Buying a laptop

Laptop

This article is now a little out of date, but still contains some hopefully useful advice about laptops.

Laptops are generally more expensive and less powerful than desktop computers. However, machines are now so powerful that unless you want to play the latest games you shouldn’t really have any problems. If you do want to play games, a laptop is not a good choice.

I guess you will use it mainly for word processing, email and web browsing. It’s important with laptops to have a good keyboard and screen, so try it out in a shop if you can. But, buying from a shop is usually much more expensive than buying over the Internet - you can often get the same model more cheaply somewhere else. The price differences can be huge (hundreds of pounds).

So, try the keyboard and screen if you can before you buy one. The “pointing device” (mouse replacement) is almost guaranteed to seem horrible when you first start using it. You do get used to these things, but it’s nice to use a mouse at home. Generally, a particular manufacturer’s keyboards and pointing devices are of similar quality across different models, so if you can’t try the one you are interested in buying, you will often be able to get an idea by trying another model by the same manufacturer.

Kinds of laptops

There are basically two kinds of laptops: highly portable ones like mine, and “desktop replacement” laptops. You have to start by deciding which kind you want.

The highly portable ones are usually very lightweight (down to 1.3Kg), small and thin, but not very powerful and don’t have many storage options. For example, my laptop has no CD-ROM drive, and even its floppy disk drive is an external add-on. There are less of these to choose from because most people buy the other kind.

Personally, I love these machines because I can take mine anywhere and not have to worry about the weight. Desktop replacement machines are generally 3Kg or more. It may not sound a lot but if you have to carry it around for a while it starts to feel quite heavy. The more modern ones are starting to get down to around 2Kg and still have decent battery life.

Desktop replacement laptops are usually much heavier, have larger screens and keyboards, and run for slightly longer on batteries. The main advantages are: being larger they are easier to use at home and they have more storage options. For example, they almost always have a CD-ROM drive, and many now can play DVDs as well. There is sometimes a floppy disk drive but nowadays it is often an external add-on. You won’t often need it, so that’t not a problem for most people.

But if you are thinking of a desktop replacement, why not just a desktop machine? It’s a question of portability: do you need to be able to move it around, and if so, how easily? Do you need to work on the move, and if so, how often and for how long? Desktop machines are much easier and cheaper to expand with extra devices.

Expansion ports

If you are buying a laptop, there is a limit to how many expansion ports they can fit into the box. Unfortunately this has led to a lot of creativity on the part of laptop manufacturers. Here are some of the options.

External keyboard and/or mouse

Keyboards are often OK, but usually the pointing device is not as good as a good old-fashioned mouse. You can connect a mouse with “serial”, “PS/2” and “USB” ports (make sure you get a mouse of the right kind), and a keyboard with “PS/2” and “USB”. USB is more expensive, but mice only cost 10 pounds anyway.

External monitor

Most laptops have a “VGA” port that you can plug your monitor into. Some have TV outputs as well, but this is only good for watching DVDs. Some laptops only have a special port for which you need an adapter. Watch out because these can be expensive to buy.

Printer

Printers can attach to “parallel” and “USB” ports (make sure you get the right kind of printer). Also make sure you have enough ports if you are plugging in multiple devices (e.g. a USB mouse and printer need 2 USB ports). For USB you can buy a “USB hub” which gives you more USB ports.

Other ports

There are also “PCMCIA”/”PC-Card”/”CardBus” ports which can accept a wide variety of add-on cards. You almost always get one or two of these in a laptop. Forget about “Infrared”/”IR” ports - they are cool but useless. “FireWire” is not very useful at the moment but it will be in the future. “Ethernet” is only useful if you want to connect your laptop to an existing network (not the internet - you normally use a modem for that).

Screen size

There are two issues with screens: size and resolution. Size is how big it is. This is usually measured diagonally across the screen, and is often in inches (in the UK anyway). Bigger is always better but big laptop screens have more defects which show up as permanently coloured dots. These can be annoying, especially if you have a lot of them.

Resolution is how many little dots (“pixels”) there are on the screen. It is measured across X down (e.g. 800 X 600). More is better but if you have a small high resolution screen it can get a bit hard to read. Most laptops now have at least 1024 X 768, which is pretty good. The lowest are 800 X 600, which is a bit low but usable for most things.

The smallest screens are about 10in diagonal, which is a bit small. The largest are over 15in, which is pretty big - something like a reasonable-sized portable television.

Modem

Almost all laptops now have modems built in. This is good because it means you can use the internet anywhere you can get a phone socket. Avoid a laptop without one unless you are really getting a good deal on it.

Network

Many laptops now have Ethernet network sockets built in. These are handy if you’re planning to use your laptop at work or with broadband Internet connections (though your broadband modem will not necessarily operate over Ethernet).

Software

By itself, any computer is just a lump of plastic with lights on it. You need software to get it to do anything useful. It can be expensive to buy, so look out for what you are getting included in the price.

All laptops come with some preloaded software. You usually get some flavour of Microsoft Windows. There are loads of different versions of this now. Nowadays you don’t normally have to worry about this.

It will have a web browser included. It is good to have a word processor, and most do. You also need an email program, but you can sometimes get that for signing up with an internet service provider (ISP) like Freeserve for an Internet account.

Anything else is determined by what you need your laptop for.

A really nice alternative are MacOSX laptops from Apple. This is not very compatible with Windows at all, but it is in many ways much nicer to use.

Battery life

If you need to use it on the move, battery life is important. Every manufacturer swears their laptops last at least 2 hours on batteries, but in many case they’re being hopelessly optimistic. Actually this is a situation that has improved a lot over the last couple of years, but it has come at the cost of more weight in the average laptop. The best way to find out is to read reviews in magazines or on the internet, or get recommendations from people who already own the one you are interested in.

All laptops have built-in rechargeable batteries. Many offer the option to add an extra or larger battery, which usually doubles the operating time. This option is starting to become rarer as the technology slowly improves to allows greater battery life.

You need to take care of laptop batteries because they degrade in normal use and they are expensive to replace. The manual that comes with it should describe how to keep the batteries in top condition. Like me, you might find that you can’t get spare batteries once the old ones wear out because the manufacturer simply stops making them. This is the component most likely to wear out first, and you should expect to get maybe 2 years of charge-discharge use out of batteries before they start to degrade significantly.

Memory

These days you need at least 128Mb. 256Mb is good and is really the minimum size to go for. Any more is probably unnecessary, but more is always better and it is quite cheap these days. There is usually a socket to add more memory yourself, but it is not really the job for a beginner and most manufacturers or suppliers will fit it for you and save you the trouble. Often you can’t upgrade it twice without losing the first upgrade.

Memory size is not to be confused with hard disk size. Hard disk size is related to the amount of data your laptop can store. Memory size is related to the amount of data you can work on at any time. You can always store more than you can work on.

Hard disk

Don’t worry about it. Disks are huge these days. You are unlikely to fill it up. Unless you are getting under 20Gb, I wouldn’t pay more for a larger hard disk.

Confusingly, some salespeople and manufacturers refer to hard disk as “memory” as well. The way to tell is to look at the size: 128Mb is 128 Megabytes (roughly 128 million bytes), 6Gb is 6 Gigabytes (roughly 6 billion bytes). Hard disks are always in Gigabytes these days, and memory is currently still in Megabytes.

Manufacturer

Most machines are pretty reliable but there can be big differences in the amount of support you get and for how long. Will they still care about you and your laptop after they’ve taken your money? Probably not actually, but some are better than others. “Big name” manufacturers like Compaq, Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, etc generally offer better support but cost more.

You might feel more comfortable buying from a local shop, where you can easily take it back if it breaks. To be honest, this is one of those things that’s nice in principle, but doesn’t seem to work too well in practice. Often, the people in the shop can’t help you that much - if they really knew a lot about computers they wouldn’t be working in a shop.

There are some exceptions though. To spot a person who really knows what they’re talking about, look for someone that can explain what is going on with a computer in terms you can understand. A person who doesn’t really understand much usually can’t explain clearly. A person who understand a lot can sometimes explain clearly, if you are lucky. I know - it’s depressing.

Build quality

This another thing that you need to assess by looking at one in the shop. If you will use it only at home it doesn’t matter so much, but if you will use your laptop on the move it needs to be tough - the tougher the better.

Particularly look for the screen - it should be as rigid as possible. Gently move the corner of the screen and see how much it flexes. Be gentle, because poor quality ones can break fairly easily when you do this!

Price

In the UK, you should expect to pay at least 700 pounds. The typical price is about 1500, but you can get some good deals on laptops sometimes. I got mine for 800 and it is a nice machine. Also, my sister’s was 850, has a built-in DVD/CD-ROM drive and they are both very lightweight ones. I now have an Apple Powerbook 12” which is a great little machine - just a touch on the heavy side at 2.2Kg, but reasonably priced at around £1300.