Laptops explained: Everything you need to know

| Buying Guides | Laptops | 02/11/2011 12:46pm
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Choosing a laptop that suits your needs is more than simply getting the right specification for the right price. Unlike a desktop PC, you can’t easily add a new screen or keyboard, so it’s best to choose a good one from the start. If you get the chance, go to a superstore and physically test out the machines on offer. What makes a good laptop? It’s the combination of quality components and a well thought out design. Here are a few things you need to consider…

External Components

While a large part of buying a new laptop involves comparing internal components such as the processor and memory, you should also consider important factors such as build quality and usability. We thoroughly test our laptops to ensure they’re solidly built and don’t have any annoying quirks, but you should always try out a laptop in a store if possible, to ensure it feels right for you.

Keyboard

The keys on a laptop aren’t as big as those on a desktop PC and, depending on the size of the laptop, you may find the keyboard feels cramped. Keys should be well spaced and solidly mounted. If they rattle when you type, this is a sign of a poor keyboard.

Pointing Stick

There are different styles of keyboard, such as the popular isolation-style, where each key is cut individually through a hole in the chassis. This is our preferred style as we feel it gives you more space when typing. Other features to look out for are hotkeys – single-use keys around the main keyboard that allow you to launch your favourite software applications or control features such as brightness or volume. On some laptops, you might find the keyboard comes with a backlight that helps when working (or gaming) in the dark.

Touchpad

Laptops use a touchpad instead of a mouse, which is a touch-sensitive oblong strip in front of the keyboard. Some laptops also use a Pointing Stick, which is a rubber dial set into the keyboard, and a few modern laptops have touchscreen functionality.

Laptop touchpad

There are a few things to look our for when testing a touchpad. Firstly, that the cursor doesn’t skip around or jump when you drag your finger across the surface and, secondly, that the surface of the touchpad itself is comfortable to use and is the right size that you can use it but won’t inadvertantly brush it while typing. Some laptop models have a dedicated button next to the touchpad which will turn it on and off to avoid that very problem.

Screen

This needs to be large enough for you to use comfortably, but, if weight is an issue then a larger screen will obviously not work for you. If you are specifically looking to watch DVDs, edit video and use your machine for visual multimedia, opt for a Super-TFT screen – this is a glossy coating that gives the screen a better contrast and richer colours.

Laptop screen

Traditionally, the size of a laptop is measured by its screen diameter - you will most commonly hear a laptop described as a 15.6-inch model, which is the standard size. You also have a choice of smaller screens at 13.3-inches or larger screens at 17.3 inches across.

Ports

Laptops come with a wide variety of ports for attaching peripherals such as mice and external hard drives, as well as hooking up external displays or connecting to a local network. The most common laptop ports are shown in the diagrams below.

Laptop ports

Laptop ports

Internal Components


The inside of a laptop is made up of different components, each working together to run a program, load a web page or play a game. You’ll need a basic idea of what each one is in order to choose the right one for you.

Hard Drive

This is a disk that physically holds all your files and applications. Capacity is measured in Gigabytes (GB) and Terabytes (TB), with 1TB equal to 1000GB, and the larger the capacity the more you can store. As a rough guide, 250GB is enough space for over 60,000 songs or high-res photos, although remember that your Operating System and applications will take up a considerable amount of space too.

Laptop hard drive

Back in the old days of buying a laptop, the size of the hard drive space was a key buying decision, nowadays it’s much less important. In plenty of electronics shops, you can buy external hard drives relatively cheaply. These will significantly boost your storage space and plug in via USB like any other peripheral.

Processor

This is the brain of the computer, which runs your programs and is capable of performing millions of calculations a second. You don’t necessarily have to have the fastest chip, but getting the latest technology means you’ll be able to run software faster.

Laptop Intel Core i7 processor

The two big names in processors are Intel and AMD, chances are your laptop’s processor will be made by one of these two companies. Always check the processor on your potential purchase and make sure you’re getting the most advanced model for your money. This will benefit you in the future.

Memory

The second most important thing to look at after the processor is the memory, sometimes called RAM – for Random Access Memory. Accessing the hard drive is a rather slow process, so when the CPU needs to access data more quickly, the data is temporarily stored in fast-access volatile memory. The more memory your laptop has, the faster it can run. Realistically, we think you should aim for a minimum of 4GB of RAM, but we understand that budget can sometimes restrict this.

Laptop memory

There is always the option to extend the RAM further down the line by buying more and adding it to your laptop. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this then plenty of electronics shops offer this service. However, we would certainly suggest trying to get as much as you can for your money in the first place. If it is a trade-off between memory and hard drive space, always go for the extra memory.

Graphics

There are two types of laptop graphics available – integrated and dedicated – and getting the right one when you buy your laptop is vital. Integrated is the cheapest and is intended for running basic functions, so if you want to play games or run multimedia applications you’ll need a dedicated graphics card.

Laptop graphics card GPU

Even if you don’t play games, having a dedicated graphics card can be a good investment. It takes some of the grunt work involved in processing graphics away from the processor. So if you’re watching video, browsing a particularly graphical website or doing a spot of editing, the GPU will allow your computer to run faster. A word of warning though, a dedicated graphics card is likely to push the price of a laptop up quite heavily.


Posted on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 at 12:46 pm under Buying Guides, Laptops. You can subscribe to comments. You can leave a comment, or trackback from your own site.

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