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.
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.
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.
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?
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….
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.
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.
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.
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).