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Who could live without their laptop computer? Today everyone from gamers to grannies has their own laptop, complete with personal preferences from screen size to colour. Many of us prefer our laptops to desktop computers, even if we don't take them out of the house.
The days of complaints about poor battery power and over-heating are far behind us as innovation ensures all the essentials process effectively. Whether you’re a Mac fan or a die-hard PC lover, your ideal laptop is out there waiting for you to find it!
However, many laptop specs can seem confusing if you’re not familiar with the numbers and terminology used by vendors – and let’s face it, most of us aren’t. Luckily only a handful of these facts and figures are really essential; many are only useful if you’re after something particular from your laptop, for example, if its primary use will be playing networked games, or if you’re a designer looking to run a particular software package.
So what are the terms you do need to look out for? Our handy guide below will equip you with all the necessary information to identify what you really need from your laptop.
The essentials 1. CPU
The Central Processing Unit (CPU) is, in a nutshell, the ‘brain’ of your laptop. Working alongside the Operating System, the CPU processes the instructions you give the laptop and fetches data from the RAM to allow execution. Intel and AMD are the most well known brands of CPU.
Random Access Memory (RAM) provides space for your laptop to read and write data to be accessed by the Central Processing Unit (CPU). When people refer to a computer’s memory, they usually mean its RAM. The more RAM a computer has, the less often the CPU has to read data from the hard disk, allowing the computer to work significantly faster. If you’re planning to use the internet and several applications/software programs outside the core Microsoft Office suite, you should look for at least 2 Gigabytes of RAM. If you work with image, video or audio editing software you may want to increase this to as much as 4 Gigabytes to help improve running speed.
The Hard Disk refers to a mass storage device found in PCs to store permanent data, such as the operating system, programs and users files. The Hard Drive is the mechanism that controls the Hard Disk and, while the two are not the same thing, they are packaged as a unit and so either term can be used to refer to the two together. For a multimedia computer, i.e. one where you’re planning to store music and video files, you’re likely to need a minimum of 100 Gigabytes of Hard Disk space. For optimum performance with large multimedia collections, you should look at 150+.
The Operating System (OS) refers to the core program that manages all the other programs in your computer. If you have multiple programs running at the same time, the OS decides which applications should run in which order and how much memory should be allocated to each one. The OS handles the input and output of external devices such as printers and is also responsible for identifying and flagging any errors to the user – it is the OS that generates error messages when a program doesn’t execute successfully. Windows Vista, Windows 7, Linux and OSX are all examples of OS. Your OS will depend in part on whether you make the decision to buy a PC or a Mac.
For any laptop the battery life is essential. Check how long it will last when it’s not plugged into the mains. If you are likely to need it for extended periods of time when you don’t have access to a power socket, you may want to consider purchasing a second battery to give you maximum flexibility. A really good battery will give you around eight hours of battery life, although the standard is more likely to be around three to four hours. It’s worth noting that the deactivation of services like Bluetooth and WLan or turning down the display brightness can also help extend battery life.
Mac vs PC
For some people this is the biggest question of all! There are clear benefits on both sides of the Mac vs PC divide. The Apple design is a popular one and if your priority is admiring glances from people around you, the MacBook is certainly one to bear in mind. However, there is a far wider range of PCs on the market and if you are looking for a really tailored solution, you may be best to go for one of those.
With the range and variety of laptops on the market today, you’ll find something that suits your need and your budget. Once you’ve checked the specs against the core list above, there are many other options you may want to consider. We’ve highlighted a few of the key ones below.
1. Screen size
Screen size depends in part what you need your laptop for. It is measured in inches and refers to the diagonal dimension of the screen (e.g. top left to bottom right). An ‘average’ laptop screen size is around 15 inches. If your priority is to be able to take the laptop with you when you travel you may want to consider a screen size of 12-14 inches; if you will be using it primarily as home to replace your desktop computer, you may want to look at a larger screen size of up to 17 or 18 inches.
You may also want to consider the weight of your laptop, especially if you’re planning to carry it around with you a lot. Even small laptops can be surprisingly heavy! A ‘light’ laptop is generally judged to weigh around 3 pounds. Anything over 5 pounds is likely to be a bit cumbersome and not ideal for use on the move.
3. Ports: Ports refer to the different inputs a computer has. These allow you to attach different drives and other devices to the laptop. For example, if you have a digital camera, it is likely to have a USB cable to allow you to attach it to the computer. USB connections are standard in all laptops but it is worth checking the number if you are likely to have more than one device plugged in at a time. If there is a particular device you will want to use with the laptop, check that the model you’re looking at has the relevant port so that you can connect them up without any trouble. Generally it makes sense to have at least three ports, which will allow you to connect a camera, a mouse (if you want more than the standard laptop mouse pad) and an external disc drive.
4. CD/DVD writer: A CD or DVD writer will allow you to save files from your laptop onto a CD or DVD. This is not a standard function with many laptops so if this is something you are likely to do much of, it’s either worth making sure that it is included as part of the laptop’s package.
5. Docking station: A docking station is ideal if your laptop is taking the place of a desktop computer. The docking station sits on your desk for the laptop to slot into when it suits you. It functions as a power charger and can also be used to connect the laptop to a larger monitor for use at home. It also means that you don’t have to worry about attaching a large number of cables to your laptop (for printers or any other external devices) but can instead have them more tidily plugged into the station itself.
6. Noise factor: It’s worth checking the noise level of your laptop before purchase. Some models have fans that make a bit more noise than others.
7. Temperature: For your laptop to perform well, you must take care of the temperature at which it is made to work. Slow performance, frequent reboots and other symptoms of decline in performance and speed can mean that your laptop is working at an abnormal temperature. There are a few easy ways to prevent overheating: for example, be careful about the placement of the laptop, the things around it and the temperature of the room in which the laptop is housed. Try to avoid using it on a soft surface that blocks the fan. The precise preferred temperature of the laptop will depend on the model’s specifications and the applications it runs at the given moment, so make sure you have checked this out before purchase.
Laptop prices vary hugely between models. To a great extent the cost will be determined by how many of the extras you need. If you’re looking for a basic, reliable, but not too flashy, laptop, you can expect to spend somewhere around £400. A higher-end model that will last longer and allow you to install more resource-hogging programs, play games online and keep up-to-date with the latest tech developments can cost anything upwards of £800 depending on which extras are most important to you.
You can find detailed user reviews on Ciao to show you what other people think of different models and which ones are the most popular for particular purposes. With reviews rated by the community accorded to their usefulness, it’s never been easier to find all the information you need to make the best possible purchasing decision!
Advantages: Looks good, fast processor, no over-heating Disadvantages: Only 3 USB ports, short battery-life
The Dell Inspiron 1545 was bought for me from PC World as a Christmas present, however due to the fact that mobility problems were preventing me from being able to sit at the computer desk, I was actually given it a good month before Christmas and have be ...
Advantages: durable, value for money, stylish Disadvantages: possible issues with Dell Dock
I purchased the Dell Inspiron 1545 laptop nearly two years ago, to replace my freestanding home computer system. I did a lot of research before choosing the Dell Inspiron 1545 and it has lived up to all the good reviews out there, proving reliable, effi ...
Advantages: Good spec, reasonable price, great processor Disadvantages: The piano black surface attracts dust and dirt.
I purchased the Dell Inspiron 1545 laptop back in January for my daughter's birthday. I had a limited budget but wanted to get her something with decent enough spec for playing computer games should she wish to do this, and a large hard drive as she is a ...
Advantages: Great Performance, Attractive cover, brilliant screen quality Disadvantages: Smudges around keyboard, poor battery life
I bought this laptop from PC World in August and I am now at university. Since coming to university, I have used the laptop everyday for a wide range of tasks - and yes, I believe it has performed very well each time. Performance Both Startup, and ...
I got this Dell inspiron 1545 laptop back in late 2009 after hearing nothing but good reviews about the model and loved the fact there was lots of different colours available. I chose to get the flamingo pink colour which is a darkish pink. I bought my l ...