A Buyer's Guide For Laptops
In the market for a new laptop, but confused as to where to start? We are here to help!
NOTICE: This article was produced in 2016 and some of the information may be out-of-date now. However a lot of the same principles still apply today
Technical jargon, flashy promotions and an overwhelming amount of choice can leave you more confused than informed when browsing the market for a new laptop. Knowledge of each component of a laptop helps you better understand what they do, why you need them and what you should be looking for when purchasing.
This article has been written in regards to Microsoft Windows laptops, though the information regarding the components is applicable to Apple Macs and Google Chromebooks.
What will you use it for?
The most important question, and the one to which the answer should remain prominent in your mind throughout the buying process, is ‘what will I use this laptop for?’. It is easy to be attracted to the marketing messages that manufacturers feed us, but it can often lead to overspending on specifications and features that aren’t entirely necessary. It can however go the other way and, in an attempt to save money, you can end up with a machine that under delivers on performance.
The most important component in a laptop is its central processing unit (CPU). The CPU determines the speed at which operations can be processed.
AMD or Intel
There are two main manufacturers of processors: AMD and Intel. It is hard to say which is better, but a good way of thinking about it is; AMD is cheaper, but Intel is generally held in higher esteem with industry experts.
The following table represents Intel Processors against their AMD Equivalents in order of performance quality;
|Core i7||FX Series|
Though these comparisons are based on closest equivalents, they don’t always match in performance. There are many different benchmarks for CPUs in these series and you will probably have to do some internet research on each specific processor to see how it performs. You can see a full list of laptop CPU rankings here.
Along with the CPUs in the table above, Intel and AMD both offer a range smaller processors designed for use in phones, tablets and smaller laptops. Intel have their Atom and M range, whereas AMD have their Micro range. These processors are designed to be low heat, meaning they do not require a heat sync or fan. This allows manufactures to design their devices to be more compact.
You should be wary buying a laptop with a mobile processor as it will probably underperform.
A good measure of how quick a CPU can perform is the clock speed. Clock speed represents the clock cycles per second and is measured in Hertz. A 3 GHz CPU performs 3,000,000,000 clock cycles per second.
The higher the clock speed, the faster the CPU can perform.
What to Choose?
It is advisable to invest in at least an Intel Core i3 or AMD A8; anything below this grade will probably struggle to perform functions at the speed you are working at.
If your laptop is at the heart of your working life then you should seriously consider getting at least an Intel i5 or AMD A10 as there is a significant gain in performance, speed and life longevity over an i3 or A8.
If you are looking for a truly top of the range device, an Intel Core i7 or AMD FX processor is for you. Top of the range processors are an absolute pleasure to use, but you will have to pay the price, as they tend to start from around £700.
It is important to remember that the better the processor, the longer the life of the machine. Software developers are continuously updating and improving their products, making them increasingly demanding on the hardware. Spending more today can be economical in the long run.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is ‘live’ memory; any function the laptop is performing will be loaded from the storage device and onto the RAM. It therefore represents multi-tasking functionality; the more RAM you have, the more functions can be performed at once without slowing down the speed of the machine.
The majority of laptops these days will come with 4GB of RAM as minimum. Anything less than 4GB and you will find that your laptop slowing down, as processes have to wait for available space on the active memory. As RAM is relatively cheap these days, it is worth investing in a laptop with at least 8GB. 16GB is probably overkill for most users.
It is worth remembering that software is becoming increasingly ‘RAM hungry’. Applications such as Google Chrome or Microsoft Office are requiring more and more memory to perform at optimum speed with every update.
These days you have 3 choices when it comes to data storage; a hard disk drive (HDD), a solid-state drive (SSD) or a hybrid drive.
A HDD is the most common storage device. They work by reading and writing from an enclosed spinning disk, whereas SSDs are a newer design that utilize flash storage with no moving parts.
An SSD provides a number of benefits over a traditional HDD.
An SSD doesn’t rely on a spinning disk, so it can read and write data much faster. This means the laptop boots up almost instantly. It also means applications and files load much faster.
As SSDs don’t have moving parts, unlike HDDs, they aren’t at great risk if your laptop takes a knock.
SSDs also boast a lifespan of up to 2 Petabytes of reading and writing, that’s 2000 TB or 2,000,000 GB. That means you would have to produce over 500GB of data a day for 10 years before you are in danger of burning it out.
Due to the nature of HDD storage, eventually software and files get fragmented on the disk. Meaning a single file could be saved across many sectors of the drive. This is the reason laptops slow down over time. SSDs have a much more organised filing system so fragmentation does not occur.
SSD or HDD?
SSDs are becoming the storage option of choice, but they do add a lot to the price of a laptop. So, if you’re looking for a cheaper solution, a traditional HDD is probably a better for you.
The alternative is a hybrid solution; this will provide you with the fast boot up speeds and a saving on price. This can be delivered it two ways; either you have 2 physical drives, 1 being a small SSD and the other being a HDD, or you have a hybrid drive. A hybrid drive is like a standard HDD with a flash ‘cache’ drive, which enables core operations to run on the flash memory.
Most laptop screen sizes range between 13” and 17.3” diagonally, with 15.6” being the most common. When choosing a laptop screen size, you need to balance portability and functionality. A 13” laptop will be easy to travel with, but may be too small if you are using it as your main business machine.
These days there is also the option of getting a touchscreen laptop. Touchscreens can be very useful if you often use your device for presenting, as they provide the ability to present in a much more fluid, natural way. Being able to swipe and click without use of the mouse and keyboard streamlines some operations, such as flicking through a photo album or clicking a link. Keep in mind though that if you break the screen it will be much more expensive to replace than a standard LCD display!
If you are not using your laptop for gaming or high end graphic or video curating, then a dedicated graphics processing unit (GPU) is probably not required. If you feel you need one, check the laptop specifications to see if it has dedicated graphics. You may want to do a little bit of internet research regarding the GPU provided and how it performs with the software you want to run on it.
It is becoming increasingly more common that laptops are being designed and sold without internal CD drives, due to most software companies choosing digital downloads as a method of delivery. If a CD drive is a must for you, make sure you check the specifications of the machine to ensure it comes with one. Alternatively, you could buy an external USB CD drive and use it as and when you need.
USB connections are used in almost every bit of tech nowadays. What you may not be aware of is that USB 3.0 transfers data at 625MB/s, 10x faster than USB 2.0. Even though the connector looks similar, you can tell the difference by the colour of the tip; USB 3.0 will have a blue tip.
The most common types of video output are VGA, HDMI, Mini HDMI and Display Port. If you often plug your laptop into an external display, check what inputs the display can take and buy a laptop with that connection. You will find that most displays can now take HDMI and most laptops will come with an HDMI port.
If you are using your laptop as a business machine, it is likely you would need to consider docking functionality. Docking your laptop allows it to perform like a standard desktop, letting you use a monitor display as well as a full-sized mouse and keyboard.
Some manufacturers like Dell and HP have specific docking connections on their laptops with partnering docks. If you already have a docking station on your desk, you may want to purchase a laptop that will fit it. Alternatively, If the laptop you are looking to purchase does not come with a docking connection, you can buy a USB station.
If you use your laptop to upload pictures or other files from an SD card from your camera or smartphone, you may want to get a machine with a built-in SD card reader. However, you can purchase low-cost external USB SD card readers.
Windows 10 (W10) is the new standard. W10 boasts a fully customizable start menu, improved security with the new Windows Defender and a host of new features such as the Cortana personal assistant.
You will notice that there are several types of Windows operating software to choose from, namely Windows Home, Windows Pro and Windows Enterprise. The main difference you need to be aware of is that Windows Pro and Enterprise will allow you to contact to a business server (the domain). You can see a full breakdown of Windows editions and their features here.
Lynx Can Help!
If you have any questions regarding your next laptop purchase, then please speak to us here at Lynx. We offer a whole range of IT services that you can read about here.
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