Hardware, Technology

How-to: Laptop Buying Guide Part One

Laptop buying guide part oneHere we are, almost a year on from the last article on the subject.  Perhaps, like me, you have the tag “knowledgeable friend” when it comes to technology? Constantly giving out free technical advice on what kit your friends and family need to buy? To help out, here’s another post on choosing the best laptop or netbook.

The value in this list lies in asking just what kind of machine you’re looking for based on the computing needs of the person it’s for; no point buying a high-end games machine for your granny who only emails and Facebook’s twice a week. You get the picture.

When choosing your ideal laptop, there are a few things to really consider:
Screen Size and form-factor
You’ll want to offset the size of the screen against the weight and portability of the machine. The size of he screen will determine the overall dimensions of machine you buy – you can’t fold glass. A 15in screen will give you at best a 15.5in footprint and a 15in lump of glass to carry. If that’s a problem, opting for a smaller sized laptop, or netbook, will prove generally lighter in weight and more manageable to carry around. Just make sure you’re comfortable squinting at a smaller screen; smaller screens make for lighter tasks (video editing in hi-def not recommended, nor is intensive proof-reading).

Hard Drive
This is storage; where all of your files (photos, videos, music, and even programs) are kept. Netbooks typically come with a minimum of about 80Gb or more, larger laptops from 160Gb up to 2Tb. Storage space is reduced if you go for a more robust and energy efficient Solid Sate Drive (SSD); capacities on SSD’s are lower and they are more expensive right now. Work out how much digital media you expect to store on the laptop, or how much you can live with. Perhaps budget for an external drive as a carry over. Don’t expect to be able to upgrade the storage on a laptop – the hard drive is often unreachable inside the chassis.

The processor is the work-horse. The newer, faster (and more expensive) the processor, the more complex tasks it can carry out quickly, the more it can multi-task across several applications simultaneously. In laptops, the processor is almost never upgradeable, so it’s worth getting the fastest processor you can afford.

You want as much fast memory as you can afford to do the job of holding programs and data for the processor to work on; be it documents, photo editing or games. Current generation laptops and netbooks have standardised on a minimum 1Gb memory. Better models may have 2 or 3Gb, top-of-the-line models maybe 4Gb or even 8Gb. You might be able to upgrade the memory, but it can be difficult and limited by physical access to the memory slots inside the machine. You might even have o swap out low capacity memory modules for higher ones. Laptop memory is generally more expensive.

Graphics Card
The graphics card powers not only the display (screen) but also shares the processing load with the CPU for certain types of programs. Many current generation machines have integrated graphics on the central processor chip; fast, efficient, consuming less power. They are perfectly adequate for usual day to day tasks such as web browsing, word processing and email, and can manage DVD-quality and even hi-def quality video playback, so you can opt for a laptop with an integrated graphics card as these laptops are generally cheaper. This is particularly true of smaller machines such as netbooks.

However, if you intend to play any 3D games, or play Blu-ray content, a dedicated graphics chip will be much faster than the integrated graphics. Deciding which type of graphics card you require is essential as these can’t be upgraded.

Wireless Connectivity
All of the current generation laptops and netbooks have wireless networking built in, along with Bluetooth. Wired Ethernet connections are beginning to disappear, along with add-in card slots such as PCMCIA. You’ll have to assume you can get Internet connectivity over wireless one way or another.

As machine chasis and footprints shrink (particularly the height of the laptop body) the number of USB, Firewire and other ports is diminishing. You may find you only have mini-usb connectors, in which case an external hub may be the only way of plugging in all your other kit.

The computer keyboard is a highly personal choice. The early netbooks had horrible stiff and tiny keys. Things are much better now, but the smaller netbooks can have duff keyboards with little travel or feedback, poor spacing of keys and non-standard layouts. The chiclet keyboard, or island layout provides a bit more spacing between keys and there is a solid casing around them allowing less dirt and detritous under the keys. They can feel a bit dead, to be honest, but at least you’ll mash multiple keys less frequently.

Netbook versus Laptop versus Ultrabook
Netbooks are now and established form-factor; notebook computers which have been designed and engineered to be as small as possible whilst providing good battery life – 4-8 hours, depending on the processor and the battery size. Netbooks are ultra portable computers, with a screen size of about 10 inches (up from 7inches a couple of years ago), weighing on average between 1-1.5Kg. The energy-efficient design of their tightly integrated circuit boards makes them slower than normal laptop computers, but they’re seen as an acceptable compromise for a machine used on the move with a battery life to last you through an average day.

The new kids on the block are the ultrabooks. Chip-maker Intel has a trademarked specification for an ultrabook, despite the fact that Apple created one first with the Mac-book Air, a super-thin, lightweight notebook computer. The Ultrabook is the answer from the Intel camp (Intel and allied equipment manufacturers or OEM’s) to the Air. It’s a blatant attempt to move the netbook up-market; larger screens and faster processors for the same weight and battery life as a netbook.

The ultrabook price is upmarket too; these are priced as desirable design icons as well as highly functional machines. You need to decide if the premium price is worth it for the style and the weight saving.

Build Quality
There’s a lot to be said for the tank-like solidity of, say, a Lenovo, over the shiny glossy surface appeal of a cheaper, more flimsy build. Laptops take more knocks and general wear through travel, you need to either take care of them or go for something a bit more durable. Don’t assume the cheapest are less robust, any manufacturers kit can break down at any time, up to and including the premium Sony machines. These are commodity items now; check the warranty duration and terms before you buy.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the current market and see what’s out there for the budget conscious; perhaps even add a couple of wish-list items for when we win the lottery. AJS

About Allan J. Smithie

Allan J. Smithie is a journalist and commentator based in Dubai.


3 thoughts on “How-to: Laptop Buying Guide Part One

  1. Very well written article. I agree that you should consider all of those aspects, but in my opinion the most important from the list are the hard-drive, the processor, the wireless connection and especially the build quality. Thanks.

    Posted by laptopguy | Jul 15, 2012, 12:51 am
  2. Thank you for the good writeup.

    Posted by Heefner | Jul 15, 2012, 8:33 am


  1. Pingback: How-to: Laptop Buying Guide Part One « Everything Express | Ultrabook Laptop Computer - Jul 15, 2012

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