Wed | Aug 15, 2018

Tips on buying a laptop

Published:Monday | October 27, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Sales clerk Shauna Isaacs laminates a document while in the background is displayed a wide range of computer items available at Computaz & Beyond Ltd, 115 Great George Street, Savanna-la-Mar.
Sherida Samuels (left) assists a customer.

We're not all looking for the same qualities in a laptop, and the kind of programmes you want to run determine your demands in the categories that follow. First, consider why you're buying a laptop. Is it to make PowerPoint presentations, take notes and do other simple business tasks? Or do you plan on watching HD movies, playing video games and video chatting with your friends?

Figure out how much you can afford to spend on a laptop and find the best system in that price range with the features you need.

Battery Life

Laptop computing is all about mobility, and battery life is perhaps the most crucial consideration when picking a laptop that's going to be used regularly on the go. If you're in the market for a desktop replacement system - meaning you'll mostly just leave it on your desk and don't plan on regularly taking it on trips - battery life isn't quite as critical. Otherwise, pay close attention to how long a laptop's battery will last.

As laptops get slimmer and designers pay more attention to making them sleek and compact, more and more systems use integrated non-removable batteries. The trade-off for that sleeker laptop body is that it's impossible to buy a backup battery and swap the two out to double battery life. Finally, always be sceptical of claimed battery life times. The numbers that laptop makers convey often refer to light usage with a dimmed screen. Assume you'll get one-two hours less than claimed while browsing the Web and running multiple applications - and possibly even less if you're playing games or doing something else that taxes the computer.

Size and Weight

In previous years, laptops were not very attractive. They were also heavy and expensive. A couple thousand dollars bought a small 4:3 screen, chunky keyboard and a hard drive measured in megabytes, not gigabytes. Thankfully, modern laptops are entirely different beasts. They're lighter, faster, infinitely more versatile and cheaper than ever. And there are a ton of them: In the first quarter of 2010, about 50 million tablets were sold worldwide.

The vast options in today's laptop market makes finding the right system a bit of a challenge. There are desktop replacement laptops, ultralights, high-end systems for gamers and cheap netbooks for taking notes. You have to know exactly what you're looking for.

Screen size and resolution

There are three common screen sizes in the notebook industry: 13 inches (33 centimetres), 15 inches (38 centimetres) and 17 inches (43 centimetres). The smallest in this group of laptops obviously prioritise portability, and often forgo DVD drives to make their bodies thinner and lighter. The mid-size category has a bit more range: Some heavier systems operate as desktop replacements, while others are light enough to still be easily portable while offering large screens. The largest category of laptops are, well, pretty huge. They always offer high-resolution displays and powerful hardware, but can easily weigh up to 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms).

Generally, 15-inch (38-centimetre) and especially 17-inch (43-centimetre) laptops are large enough to be decent TV/computer monitor substitutes for watching video, especially on the go. Smaller notebooks, measuring 11 to 14 inches (27.9 to 35.6 centimetres) may be a bit small for watching movies, depending on your personal taste. More importantly, their displays are often lower resolution. The resolution is the total number of pixels contained in the display - more pixels allow for more content to be displayed on screen at once.

Resolutions typically range from 1,366 by 768 - just a bit larger than 720p - to 1,920 by 1,080.

Processor and Graphics

A computer's processor determines how efficiently it can run programs, multitask and basically do everything we expect of modern computers. Processors get faster and more efficient every year. Most Windows-based computers run on Intel's processors; smaller ultraportables, such as Apple's thin MacBook Air, run on ultra-low voltage processors that draw less power than some of Apple's other chips. Quad-core chips deliver more powerful performance, but even dual-core processors are up to the task of playing 1,080p video and running system-intensive programs like Photoshop.

The graphics processor, or GPU, is important when it comes to playing HD video and running games. Many laptops use integrated graphics rather than dedicated graphics chips. These are less powerful (and also less battery intensive), but powerful enough to decode 1080p video.

Storage and Memory

For years, all laptops stored data on spinning physical discs called hard drives. Most of them still do, but faster solid state drives that use silicon-based memory are becoming more affordable and more prevalent in mobile computers. Because solid state drives don't rely on moving parts, they're more reliable in computers that tend to get bumped and jostled around. The downside: They're expensive and don't offer nearly as much data storage.

Storage space may not be a big concern for you - if you store most of your data in the cloud and don't plan to load a computer up with gigabytes of music and video, a SSD or small HDD will suit you just fine. Random access memory (RAM) is a different story. Every piece of software running on a computer and the operating system itself (usually meaning Windows) stores data in RAM to function. The more RAM you have, the better - it's smart to upgrade this component when possible. To run Windows 7, 4 gigabytes is a comfortable minimum.

Speedy SSD storage is fantastic, but in many cases going with a thin-and-light computer means giving up a disc drive and embracing the Internet cloud.

Do you need an optical drive?

Optical storage mediums have been key computer components since the first CD drives arrived on the scene, but cheap flash storage in the form of USB drives and cloud storage on the Internet have nearly eradicated their necessity. When was the last time you used a CD burner? Do you watch DVDs on your computer, or do you stream movies from Netflix? If you do either of those things regularly, or need to be able to burn DVDs or CDs for work, that's okay - there are still plenty of laptops outfitted with CD/DVD combo drives. Blu-ray drives are even optional in a small selection of laptops, most commonly the media-focused 15-inch (38-centimetre) and 17-inch (43-centimetre) models.

Ports and Expandability

Every computer user is familiar with the USB port. But there are other ports to consider as well. Do you want HDMI to output video to a TV? Do you need an SD card slot for downloading digital camera photos to your laptop? Will you need an Ethernet port for Internet or will a laptop's built-in WiFi connection be enough?

Security Features

We keep mountains of personal information on our computers. There's always a risk when storing information digitally and on the Internet, but laptops elevate that risk by being much easier to steal than desktop machines. Some laptops, specifically those aimed at business and enterprise users, are built with these concerns in mind. For example, fingerprint scanners are found on plenty of business PCs and require users to pass a scan before logging into the operating system.

Laptop security features can help protect you, but never assume they'll keep your data safe from determined crooks. Being careful with your laptop is the best way to protect it.