Laptop buying guide
Picking out a new laptop is no easy feat – even computer savvy sorts can be slightly befuddled by the stacks of choice on offer, with a variety of sizes, specifications, and features to choose from. Whether you’re looking for an affordable machine for the family, a workhorse for professional use, or a high-powered laptop capable of handling the latest games, our jargon-free guide can help point you in the right direction.
Why a laptop?
Despite their slim, compact designs, today’s laptops can be just as powerful as regular desktop computers – and in some cases even more so. While they’re still the obvious choice for working on the go, many users now opt for a laptop as their primary household computer. They give you the versatility to move from room to room, allowing you to work, browse, or be entertained wherever you want. All the big names in computing produce laptops, from Dell and HP, to Acer and Lenovo.
Windows or Mac OS?
The operating system handles all your hardware and software, from programs and applications, to images and documents. The first decision you’ll need to make is whether you want to use Windows or Mac OS – the two most prominent operating systems available today.
Windows: Microsoft’s Windows is the most popular operating system out there, and anyone who’s used a computer before is likely to be familiar with it. There’s a variety of different editions available, with some more suitable for home or professional use. It offers lots of customisation, and is compatible with most hardware, software, and external devices.
Mac OS: Apple’s Mac OS operating system is part of the reason why Apple computers are so desirable. Intuitive and extremely easy to use, it’s a solid system and far less vulnerable to viruses than Windows. Unfortunately it’s only available on pricey Apple computers, and in comparison to the hundreds of Windows laptops out there, there aren’t that many to choose from. If you’re overwhelmed by too much choice however, then that may not be a bad thing.
All those numbers and capitalized acronyms can be quite intimidating if you’re not familiar with the techie stuff, but they’re quite easy to interpret once you know what they are.
Here are the most important ones to consider when buying a laptop:
Screen size: Devices come with a variety of different screen sizes, typically between 11 and 17 inches. The screen size ultimately dictates the overall size of the laptop including its keyboard, so it’s an important decision to get right. Consider what you’ll be using it for. If it’s primarily for working on the go, you’ll want to prioritize portability, while if it’s mainly for multimedia at home, then you’ll want something with a larger screen. The average laptop size however is around 15 inches, which offers the best of both worlds for work or play.
Processor speed: There’s a variety of different processor types, but it’s their speed and the number of cores (consider each core to be an extra processor) that determines your computer’s performance. As a general rule of thumb, the higher the processor speed number and the more cores, the better the computer will perform. Prefer more cores over slightly higher speeds, however. It is better, for example, to have a quad-core processor running at 2.2 Ghz than a duo-core running at 2.5 Ghz.
RAM: Short for Random Access Memory, a computer’s RAM is a major part of how well it handles tasks and at what speed, to put things simply. Therefore, the more RAM the merrier. If you are running Windows 7 or above, consider 4GB to be the strict minimum, and aim for 6 or 8 GB instead. If you use your computer for complicated professional programs or high-spec games, then opt for 12GB and above instead.
HDD size: HDD stands for Hard Disk Drive, more commonly referred to as a 'hard drive'. The hard drive is one of the most important components of any computer, since it stores all your personal data (such as documents, pictures, films, and music) as well as your programs. Therefore the more gigabytes a laptop has, the more you’ll be able to store on it. Around 300 GB is plenty of storage for most people, but if you’ve got a vast film and music library, then it might be worth considering a larger hard drive of 500 GB or more. A good way to gauge how much you’ll need is to check how many gigabytes you’ve used on your current computer. Beware that no matter how confident you feel about your storage capabilities now, you will run out of space at some point. There is no such thing as too much storage on a computer.
External hard drives are also available. These are useful for storing seldom used files, transferring data, or creating back-ups – so you’ll be able to restore your data if your laptop gets lost, stolen, or broken.
Graphics card: The graphics card in a laptop is responsible for image quality on screen. Most are equipped with an integrated graphics processing unit (GPU), which utilizes the computer’s RAM. While these are capable of handling most tasks, those who use their laptop for professional graphic design work or high-end gaming should consider a dedicated graphics card instead. Dedicated graphics cards have their own source of memory, meaning they won’t hog your computer’s RAM and slow it down in the process. RAM on these dedicated graphics cards is much faster than regular RAM (DDR 5, as opposed to DDR 3 or 4 at best), and they also sport their own processor, meaning your laptop's processor is free to deal with other tasks.