Looking to purchase a new laptop? Here are some of the questions to ask before making your decision.
Laptop screens range from 8-inch on ultra-portable netbooks up to the very large 19-inch, with around 15.6 inches being standard (the screens are always measured diagonally in inches).
Before you decide anything else, you need to figure out just how portable you need your laptop to be. Laptops are usually categorized by their display sizes:
- 11 to 12 inches: The thinnest and lightest systems around have 11 to 12 inch screens and typically weigh 2.5 to 3.5 pounds. However, at this size, the screen and keyboard will be a bit too cramped for some users.
- 13 to 14-inches: Provides the best balance of portability and usability. Laptops with 13 or 14-inch screens usually weigh between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds and fit easily on your lap while still providing generously-sized keyboards and screens. Shoot for a system with a total weight under 4 pounds if possible. If you’re willing to pay a premium, you can also find extremely lightweight systems with these screen sizes, including the 2.6-pound Dell XPS 13 and 2.9-pound, 14-inch Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon.
- 15 inches: The most popular size, 15-inch laptops are usually quite bulky and heavy at 5 to 6.5 pounds, but also cost the least. If you’re not planning to carry your notebook around often or use it on your lap, a 15-inch system could be a good deal for you. Some 15-inch models have DVD drives, but you’ll save weight if you skip it.
- 17 to 18 inches:If your laptop stays on your desk all day every day, a 17 or 18-inch system could provide you with the kind of processing power you need to play high-end games or do workstation-level productivity. Because of their girth, laptops this size can pack in high-voltage quad-core CPUs, power-hungry graphics chips and multiple storage drives. Just don’t think about carrying these 7+ pound systems anywhere.
Most laptops these days come with glossy screens, but if you’re planning to use yours outdoors, a matte screen will be a lot less reflective and so easier on the eyes, especially when the sun is shining.
What you choose is going to depend on whether you’re going to be carrying it around a lot. A laptop with a 15.6-inch screen will weigh between 2 and 3kg (4.4 to 6.6lb). Unfortunately, the very lightest laptops come at a substantial cost.
The life of some laptop batteries is only about two to three hours before they have to be recharged. If you’re going to be mainly using your laptop while on the move, laptops with the latest Intel Core processors can have longer than 10-15 hours battery life. The Apple MacBook Air (13-inch) has an all-day battery life, and is super-light thanks to its flash storage and aluminium casing. It also has a fast Intel Core processor.
Bear in mind that battery life does tend to deteriorate with age.
The operating system you can use will depend on the type of laptop you have. For PC laptops, the most popular operating system for home use is currently Windows 8.1 64bit. Other operating systems are Apple OS X (which can be used only on Apple Macs) and Linux (which is found mainly on PCs). Some people prefer these for specific purposes, but because fewer people use them, it might be more difficult to find compatible software and, more importantly, to find someone to help you if something goes wrong. However, because fewer people use them, they’re far less prone to attack by computer viruses than Windows.
- Windows 8.1
Windows notebooks are generally more affordable than Macs and offer a much wider range of design choices from more than a dozen major vendors. Unlike Apple, Microsoft and its partners allow users to buy notebooks with touch screens, as well as convertible designs that let you easily transform from notebook to tablet mode.
Some Windows notebooks provide business-friendly features, such as biometric and smartcard verification and Intel vPro systems management.
School, college, work or home – you’ve likely used a Windows laptop or PC. It’s familiar and easy to use whether web browsing or using Word, and works on laptops from numerous manufacturers. Windows 10 is designed to work on your laptop external link, tablet and phone, and also brings back the Start menu.
- Apple OS X Yosemite
Apple’s MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros offer an easy-to-use operating system in OS X Yosemite. In fact, some may find OS X easier to navigate than the newer and bolder Windows 8.1. MacBooks offer iOS-like features such as Launch Pad for your apps, superior multitouch gestures, and the ability to take calls from your iPhone.
MacBook Airs and MacBook Pros also tend to outclass most Windows machines when it comes to industrial design and the touchpad. While Windows PCs offer more software choices, Apple makes it easier to find and install programs with the Mac App Store.
This only runs on Apple laptops and desktop computers. Its intuitive design is easy to use and work your way around. Other Apple devices such as iPhones and iPads can be synced for sharing calendars, music and video. Apple Macs are loved by creative professionals, but also make great family computers.
Linux is typically not fussy about hardware, is one of its most endearing advantages. Some hardware, however, still doesn’t work well with Linux, due primarily to a historical lack of the right drivers.
In nowadays, Linux user has more laptop choices today than ever before.
- Chrome OS
Found on inexpensive, lightweight laptops such as the 11.6-inch Acer C720 and HP Chromebook 14, Google’s Chrome OS is the simplest and most secure platform around, but can also feel a bit limited. The user interface looks a lot like traditional Windows with an application menu, a desktop and the ability to drag windows around. The main type window you’ll be using is the Chrome browser and most “applications” are simply shortcuts to web tools.
Because it’s mainly a browser, Chrome OS is unlikely to get infected with malware or viruses and, if you’ve ever surfed the web on another computer, you’ll be right at home with the platform’s look and feel. The downside is that there are few off-line apps and those that exist don’t always work well. However, if you need a device for surfing the web, checking email, social networking and doing on-line chats, Chromebooks are inexpensive, highly-portable and last a long time on a charge.
An operating system built around Google’s on-line services. It runs on lightweight Chromebook laptops. You work in on-line apps for word processing and creating spreadsheets, and save your files to Google’s on-line storage service.
If you don’t want to be tied to using the laptop close to a telephone socket, you’ll need to connect it to the internet wirelessly. All modern laptops are capable of doing this, but you’ll need a wireless router, which some internet service providers now provide as standard.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The mouse buttons should provide a satisfying click and note feel mushy. You should be able to zoom in and out with ease, as well as select text with the touchpad without the cursor skipping around. If you’re shopping for a Windows 8 notebook, test the touchpad to make sure that gestures don’t activate accidentally as you get close to the edges.
Laptops come with a touchpad installed in front of the keyboard. By moving your finger across this, you can move the cursor (pointer) on the screen. If you prefer to use a separate mouse, make sure you buy one with a USB connector that you can pop in one of the USB ports in the laptop. Some laptops have the facility to switch off the touchpad when the latter isn’t in use. This is helpful if you have a tendency to tap it by mistake.
RAM (random access memory) is also measured in gigabytes. At least 2Gb is recommended for the latest operating systems, which, to work efficiently, need more memory than previous versions. The speed of the laptop will depend a lot on the amount of RAM it has.
When it comes to memory, or RAM, even the cheapest notebooks have 4GB these days so don’t settle for less. If you can get a system with 6 or 8GB, you’ll be better prepared for high-end applications and lots of multitasking. Gamers and power users should look for 16GB of RAM.
The hard drive is the area of the laptop where all your files, folders, pictures and videos will be stored. Its size is measured in gigabytes (Gb). A standard laptop will probably have a capacity of between 320 and 1000Gb.
For most users, a fast drive is more important than a large one. If you have a choice, go for a 7,200-rpm hard drive over a 5,400-rpm unit. Even if you have several movies and games on your hard drive, a 320GB should provide more than enough space, but 500GB or 750GB drives usually don’t cost much more.
Any Ultrabook and some other notebooks come with 8, 16 or 32GB flash caches you can use to increase performance. While not as fast as an SSD, a Flash cache will help boost load and boot times while allowing you to store all your data on a large hard drive.
Solid State Drives (SSDs)
These drives cost quite a bit more than traditional hard drives and come with less capacity (usually 128 to 256GB), but they dramatically improve performance. You’ll enjoy faster boot times, faster resume times, and faster application open times. Makes your laptop thinner and quieter and because SSDs don’t have moving parts such as mechanical drives, failure is much less of an issue.
This is the most important component of the laptop and will determine how well it performs. Processors are usually made by either Intel or AMD. For basic use, a dual core processor will be adequate, but processing power varies greatly – depending on the number of cores it has. More cores mean it can handle more tasks at the same time. So choose the one that suits your needs:
- Intel Core i3: Great for everyday computing such as using Microsoft Office, surfing the internet and streaming video.
- Intel Core i5: Great for multitasking. Watch Netflix, play games and edit photos at the same time. Programs run smoothly simultaneously.
- Intel Core i7: Heavy-duty creative work such as 3D modelling, and advanced video editing is a breeze with a Core i7.
The more pixels you have, the more content you can fit on-screen, and the sharper it will look. Most budget and mainstream notebooks come with 1366 x 768-pixel resolutions. However, if you have the option, choose a laptop with a higher pixel count 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 —always go for the highest res you can get. You’ll see more of your favourite web pages, multitask better, and have a better movie-watching experience. Full HD panels (1920 x 1080) cost about £150 more than your typical display, but are worth the splurge, especially on larger screens.
Some pricier notebooks even come with screens that are 2560 x 1600, 3200 x 1800 or even 3840 x 2160. Though most movies aren’t available at such high resolutions yet, the picture will be sharper.
Windows 8 is simply more fun with a touch screen, but if your laptop is not a hybrid with a bendable or rotatable screen, you can probably live without it. Though you can get a touch screen system for under £500 these days, the difference in price between similarly configured systems with and without touch is £100 to £150.
For the most part, an integrated graphics chip will be fine for basic tasks, including surfing the web, watching video, and even playing some mainstream games. But a discrete graphics processor from AMD or Nvidia (which has dedicated video memory) will provide better performance when it comes to the most-demanding games. Plus, a good GPU can accelerate video playback on sites such as Hulu, as well as speed up video editing.
As with CPUs there are both high and low-end graphics chips. Nvidia maintains a list of its graphics chips from low to high end as does AMD. In general, workstations and gaming notebooks will have the best GPUs, including dual graphics on the most expensive systems.
All standard-size laptops have an integral DVD drive that will play both CDs and DVDs, but the smaller notebooks might not and netbooks never do. Fewer and fewer laptops these days come with optical drives. That’s because you can download most software and download or stream video from the web. Unless you burn discs or want to watch Blu-ray movies, you don’t need one of these drives and can save as much as half a pound of weight by avoiding them. At this point, DVD drives are a safety blanket.
Laptops generally have two to three USB ports on one of their sides but smaller, lightweight laptops could have fewer than that or none at all. These are where you will connect any peripherals such as a printer, scanner, digital camera, mouse separate keyboard, etc. So the more you have, the better. USB 3.0 move large files such as music and movies from your portable hard drive onto your laptop with transfer rate at 5 gigabits per second.
Great for fast, wire-free connections – but make sure it’s Bluetooth 4.0.
Like USB 3.0 but twice as fast. Thunderbolt was developed by Intel and introduced and used primarily on Apple laptops.
Connect your laptop to your HDTV to stream Netflix to the big screen, or watch movies saved on your hard drive. Great for presentations.
If you want to be able to make free video calls using Skype, a built-in webcam and microphone will save you having to buy and connect separate ones.
Unlike desktop computers, laptops include built-in speakers so there’s no need to buy separate ones, except if you’re a music pro and want really good sound quality.
If you want to be able to print documents or photographs, you’ll need a printer. Many of these are now multifunction machines that can also be used for scanning, photocopying and even faxing. Whichever you buy, it will either connect to the laptop via one of the USB ports or operate wirelessly if you’ve chosen that option.
Your new laptop will probably come pre-loaded with a trial version of an anti-virus program such as Norton or McAffee. After a month or two, your right to use this will expire and you’ll be asked to pay a subscription. The alternative is to uninstall this and download one of the popular free anti-virus programs from the internet. You should never have more than one antivirus program on your computer as they can conflict with each other.
If you need to be able to produce documents or spreadsheets, you’ll need a suite of software that can help you do this. Your laptop may come with a trial version of Microsoft Office that you’ll have to pay for after a few months. Alternatively, you could choose to download Open Office, which is free.
Lightweight laptops can weigh less than 1kg and can be as thin as 13mm
If you’re using the laptop in the office check it is compatible with your company docking stations
If you’re planning to use your laptop when out and about, you’ll need a case for it. There are many to choose from, and their prices range from very little to quite a lot. Make sure that the one you opt for is the right size for the laptop, so it won’t rattle around inside when you’re on the move.
If you’ll be using it in public places, you can buy a Kingston laptop lock to secure the laptop temporarily to a desk or table.
Laptops usually come with a one-year ‘back-to-base’ warranty, which means that the machine will have to go to a workshop to be fixed and won’t be repaired in your home. However, like other electrical products, there will also be the option to pay for an extended and/or enhanced guarantee. Check whether the shop or manufacturer offers a freephone helpline in case you require any help setting up the laptop.
Your laptop is only as good as the company that stands behind it. Accurate and timely technical support is paramount, which is why Laptop Mag evaluates every major brand in our annual Tech Support Showdown. This past year Apple came in first place, followed by HP and Samsung.
Support is only part of what makes a notebook brand worth your money. You also have to consider how the manufacturer stacks up to the competition in terms of design, value and selection, review performance, and other criteria. In our 2014 Best and Worst Laptop Brands report, Apple placed first, followed by Lenovo and ASUS.
These days, you can buy a usable laptop for under £500, but if you can budget more, you’ll get a system with better build quality, stronger performance and a better display. Here’s what you can get for each price range.
- £150 to £350: The least expensive notebooks are either Chromebooks, which run Google’s browser-centric OS, or low-end Windows systems with minimal storage and slower processors such as the HP Stream 11 (Intel Celeron, 32GB flash drive). Either one can make a great secondary or child’s computer, particularly if you buy a lightweight 11 or 12-inch system. Chromebooks also tend to last a long time (8 hours or more) on a charge.
- £350 to £600: For well under £600, you can get a notebook with an Intel Core i5 or AMD A8 CPU, 4 to 8GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive, all respectable specs. However, at this price, most notebooks have cheap plastic chassis, low-res screens and weak battery life.
- £600 to £800: As you get above £600, you’ll start to see more premium designs, such as metal finishes. Manufacturers also start to add in other features as you climb the price ladder, including better audio and backlit keyboards. You may also be able to get a screen with a resolution that’s 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 and a flash cache.
- Above £800: At this price range, expect notebooks that are more portable, more powerful or both. Expect higher resolution screens , faster processors , and possibly discrete graphics. The lightest , longest-lasting ultraportables like the MacBook Air 13-inch and Dell XPS 13tend to cost over £1,000. High-end gaming systems and mobile workstations usually cost upwards of £1,500 or even as much as £2,500 or £3,000.
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