Buyer's guide: Laptop computers

jemma crutchlow-porter
By Jemma Crutchlow-Porter

laptop computer (colour)©iStock.com/rustemgurler

LAPTOPS offer us high processing power combined with convenience. But what should we be looking for when buying one?

The specification can help distinguish one laptop from the next and narrow the choice somewhat. But with terms like memory, processor, hard drive, and operating system being bandied about, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.

This guide will not only explain what these terms mean, but also give some insight into what sort of laptop is best for different people. We'd expect a World of Warcraft addict to want a very different machine from a casual user.

Read on to find out what to consider when choosing a new laptop.

1. Type of laptop

Considerations
  • Larger machines have more features
  • Smaller machines easier to carry; fewer features on the most portable laptops

A laptop is essentially a portable desktop computer. It works in the same way, but can run off battery power for a few hours at a time.

However, with developments in technology making laptops lighter and smaller, and introducing features like touch screens, there are more choices than ever before.

Most standard laptops have screens between 15" and 18". They come with all the features also found on a desktop computer, such as a CD/DVD drive, plenty of storage, and various connectivity options including Wi-fi and HDMI ports.

Best Laptops of 2015
Top five under £500: here
Top five notebooks: here
Top five ultrabooks: here

While laptops are technically portable, they tend to be quite big and bulky, making them awkward to lug around.

Netbooks, on the other hand, are much smaller, with typical screen size of around 10.1". To give them their increased portability, they must lose some of the features that add bulk, like the disc drive.

Similar to netbooks, ultrabooks are also thinner and lighter than laptops, but they have another benefit.

They tend to feature a solid state drive based on flash memory chips, rather than the traditional whirring metal hard disc drive - which makes start-up times much quicker.

A recent entrant to the field, convertible laptops feature a detachable keyboard. Remove it and the screen is turned into a touch screen tablet.

This is the laptop manufacturers' attempt to make good on the popularity of tablets while not compromising on features like a full-size keyboard.

Another recent addition to the market is the Chromebook. Unlike the traditional laptop and its many variations, a Chromebook - named after the Google browser - is dependent on cloud storage.

It uses the Chrome operating system, and as we explain further below, it's technically more of a browser than a computer.

2. Operating system

Considerations
  • Choose between: Windows, OS X and Chrome
  • Chrome more of a glorified browser than proper OS
  • Windows available on the widest range of models
  • Apple OS X considered by many to be easier to use

Every laptop has an operating system (OS); that's what manages the hardware, software, processes and memory within the machine.

Most of us don't really think much about it any more, but it's an incredibly important piece of software, enabling us to communicate with the computer. Without the ability to interact in a visual way, by double-clicking icons to open them for example, we'd need to be able to understand and write the computer's code.

There are two main operating systems to choose between when buying a laptop: Microsoft's Windows and Apple's OS X. Most of us are used to Windows as a result of using PCs at work, but Mac users are often intensely loyal to OS X and given the choice wouldn't use anything else.

However, as mentioned above, the Chrome OS is also starting to make waves in the market.

Choosing a different OS doesn't have to mean having to get used to lots of unfamiliar programmes. The interface might look and react slightly differently, but a lot of the most popular software - even Microsoft Office - is designed to work on both of the main operating systems.

Windows

Windows is by far the most popular operating system for desktop and laptop computing. Windows 7 alone accounts for more than half of the market, with Windows XP and 8.1 also very popular.

The current version is Windows 8.1, which has been designed with touch-screen users in mind, although it can still be used with the traditional mouse and keyboard as well. The release of Windows 10 is set for late 2015.

Do check which version of Windows is installed. Not all existing software will be compatible with the newer operating systems, so those upgrading from a computer which has been running XP or Vista may want to check their favourite programmes no longer work quite as smoothly on the newest OS.

Windows users aren't limited to a single manufacturer. There are more than 10 distinct brands selling Windows laptops, including Asus, Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba.

OS X

Unlike Windows, OS X is installed exclusively on Apple Mac computers, of which there are only 18 unique models. While Apple has traditionally focused more on elegant design than its utilitarian competitors, there is far less choice when it comes to picking a device.

Despite being the second most widely used operating system after Windows, OS X accounts for less than 7% of the market; the latest version, Yosemite, accounts for just 3.5%.

One of the benefits of OS X is its user-friendliness. Many consider the user interface to be easier to navigate; for example, the Launchpad is a full screen of app icons providing quick access to programmes.

Chrome OS

Chrome's own operating system claims to be one of the simplest and most secure platforms on the market. While that's definitely a plus for most, it does have some limitations.

Because Chromebooks use cloud storage, the operating system is actually more of a browser. Unlike Windows and OS X it doesn't work with traditional applications and programmes, but provides links to web shortcuts instead.

The Chrome OS is excellent when we're browsing the web, checking emails and posting on social networks, but it doesn't provide the necessary tools for offline use such as gaming and photo editing.

3. Screen

Considerations
  • Screens between 11" and 14" offer a good balance between usability and portability
  • The higher the resolution the better
  • Touchscreen models more expensive than non-touch

The screen is one of the most important features of any laptop, and while size is an obvious consideration, there are other things to think about as well.

Size

Laptop screens come in a vast array of sizes, usually between 10 and 18 inches, with the average size being around 15 inches. When deciding how big to go, consider what the laptop will be used for and how portable it needs to be.

7-10 inches: Most laptops falling into this category are netbooks. These are relatively cheap and light to carry around. However, as screen size determines the size of the device, the keyboard can be quite cramped.

11-14 inches: Laptops with screens between 11 and 14 inches are still on the small side, but offer a good balance between portability and usability. Most laptops in this category won't weight more than 2kg and can comfortably fit on your lap.

15-17 inches: Laptops of this size are considerably heavier and bulkier than their smaller counterparts. However, they remain the most popular because of their ability to bridge the gap between laptop and desktop.

18-20 inches: Anything with a screen of 18 inches or more will pack some serious processing power. They are very heavy, and not really designed to be carried around. These laptops are most likely to suit high-end gamers.

Resolution

The screen resolution is measured in pixels, quoted as screen length by screen height. More pixels means that more content will fit on the screen and the quality of the picture will be better.

The majority of mainstream laptops come with a resolution of 1366 x 768. Known as HD, this resolution is ideal for day to day tasks, surfing the internet, reading and sending emails.

Generally speaking, it's worth going for the highest resolution within the price bracket. One up from HD is HD+, which is good for watching DVDs and streaming online.

Full HD, 1920 x 1080, is best for playing video games and watching Blu-rays, while Quad HD, 2560 x 1440, is more than adequate for professional photo and video editing work.

Touch

Since the launch of Windows 8 and the Chrome OS, some manufacturers have been producing laptops with touchscreens.

They work in the same way as the touchscreen on our smartphones and tablets, with the ability to pinch and zoom, and swipe to scroll up and down. This does make for a different laptop experience, but as most of us are likely to be using a keyboard and mouse for a long time to come, it's not a necessity.

Touchscreen models are usually more expensive than non-touch models.

4. Storage

Considerations
  • HDD tends to be bigger and cheaper
  • Worth paying more for disc speeds of 7,200rpm compared to 5,400rpm
  • SSD is faster but smaller and more expensive
  • Cloud storage backs up everything to remote servers - safe and secure no matter what happens to machine

Laptops need to have enough storage for the operating system, other software, documents, photos, and videos. It's important to choose a laptop with adequate capacity, but the type of storage should also be considered.

The first thing to consider is whether the data needs to be saved locally - on the machine - or it's okay for it all to be stored remotely.

People who would rather their information was stored on the machine have two choices:

Hard disc drive

The hard disk drive (HDD) is where files and programmes are stored on the laptop. It comes in different sizes and speeds. While most people concentrate on the amount of storage, the speed is often overlooked.

Most users will find between 320GB and 500GB more than enough, so unless absolutely necessary, don't bother spending more to boost capacity. But where it is worth splashing out a little extra is to upgrade the speed of the disc to 7,200 rpm (revolutions per minute) from 5,400rpm.

Solid state drive

A solid state drive (SSD), also known as flash storage, is a lighter, faster, and quieter type of storage.

In return for dramatically improved performance, faster boot times and multi-tasking, they tend to have smaller storage capacities of between 128 and 512GB.

SSDs are typically more expensive than HDDs, but the benefits far outweigh the cons, making them a worthwhile investment for most laptop buyers.

Then, for users who don't mind their data being stored remotely:

Cloud

Cloud storage is one of the buzz phrases of recent times. Essentially, rather than saving files to the laptop's internal storage facility, it is backed up to a server and saved in "the cloud".

Cloud storage makes it possible to access files just about anywhere, as users can log into their account and see their documents, photos and videos. However, as the files are saved to a server, we can't download and install software as with a traditional HDD or SSD.

5. Memory

Considerations
  • 2GB the minimum for basic computing
  • Serious users should look for at least 8GB
  • Machines with up to 32GB available

Just a few short years ago, we'd be lucky to find laptops with more than 1GB RAM (random access memory), but these days 2GB is considered the minimum for basic, everyday computing.

Essentially, the more RAM the laptop has, the faster it will run. Settle for less than needed, and the laptop will be slow and sluggish to switch between programs.

With 2GB RAM found on even the cheapest laptops, there is no need to go any lower. If the budget allows, it might even be better to opt for 3GB or 4GB RAM.

Anyone who puts higher demands on their laptops - such as gamers, photographers, and other power users - should look for no less than 8GB. However, some laptops now have as much as 32GB built in.

Most laptops can be upgraded, so if everything is right apart from the RAM, find out if it can be increased later.

6. Processor

Considerations
  • Dual and quad-core processors help split the workload when running multiple programmes or applications
  • High end laptops will have Intel Core i5 or i7 processors

If the operating system is the heart of the laptop, the processor is the head. The processor is perhaps one of the most complex features of any laptop; it determines everything from how fast the machine can run and how many programmes it can run at once, to how long the battery lasts.

There are only two main chip makers, Intel and AMD. But with so many different models, it can be very confusing for shoppers.

Essentially, we can expect to find budget laptops will be fitted with either an AMD E Series or Intel Pentium processor. These are adequate for basic use, but they'll struggle with anything more than surfing the web or word processing.

A lot of cheaper laptops now feature dual core processors, meaning there are two processors on one chip to split the workload. However, top of the range processors are now quad-core.

Mid-range laptops might feature an Intel Atom or Intel Core M CPU, but the latter should not be confused with the Intel Core Series, which we'll come on to next.

For high performance, it's not worth opting for anything less than Intel Core i5 or i7. Generally speaking, Intel rules the top end of the market; AMD's chips aren't on par performance-wise.

7. Connectivity

Considerations
  • USB 2.0 or 3.0 - 3.0 much faster
  • HDMI allows computer to connect to HD TVs and set-top boxes

Whether playing music through external speakers or backing up data to the cloud, we're calling on our laptop's connections. We run through the most common, and which ones you need to look out for, below.

USB is an incredibly common port found on laptops; it's used to connect external hard drives, smartphones, MP3 players, mice, and a vast array of other peripheral accessories.

There are two versions of the USB standard currently found on laptops: USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, with the latter being much faster than its predecessor. Most new laptops have at least one USB 3.0 port, which is usually blue on the inside of the port.

The HDMI port is used for transferring audio and video streams to a compatible device, such as an HD ready television. It's a great way to watch online streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, on a bigger screen.

Wi-fi & Ethernet: All modern laptops should include a way to connect to the internet, with most having both a wired Ethernet port and a built-in Wi-fi receiver. Without either of these, the laptop will not be able to communicate with the router.

SD cards and micro SD cards are commonly used as external storage in smartphones, tablets, and digital cameras. If the computer has a card slot, the SD card can be inserted directly into the laptop for quick and easy data transfers.

8. Battery

Considerations
  • Typical 15 inch laptops should offer around four hours unplugged
  • Some machines capable of running for up to seven hours
  • How bulky is the power pack if the battery doesn't last well?

No matter whether the laptop is being used as a desktop replacement, or is being carried around 24/7, battery life is important. How long the laptop will last depends on a number of factors, such as the type of battery, screen brightness, and what tasks are being performed.

A typical 15 inch laptop should offer at least four hours battery life, but anyone who's out and about all day will need to look for something with between six and seven hours of endurance.

The manufacturers will list an estimated battery life in the specification, but this is unlikely to be the actual achievable running time. It's better to read third party reviews to find out what other owners have experienced.

Anyone looking at a cheaper laptop or one with a shorter battery life should consider the size and weight of the power pack. Being able to plug the computer in if the battery starts to run low is only an option if the power pack isn't too chunky to carry about easily.

9. Ergonomics

Considerations
  • Cramped keyboards cause typos and RSI
  • Touchpads should be smooth and not too sensitive

One of the things that's easily forgotten when shopping for a laptop is the ergonomics. The specification can tell us everything about the internal workings of the machine, but what about how it feels to use?

As the size of the keyboard is determined by the size of the laptop, the added portability of smaller models might be compromised by the keyboard feeling too cramped. As well as resulting in too many typos, this could also lead to repetitive strain injuries.

The touchpad should be smooth, rather than jumpy or erratic. The touch gestures should be easy, but not so easy that they're accidentally activated. The touchpad itself also needs to be of a decent size, so that it's comfortable to use.

10. Insurance

Considerations
  • Home contents insurance may not cover laptops outside the home
  • Worldwide gadget insurance may be useful for cover against damage

The portable nature of laptops can be convenient, but it also makes them more likely to be lost, stolen, or damaged.

Contents insurance

A home contents insurance policy covers most personal belongings, but items that are taken out of the home, such as mobile phones and laptops, are common exclusions.

Some insurers do offer extra cover for gadgets, but this can often be costly, and excesses will still be high. It's often better value to take out specialised gadget insurance.

Gadget insurance

There are a vast number of gadget insurance policies on the market, with various levels of cover, so it's essential to look into the detail to get exactly what you need. As damage is most likely to happen on holiday, worldwide cover is a good choice.

It's also important to read through the scenarios. Sure, the insurer might cover "theft", but in many cases, unless you're physically mugged they won't pay out.

In Summary

Now we've discussed the most important features to look for when buying a laptop, it should be easier to pick one that meets your needs.

Remember, a high performance laptop may offer just about everything anyone could ask for in a portable computer. But with prices starting way above £1000, they're just not necessary for the casual user.

Think about the must-have features, those that would be nice to have, and those it's unlikely you'll ever use, and it'll be much easier to find a suitable laptop without paying over the odds.

Quick considerations
Type of laptop Larger machines have more features
Smaller machines easier to carry; fewer features on the most portable laptops
Operating system Windows, OS X and Chrome
Chrome more of a glorified browser than proper OS
Windows available on the widest range of models
Apple OS X considered by many to be easier to use
Screen Screens between 11" and 14" offer a good balance between usability and portability
The higher the resolution the better
Touchscreen models more expensive than non-touch
Storage HDD tends to be bigger and cheaper
Worth paying more for disc speeds of 7,200rpm compared to 5,400rpm
SSD is faster but smaller and more expensive
Cloud storage backs up everything to remote servers - safe and secure no matter what happens to machine
Memory 2GB the minimum for basic computing
Serious users should look for at least 8GB
Machines with up to 32GB available
Processor Dual and quad-core processors help split the workload when running multiple programmes or applications
High end laptops will have Intel Core i5 or i7 processors
Connectivity USB 2.0 or 3.0 - 3.0 much faster
HDMI allows computer to connect to HD TVs and set-top boxes
Battery Typical 15 inch laptops should offer around four hours unplugged
Some machines capable of running for up to seven hours
How bulky is the power pack if the battery doesn't last well?
Ergonomics Cramped keyboards can cause typos and RSI
Touchpads should be smooth and not too sensitive
Insurance Home contents insurance may not cover laptops outside the home
Worldwide gadget insurance may be useful for cover against damage


» Read more of the latest news


» Search for more guides on broadband and mobile


Follow us or subscribe for FREE updates and special offers