% CPU utilization. Open SkillShare: 100% utilization. Look at the computer the wrong way: 100% for 5 minutes.

I figured if I gave the computer a much less demanding OS, maybe then I could squeeze some more performance out of it. So I installed Lubuntu and it was just as bad with the 100% CPU usage when trying to take online classes.

I would not recommend this to anyone who is trying to learn online. Use a Core 2 Duo or even that crappy tablet. Use an i3 with no heatsink. But do not use the HP 2000-2c29wm unless you have no other system.

Concluding Thoughts

In this article, I tested 4 low-end systems and 2 of them were decent experiences. Surprisingly an i3 without a heatsink and a bottom of the barrel CPU from 2006 were better than some low-end experiences from AMD in 2011 and Intel in 2014.

Thankfully, even the worst computers are still usable in a pinch. So if you’re stuck with old hardware or low-end under-powered systems, you can still take online courses.

Now before I end this article, I want to mention my recommended specs for having a smooth online learning experience:

  • CPU: AMD Ryzen or Intel Core i7
  • RAM: 8GB or more
  • Storage: 256GB SSD or better
  • GPU: AMD or NVIDIA card with 2GB of GDDR5 or greater
  • OS: Windows 10 64-bit
  • Browser: Chrome, Firefox or Safari

Even an old Core i7 2600k or i5 2500 is going to be more than enough for most online learning platforms. Of course, if you’re learning something like machine learning, 3d modeling or CAD then your system requirements are going to be much higher. I also didn’t touch on Android tablets, Mac or some other related questions, but I will leave that for a later article. Let me know in the comments what articles you’d like to see next.

Have you been using some low-end hardware to take online classes? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading and happy learning!

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