Essential Guide to Buying a Laptop

If you are looking in to buying a laptop, but are finding it difficult to decide which one is the right one for you, you’re not alone! There are several things you need to bear in mind when it comes to purchasing the right laptop for the type of use it is intended for. In this guide we intend to help you understand what all the jargon actually means when talking about laptop specification and then decide what you need to look out for.

Buying a laptop can be a daunting task, and can be an expensive mistake if you pick the wrong one for your needs, but if you take heed of our helpful laptop buying guide you should be able to make a well-informed choice.

Your Budget Vs. Your Laptop Requirements

When buying a laptop, the two main things you need to think about from the start is ‘What is your budget?’ and ‘What will I be using the laptop for?’

Once you have these two questions answered you will be in a better position to balance the cost and ability of the laptop you require. You may need to make some compromises but with our guide you will know where you can cut back on specifications without it having too great an impact on the performance of the device you choose.

Financial Budget – This is highly dependant on what you need your laptop to do. As with any device the more features and power it provides the bigger the dent on your pocket will be. For a basic entry level laptop you can expect to pay anywhere from approx. £140 – £550 and the high end, top spec laptops can go up to the thousands. As mentioned before, if your budget doesn’t match your requirements you need to know where to make the compromises to cut costs.

Usage Requirements – If you intend to use your laptop for basic web browsing and sending the odd email here and there then you will obviously be better looking in to the lower end laptops that also come with a lower price as you won’t require it to take on any major tasks. If however you are looking for a laptop that can handle photo editing software and other memory intensive programs then you need to look deeper in to the features and technical spec to ensure it can handle what you need.

To help make all of the technical language a bit more understandable we have broken it all down in to sections and put it in terms that make more sense when deciding what you need your laptop to do.

Choosing the Best Operating System for You

The Operating System (OS) is the main software program on a computer or laptop, and provides the base for all hardware and software to operate from. Like most people you may used to using one OS over another so will want to look for a new laptop that uses the same. If you are happy to try another OS or this is the first laptop you are purchasing then you will need to understand the differences and what is on offer.

Windows Operating System (OS) – Windows is the most widely used OS on the market and is available on a large variety of laptops making it more accessible for a range of budgets. You will find a large variety of compatible software that works with Windows OS so should be able to run the programs you need to carry out most tasks as long as the hardware of the laptop itself can keep up.

At the time of writing this guide the most up to date version of this OS is Windows 10 which was launched in 2015. The Windows OS uses a Start menu to launch it apps and programs and uses live tiles to allow you to see the programs available at a glance.

Choose Windows OS if:

  • You are used to the Windows operating system and prefer it to other options
  • You like the wider range of applications available to this OS
  • You plan to use your laptop for basic, mid-range or high end use
  • You like the wider choice of laptop brands and designs to choose from
  • You plan to use your laptop for entertainment – games, films etc.

Mac Operating System (OS) – Mac OS is used to run all Apple Mac Laptops which you will know better as MacBooks. If you have only ever used a Windows laptop or computer you might find it takes a bit of getting used to if you move to Mac OS. That being said, it is the second most used Operating system and is widely known for its simplicity and intuitiveness but able to carry out intensive tasks.

Apple laptop

Whilst the Windows OS runs it’s apps from the Start Menu and Taskbar the Mac OS opts for an ‘apps dock’ that runs across the bottom of the screen for quick access. Apple use high end quality components in all of their devices so naturally you will see a higher price tag on their products. If you already own Apple devices such as an iPad or iPhone you might prefer to go for a Macbook as they all sync together seamlessly making it a lot easier to manage contacts, music and so on.

Choose Mac OS if:

  • You are used to the Mac operating system and prefer it to other options
  • You plan to use design software or photo editing software on a regular basis
  • You own other Apple devices that you want to all work together
  • You like the design of the Macbook range
  • You plan to use your laptop for entertainment – games, films etc.

Chrome OS – You may have heard of laptops that are referred to as Chromebooks. These are laptops, made by a number of manufacturers, that are powered by Chrome OS which is designed by Google. This operating system isn’t that widely used at the moment so you may not be used to working with it but if you are familiar with the Chrome browser provided by Google you should find laptops using Chrome OS easy enough to use. Y

ou will probably notice that Chromebooks are generally a lot cheaper to purchase than laptops that run on Mac or Windows OS and there is a good reason for this. Chromebooks rely on using online applications and storage meaning the laptop does not need to end hardware to keep it running well. The downside to this type of OS is that unless you are able to connect to an Internet supply you are a bit limited with what you can do with it.

Choose Chrome OS if:

  • You only plan to use your laptop for basic browsing, emails and so on
  • You haven’t owned a laptop before and want to start with an entry level device
  • You have a low budget but want a laptop rather than a tablet
  • You like the choice of brands and designs these laptops are supplied in

What laptop Screen Size Do I Need?

Again, what screen size you need will depend on what you want to use the laptop for. Laptop screen sizes range from 11″ up to 17″ (you can get bigger than this but it won’t be easy to find and will come at a price). The most common screen size chosen is 15″, it is a good size for most tasks carried out by the general user.

If you plan to watch a lot of films or TV on your laptop you will probably find the larger screens a more enjoyable experience. The larger screens are also better for those who suffer from eye strain as the text and images will be easier to focus on. Another consideration is the added weight as the screen size increases and the added cost.

If you plan to carry your laptop with you on a regular basis you might want to look out for a lighter model which might mean a slightly smaller screen than anticipated. You might find the larger screen size will increase the cost beyond your planned budget so worth a thought.

What is the CPU and Which is Best?

CPU stands for Central Processing Unit and is basically your computers brain. CPU’s come in different brands and sizes, you will have probably heard of Intel who are the leaders in the industry. The CPU is also referred to as the processor. Its primary purpose is to process your requests, as an example if you were to open an application it would handle that request and get the job done for you.

buying a laptop

Taking Intel as an example you currently have three different sizes to choose from; i3, i5 and i7. As you may presume the i7 is much more powerful than the i3. You also have different version to choose from with each of these models. You will commonly see a gigahertz (GHz) specification alongside the CPU model (i5 1.6GHz or occasionally i5 1600GHz). The gigahertz is telling you the speed that the CPU works at. Again, the higher the better. To confuse you even more every year or so Intel upgrade their CPUs but still keep the same model name i.e. i3, i5, i7.

With each upgrade they append a code name, for example Intel Celeron i5 1.6GHz. It is advisable that you do a little research at the time of purchase to find out what the latest CPU is called so that your machine is as powerful as it can be now. This way you are future proofing your expensive purchase. In this section we have used Intel’s range of CPU’s as examples of what to look for but you may see other models like AMD. If this is the case, they won’t advertise the model (i3, i5, i7) but they will show the gigahertz rating.

So in all cases the higher the gigahertz rating the more powerful the CPU. Generally speaking as with all these things, the higher the number the more powerful it will be. Light users can choose a lower rating and save money, more intensive and complex users will be better opting for the higher CPU. The right CPU can make all the difference when buying a laptop, both to how well it performs, and how much it will cost.

What is RAM and How Much do I Need?

RAM stands for Random Access Memory. It is used by your computer to store temporary bit of information that help your applications run. The more RAM you have the more applications you can run at the same time, it also aids power hungry applications (like photo editing applications e.g. Photoshop).

So if you are going to be using your laptop purely for web browsing and emails you can get away with having less RAM, however, it is advisable to get as much RAM as your budget will allow as it will help your machine run smoother for longer. In simple terms, 8GB of RAM is good but 16GB is better and more suited to complex tasks. 8GB is plenty big enough more a mid-level user who primarily uses their laptop for browsing and other general tasks.

What is a Hard Drive and What Does My Laptop Need?

The hard drive is the amount of storage (for software, files, images, music, etc.,) you have on your machine. Think of it like a filing cabinet, the bigger the filing cabinet the more files you can keep. There are different types of hard drive.

The most modern and by far the best are called SSD’s, or Solid State Drives. Older hard drives work a bit like a record player with a disk that spins and is read. SSD’s on the other hand have no moving parts which make them less likely to break if you drop your laptop etc. Also SSD’s are considerably faster when it comes reading and saving your files.

Commonly you will see different ratings for hard drives, GB (gigabytes) and TB (Terabytes). Not to get too technical but 1 terabyte is equal to approx. 1000GB. You are better off choosing an SSD over a traditional drive, however as they are so new you don’t get a huge amount of storage for your money but they do make a massive difference to the speed of your machine.

So if you aren’t going to be storing a lot of files on your laptop or can afford an additional external hard drive go for the SSD. If you aren’t too worried about the speed your laptop will work at and you need a lot of space for storage you will find a more affordable machine that has a traditional hard drive (HDD).

See below for examples of how much can be stored of different quantities of storage (this is if you were to use the space for that type of file only and no other app etc):

Storage Digital Photos Digital Music (Songs) Digital Videos (Hours) Movies (Based on 2hrs)
320GB Up to 60,000 Up to 80,000 Up to 320 Up to 80
500GB Up to 100,000 Up to 125,000 Up to 500 Up to 125
750GB Up to 150,000 Up to 187,000 Up to 750 Up to 180
1.0TB Up to 800,000 Up to 250,000 Up to 1000 Up to 250

 

What Does the Graphics Card Do?

Graphics cards are sometimes referred to as graphics processing unit (GPU) and is a special version of a CPU that is specifically designed to create images. The majority of cheaper laptops will not come with a separate graphics card (known as a discrete or dedicated graphics card) as they use the one that is built into the CPU.

Modern CPU’s are very well equipped to deal with what most users will require from their laptop. If you play simple online games on your laptop, in most cases the built in GPU will handle them just fine. If you are planning on using your laptop to play very complex games that run very intensive, realistic graphics, you will be better off buying a laptop that has a GPU / dedicated graphics card.

How Long Will the Laptop Battery Last and What Do I Need?

Most laptop descriptions will inform you of a general guide to how long you can use your laptop before the laptop guides. You will see laptop batteries ranked by a number of factors; Voltage (v) – the rate at which the power is drawn from the battery and milliampere-hours (mAH) – this is how much power the battery can store.

If you are only planning on using your laptop at home where you can easily plug it in to the mains power to charge you won’t need as big a battery for longer life. If however you travel a lot and take you laptop with you, you will want to look out for a laptop that offers a longer use before the battery drains. A bigger battery will offer a longer time of use but will also add to the weight of you machine.

Input and Output – What Connections Should my Laptop Have?

One of the most over looked areas when it comes to buying a laptop is what connections it has. If you have specific plans to connect your laptop to your projector or another monitor you need to ensure your laptop has all the right connections. If you do plan to connect to another visual device like a TV or projector make sure your laptop has either a VGA or HDMI port.

VGA (Video Graphics Array) is the traditional type of connection for this type of thing but is generally being phased out in favour of a HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) connection. The basic difference is that HDMI will run your visual and your sound through it but the VGA will require a separate sound connection.

The other type of connection you will need to look out for is USB ports (Universal Serial Bus). This is a standard connection for most devices like keyboards, a mouse, memory sticks, smartphone connection and so much more. Pay attention to the rating of the USB port a USB 3.0 port will transfer data 10 times quicker than a USB 2.0 port. Not all devices will work with a 3.0 USB port so do check what you plan to connect can support it before buying.

Traditional or 2-in-1 Laptops – Which is Best?

Since the rise in popularity of tablets and iPads the laptop world has developed somewhat on the original ‘clamshell’ design. Now you can choose from the original fold in half design, a 2-in-1 style laptop where the keyboard folds away to leave the screen to be used as a tablet device, or a hybrid that incorporates a traditional laptop with a touchscreen.

So much choice can be confusing when trying to decide what is right for you. If you already own a tablet device you will probably be better buying the traditional style laptop to offer a different range of uses than your laptop provides. If you haven’t got a tablet device or you plan to travel a lot with your machine you might find that the 2-in1 option is more suited to you.

Any device that comes with a touchscreen gives you the easy option of zooming in on small text or images which can be useful. Ultimately this depends on your personal choice. There is no real right or wrong answer but do take the time making this decision as it will affect how you are able to use it.

Summarising Your thoughts

Okay, so we have thrown a lot of information at you over the two parts of this guide but it is worth getting a better understanding of it all before buying your laptop and later realising you needed something different. Take control of your purchase and you will reap the benefits in the long run. Take a look at the list below and make a list of all your answers. It will help you whittle down your options when parting with your hard earned cash and buy the perfect device for your needs.

  • What am I going to use my laptop for?
  • What is my budget?
  • Which operating system do I want?
  • How much RAM do I need?
  • What type of hard drive do I need?
  • Which CPU do I need?
  • What are my graphics card requirements?
  • Is battery life important to me?
  • What input and output connections do I need?
  • What style of laptop do I want?
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Russ Ware

Russ has been testing, reviewing and writing guides for tech since the heady days of Windows 95 and the Sega Saturn. Working for international publications in both print and online, if it has LED's, a screen, beeps or has source code, Russ will want to master it (and very likely take it apart to see how it works...)

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