Tech manufacturers make it quite possible to buy inadequate hardware

Whether you are buying a computer (laptop, desktop, Windows, Mac), a smartphone or tablet (Apple or Android), it is possible to spend a lot of money on something that will soon be inadequate because there isn’t enough space to store all your stuff.

Android - Storage FullThe phrase that comes to mind is “spoiling the ship for a ha’porth of tar”. You spend hundreds of pounds on some sparkling new kit with all the gizmos, only to find three months later that you are running into difficulties because there isn’t enough room for your needs. The only devices that I can think of that don’t let you fall into this trap are iPhones and iPads. The smallest storage capacity in a new iPhone/iPad is 64gb. For most people, 64gb in a smartphone or tablet is adequate (though plenty, like me, would like much more).

With Android phones and tablets, on the other hand, the situation is frankly ridiculous. Many is the person who has bought a small capacity Android phone believing that you can just move apps and data to the optional SD storage card. In older versions of the Android operating system many apps could not be moved onto the external SD card. I understand that the situation has changed somewhat, but that the app developer has to have written the option into the app if it is to be movable to the SD card. For further information on this, see this Android Developers’ web page. The reason that I say that the situation is ridiculous is that our old friend Google (who are now the force behind Android) fill the device with so much rubbish that you can’t remove, that an 8gb Android device is almost dead in the water before it’s even sailed out of the showroom – irrespective of the size of your micro SD card.

Samsung SSD

Samsung Solid State Drive

The danger with Windows PCs (including laptops) starts from the fact that SSDs (solid state drives) are preferable to the old style hard drives as they are faster, and probably more reliable. However, byte for byte, they are more expensive. So, instead of the now standard 1tb of space (1000gb) on a hard drive, it’s possible to buy a laptop that is fit for purpose in other respects, but with as little as 128gb of SSD capacity. That situation is hardly ameliorated for average and “light” computer users by adding a hard drive as well since it either needs to be configured appropriately from the start (and they never are) or the user needs to learn more about file organisation than would otherwise have been the case.

Micro SD Card

Micro SD Card

I do, of course, understand that all products have to be priced competitively and at a price that will produce the company a profit. Nevertheless, it has often crossed my mind when I encounter yet another frustrated user of an inadequate device, that there must surely be a case for being able to obtain a refund under the Sale of Goods Acts (or other consumer legislation) on the basis that the product is not fit for the purpose for which it was bought.

So, as a rough guide, and assuming that your needs are “average”, my recommendations for the minimum size of storage space for different devices is as follows. If in any doubt, try to discuss first with the vendor (not easy with online shopping, I admit) what you intend to use the device for. That makes your case stronger if the device fails to live up to your needs.

AvoidNot RecommendedOK for Average UseOK for Average UseShould be Fine
and Tablets
(if SD also available)
(iPhone, or Android without SD)
64gb with SD card, or 128gb
Windows and
Apple Computers

Note: All of these recommendations may be insufficient if you wish to store large collections of music, images, or video files.

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.


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…

Have you ever wanted to increase the storage space on your idevice?

Apotop DW-17 Wi-Reader

Apotop DW-17 Wi-Reader

However much you like your idevice, it can be a pain that you can not connect either a USB flashdrive or an SD card to increase the storage capacity. This is particularly irritating at this time of year, of course, if you want to take some extra stuff on holiday with you – such as more music, downloaded movies, TV programs, and the like.

Well, I’ve found something that can go a great deal of the way to solving this problem. The specific item that I bought calls itself a Wi-Reader. There are other brands available and the specifications differ slightly.

The idea at the heart of this device is that it can read either an SD card or a USB flashdrive and transmit (stream) the contents via its own wifi signal direct to your iPad, iPhone etc. Clever, huh?

It’s not a perfect substitute for “onboard” extended storage as the contents are only available to a specific (free) app that you install on your idevice. That’s not quite literally true as you can make the contents available via FTP, but I don’t think that my own computer support clients would be likely to want to go off-piste into such rocky terrain.

I’ve been testing this device for a week now, and it works very well indeed within its limitations. The types of content that I’ve tested with it are:

  • Music – both aac format and mp3 format
  • Video – MP4 format
  • PDF files
  • Microsoft Word documents (docx files)
  • Microsoft Excel spreadsheets (xlsx files) – but it only show the first sheet in a workbook
  • Image files in tif and jpg formats

DW-17 Music View

Using the app’s “Music” view mixes all the albums together and lists tracks alphabetically…

I haven’t checked this out thoroughly, but I think it’s fairly safe to assume that all of the data is available in a “read only” format. In other words, I don’t think you can use this device to create or edit files.

I have almost filled a 128gb San Disk Cruzer Blade flashdrive (mainly with music and TV programs converted from DVD format to MP4) and the response time in finding anything specific is perfectly acceptable. This 128gb flashdrive is currently available from Amazon at the very reasonable price of £23.99.

The device itself is called an Apotop DW17 Wi-Reader. I bought it from Maplin for £39.99. If you look at these links, you will see that this particular model can also act as a battery charger for your iDevice. It will also work with Android devices using the freely available Android app, but I think it’s less likely to be needed on an Android device as they typically have SD or micro SD slots of their own.

DW-17 Folder View

…but using the alternative “Folder” view solves the problem

The only slight disadvantage that I’ve encountered is that you (obviously) need to connect to the wifi signal coming from the device in order to access its content. That means that you don’t have a wifi connection to the internet while you are accessing the wi-reader and the iPhone doesn’t attempt to connect to the internet using a 4G connection while the wifi connection is busy doing something else. Several times, I have wondered why I can’t check my email, only to remember that the iPhone’s wifi connection is otherwise occupied. However, that’s a small price to pay.

This solution is obviously not quite as convenient as having external storage slots available on the device itself, but it’s a very good alternative solution for anyone – like myself – who would like to have his entire record collection of about 1500 albums available with only about 120gm weight overhead in their luggage (including the charging cable and the San Disk USB drive). That comes to about 0.1gm per album, and at a cost of about 4p per album. Result!

SD memory cards are things we seem to take for granted

I recently saw an item on the BBC technology news pages announcing the launch of a 512gb SD card. These tiny devices, measuring just 32 X 24 X 2.1 millimetres are now the standard storage method for digital cameras – both still and video. Indeed, the same news item mentions that the motivator for developing such a large capacity SD card is the latest “4X” standard for video production. This can require up to 5gb for every minute of video shot.

The price of this new Sandisk card is £490. At first glance this may look expensive, but it’s less than £1 per gigabyte and the price is bound to drop as sales rise. Note that this entire article looks at SD cards – not solid state hard drives (very different animals).

From my own experience of computer support clients who use SD cards at all, it seems most people just accept that they are the storage method in their cameras and don’t use them for anything else. Moreover, if they transfer their images to a computer via a cable (instead of by removing the SD card and sticking it in their computer) then they probably never give the card a moment’s thought.

SD cards do have other uses, though.

2gb Class 2 SD card

2gb Class 2 SD card

Imagine, for instance, that you use a laptop or notebook computer that you carry around with you but work at home or in the office on a “proper computer” (ie a desktop computer). There are often going to be times when data needs to be transferred from one machine to another. Not all people want to solve this problem by storing stuff “in the cloud”, available to any device that connects to it. Instead, they will usually resort to the more common method of transferring data via a USB flash drive (also known as a thumb drive, USB stick etc). The problem with these is that they stick out of the machine. You wouldn’t be at all wise to pack your laptop into your case with 2 inches of USB drive sticking out of it. Why not use an SD card instead? Most computers (especially laptops) have a slot specifically for SD cards. Just push the card into the slot and the machine recognises the SD card just the same as an external hard drive or a USB flash drive. The card will either be flush to the machine’s case or, at worst, stick out a couple of millimetres.

Since the card doesn’t obtrude, you can leave it there forever if you want and use it as a backup drive. Used this way, it could save you from disaster in the case of hard drive failure but, it must be admitted, it won’t be any good as a backup if you leave your laptop in a taxi. Oops.

2gb Micro SD card and adaptor

2gb Micro SD card and adaptor

SD cards do come even smaller – physically – than the standard size. A “micro” version of them is very often used for storage on smartphones (except iPhones. IPhones don’t have any expandable storage). These micro SD cards can also be placed in an adaptor that makes them readable and useable as a standard SD card. Micro SD cards measure just 15mm X 11mm X 1mm. I’ve got a32gb micro SD card in my smartphone that has 7435 files on it. These are almost all music tracks, so that’s about 750 albums on a device smaller than a fingernail. Things have come a long way since the original Walkman, when carrying around more than half a dozen music cassettes seemed a bit obsessive!

The instructions for my smartphone (a Sony Xperia) specifically say that it can use cards up to 32gb. This probably means that it is limited to the “SDHC” version (which means Secure Digital High Capacity). If it were compatible with the latest standard (SDXC) then it could use the new Sandisk card mentioned above and any bigger cards as they are released – right up to 2tb (this is 2 terabytes, also expressed as 2000gb).

Apart from storage capacity, another factor to bear in mind when buying SD cards is the speed at which they can read and write data. Obviously, faster cards are more expensive. The speed is expressed in a “class” number. Most cards indicate that they are between Class 2 and Class 10 (where the figure represents the number of megabytes per second that can be read or written. The card must be able both to read and write at the stated speed). Even faster cards are UHS 1 and UHS 3 (representing 10mb and 30mb per second respectively). Class number doesn’t matter so much if you’re using the card for still images, but go for a high class number if recording video or if you take still images in “bursts”.

Cassette pile

You can store about 20 times as much music on a 32gb SD card as contained in this pile of cassettes

The music for my smartphone is on a UHS1 card and it performs faultlessly. The last one of these I bought cost about £25. Not bad for storing about 750 albums. That’s about 3.3p each. Compare that with the old “CD90” cassettes that cost about £1 to record two 40 minute albums. And just imagine the pockets you would need to carry 375 cassettes, each with 2 X 40 minute albums on!

Click this link for an even nerdier look at the humble but hard-working SD card.

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Computer Support in London
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