This is the second of two blogs on this subject.

So many people ask me for computer advice on this subject that I think it’s worth updating a blog that I wrote in December 2010 – the original is here.

Contents

USB Ports
Keyboard and Screen
WiFi
Bluetooth
Camera, Microphone and Speakers
Specific Brands
Where to Buy
Extended warranties
Software
Security Software
What next?


USB Ports

Look at the number of USB ports on any machine that interests you and think about how many USB devices you may want to plug into it (external hard drive, mouse, mobile phone (for synchronising or transferring data), digital camera, etc). Some laptops come with as few as 2 USB ports and this can be a pain. Three is obviously a better number and more than that is great if you often find yourself connecting lots of devices.

USB3 – if you are intending to back up lots of data via a USB connection then it’s definitely worth looking for USB3 ports on a new computer. See this blog for more info on USB3.

It used to be the case that most USB ports, power ports, ethernet ports etc were placed at the back of laptops. This was my preferred location as it kept the cables away from where I could see them, knock them etc. These days, it seems that all the ports are placed along the sides of the laptop. Maybe it’s worth visualising what any prospective purchase will look like with your cables all plugged in. On my Samsung RF511, for instance, if I connect the external monitor then the thick, inflexible HDMI cable sticks right out of the lefthand side of the machine just where I want to be sliding my mouse around. This is probably part of the world-wide conspiracy against left-handers.


Keyboard and Screen

Sony Vaio Z Series

Sony Vaio Z Series

The size and type of these is a matter of personal preference. Some people like highly reflective screens and others like them matt, for instance. The bigger the machine, the easier it tends to be to use when it’s on a desk but the harder it is to use on your lap or to carry around. If you like a large laptop (17 inch screen, for instance) then the machine will probably be more expensive and have a better specification overall (more USB ports, for instance). It is worth trying out the keyboard to see if it suits you. If you like to have lots of windows open at once then the larger the screen the better as larger screens don’t just make things bigger, they provide more room to display things. Liking lots of windows open at the same time is also an indicator that you should have as much RAM as possible (see above).

One last point on the subject of screen size is that I find using a netbook computer (with a 10 inch screen) a strain after a while on account of the small screen size. It’s a fact of life that our eyes are not as good at keeping a sharp focus over long periods of time as we get older and I find a marked difference between viewing a 10 inch screen and a 15 inch screen when it’s late in the day and my eyes are tired. My own personal preference on this is that I find a 15 inch screen (on a laptop ) the ideal compromise on screen size. You can always connect a laptop or netbook to a larger external monitor if desired.


WiFi

I can’t imagine that any laptop is supplied without WiFi these days, but it might make sense to ensure that it is there.


Bluetooth

This is a wireless technology for communicating between your laptop and some devices such as mobile phones. A mouse connected by Bluetooth saves a USB port from being used by the mouse and ditto for a Bluetooth keyboard. Unless you already use it, you can probably live without it, but having it won’t add a great deal to the price. Some cheap Bluetooth devices (such as cheap keyboards and mice) have “connectivity issues” (ie they don’t work very well).


Camera, Microphone and Speakers

If you use Skype then ensure there is a built-in camera and microphone as Skype is much easier to use with these built in. Most laptop speakers are fine for voice (Skype calls, for instance) but pretty hopeless for listening to music. Ensure that you test the speakers before buying if playing music is important. Alternatively, you can plug in external speakers, but things are now starting to get a bit messy.


Specific Brands

Well, I think “you pays your money and you takes your choice”.

  • Sony have a reputation for quality but they’re more expensive to buy and repair.
  • The IBM / Lenovo ThinkPad appears to have a loyal following and it’s got a long pedigree.
  • Toshiba have been making laptops for probably longer than almost anyone so they should know what they are doing.
  • Dell used to be quite boring but they’re now much more stylish and available from retail outlets as well as direct from Dell.
  • Acer have been doing very well for the last year or so.
  • HP laptops always strike me as boring, but I’m not sure why.
  • My own personal favourite is Samsung. My main computer is now a 15 inch Samsung RF511. My previous one was a Samsung Q35 laptop that was my main machine for well over 5 years. I’ve now put Windows Vista and Office 2003 back on it so that I can use it to help me provide computer support to clients with those technologies. I’ve also had a Samsung NC10 netbook since March 2009 and that, too, is an excellent machine for its niche use (carrying around London with me for onsite computer support visits).


Where to Buy

If you are buying a computer in London and John Lewis have what you want then they are a good bet as they’re “never knowingly undersold” and their service is good. People seem to feel comfortable making scary purchasing decisions at John Lewis.

By all means buy from PC World if the price is right for what you want, but I strongly recommend against relying on their technical expertise. I’ve overheard some toe-curlingly embarrassing whoppers (or, more charitably, mistakes) in branches of PC World. Not only that, but returning something faulty to PC World can have you queuing in their “technical assistance” for 40 minutes (I know, I’ve been there).

Buying online from Dell is usually a safe enough thing to do but I’ve had clients complaining of their inflexible delivery terms. If you are buying online, then Amazon seem to be the best.

If you feel brave enough to do Tottenham Court Road then you need to be aware that a lot of the shops there do not put prices on their goods. When you ask for a price then you’ll probably be given a high price. The only way to do business in most of these shops is to get an idea of what you are prepared to pay beforehand. You can usually do this online, but do remember that buying online tends to be a bit cheaper these days than buying retail so you may not be able to match the online price in the high street. So, when the man in the shop in Tottenham Court Road (and they are mostly men) says £599, wince, take a sharp intake of breath, and point out that you can get it online for £399. He will then ritualistically pick up a calculator, clatter a few keys, and say “I can do it for you for £420” (or thereabouts).

Micro Anvika Store on Tottenham Court Road

Micro Anvika Store on Tottenham Court Road

My own personal recommendation for shopping on Tottenham Court Road is to buy from Micro Anvika. They have three or four shops on TCR. They’ve been around for many, many years and their staff are technically knowledgeable. They don’t discount prices, but neither do they overcharge. I’ve often been grateful for their technical assistance and they never quibble if you take something back. To be honest, some of the computer shops on Tottenham Court Road give the impression that they’ll take advantage of your lack of knowledge if they can. You never get that impression in Micro Anvika.


Extended warranties

My own opinion is that if a computer is going to go wrong, it will probably do so within the first month. You are covered for the first twelve months with the standard guarantee and Sale of Goods Acts etc. It seems to me that the period from one year old to three years old is the very time that it won’t pack up, so I’m not paying an inflated price for an extended warrantee to cover this period. Other people don’t share my view on this so, once again, you pays your money and you takes your choice. One thing that is certain, though, is that many computer salesmen are paid commission on selling extras such as extended warranties, so their disproportionate enthusiasm to sell you one may have more to do with their pocket than your best interests.


Software

You do need to consider what software you will need to buy. If you have been accustomed to Microsoft Office on your current computer then you can transfer the licence to your new computer provided that you bought a retail copy. If your previous copy came “bundled” with your computer when you bought it then you will have what is called an “OEM” licence and this is strictly non-transferable to your new computer. If you don’t need Outlook or Access then the Home & Student version of Office 2010 is great value at about £80 and it even comes with licences to install it on three machines. It includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

Other software that you have already may or may not be transferable to your new machine. With some software you just install it again on your new computer and everything is fine. With other software, your licence may be non-transferable or you may be able to transfer it after a phone call to the vendor. A further possible scenario is that your old software will not run on a Windows 7 machine at all. You can either investigate all of these things beforehand or buy the new machine, do what’s possible as far as transfers are concerned, and then plug the gaps.


Security Software

Most new laptops come pre-installed with 60-90 day trial versions of Norton or McAfee antivirus programs. These will also quite probably include a firewall and anti-malware software. When the trial expires you will then be pestered to buy the full product. My own advice is that these products are overblown, too complicated, and expensive (since you have to renew the £30-£50 subcription every year). By all means go with the installed software if you wish, but there are free alternatives – eg from AVG and Microsoft.


What next?

You could do worse than browse PC Pro’s review of laptops. Also, it’s worth browsing a few shops even if it’s just to see if you have a preference for particular keyboards, screens and the overall look or feel of different brands and models.

If you need further, specific, advice about buying a new laptop (or any other type of machine) just contact me. If you are in London I am, of course, available to help in smoothing the path from your old to your new computer.

Go on – treat yourself. Because you’re worth it!

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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