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.
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.
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.