Advice for selecting a new laptop
One of the most frequent questions we get is from customers looking to upgrade from an old desktop to a new machine, usually a laptop.
In this article we will look at the hardware and basic operating system. Additional optional software will be covered in another article to follow.
There are so many options and variations that this can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not familiar with the jargon and specifications and what they actually mean in terms of what you get for your money!
So, in order to try to make this slightly easier, here are some guidelines for the average user. By this we mean someone who is going to use the machine for:
- web browsing,
- maybe watch YouTube or iPlayer,
- store and make basic adjustments to photos etc.
For those who would like to understand a little more, let’s look at the typical items in a specification of a PC or laptop.
This is the central proceeding unit, ie the part that does all of the work and controls the computer. There are many variations but they divide mostly into two camps, those made by Intel and those made by AMD. Within each manufacturer there are a number of devices which have been designed for either higher speed or lower power consumption. CPU speeds are often quoted and are usually around 2-3Ghz. This is the basic rate at which the device is clocked, so the higher the number the faster it should perform. However, this is not necessarily always the case and a number of other factors come into play. So, this should not be a critical factor, anything around 2Ghz is more than adequate.
In electronics, generally higher speed of operation means more power consumed and more heat generated. More power consumed means shorter battery life (or a larger battery adding to the weight of the laptop).
It should be said that for most general purpose users, the choice of CPU is not too critical, and even the most basic, low power versions will have adequate performance.
Our recommendation is to always go for the latest version of the Intel CPUs, usually with a “Core i3” or “Core i5” prefix. See examples at the end of this article.
Memory is where the information in your computer is stored. There are two sorts of memory that are specified for each computer, RAM (Random Access Memory) and the Hard Disk Drive (HDD).
- RAM: This is the “working space” or short term memory of the computer. It has a big effect on the speed at which the computer executes instructions. It’s implemented in a chip so is very much faster at accessing information than the Hard Disc Drive which is implemented generally (but not always, see below) by a spinning disk.
Generally, the more RAM you have the faster the machine will run when you are working it hard and running several tasks at once. Typically PCs and laptops will have between 4GB and 8GB of RAM. For casual users and those simply surfing the web and doing email then 4GB is adequate, but it’s best to opt for the most that you can afford within your budget so that you can cope with any increases in workload. On most machines, the RAM can be upgraded at a later date.
- Hard Disk Drive: This is where your information (data and programs) is permanently stored. It usually takes the form of a spinning disk with a mechanical laser arm reading from the disk, so is much slower at accessing data than RAM chips. I say usually because Solid State Drives (SSD) are now available which have access times approaching RAM speeds. This means that your machine will start much quicker, and also be more responsive with an SSD. However, SSDs are still considerably more expensive than standard hard drives. For example (at the time of writing) a typical 500Gbyte laptop HDD costs around £45 whereas the equivalent SSD is around £130.
Most laptops come with between 500Gbytes and 1TByte (1000Gbytes). The lower figure is more than adequate for most users.
The screen: By far the most popular laptop screen size is 15.6″, usually appearing in the specifications as “15.6 LED” or “15.6 Touch Screen”. Unless you opt for a very high end laptop there is not much choice in screen technology other than opting for a touch screen. Experience of our customers suggests that using touch on a Windows 10 laptop or desktop is not a great benefit, but this is a matter of personal preference.
Connecting to the Internet: On a laptop this is through WiFi, and all laptops today come with it built in. Most also come with Bluetooth so that you can connect to your phone to download photos.
Cameras: Most laptops today come with a webcam which is mounted above the screen. The webcam will have a lower resolution than the camera in your phone but will be adequate for Skype.
DVD drive: There is a growing trend to remove the DVD drive from the specification since most software today is downloaded as are films and music. Also recording onto DVD is no longer necessary with very low cost USB memory sticks having greater capacity and faster access times. However, DVD drives are still available, especially in the lower end machines where thickness of the base is not such a critical factor.
Operating System: This is the software that determines how the machine handles it’s it tasks, creates a user interface and gets things done. In effect it gives it it’s identity.
Unless you are buying an Apple device (see separate article) the vast majority of laptops today come with Windows 10 installed. Windows 10 comes in a number of varieties but the most popular (and most appropriate for the home or small office) is Windows 10 Home 64 bit. The professional version of Windows 10 has additional features which are useful in a larger office environment (additional networking and group management features) but offers no value to the home or small office user.
The “64 bit” refers to the size of the basic data and instructions, each being composed of 64 individual bits (1s or 0s). Windows comes in both 32 bit and 64 bit versions, but the default is 64 bit.
So, we have covered the basics of the hardware and operating system. Below are examples of typical specifications of actual laptops which would be suitable for the home, home worker or small office. These are simply examples and not necessarily recommendations.
- Acer Aspire E5-573G Laptop
- Intel Core i5-4210U 1.7GHz
- 4GB RAM + 1TB HDD
- 15.6″ LED + WIFI
- NVIDIA GeForce 920M 2GB
- Windows 10 Home
- HP ProBook 450 G3 Laptop
- Intel Core i3-6100U 2.3GHz
- 8GB RAM + 128GB SSD
- 15.6″ LED + WIFI
- Bluetooth + Webcam
- Windows 10 Home 64 bit
The first option is a good example of a basic machine, with slightly enhanced graphics – that’s what the NVIDIA GeForce 920M does.
The second (HP) laptop has a lower power CPU but has a 128Gbyte SSD plus 8GBytes of RAM. It will start up very quickly and be very responsive, but the relatively small drive capacity (128Gbytes) might be a bit restrictive.
Due to the SSD and larger RAM, the second machine is nearly £200 more expensive at the time of writing.
Hopefully this has given some insight into what the specifications mean. Best prices can usually be found online, but I would suggest that if possible you go to a large store (eg PC World or John Lewis) and take a look at the various models so that you are happy with keyboard, general appearance etc. The danger in some stores is that you will be convinced to buy a higher specification machine than you need and sold additional software which is not really necessay. This can increase the cost considerably. Additional software that you may need, or should avoid being sold, will be covered in a separate article.
If you have any questions or would like an opinion on a computer that you are considering please do not hesitate to eMail us and we will be happy to advise.