Laptop Buying Guide
Buying a laptop today is more daunting than it has ever been. Not only is there a myriad of traditional laptops to choose from, there are also 2-in-1 laptops to consider. You have to decide whether you are going to buy a Windows laptop, MacBook or Chromebook, and that is before you consider budget, size and features.
The first thing to think about is how much you want to spend; while you generally get what you pay for when it comes to laptops, the trick is not to spend more than you need to and wind up with something you will not get your money’s worth from. Budget laptops starting at around £200 are fine for basics like browsing the web and word processing, while those over £400 would be more suitable for more intensive tasks like photo editing, working with large documents and playing simple games. Laptops built specifically for gaming can start at £700 but prices quickly rise according to the quality of components within.
The specifications you need will also closely tie into what you want to use your laptop for, so it’s worth thinking about it first. If you just want to go online occasionally, a basic central processing unit (CPU) and screen will do fine. If you want to watch films and play games you will need a faster CPU and better screen and if you want to play complex games or edit video you will need a good graphics card, a lot of RAM and larger screen too.
Another important factor to consider is how often you will want to carry your laptop around with you. This will give you an idea of how heavy you would like it to be and what size screen you should get.
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The operating system (OS) is the program that manages a computer’s software and hardware. You are probably familiar with at least one operating system, so it makes sense to stick with that, but if you are open to change, the way to work out which one to opt for is simply to find a laptop that does what you want at a price you like. When it comes to laptops, the three main operating systems to choose from are Windows, Mac OS and Chrome OS.
Windows is the dominant PC operating system in the laptops market and is available on a wide range of hardware. There is a huge range of compatible software available and you are sure to find something to suit your needs. Windows 10 which launched in 2015, is the latest version, and addresses issues that customers have with Windows 8. The Start menu is back with integrated live tiles to give an at-a-glance view of the important things to you. Your very own Windows 10 personal assistant; Cortana, learns about you over time, and works across all your Windows 10 devices to help you get things done.
Mac OS powers all Apple Mac laptops, better known as MacBooks. For those used to Windows, Mac OS can take a bit of getting used to, but it is the second most used OS and celebrated for its simplicity and intuitiveness. They utilise an apps dock at the bottom of the screen instead of the Windows Start menu and taskbar. MacBooks are generally more expensive than Windows laptops, but they are built to high standards using first-rate components; Apple devices and services, like the iPhone and iTunes, work seamlessly with them too. Mac OS X El Capitan, the latest version, also released in 2015, is much faster and more responsive than its predecessor.
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Laptops powered by the Google-designed Chrome OS are known as Chromebooks. Like Windows laptops, these are made by a variety of manufacturers; however, they are relatively niche, although growing in popularity. While you are not likely to be familiar with Chrome OS, you are with Chrome, the world’s most popular web browser, so you should find Chrome OS easy to use. Chromebooks are generally very affordable as Chrome OS is based around online applications and storage, which means they do not need fast CPUs or big hard drives. However, that means they are not so useful if you cannot get online, or for more advanced things such as playing games or editing photos.
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What screen size you opt for basically depends on what you want to use your laptop for and how you will be using it. If you want a laptop for everyday use, a 15-inch screen, which is the most common size, will be big enough to do everything from paying the bills to watching Breaking Bad, yet not so big it makes carrying it around occasionally laborious.
If you are going to use your laptop for computer-based work like graphic design or programming a 16 or 17-inch screen will likely mean a laptop that can pack the punch required to do your job, as well as a screen big enough to reduce eye strain. If you are primarily going to be using your laptop to play games or watch films and TV, a 17 or 18-inch screen will make the experience all the more engaging.
Screen size goes a long way in determining how much a laptop weighs, so if you will be carrying yours around will you on a regular basis, opt for a 12 or 13-inch screen, which should make the laptop light enough for frequent commuting.
Random access memory (RAM) is the short-term memory a computer uses for the job at hand, saving your CPU from having to constantly dip into your hard drive to retrieve information. This makes your operating system and applications faster and smoother, so the more RAM the better. The standard is 4GB, which is than enough to cope with browsing the web and streaming films in high-definition (HD); 6GB will ensure you can play games at high-quality settings; 8GB will amply cover you for photo editing and 10GB for video editing. Just remember that the more RAM you have the more power it uses, so getting more than you will use will needlessly shorten your battery life.
The CPU is the brain of a computer - it directs it to carry out instructions. The CPU is the most important component, and therefore the one that most influences how much computers cost. CPUs are ranked by the number of cores - independent processing units - they have; the more cores, the better the CPU is at multitasking. The clock speed of a CPU - how many instructions it can execute per second, measured in gigahertz (GHz) - is not used to judge how good they are so much now due to the use of multiple cores and other technologies that boost speed.
Most laptop manufacturers use CPUs made by one of two companies - Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). Intel is the largest chip maker in the world. It’s Celeron and Pentium dual-core CPUs are used in cheaper laptops. While they are not the fastest or most responsive, they can with pretty much cope with anything bar things like gaming that are CPU-intensive.
Intel is on the sixth-generation of its Core i series of CPUs. The Core i3, which is dual-core, will more than do the job if affordability is your main concern; the Core i5, which comes as dual or quad-core, is plenty powerful enough for everyday computer use; and the Core i7, which is available in both quad and octa-core, is the way to go if you are into gaming, video editing or graphic design.
AMD is on the sixth-generation of its A-series of CPUs. The A4, which is dual-core, is ideal if you are on a tight budget; the A6, which is also dual-core, will give you good performance at a reasonable price; and the A8 and A10, which are quad-core, are great for affordable gaming. When it comes to choosing between AMD and Intel, opt for the former if price is your main concern, the latter if power is.
If RAM is a computer’s short-term memory, a hard drive is its long-term memory, where the operating system, applications, games and so on are stored. Hard drive size, which is generally measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB, equal to 1,000GB), determines how much you will be able to store on your laptop, so generally the bigger the hard drive, the better.
Laptops traditionally come with hard disk drives (HDDs), which store information on rigid, spinning disks. These are now being superseded by solid state drive (SSDs), which use flash memory like that used in smartphones and digital cameras. Because SSDs do not have any moving parts they are tougher, quieter, quicker and cooler than HDDs, but more expensive with smaller capacities.
Some laptops have hybrid drives, pairing a small SSD with a big HDD; the SSD is used to get the laptop to boot up quickly and open applications faster, while the HDD is used for storing big files that you do not need to open so often, like music and video files.
If you are buying a laptop with an HDD look for one with a capacity of at least 320GB. Most HHDs run at 5,400 revolutions per minute (RPM), but if you want to play games or edit video on your laptop, an HDD which runs at 7,200 RPM will speed things up. If you are buying a laptop with an SSD, capacities of 256-512GB are more common now, and prices are coming down. Cheaper hybrid laptops, and those designed to be really light, generally have only 32GB or 64GB SSDs.
A graphics card, or graphics processing unit (GPU), is a CPU designed specifically to create images. Most laptops do not have a dedicated GPU - they use one that is built into the CPU. These are more powerful than they have ever been, so you are unlikely to need anything more - they are fine for simple games and older games, and even newer games if you switch the visual settings to low.
If you plan on playing more complex games then you will want a laptop with a GPU. If you are really into gaming it is well worth spending a bit more on a laptop with a top-drawer CPU like the Core i7 or A10 and a powerful GPU from NVIDIA or AMD to get the best experience possible - just make sure it has a full HD display so you get the full benefit.
Form is basically the physical shape of a computer. For years there was only one form to choose from when it came to laptops - the traditional ‘clamshell’ that you will no doubt be familiar with. However, as the likes of the iPad became popular, 2-in-1 laptops emerged - hybrids with a detachable or foldaway keyboard, enabling the screen to be used as a tablet. This has also seen the introduction of laptops with touchscreens, throwing a third form into the mix.
If you are most likely to be using your laptop at home, a clamshell is likely to be the best option as they have larger screens, which makes using the likes of Windows easier and watching films and TV better. If you will be travelling a lot with your laptop, a 2-in-1 will give you the benefits of both a laptop and tablet without having to carry both. With a touchscreen you can quickly swipe through and zoom in and out of documents and photos, and browse the web more easily. They are useful if you have young children and want them to be able to use your laptop, as they find touchscreens easier to use than keyboards and touchpads.
Battery life is an important consideration if you will regularly be using your laptop while travelling. Laptops with smaller screens - 11-inch, 12-inch and 13-inch - generally have longer battery life as the screen is usually the most power-hungry component. Laptop batteries are most commonly ranked by voltage - the rate at which power is drawn from the battery - and milliampere-hours (mAh) - how much power the battery can hold; most laptops batteries will give you around six hours of normal use, but some will give you up to 20 - just bear in mind that the bigger the battery, the heavier the laptop.
If you want to be able to connect your laptop to a monitor, television set or projector, make sure it has a video graphics array (VGA) or high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) port. VGA is the traditional way of doing this, but it is being phased out in favour of HDMI, which gives you an HD connection and means you do not need a separate cable for sound, as you do with VGA. Some laptops have a VGA and an HDMI port, but most have only the latter, so look at what ports the devices you want to connect your laptop to have before buying.
Universal serial bus (USB) is the standardised connection used by electronic devices ranging from keyboards, mice and memory sticks to smartphones, digital cameras and MP3 players. If you plan to use your laptop as a desktop computer or want to sync and charge multiple devices with it, the more USB ports the better. Most laptops will have at least two, but the bigger the laptop, the more it is likely to have. It is also well worth opting for USB 3.0 ports if possible, as these transfer data 10 times faster than USB 2.0 ports provided the device plugged into them supports USB 3.0.