This is the third in a series of three blog posts on the subject of buying a new computer. If you would like to receive all of the information now and in one go, just drop me an email and I will send you a pdf file.

Price

Price tagIt is very difficult to give more than a very, very rough idea of price as there is so much variation depending on the exact specification. For any given specification, there isn’t very much difference between different manufacturers. We no longer have the situation, for instance, where Sony build high quality laptops and charge more for them (Sony having pulled out of computer manufacture some years ago).

A very, very, rough guide for laptops built around Intel processors might be as listed below. Desktop computers without monitors (but possibly with keyboard and mouse) might be a bit less:

i3 – £250-£400
i5 – £350-£800
i7 – £600-£3500

A good place to start to get a feel for what there is and how much it costs might be Laptops Direct. Despite the name, they also supply desktop computers. I have no experience of buying from Laptops Direct, but they seem to have a broad range of products on offer and you can narrow down the range of your search by selecting criteria from the column at the left of the web page.

For Apple Mac computers, the price is as defined by Apple themselves.

Where From?

Shopping trolley with computerJohn Lewis / Peter Jones are good because they include a two year warranty, they never quibble, and are always helpful if you have a problem.

PC World are OK as far as prices and products are concerned. However, I am wary of them as far as technical advice is concerned.

The advantages of seeing a machine before buying include being able to assess:

•The feel and size of the keyboard. Some people like a “clicky” feel: others a softer one.
• The screen. In particular, the amount of contrast and whether the finish is matte or shiny.
• Overall build and finish.
• Perceived speed to boot up and to use.
• The weight.

It would be nice to judge whether a computer seems loud or quiet in operation, but the ambient noise in a shop will drown out the noise from a single computer.

If you do not feel the need to see something in the flesh before buying it then Amazon and Laptops Direct are probably good on price.

Summary

SummaryThis is only a general guide, of course. It is prepared with my “typical” computer support client in mind.

If your computer use really is limited to internet browsing, email, and some light word processing, then an i3 machine might be enough. However, i3 machines, even when new, tend to be slow to start and can seem sluggish even with light use. After a year or two they can seem tediously slow.

More typical requirements might include all internet activity, Microsoft Office (the cost of which I have not included above – £119.99 at the moment for Home and Student 2019), “light to medium” photo editing, playing music, watching movies, and so forth. For these uses, a machine with an i5 processor is probably most suitable.

If you anticipate editing movies, playing games online, or a lot of sophisticated photo editing, then I would recommend focusing on i7 machines.

As for make/model, you pays your money and you takes your choice. I have listed links to the major manufacturers and suppliers below.

Further Information

Information icon

Acer
Amazon
AMD
Apple
Asus
Dell
Intel
John Lewis
Laptops Direct
Lenovo
Microsoft Office
PC World
Wikipaedia – Top Vendors Market Share 2018

Happy hunting!

This is the second in a series of three blog posts on the subject of buying a new computer. If you would like to receive all of the information now and in one go, just drop me an email and I will send you a pdf file.

Storage

Laptop Hard DriveSolid state drives (that work more like USB pen drives than traditional hard drives) are replacing hard drives, but the changeover is taking many years. They make a machine much faster to boot up, switch off, and operate, and are definitely a good thing. However, they are still more expensive than traditional drives. This means that you either get a smaller drive for the same money or a larger drive at a higher cost than a traditional drive.

This, in turn, means that if you buy a machine with an “average” size of SSD, it is likely to be 250-500gb. This is only a one eighth to one half the current standard size of traditional hard drives (1tb or 2tb – where 1tb = 1000gb). Now, 500gb is plenty big enough for a lot of people, but if you have large photo, music, or movie, collections then 500gb will almost certainly be totally inadequate.

To overcome this problem, some machines have a small SSD to store Windows and run the programs, and a large traditional drive to store large amounts of data. This is fine as long as you know how to access different hard drives. This is not difficult if you are reasonably comfortable using Windows/File Explorer, but it can be problematic otherwise – especially when the default behaviour of Windows and the programs you use is to try and store everything on the SSD and you don’t know how to address the hard drive instead.

There is also something called a “hybrid drive” that contains elements of both drives.

My recommendation is that if you are not sure of these complexities then opt for either an SSD or hard drive but, if it’s an SSD drive, then check that it will be large enough for your needs.

CD/DVD Drive

CD/DVD DriveLaptops often do not have these any more, although they are still fitted to new desktop computers. Their use is diminishing as more programs and content are downloaded or streamed direct from the internet. Also, removing them from laptops saves weight and allows the whole machine to be sleeker.

Their lack need not be a huge problem as external CD/DVD drives (that plug into USB ports) are widely available and only cost £15-£30. Search Amazon for “external DVD drive”.

USB Ports

USB3 portsMost standard USB ports are now “USB3”, but you may still find a machine with a mixture of USB2 and USB3. The difference is speed, but it will probably only really be noticeable when copying or streaming large amounts of data to/from an external drive. Nevertheless, USB3 is definitely preferable to USB2.

Possibly of more concern is that laptops (but not desktop computers) tend to have fewer USB ports than previously. Whereas 3-4 USB ports used to be the norm, 2 is now more likely on laptops. If you buy a machine with the new “USB C” connector, an adaptor can be fitted, if necessary, to connect devices with the earlier (standard) USB plugs. Search Amazon for “usb c adaptors”.

More USB ports (eg 4) is definitely better than fewer (eg 2). You can buy USB hubs to extend the number, but these get unwieldy if you regularly move a laptop, and you shouldn’t try to connect an external hard drive via a USB hub as there might not be enough power. Search for “USB hubs”.

You can tell USB3 ports as they are partly blue inside. Alternatively, they may have “SS” written alongside. The ports in the illustration above are marked in both ways. USB2 ports are black inside.

Ethernet Port

Ethernet Port and CableSome laptops no longer offer an ethernet port (otherwise known as a LAN port or RJ45 port) for a wired internet connection. Without this, you can not connect your machine to the internet using a cable from your computer to your router. Instead, you have to rely on wifi. Actually, this is not strictly true as you can buy an adaptor that offers an ethernet connection via one of your USB ports, but this may not be desirable as it uses one of your precious USB ports (but USB hubs that include an ethernet port are available. Search for “USB hubs with ethernet”).

Screen Size

Screen Size MeasurementThe most popular screen size on laptops is still about 15.5 inches, but there is now an almost continuous range of sizes available from 10 inches to 17 inches. If you are buying a laptop as your “main” machine, be very wary of buying one with a screen size (and keyboard) that might prove too small for comfortable all-day use. Personally, I would probably consider 13 inches as the smallest screen that I would like to work on all day and every day. Screen size is always measured diagonally across the actual screen area (ie not including the surrounding bezel).

If you are buying a standalone monitor (for use either with a desktop computer or as an external monitor for a laptop) then the bigger the screen the more comfortable and convenient it is in use. Alternatively, there should be no problem re-using an existing monitor with a new computer.

Touch Screen

Touch ScreenMore and more screens are now “touch-enabled”. This applies both to standalone monitors and to laptop screens. Expect to pay just a bit more for touch screens. If you anticipate wanting to use a pen directly on a screen (eg for editing photographs, sketching, or handwriting notes direct to the screen) then you do need a touch screen.

2-in-1 Laptops

2-in-1 laptopThis refers to laptops that can also function as tablets either by removing the keyboard entirely (as with the Microsoft Surface) or by folding the laptop in a given way. I can not imagine a 2-in-1 not having a touch screen but have not investigated this.

To be continued…

Buying a ComputerThis is the first in a series of three blog posts on this subject. If you would like to receive all of the information now and in one go, just drop me an email and I will send you a pdf file. 

You may be thinking of changing your computer (laptop or desktop), but not be sure of what aspects of the specification are important at the moment. In fact, there have not been huge developments in hardware in the last few years, and you are unlikely to come across programs that definitely need a new computer (albeit they will run more slowly on your present computer than on a new, more powerful, one).

The main aspects of a computer’s specification are listed below. Instead of hyperlinks, I have sometimes included search terms that will probably show you relevant products in www.amazon.co.uk (at least, they did at the time of writing – January 2019). This is because hyperlinks can go out of date very quickly when linking to specific hardware. I have also listed some hyperlinks that may be useful at the end of the document.

I have listed the different aspects in approximate order of importance (with the most important aspects first). As with this guide as a whole, your own requirements and priorities may be different to what is only, after all, my own opinion.

Operating System

Operating SystemsThis should be the first decision to make as you have to get your hardware from Apple if you want to run their operating system (OSX).

If you want a Chromebook, then the specification of the hardware can be much lower than for a Windows computer as the programs being run will not put such high demands on the hardware. Consequently, Chromebooks are less expensive. Chromebooks run a version of the Android operating system to be found on many (non-Apple) mobile phones and tablets. The Chromebook runs “apps” but not full-blown “programs”. Chromebooks tend to be inexpensive, but make sure that they will do everything you need before committing to one. Most major manufacturers (as well as Google) now offer Chromebooks as well as Windows computers.

For most people, though, the logical decision will be for a Windows computer. This will come with Windows 10. Windows XP, Vista, 7,  and 8 are no longer generally available (but you might just find a Windows 7 computer if you look hard enough).

Processor

Processor

Most processors (which we can think of as doing the actual work) are from Intel and they come in three “families”. These are i3, i5, and i7. The higher the number, the more powerful and faster the processor. Other components are likely to be approximately matched with the processor so that, for instance, an i3 processor is likely to be found on a computer with a (slower) hard drive, whereas an i7 processor is more likely to be matched with a (faster) solid state drive. The price of the whole ensemble will also reflect the processor (and accompanying matched components) such that computers with i3 processors are the cheapest and i7 the most expensive (with i5 in the middle). There’s some overlap, but we could broadly classify computers (both laptops and desktop computers) as follows:

  • i3 – light use / “entry level”
  • i5 – average use and performance / “mid range”
  • i7 – gaming, or heavy use / “top end”

Other processors are made by AMD. It is more difficult to classify these along the above lines. We would need closely to analyse speeds of the processors, turbocharging, and other parameters that would send the average user running for the hills. If you are looking at an AMD based machine in a shop then it is worthwhile asking what the approximate equivalent type of Intel processor would be.

Memory

RAMAs always, the more memory the better Do not buy a computer with less than 4gb RAM. Personally, I would not recommend less than 8gb. 16gb is better – both for speed now and for ensuring that your machine will still be able to cope with the demands put on it in 3-5 years time. Again, i3 computers will have less memory than i5 or i7. The current “average” is probably 8gb but 16gb is definitely worth having if the budget will allow. A good “gaming machine” may currently have 32gb or more. Increasing the amount of memory can significantly increase the overall cost.

To be continued…

If you are still running Windows XP then I very seriously suggest that you consider upgrading (buying something new!)

More laptopsMicrosoft will withdraw support for XP (and Office 2003) in April. The hackers, malware writers, and virus creators may have a field day. See the following blogs:

Replace Windows XP
Microsoft Will Stop Supporting Windows XP in 2014

Irrespective of Windows XP, you may be thinking of buying a new laptop, anyway. There are some real bargains out there at this time of year. Several of my computer support clients have asked for advice on this in the last few weeks. The obvious questions they ask are:

  • What do I need?
  • How much should I pay?

If you are in this position then please read my previous blogs on this subject (see the end of this blog post for links). Let’s bring it up to date with the basics of a current specification that I think would suit my typical computer support client:

  • Processor. If you go for an Intel processor (as opposed to AMD) then it is likely to be in one of the three families of i3, i5, or i7. Considering that i3 are generally “entry level” processors, and that i7 are more expensive and geared towards the needs of computer “gamers” and people editing movies and the like, I suggest that an i5 processor (the middle ground) is the one to favour.
  • Disk size. Unless you have a huge library of photographs, movies, and/or music that you will wish to store on your laptop, then any of today’s hard drives is likely to be plenty big enough. These now start at about 500gb and go up to 2tb (where “tb” is a terabyte and is 1000gb). If you go a bit up-market in your choice of machine then you might go for a solid state drive (SSD). These have no moving parts and are meant to be very fast. I don’t have much personal experience of them yet. You will pay more for an SSD drive and will get a smaller drive. I don’t recommend getting anything less than 128gb unless you really know what you are doing and why you are making that decision.
  • Memory. Don’t settle for less than 4gb unless you are buying a budget machine where the last £50 is crucial. 4gb is fine and so is 6gb or 8gb.
  • USB ports. There are still only 2,3, or 4 USB ports on laptops. Go for as many as possible and favour machines that have at least one USB3 port. These are much faster when connected to devices (such as external hard drives) that also feature USB3. USB3 ports are quite happy to work with devices designed for USB2 or even USB1.
  • Screen size. The most popular screen size these days on laptops is 15.6 inches, but there is now an almost continuous range of sizes available from 10 inches to 17 inches. If you are buying a laptop as your “main” machine, be very wary of buying one with a screen size (and keyboard) that might prove too small for comfortable all-day use.
  • Price. If you are lucky, you might get one for as little as £400. Anything up to £500 is a good buy. You would be expecting a higher specification than I have outlined above if you pay more than, say, £550. Just for comparison, my own main laptop (a Samsung RF511) is just over 2 years old. It has a 15.6 inch screen, 8gb RAM, 4 X USB ports (2 of them USB3), and it started off with a 500gb drive. That cost me over £700 in November 2011 and I think I could get the same now for about £550.

New laptopsThis is only a general guide, of course. It is prepared with my “typical” computer support client in mind. Uses would include all internet activity, all Microsoft Office components (the cost of which I have not included above – £110 at the moment for the Home and Student 2013 version from Microsoft), “light to medium” photo editing, playing music, watching movies, and so forth. I think you can pretty well take it for granted that any machine of this sort of specification will also include things like camera, standard wifi (not dual band), HDMI output (for connecting to a TV screen).

As for make/model, you pays your money and you takes your choice. I favour Samsung, Acer, Asus, and maybe Toshiba. Dell are still fine, but a client and I were looking at their website yesterday and the range seemed to be very limited compared to what they used to offer. Personally, I don’t like HP laptops very much. They seem sluggish and clunky to me. It might be caused by all the un-necssary software they include that you just don’t need.

More laptopsWhere from? Well, Micro Anvika (that I’ve recommended before) is no longer in business. John Lewis is good because they include a two year warranty, they never quibble, and are always helpful if you have a problem. I don’t actually have a favourite supplier any more. I’d buy from Sony or Samsung at the south end of Tottenham Court Road (they’re not owned by Sony/Samsung). I’m a bit wary of most of the rest of the “box shifters” on Tottenham Court Road. I’ve always said that PC World are OK unless you have to ask for advice or technical information (at which point they usually depart for La-La land and tell you the first thing that comes into their heads). However, I think it’s only fair to add that I’ve made two recent visits to the branch at the north end of Tottenham Court Road and had detailed, accurate, friendly advice on compact digital cameras (and bought a Sony Cybershot from PC World that seems rather nice).

Happy hunting. Let me know if you need specific information or would like help transferring from your old computer and setting up your new one.

Here are some previous blogs on this subject:

http://www.davidleonard.net/2010/12/24/buying-a-new-laptop-computer/
http://www.davidleonard.net/2012/03/17/buying-a-laptop-updated-part-1-of-2/
http://www.davidleonard.net/2012/03/24/buying-a-laptop-updated-part-2-of-2/
http://www.davidleonard.net/2013/09/21/should-i-change-to-a-mac/

More laptopsMost things in the earlier blogs still apply, but Windows 8 has, of course, been released since the blog post of December 2010 and tablet computers seem to have taken over in lots of situations that might have been handled by netbook computers two or three years ago.

PS

Sidebar Box - search for a specific word

Look for specific text in all web pages and blog posts on www.davidleonard.net

How did I find the blogs with the links given above? I just went to my website, looked for the search box on the righthand side, typed in “new laptop” and the blog posts were automatically selected and presented on-screen.

You can do this for any subjects I may have covered in about 170 consecutive weekly blogs since late 2010. You are very welcome to search this whenever you wish. See this page on my website for more information about the new ways to access these blog posts.

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!

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.

This is a fairly long article so I’ve split it into two parts. The second part will be published next week.

Contents

Introduction
General Descriptions
More About Netbooks
Operating System
32-bit or 64-bit operating system
Processor Speeds
Memory (RAM)
Hard Drive


Introduction

Buying a computer is partly a matter of getting the basic parameters right and partly a matter of personal taste and preference. As you would expect, I encounter a fair number of different makes, models, and vintages during the course of the computer support that I provide. It may come as a surprise, but, in my opinion, there isn’t actually a huge amount of difference between laptops. Age and basic specification have far more impact on performance than brand.

So, my advice is to get the basics right and then just go with what you fancy. I really can’t see that it makes any difference whether it’s Acer, Asus, Dell, Samsung, Packard Bell, or anything else. The only really obvious distinguishing features between brands is that Macs come from a different planet to everything else and that Sony Vaios are slightly more expensive and possibly better styled and finished than other brands of Windows-based laptops. I’m not going to consider Macs any more in this article. If you’ve decided you want a Mac then your choice is limited by what Apple offers and there’s little more to be said.

So, let’s have a look at those basic parameters that you need to consider.


General Descriptions

There are several descriptions of types of laptop that you may encounter. Don’t be frightened by these terms, though, as they are marketing terms rather than anything else. They refer to the size, portability, and (to some extent, at least) the power of the machine. A rough guide is as follows:

  • A “desktop replacement” is likely to have a 17 inch screen, be as powerful as the desktop computer it may be replacing, and be too heavy to want to lug about very often.
  • A “laptop” is somewhat smaller (a 15 inch screen is typical), and probably about as powerful. You can put one in a backpack and carry it around but you wouldn’t want to do that too often.
  • A “notebook” may have a 13 inch screen and may be less powerful. You may be more inclined to take it with you than a laptop, but you still probably wouldn’t want to carry it every day.
  • A “netbook” typically has a ten inch screen, is much lighter, and the battery will probably last 7-10 hours (whereas more powerful laptops may last for as little as 90 minutes on the battery). Light enough to carry every day, but still much bigger and clunkier than a “tablet”. We are not considering tablet pcs in this article but you may wish to see this article on Tablets.

There are no hard and fast demarcations between these types (apart from Tablets), but you can use them as guides when assessing your needs for power, portability, battery life, and comfort in use. At the risk of stating the obvious, the bigger and more powerful the machine, the more expensive it will be. Netbooks start at about £230, whereas a high-end “gaming” desktop replacement could be £1800.


More About Netbooks

Asus EEE Netbook

Asus EEE Netbook (images on this page are not shown to scale)

A netbook computer is like a cut-down version of a laptop computer. It usually has a 10 inch screen, small keyboard, no CD/DVD drive, less RAM than a laptop computer (typically 1gb) and a less-powerful processor. It is great for taking around with you and using for applications such as web surfing, email, word processing, and spreadsheets (unless they’re humungously large). The battery life tends to be much longer than laptops but you pay for this by having a less powerful processor and only a 10 inch screen. You wouldn’t want to try doing complicated Photoshop editing on a 100mb raw image on a notebook, but they’re fine for viewing photos and basic editing such as Picasa offers. They can be half the weight or less of a laptop, but you may need to buy an external DVD/CD drive (which you may not need to carry around with you most of the time). Alternatively, you can usually download new software rather than install it from a disc. You can also share a DVD/CD drive on another computer on your local network.

In my opinion and experience, a netbook does not work as a substitute for a laptop. I find them too slow, the keyboard too cramped, and the screen too small to comfortably use a netbook all day long. But they definitely have a place if you need portability. I always carry my Samsung NC10 netbook when travelling around London for client visits and it’s invaluable. I just wouldn’t want to use it all day as my main workhorse. Having said that, I do have computer support clients who use nothing else and you can always make them a bit easier to use at your own desk by plugging into a nice, big external monitor and external keyboard and mouse.

Assuming, though, that you’re looking for something more than a netbook, what do you need to consider?


Operating System

Unless you are buying an Apple Mac then your choice for an operating system is going to be Windows 7. Don’t even think about Linux unless you want to start becoming an “enthusiast”. There are several versions of Windows 7. There is a detailed comparison here. Windows Home Premium is almost certainly the one to go for. The less powerful netbooks often come with Windows 7 Starter (which I don’t think you can buy as a separate retail purchase). A later upgrade to a more sophisticated version of Windows is possible, but I’m now re-considering whether it was wise upgrading my netbook to Windows 7 Home Premium as it sometimes takes a really long time to come out of sleep mode.

We are being told to expect Windows 8 towards the end of 2012. It’s too early to say how it will be received but feedback from the Developers’ Preview and Beta releases suggest that there may be some good ideas in it, but it may cause usability problems because it tries to combine a touchscreen approach (suitable for tablets and smartphones) with a more traditional keyboard/mouse approach. As we approach the launch date, it is possible that new computers will have Windows 7 installed but that a free upgrade to Windows 8 will also be included.

OK, so the assumption from now on is that you’ve ruled out netbooks and Macs….


32-bit or 64-bit operating system

Samsung RF511 Laptop

Samsung RF511 Laptop

You’ve decided on your version of Windows (probably Windows 7 Home Premium), but there is another decision to be made. Since the days of Windows XP there have been both 32-bit and 64-bit computers. These run different versions of Windows. The newer 64-bit versions have been quite slow to catch on but it appears that they are now gathering pace. The main difference is that 64-bit can make use of more memory (RAM) than 32-bit.

If you are replacing a computer that is running 64-bit Windows then it makes sense to buy 64-bit again. This is because you would not expect to encounter compatibility problems with your peripherals (eg printer) and 64-bit machines can make use of more memory (RAM) than 32-bit. You can check whether you are currently running 32-bit or 64-bit by following these instructions from Microsoft.

If you are currently running 32-bit Windows then your peripherals (eg your printer) may or may not work with the 64-bit version. Your options are

  • Specify 32-bit again on your new system.
  • Run the “Windows Upgrade Advisor” on your present system to check for potential problems.
  • Go for 64-bit and accept that some peripherals may not work.
  • .

You can download and run Microsoft’s “Upgrade Advisor” from this link.


Processor Speeds

Processor speeds are not as important as they used to be as they are all fast enough for normal use. Obviously, a faster processor is better, but as long as the machine doesn’t use the Atom processor (which is optimised for use on netbooks, where the demand for power and battery life are prioritised) then this is not a critical factor. However, if you intend to edit movies, play graphic-intensive games, or do high-end photo editing or desktop publishing (with Photoshop or Quark Xpress, for instance) then it’s better to go for a faster processor if possible.

The most popular range of Intel processors come in 3 main products – i3, i5, and i7. It’s reasonable to think of these as “budget”, “mid-range”, and “performance”. If you intend to edit videos I would recommend looking for i7. Click here for further information on Intel Processors.


Memory (RAM)

Do not buy a laptop with less than 2gb RAM, and only be happy with 2gb if you are buying a budget machine and price is a major factor in your decision. If you are buying a 32-bit machine then there’s no point in having more than 3gb as 32-bit Windows can only make about 3.25gb available for use. It’s probably not worth worrying about whether there is 3gb or 4gb installed – just don’t get less than 2gb. If you go for the 64-bit version you can have as much memory as the machine and your pocket will allow.

If possible, it’s worth checking whether the installed memory can be increased at a later date (but remember that the 32-bit version of Windows can’t usefully use more than about 3.25gb). For a mid-range 64-bit machine that you expect to last about 4 years, I would recommend 4-8gb memory. If you intend playing the latest. most sophisticated, action games and/or if you are going to do a lot of video editing, then I would recommend getting as much memory as you can – more than 8gb if possible.


Hard Drive

The hard drive should be no smaller than 250gb. If you plan to record and/or store large video files (such as films) then have as large a hard drive as available and affordable (1000gb is currently a good size). Hard drives are like wardrobes: they look huge when empty, but they can soon fill up. It’s possible to upgrade to a larger hard drive at a later date, but this is not for the faint-hearted and involves having the right knowledge and software. It’s also possible to plug in extra external USB hard drives but it may be inconvenient having things like this hanging off the laptop (especially if you are on the move).

It’s worth noting that it is generally videos, music and then pictures (in that decreasing order of size) that take up much more space than anything else. If you don’t have many of these then you probably won’t need more than 250gb of hard drive. At the other extreme, a single video could take up 4gb, a single music album could be up to 100mb, and a single large (RAW) image could be 100mb. You can estimate your total storage needs from these figures (remember that 1000mb = 1gb).

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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