Laptop Buying Guide

How to choose which laptop is right for me?

Computers, eh? You buy the latest model and by teatime it’s yesterday’s news. Well, whilst this has been the situation over the past few years, it seems to be more stable these days. Sure, technology is still progressing but we’re more knowledgeable about what’s right for us now that when choosing a new PC or laptop, we’re all a bit wiser now.

What is still true with laptops is the constant development with speed and memory capacity. Laptops, or notebooks, are now just as impressive as desktops. And, of course, they’re much neater, you can cart them around everywhere you go and you can tuck them up in bed at the end of a long, hard day. Try doing that with your desktop. As for price, well, you can get a budget model for under £300. But you might need to spend over £1000 if you want something that’s a bit more wizzy.

However, before you make an expensive boo-boo, you’ll want to know which is the right laptop for you, let’s take a look at your options.

Laptops – Points to Ponder

First off, let’s deal quickly with light users. If you just want to answer a few e-mails, check your share prices and fiddle about in MS Word, buy a cheap laptop. No, don’t argue. It’ll be perfectly adequate.

The Laptop of Luxury

If you want to do a little more with your machine, you’ll want some better features. You might be a budding graphics designer or need a fast processor plus a stack of memory, especially if you’re planning on playing lots of games. This will, of course, cost you more money. Life’s like that. Let’s look at some more considerations before you blow a month’s wages in 14 seconds.

One Computer

Is your laptop going to be your only computer? Get one that’s too small and you’ll be squinting at the small screen and cursing at the snail-like speed. If you’re a fan of mice, you might find that using your finger makes you a little homicidal after a while, too. If your main machine is a desktop, consider a less-powerful laptop for your mobile needs.

Time

Are you a mega-user or are you dragged kicking and screaming to the computer coal-face? Spend a good few hours a day rattling your keys and you’ll need a large screen and proper keyboard and mouse. They’re just so much easier to use. Get a screen of at least 15” for extended use and 17” for watching DVDs.

Portability

Is portability important? Weight is a big factor, unless you’re a powerlifter. More than 3kgs and you’ll struggle to lug it around; look for something under 2.5kgs. Big batteries might also be vital if you work away from civilisation. Perhaps invest in an extra battery set? But be wary of going too battery mad, bigger batteries weigh more and add to the laptop’s overall weight. Most laptops come with a 6-cell battery but a 9-cell battery will give you longer time between charging, but they are heavier.

Speed

Computer speed gets redefined daily. What was a sumptuous feast yesterday is today’s dog’s breakfast. Or something. The latest laptops are twice the speed of models from just two years ago. What you need to look at is the processor speed. A lowish speed of around 1.6Ghz is fine for a bit of surfing and working in Word. For more serious stuff, you’ll want to consider speeds of around 3Ghz.

But speed isn’t everything. Look at something called dual-core processing. If your operating system can handle it, you’ll get better performance than from sheer speed alone.

Note also that very high processor speeds are not actually that useful for regular office activities, and are really aimed at crazy gamers. If that’s you, fine. Give my love to Conan.

Graphics Cards

If you’re a Conan fan, you’ll want a graphics card on your laptop. If you just asked, who? Ignore this bit. A graphics card is a clever little chap that sorts out colours, object positions, sizes and much more. For today’s top games, get a 3D graphics card. Spend enough on your laptop and it’ll come already installed – but it’s worth checking.

WiFi Wireless Connection

Do you want mobile Internet access? Of course you do. End of story. That’s why you need WiFi. Happily, rare is the laptop that doesn’t come with WiFi as standard these days. This is great, as it enables you to sit in Starbucks and surf to your heart’s content. If you have a wireless broadband network at home, your laptop should be able to pick up the signal just about anywhere (including the garden). Look for the n in wifi connectivity, like this, 802.11b/g/n.

Warranty

If you’re one of those people who laughs in the face of extended warranties (count me in), be prepared for a rethink. The guts of your laptop are more delicate than a housefly’s eyebrow. This can lead to failures. Try to get a warranty of at least three years.

Power Supply

Some small laptops come with power supply transformers the size of Wales. This can give you very long arms, very quickly. Consider buying a travel version. Put it in your suitcase next to your Travel Scrabble.

Disk Space

Disk space is all about storage, the files you keep on your laptop. Get the biggest disk space your budget will allow. The aim is to get at least two years’ use from your laptop. Note that disk space is tough to upgrade, unlike random-access memory (RAM), so if you’re a music buff, make sure you’ve plenty disk space going spare. Aim for at least 250GB, preferably 500GB but obviously the more you choose, the higher the cost.

Memory

Memory is the speed at which your laptop handles a number of applications at once. No matter which laptop you buy, at some point it’s going to feel like it’s wading through treacle. In lead boots. So make sure your laptop comes with space for expansion, particularly as Microsoft and Apple regularly change their operating systems. Don’t consider anything less than 2GB these days. If you can afford it, go for 4GB or even 6GB – you’ll thank me one day.

Back-up Hard Drive

A back-up hard drive? We’re seriously in nerd territory now, aren’t we? Well, no. Regular back-ups are crucial. And all that lugging around means that laptop hard drives take a fair bit of abuse. This is why you should invest in an external hard drive to store those files you really can’t afford to lose. If you’re into music, your hard disk will fill up faster than Gazza’s tear ducts, too, so don’t skimp on hard disk space. While we’re preaching, you should also keep your install disks somewhere safe. Never lose your licence information. Take care of your battery. And call your mum once in a while.

True Costs

The price you see advertised is usually for a base model, and sometimes exclusive of vat too. Want more memory, cool software and decent warranty? That price will head North. So budget for it. Question is, do you really need all that extra stuff? You do? Great, go tiger!

Under Pressure

If you’re the kind of person who can’t say no to shiny adverts (I’m the same, I have a live yak in my kitchen and a betamax VCR), do your research first. That way, you’ll have a fair idea about the laptop you need.

And what exactly is wrong with a desktop?

Laptops are fashionable. They’re like celebrities, small dogs carried under the arm and teeth-whitening. Everyone wants one. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. For the same cost, you could get a much more powerful desktop PC. Ask yourself if you really need all that lovely portability. If not, back away. You suffered months of office politics, appraisals and roadworks around the Dartmouth tunnel to save for your laptop. So make sure it was all worthwhile.

Hope that helped a bit. Now use that mouse thing and check out some laptop reviews here.

External Hard Drives

Before you go, one last thought. You have, no doubt, thought about protecting your laptop and PC with one of the many software security products. However, what happens if you’re laptop or desktop crashes and your hard drive is corrupted? Have you protected your files? I’m not just talking about the really important spreadsheets or that novel you’re writing, I’m talking about your entire music collection and your huge amount of photos, especially the ones of your wedding or the kids etc. This is where it is important to backup your files and the best way of doing that is via an External Hard Drive.