Monday, January 25, 2010

How To Buy A Laptop

This is the second post in my planned three part epic inspired by my recent purchase of a new laptop.

Buying a laptop is a daunting thing to do. They represent a fairly hefty investment and they aren't very upgradable. If you aren't especially tech savvy then the problem is even worse.  Now I'm a geek, before purchasing anything I like to spend a vast amount of time doing research, but I know that most people don't have the time for that kind of rainman like focus. Luckily I'm also a maven, someone who must share the results of their geeky endeavours. With that in mind I thought I would share my advice from my recent
laptop purchase. I'm planning to keep it free from specific recommendations so I don't need to keep updating it all the time, but instead focus on more general advice which was true five years ago and will most likely be true in another five years. First up don't listen to people in high street shops. Without wanting to be excessively harsh if you know very much about computers you can get a much better job than working in PC World and most of the people I have spoken to have ranged from pleasant but clueless to pushy salesman and clueless with the common theme being clueless. Now I don't doubt there is the odd star but on the whole unless you can find a privately owned shop with someone who seems trustworthy then take any advice proffered with a pinch of salt. Adverts on the TV are all about confusing sounding big numbers without concern for what I consider to be more fundamental considerations.


The first category I would suggest you think about is reliability. A system failure will reduce your prize notebook into a paperweight with a hinge in the middle. The sorry fact is that on average one third of laptops don't make it to their third birthdays. Now you might wonder why you seem to to get so much more for your money if you buy a laptop from one of the giants of the industry such as HP or Acer and the simple answer is build quality Check out this survey from Squaretrade. The reason you pay a chunk more for an Asus or Sony laptop is because there is a significantly bigger chance that it will still be running a few years down the line.

Build Quality

My second consideration was build quality. My old laptop was a 7 year old Toshiba, though it was creaky and on its last legs I was loathe to get rid of it because it had the best keyboard I've ever used. Though you may know nothing about computers this is something you can easily check out in a shop. Does the keyboard have a positive clicky feel? When you rest your hands on it to type does it flex and buckle? Do the plastics seem high quality?  Try applying a gentle twisting force to the top of the screen, if it bends too easily it's not going to last. The same applies for the hinges if they aren't smooth and solid now laptop and screen may not stay attached all that long. Build quality was so fundamental to my choice that with my limited budget I chose the lowest specced model of a better built line rather than going for maximum specs in a cheap chassis.

Now on to the more usual stuff people thing about when they compare laptops.


Once upon a time the clock speed was a pretty good indicator of the performance of a processor, but with the advent of multicore processors keeping the processor fed with data is just as important as the speed it can deal with the data meaning cache size and front side bus speed is just as important. If it sounds like hard work to figure out what constitutes a decent processor then you would be right but luckily you can look at this list from notebook check to figure it out. The higher up the chart it comes the better it is. My laptop has the lowest spec that Dell will sell you in the current lineup, but it does a perfectly good job so I wouldn't worry about it too much though it is one of the components  that you can't easily upgrade.


Put simply the more RAM you have the better. Modern operating systems love to eat up RAM especially office type apps. The good news is that RAM is one of the easiest bits of a laptop to upgrade so it's not the end of the world if you need more down the line.

Hard Disk

The headline number for hard disks is always the amount of storage. Frankly unless you want to store a ton of HD video you don't really need a terabyte hard drive in a laptop, but what will make a big difference is the speed of access. Hard disks are by far the slowest components in a PC and most high street laptops come with a slow disk (5200 RPM in 2010 numbers) upping this will chop a lump off the time your lappy takes to boot up. If your budget will stretch to it a solid state disk net you a huge performance boost and give you a machine that's much less likely to die if you drop it though as with RAM it's a pretty easy home upgrade so you can wait and pick one up when they inevitably plummet in price over the next year or two.


There are two types of graphics set ups, those that share memory with the processor (called Integrated or Shared) and those which have their own memory (Called Dedicated). If you aren't interested in 3D games then don't give this a second thought, but if gaming is your bag then you are going to need something with dedicated graphics. As a rule of thumb a machine with integrated graphics will not be able to run games at all, the average machine with dedicated graphics will probably play games from a couple of years ago on decent settings and modern games on low settings. If you want top flight games performance you will need a gaming laptop. Personally I consider these a waste of time. By my calculations for the price of a gaming laptop your could pick up a desktop PC that would blow it away and still have change for a decent laptop. Worst of all they are pretty rubbish at being a laptop generally being large and heavy with terrible battery life and a tendency to overheat. As with processors, graphics cards are a mass of confusing numbers, but you can head to notebook check for a performance league table.

If you are interested in what my wranglings led me to, I ended up picking up a basic Dell Studio 15 though I was also impressed with the Sony FW series. In the end the awesome offer prices on the direct from Dell website swayed me and I'm very happy with the machine though as I suspected customer service leaves a little to be desired.

In my final article I'm going to talk about my impressions of Windows 7, what I like about it, what I think is lacking and what you can do to fix it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

How To Make Windows XP Feel Like A New OS With Some Killer Productivity Apps

With my new laptop due to finally arrive tomorrow I'm planning to blog my experiences with Dell and more importantly with Windows 7, but before I do i thought it might be worthwhile to explain why stock Windows XP doesn't really do it for me and suggest what you can do to make it a little bit more bearable if you have to use it at work, or squeeze a bit more performance out of it if you can't afford to upgrade your machine. If you are tech savvy enough I would suggest installing Ubuntu Linux, but I'm assuming if you are reading this guide that's not really an option for you.

First up a couple of fairly obvious ones:

Web Browser

The problem: There are no two ways about it Internet Explorer is an absolute dog. The German government is even recommending that people stop using it due to the pathetic level of security offered.

The Solution: Installing Firefox is pretty much the first thing I do when I get my hands on an XP box.

Media Player

The Problem: Windows Media Player 10 is also well past it. The interface is ugly and unintuitive, It can't play common formats like AAC and MPEG4, Music library management functions are virtually non existent and worst of all it once destroyed (and I mean literally destroyed) my wife's MP3 player by crashing during a sync even though it was the model featured in the Microsoft "Plays For Sure" advert.

The Solution: VLC is like the Swiss army knife of media players. It's almost impossible to find a file it won't play and it has a mass of other useful features. Media Monkey is a superb app for managing your music library and has loads of great features for ripping CDs and syncing MP3 players.

Now on to some stuff which if you have only ever used XP you might not even realize is much nicer on other platforms:

The Task Bar

The Problem: Once you have a lot of Windows open the task bar gets cluttered, The system tray quickly gets swamped with junk and the whole thing looks very tired.

The Solution: Rocket Dock is a very nifty piece of software which apes the behavior of the Mac Dock and makes managing Windows a lot easier. With this installed you can set the bar to auto-hide and forget about it

The Start Menu

The Problem: You don't have to install very many applications before the whole thing get completely clagged up and you can't find anything.

The Solution: You can put your favorite apps on Rocket Dock, but for a solution which works for the hundreds of apps you doubtless have installed you want to get Launchy. Launchy pops up when you hit a certain key combination and works out what application or file you want as you start to type its name in. I was skeptical when it was recommended to me, but now I can't imagine living without it. Mac and Linux owners have had access to these features for ages thanks to Spotlight and Do so it's time you got in on the party.

Virtual Desktops

The Problems: If you've never used a machine with virtual desktops you probably don't know why you would want them but once you get used to having three or four different desktops multitasking at home or work becomes so much easier. For example my work machine has 4 desktops split by function between e-mail, internet, software development, and documents which lets me instantly jump to a screen set up for my needs.

The Solution:Dexpot is a superb virtual desktop manager with stacks of great features like allowing different wallpaper on each desktop.

Software Updating

The Problem: I only used my old XP desktop once in a blue moon and so when I logged in it was not uncommon to discover that in addition to Windows update I could have: Virus Scanners, Adobe Acrobat, Java, Quicktime, Flash, etc pop up and demand to be updated each with a separate dialogue to click through. On Ubuntu all the applications update themselves through the same mechanism that updates the operating system.

The Solution: I've never found one, but if anyone out there can tell me they will go straight to the top of my Christmas list.