Laptop Buyers Guide

Laptops buying guide

Laptops cost considerably more than desktop computers with equivalent specification. If you want an ultra portable laptop that you can play computer games on, you’ll need to fork out £800 plus. So, if you don’t need to transport your computer and you have enough space at home, just stick with a desktop. However, laptops are essential if you need to use them on the move or you have limited space at home.

Apple Mac or PC?

Whether you choose an Apple MacBook, or a PC laptop will depend on your personal preference for the different systems and what you want to use your laptop for. Macs are generally perceived to have the upper edge with graphics and music applications which is why they are often preferred in publishing and education environments and for recording music. PCs, though, are more widely used and thought to be better for running admin and business applications, such as spreadsheets. Increasingly the differences between the capabilities of both systems are getting smaller, but it can be said that Apple operating systems are less vulnerable to computer viruses than the Windows operating systems found on almost all PCs. Apple MacBooks, though, are generally pricier than their PC equivalents.

Apple laptop PC laptop

What specification should I look for in a laptop?

The glossary, below, explains the features. But typically, most people will need a minimum of:
• 1.6GHz processor
• 1024 × 768 resolution
• CD-RW/DVD-RW drive
1GB of RAM (2GB is advisable for Windows 7 machines)
80GB of hard drive space
• Wi-Fi to connect to wireless internet or an ethernet port to connect a network cable.
• 2 USB ports in addition to the standard ports for keyboard, mouse and printer
• A graphics card with at least 128MB of RAM

However, if you will be running graphics or music programs, playing computer games, storing images or MP3 files, look for at least 2GB of RAM, 120GB hard drive space, a 2.4 Ghz processor and a 3D video card.

What do I need to consider if I do carry my laptop around a lot?

Weight is your primary consideration. Go for an ultra portable laptop with a smaller screen. Anything from 4.5 to 13inch screen. Models that weigh 3kg or less will be your best bet – you can get some models that weigh less than 2kg. However, check out the size and weight of any accessories you need, such as the mains adaptor, battery and any portable drives as you’ll have to lug these around too.

What software should I get with my laptop?

You should ensure you get antivirus/firewall software for better protection; good anti-spyware software is essential too (AdAware/Spybot/SpywareBlaster for example) but free versions can be downloaded from the internet and installed very easily. Microsoft Word, the ubiquitous word-processing software is not always included as standard, so you may need to budget for around £80 extra if you need it. See what bundles different retailers are offering with the model you want. You can always negotiate with the retailer to upgrade software or to install different packages.

How many ports do I need on a laptop?

If you are using your laptop at home as a desktop replacement, you’ll need enough ports for a printer, scanner, back-up drive and whatever else you need to connect to. If the model you want doesn’t have enough ports for the different devices you want to connect to, you could get a docking station which increases the number of ports, or add an expansion board. However, if your laptop is only for use on the move, you won’t need any ports.

Should I fork out the extra for a carrying case?

These are usually sold as an optional extra. While they provide protection for your laptop while you are transporting it, they also attract attention to the fact that you are carrying a laptop. It may be worth finding another protective bag that makes it less obvious that you are carrying a laptop.

Glossary:

Back up: It’s always a good idea to regularly back your hard drive onto a disc or zip drive or to have a back-up drive that does this automatically for you.

Batteries: Most laptops use Lithium Ion batteries. Battery life varies between laptops but somewhere between two and five hours is average. It can take around 75 minutes to recharge a battery so you might find it worthwhile getting a spare.

Bluetooth: This allows you to wirelessly connect compatible devices, such as headsets or keyboards.

Central Processing Unit/microprocessor (CPU): This central chip is the brain of the computer that controls all the functions of your computer. Its speed is measured in gigahertz (GHz). The more you pay for your laptop, the faster your processor will be and hence the quicker your machine will run. However, faster processors are hungrier on batteries.

Disc drive: Laptops have one or more of the following types of disc drive:
CD-Rom drive – this will read CDs, eg CDs containing music or new programs (essential for installing sofware from disc)
CD-RW drive – This allows you to write to (or record onto) a blank CD as well as read CDs.
DVD Rom drive – Allows you to read both CDs and DVDs.
DVD-RW drive – Allows you to write to (or record onto) a blank DVD as well as to play DVDS.
Switchable drives – These give you the ability to have a combination of different drives and slot one in at a time.

External drives, such as hard-disk, zip, CD etc may be attached for more storage options.

Display: LCD (liquid crystal display) laptop screens can vary in size between 12 and 17 inches. Larger screens are always easier to see and read on but if you use the laptop on the move, a smaller one is better as it’s easy to transport. TFT (thin film transistor) or Active Matrix screens are designed to perform better in bright light and produce clearer images but you may find it harder to read text on them.

Expansion cards: These are essentially small circuit boards that fit into expansion slots into your computer, giving you more connectivity options, such as FireWire ports (for digital camcorders), midi ports (for music equipment), extra USB ports (for linking to additional external devices such as scanners or modems). or more functionality, for example, it can allow you to turn your computer into a TV tuner.

Graphics (or video) card: These are also called video adaptors and they plug into the machine to give it display capabilities. 3D graphic cards are necessary for many computer games. You’ll need a graphics card containing at least 32 or 64 MB of memory if you play computer games or do presentation work.

Hard-disc space: This is where programs, files, data and documents are stored. The amount of space you get is measured in gigabytes (GB). The more space you can get for your money the better, especially if you store images or MP3 files.

Modem: Built in to most laptops, this allows data to be transmitted over phone lines and is essential for using email and the internet if you have a dial-up connection.. Transmission speeds are measured in kilobytes per second (Kbps) .56Kbps is sufficient for a dial-up connection. If you have an ADSL broadband connection, you will need to get an external ADSL modem or router, with a minimum speed of 256Kbps up to 2Mbps. It’s best to opt for broadband as dial-up services can be slow and frustrating.

Motherboard: The main circuit board inside your computer to which all internal components connect. Make sure it can support any upgrades you think you might need, such as a faster microprocessor.

Operating system: This is the software that controls many of the computer’s functions. Any programs that you run must be compatible with your computer’s operating system. Laptops come with an operating system pre-loaded , such as Microsoft Windows XP or Vista on PCs and the Apple OS on Macs. Recently a few manufacturers have begun to ship PCs with versions of the Linux operating system, which is less vulnerable to viruses.

Ports: These are essentially sockets on your computer that allow you to connect to other devices, such as printers, scanners or cameras. Some laptops have only one port while others have up to four. There are two main types:
USB: Universal Serial Bus ports are the main ports used for connecting to printers, scanners and PDAs.
• FireWire– A very fast method of file transfer used for transferring data such as video images to and from a digital camcorder,MP3 player or back-up disc-drive.

RAM: This refers to ‘Random Access Memory’ which is used for processing and storing the data you are working on. It is measured in megabytes (MB). 512 MB is recommended to run most applications but get more if you can. Without sufficient RAM your computer will be frustratingly slow so buy as much RAM as you can afford.

Removable media: Some laptops have slots for a variety of removable media like CompactFlash, Secure Digital or a memory stick. These can be especially useful if you are using the laptop with other digital devices like cameras, camcorders and PDAs.

Resolution: This is measured in dots per inch (dpi) and is the number of pixels that make up an overall picture. The greater the pixel count, the higher the resolution and the sharper the display. The standard resolution at which web pages are displayed at is 1024 × 768 dpi.

Touch-sensitive mouse pads: This replaces the mouse on most laptops. You may find it difficult to operate at first. However, you can always use a USB mouse instead.

Sound cards: These allow you to hear sound through your laptop but the sound quality on laptops is rarely as good as that of a desktop computer with additional speakers.

Wireless networking: Wi-fi (Wireless Fidelity) technology allows you to connect to your broadband internet connection without wires around the home. You can also use Wi-fi in public wi-fi spots, such as cafes. To do this, you need a wireless LAN (local area network) card, but these are built-in as standard on most laptops now. You will also need an external ADSL modem/router.

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