How to buy a laptop - buyers guide notes

chris (2005-08-08 11:04:52)
0 replies
People are always asking me for help in buying a laptop. I have put together these notes, explaining some of the key elements to look out for and what they all mean. Hopefully this will be useful to people :)


laptops are always a difficult thing to buy because there is such a wide
choice and so many different prices and then there's the technical
specifications to get your head around.. nightmare!

So here's some ideas from the technical side of things, these are the main things that you
want to think about:

Disk Drive
Usually referred to as 'HDD' (hard disk drive). This is where all your
stuff is stored - emails, office documents, photos, music, movies etc
and of course all your software and applications. Their size is always
measured in Gigabytes (or GB). To decide what size you need, you should
consider what sort of stuff you are saving on your computer. If you use
loads of images, movies and lots of music (in itunes, or as mp3s or in
your 'share' folders if you're into p2p filesharing), you should
consider getting a larger disk say 80-100 GB. If however you just want
to use your laptop for sending and receiving emails, surfing the world
wide web, writing word and excel documents and watching DVD's, then the
disk space isn't going to be so critical. I usually have 40GB and find
that's plenty. You might even be fine with 30GB, but I certainly
wouldn't go any lower than that.

Often referred to as the CPU (central processing unit). This is the bit
which actually processes all the instructions within the machine and
makes things work. It's just a chip about the size of a two pound coin,
which sits on the main board inside the computer. The speed of the chip
is measured in MHz (megahertz, or millions of cycles per second). Some
fall into the 'thousands of megahertz' category and are hence specified
in GHz (gigahertz - that's one thousand MHz). The two main chip
manufacturers are Intel and AMD. For laptops, I would recommend an
Intel processor, just because they perform better under hot conditions
(laptops do get very hot). Intel processors these days also come with
the added advantage of 'Centrino' technology. This is useful, because it
allows you to connect to wireless networks. I find that's really handy,
because I have a wireless network in my house and I can connect to the
internet anywhere in the building from my laptop without having to use
any cables. One other thing to look out for when choosing the processor
is the Pentium 'M' range. If you see Pentium M, that's a good thing. It means
that Intel have optimised the processor for 'mobile' use, so it remains cool
and doesn't go bezurk when you're watching your favourite DVD. Aim for
2GHz if you can. Don't go below 1.2 GHz.

RAM (Memory)
RAM - that's Random Accecss Memory has a direct effect on the ability of
your computer to do it's work. Whenever a program is run, that whole
program is loaded into this area of memory - any documents you have
open, any proccess that you have running - they are all loaded off the
Hard disk into memory and then handled by the CPU. The implication here
is that the less memory you have, the fewer programs and documents you
can have open before the computer keels over. If you have loads and
loads of memory, then your machine can handle loads of application
windows and documents without any performance degradation. When your
machine finally runs out of memory it starts using swap-space - that's a
bit of the hard disk which has been put aside and is used as an extra
bit of memory for when you've rum out of RAM. You can always tell when
your machine has run out of memory, because it slows down to a snail's
pace, and your HDD activity light goes mad - that's because it's
'swapping' between RAM and swap-space on disk. RAM is measured in MB
(megabytes), but sometimes is quoted in GB (Gigabytes - thousands of
MB). So how much ram do you need? The laptop I'm using right now has 1GB
of RAM. I never require any more than that. I can watch movies, use the
web, edit pictures and do all the normal stuff I want. 1GB is plenty.
You'll probably find that 500MB (or 1/2 GB) is also sufficient. It
really depends on what you can afford.

VIDEO - Graphics
Yeah, this bit gets confusing, because suddenly you find all the above
parameters being described all over again but just in a video context.
Video stuff is handled by a separate piece of hardware called the 'video
card'. This card usually has it's own RAM, it's own processor, sometimes
even its own heatsink and fan. The important thing with video is to
ensure that you have enough Memory (video RAM) to handle your DVDs and
movies. If your Video RAM is too low, you will find that it buffers to
slowly when you're watching you films and that causes jerkiness and
spoils the picture. So try to aim for as much video RAM as you can
afford. 64MB is usually okay. If you can afford more, then go for it.
One warning - some motherboards have all the video capability 'on
board', which isn't necessarily a problem, but sometimes the video
hardware borrows from your system RAM, which means that if you have 64
MB of video RAM, that might impact directly on your system RAM (to the
tune of 64 MB). I once got caught out by this and ended up with a laptop
which was significantly under-powered especially when it was processing
graphical stuff - even Flash movies killed it horribly.

Other stuff
These days a floppy drive isn't usually necessary - we have enough means
for transferring files over the internet for floppy drives to be pretty
much obsolete these days.

Most manufacturers offer a 3-year onsite warrenty. This is definitely a
good thing to get. If your computer goes wrong and you can't fix it,
you'll really wish that a nice man will just turn up and make everything
better again.

Case - is handy if you want to carry your laptop around, otherwise don't
worry about it. You might even be able to buy a second hand laptop case,
or even make one of your own.

Power supply - if you use your laptop regularly in two locations (I use
mine at home and at work), it's handy to have two power adaptors - one
at each location, so that you don't have to carry it around all the time
and also so that you don't get caught out on the days when you forget to
take the adaptor with you.

PCMCIA - this is the wide, flat-shaped slot on the side of your laptop
which is used for plugging in extra cards - most commonly this is used
for adding a network card, or a wireless card. If you have built in
wireless capability, then an extra PCMCIA slot won't be so critical. If
your laptop doesn't have built in wireless be sure that it does have a
PCMCIA slot so that you can plug a wifi card into the side.

There are loads of other things to consider such as size and weight and of
course cost, but these are the main things that I can think of for now.