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…

There – it’s all in the title

Let me explain

A few times recently, I have had computer support clients asking for my advice when upgrading to a new laptop (as they do) and expressing concern that most modern laptops don’t have a CD/DVD drive. So, they ask, should they avoid such machines?

“No”, is my answer, unless BOTH of the following situations apply to you:

  • You still regularly use a CD/DVD drive (and the operative word here is “regularly”)
  • You carry your laptop around with you on a fairly regular basis

“But what about my music? What about that game that’s on CD that my darling little grandchild plays when s/he comes to see me?”

CD/DVD drive - from Amazon

CD/DVD drive – available from Amazon at £12.99 plus delivery

“No problem” (as everyone says, inappropriately and ad nauseam, these days). You can buy an external CD/DVD drive – and very cheaply, too. And that’s why I say that it’s all in the title. The fact is that external CD/DVD drives manage to keep a very low profile. They’re rarely advertised and if you didn’t know they exist then it probably wouldn’t occur to you to wonder if they do – even if you could do with one!

The fact is that we are using CDs and DVDs far less often than we used to. Most software and most music is now downloaded from the internet rather than supplied on physical media. Also, we don’t use CDs and DVDs for backups very often nowadays. Therefore, it makes sense for laptop manufacturers to save both space and money by not including them.

If you do use a CD/DVD drive regularly and you do need it on the move, then I can tell you from my own experience that it’s a little less convenient, and a little heavier, dragging around separate computer and CD/DVD drive than having an internal drive. However, the trend towards less and less use of them is likely to continue, so the balance is likely to go more and more towards laptops without integral drives.

CD/DVD drive - Apple

CD/DVD SuperDrive from Apple – £65

External CD/DVD drives are cheap. At this point, I was going to suggest budgeting about £30 but then I did a bit of research and found a CD/DVD drive on Amazon for just £12.99 (plus delivery). OK, it’s no style icon, but that hardly matters. You will see from the illustration above that it comes with a CD with “Driver” written on it. If, like me, you are a bit of a smarty-pants, then you might wonder how you get to load up the drivers to make the drive work if you need to have the drivers installed before the drive will work. Hmm, I can’t think of a smart response to that. The truth is, though, that I have never needed drivers to make an external CD/DVD drive work. Just plug ’em in and off they go.

You will notice that there are two cables with this model. One is the data cable and the other is a separate power cable (they both connect to the laptop via USB ports). It needs the second (power) cable as the device needs more power than can be delivered through the same cable that handles the data. Clearly, if you have a laptop that only has one USB port then this solution won’t work for you. Instead, look for a drive that manages (somehow) with just one cable. Using up two valuable USB ports isn’t usually a problem as the drive is not usually being used for more than a single operation. It can then be disconnected.

CD/DVD drive - Samsung

Samsung CD/DVD drive – available from PC World at £22.99

I notice that this particular drive claims compatibility only with Windows machines and not with Macs. My bet is that it would work on a Mac as well, but if you don’t want to take the risk (and if you are inured to the pain of paying Apple prices), then you might feel more comfortable paying £65 for the official Apple USB SuperDrive.

If you’d like something a little more elegant than the one from Amazon, then you might like this CD/DVD drive by Samsung from PC World at £22.99. This one does say that it’s both PC and Mac compatible.

So, there you have it. Now that you know that external CD/DVD drives exist, you can go ahead and buy your new slim, lightweight, notepad with confidence.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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