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.
Solid 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.
Laptops 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”.
Most 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.
Some 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”).
The 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.
More 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.
This 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…