Smartphones and tablets are becoming ever more popular but laptops remain the best tool for serious work or play, especially when travelling.
Nowadays there’s such a huge and bewildering range available – standard laptops, notebooks, ultrabooks, chromebooks and so on that it can be hard to know where to start or how to choose a laptop.
Fear not though, because here at TechEffect we’ve put together a definitive buying guide for you.
What Laptop Should I Buy?
To begin at the beginning, here’s a list of things you need to consider to make sure you choose the right one. Don’t worry if the list seems daunting or you don’t understand some of the terminology; we’ll explain it all below.
- The Operating System – Windows, Apple OS X or Chrome OS
- The Size
- The Form Factor
- The Specifications – CPU, RAM, Hard Drive, Display, Graphics Card
- Battery Life
- Your Budget
The Operating System
Most new Windows laptops now come with Windows 8.1 or later.
If you’re used to older versions of Windows then this version will be a shock to you as Windows has been completely re-designed to be touch screen friendly.
Apple OS X
Apple’s Macbook Pro and Macbook Air use Apple’s own operating system OS X. Macbooks are very high quality in terms of both artistic design and build quality but that quality comes at a price.
Macbooks tend to be significantly more expensive than Windows and especially Chrome OS laptops.
Google’s Chrome OS is the simplest and most secure operating system. It’s installed on Chromebooks and looks a lot like Windows.
In effect, a lot of the “apps” you’ll be using are shortcuts to web tools.
The downside of Chrome OS is that there very few offline applications, but if you just need a cheap laptop for web browsing, social media networking and so on then Chromebooks are a cheap and lightweight option with very good battery life.
Laptops are usually categorized by their screen size:
11 – 12 Inches
These are the smallest and lightest laptops and usually weigh around 2 – 3 pounds. Obviously the smaller the laptop, the smaller the screen and keyboard.
13 – 14 Inches
These usually weigh somewhere between 3 and 4 pounds and provide decent sized screens and keyboards while still sitting comfortably on your lap. These are often the best compromise between usability and portability.
This is the most popular screen size. They can be quite cumbersome and not the lightest but if you don’t need your laptop to be too mobile then they’re a good option and can often be the cheapest option.
Because of their size these can house more powerful CPUs and game cards, so if you need a big beast of a machine then these are your best option provided you’re not planning on lugging your laptop around with you too much. This size of laptop is best sat on a desk at home.
Laptop Form Factor
Nowadays laptops come in a variety of different forms – netbooks, ultrabooks, notebooks and hybrids.
These are aimed at providing a small device to buyers on a budget. They are very lightweight with good battery life making them ideal for travel, but tend to only be powerful enough for casual usage.
These are a step up from netbooks in nearly every way. They have bigger screens and better performance while being nearly as lightweight and also have good battery life. The step up does come at a cost though making ultrabooks slightly more expensive than netbooks.
The terms laptop and notebook are generally used interchangeably, and notebooks are what we usually think of when we hear the word laptop. They are bigger and clunkier than netbooks and ultrabooks making them less suitable for travel, but they do provide significantly more computing power.
Also known as 2-in-1 devices, these aim to provide the dual functionality of both laptops and tablets. They do this by either having a screen that detaches from the keyboard or a convertible approach whereby the screen is hinged and can be rotated. In terms of build quality, size and lightness they are similar to ultrabooks and tend to be found in the same price range.
The CPU is the engine behind your laptop – the better the CPU, the better your laptop will perform.
The cheaper laptops tend to have AMD E or Intel Pentium processors which are fine for light tasks such as web browsing but can’t handle more intensive tasks.
More expensive hybrids often have the Intel Core M processor which is decent but not as quick as Intel’s Core series (i3, i5 and i7 processors) found in the most powerful (and expensive) laptops. Power users and gamers will need an i7 processor.
RAM is the memory in which the programs or applications (and their data) you run on your laptop are stored while they are running. RAM size is measured in gigabytes (GB).
Even the cheapest of laptops have 4 GB of memory these days. 6 – 8 GB is preferable for multi-tasking (running multiple programs or applications) at the same time, while gamers and power users will need 16 GB.
The hard disk drive is where your programs and data (e.g. your music files, videos and photos) are stored permanently.
Nowadays most laptops come with plenty of disk space and you need to look at the speed rather than the size. Disk speed is measured in RPM and the slower ones are 5,400 RPM. If you can afford to you should aim for a faster 7,600 RPM disk as this will increase the performance of your laptop.
Some newer laptops feature solid state drives (SSD) which don’t have mechanical moving parts. If you get a laptop with one of these, you’ll enjoy much faster start up times and better overall performance, especially application opening times. In addition, because they don’t have moving parts SSD drives are much more reliable than older hard drives. They are significantly more expensive though so, as ever, there is a trade off between your requirements and your budget.
The display quality is measured in pixels – basically dots on the screen. The more pixels the more you can fit on the screen and the better quality images you will see.
Budget laptops usually come with 1,366 x 768 pixel resolutions while more expensive ones will come with 1,600 x 900 or even 1,920 x 1,080 (which is full HD quality). In general, you should go for the best quality display you can afford, especially if you’re going to be watching movies or TV.
Windows 8.1 is designed around touch screens and a lot of laptops do come with touch screens now, though you will pay a premium for having one in a normal laptop as opposed to a netbook or hybrid.
Laptops can come with either an integrated graphics card (i.e. it shares the general system RAM) or with their own dedicated (also known as “discrete”) graphics card.
Integrated cards are fine for general everyday use such as using Microsoft Office or browsing the internet but a dedicated graphics card will provide better performance for graphics-intensive operations such as gaming.
As with CPUs there are a range of different graphics cards available and as always you get what you pay for.
If you’re planning on using your laptop on the go then the battery life will be an important factor to take into consideration when deciding which laptop to buy.
So you’re planning on buying a new laptop and you’ll probably have a budget in mind. Unless you’re in the lucky position of having a very large budget you’ll probably have to make some compromises on the specifications of your laptop. At least now you know what factors to consider when trying to decide what laptop you should buy.
It’s recommended you sit down and plan how you’re going to use your laptop then you can make good decisions about where to compromise. Here are some guidelines for you:
- If you just want a laptop for web browsing and light usage then you can compromise on the CPU, memory and graphics card.
- If you’re going to be watching movies, you’ll want the best display you can afford and also sufficient CPU power to play HD films.
- If you want to be using Office applications and multi-tasking then you’ll need a reasonably powerful CPU and plenty of RAM.
- If you want to be playing modern games, then you’ll need a high-spec powerful laptop with an i7 processor, plenty of RAM and probably with a discrete graphics card. A good tip is that games will describe the minimum specification machine they need to run so if you know what games you’ll want to play you can check them and see what spec of laptop you’ll need.
- If you want to travel and carry your laptop around with you a lot and work on the go, then you’re probably best looking at lightweight, smaller form factor laptops.