Choosing your next laptop

Should you go for a PC or a laptop? Or even a netbook, tablet or all-in-one? This month I am going to cover laptops.

Many people are now choosing a laptop for home or work use rather than a conventional desktop or tower personal computer (PC). Laptops or notebooks are the more common names given to portable computers. Some vendors will call them laptops whilst others will call them notebooks.

In recent years their prices have fallen as manufacturing costs have fallen whilst at the same time their power and speed have risen. This means that laptops are now a sensible alternative to a PC in many cases.

With a laptop you have everything in one compact and portable box. Simply open the lid, turn it on and start typing and clicking away. For £400 – £500 you should get a good laptop running windows 7 and capable of surfing the internet, communicating your emails and performing typical office application tasks – and with enough horse-power to run the dreaded internet security software too. There are machines at lower prices but in my experience they tend to get exhausted more quickly and you start looking for that open window to throw it out of in a shorter time than something with a better specification.

In addition to the laptop itself you will need to add an Internet Security Suite and I recommend you choose a 12 month subscription service rather than one of the free anti-virus only alternatives. You may also need to purchase some Office software such as Microsoft Office, although you may decide to go with a decent free alternative such as OpenOffice. Some people prefer to also use a conventional mouse rather than the touch pad. If you already have a USB printer then you will more than like find this will be compatible with the laptop.

laptopSo why are some laptops much more expensive than £500? Well, as with cars, size, speed and features make a difference.

To help narrow down your search there are a few things to consider.
First narrow down your search to either Windows 7 Home Premium or Windows Professional. You only need the latter if you plan to connect the laptop to a network which provides server based services. Then you need to decide if 32-bit or 64-bit is important. 64-bit windows 7 will allow you to have more than 3GB RAM memory but if you have a lot of existing software you wish to reuse on the new machine then it may not run on the 64-bit version.

RAM? 2GB as a minimum and 3GB if you choose the 32 bit edition of windows 7. 3GB or more if you go for windows 7 64-bit and can afford it.

Do you need a keyboard that includes a number keypad. If so then that’s another narrowing of the choices.

The next decision is about screen size. Laptops range in size from about 11” to 21”. Below 11” and it’s technically a NetBook, above 19” – I’d say you need to think again or buy a suitcase with wheels on. The decision is typically between 15” or 17”. You should also consider the screen resolution – in addition to size there is a resolution to each screen; the higher the resolution the more you can fit on the screen without having to scroll up/down-left/right – but you may have to squint to see it.

If you plan to play fast moving games, work in CAD or publishing packages then a machine with dedicated graphics is preferred and in some case essential. Typically a laptop (and even PC) will utilise a part of the ‘shared’ memory of your system. i.e. it will eat into the 3GB of system RAM if you have 3GB RAM. If you choose one with a dedicated graphics capability it will indicate this and quote how much dedicated RAM it has. It is also likely to have a more powerful graphics processor in additional to the system processor.

Narrowing down the machines based on main processor is more difficult. Selecting from the Intel range only there are numerous models. The new ranges are identified as core i3, i5 or i7. Each offers more performance at greater cost. At the moment I’d say a core i3 will suit most common users and a core i5 for those who need lots of windows and programs all running at the same time all day long.
There are also older processors such as the core2duo which will do a great job and the Pentium DualCore which will suffice for general internet/email users with a little word processing and spreadsheeting to do.

Battery life may also be important to you. How long do you need it to run when away from a mains supply? The newer processors improve battery use times but manufacturers may then fit a smaller cheaper battery with less run time to keep costs down. 3 hours+ should be appropriate for most.

Which brand is best? Difficult to answer. Many people will only comment on their dissatisfaction with a particular machine rather than sing it’s praises and recommend it to others. Over the years I have sold and/or setup numerous brands for home and business purposes and I tend to find that specification helps a great deal. In no particular order HP/Compaq, Lenovo, Samsung, Acer, Sony and Dell have all proved to run well for several years with the odd glitch here and there.

And what about Apple? The Macbooks run a different operating system. Some say this is a good thing. People who use Macs and Macbooks tend to have more affection for them than a windows based machine user – in my experience.
In business circles those in the publishing and design industries tend to swear by them. On the other hand it may be more difficult to find the range of programs and games you are familiar with on your windows machine. However a Mac is ‘currently’ less likely to be infected with Malware and you can surf the web, communicate emails, play games and write documents. You are limited to one brand, Apple, and the prices tend to be high but the specifications reflect this.