Friday, January 23, 2015

Laptops: A detailed guide to the dirty technical stuff

Laptops: A detailed guide to the dirty technical stuff


For those who only want a quick guide to what you should know before shopping for a computer, check out my quick tech guide. For the curious folks who would like to know more details, read on!


Processor
What to look for
The key to speedy computing is the processor. Even the lowest-end processors today are dual-core, which means that they can run two processes simultaneously. Don’t be taken in by manufacturers who proudly advertise their ‘dual-core processors for fast computing.’ Dual-core chips are the cheapest ones; dual-core hyperthread technology (as on some versions of the Intel i5) allows for the processor to run four processes simultaneously, as do quad-core processors like the AMD A6 or A8. The highest-end processors for consumer applications are quad-core hyperthread (most Intel i7) or even octa-core processors (like the AMD FX-8300, which is meant for desktops, not laptops). Essentially, more cores are better—but more cores also require more power, so the fastest laptops get poor battery life compared to their lower-powered cousins.

Intel is the major manufacturer in mobile computers right now, and they position their Core i series as the primary options: the i3 is supposed to represent the entry-level option, the i5 is the medium option, and the i7 is for the most powerful (and most expensive) computers.

An i5, as in the Zenbook UX303LA listed in my guide to Premium Computers 2015, is both fast and power-efficient. The i5 is the master of all trades, with enough power for almost any task without being too expensive or using too much power. However, not everybody wants to spend the $500+ on a powerful computer with an i5.

The i7, the highest-end processor, is usually the fastest, but any speed difference between an i5 and an i7 is probably not noticeable in real-world use. Unless you do a processor-intensive task, like running a CAD program, playing certain processor-intensive video games, or converting hours’ worth of music files into a different format (like mp3 to aac), then you don’t need to spend the $1000+ that it usually takes to get an i7. And you may not even need to pony up the money for an i5!

For the vast majority of people, an Intel i3 (which is slower and cheaper than an i5) still provides plenty of power. Don’t pay more than $500 for an i3-powered computer; the more powerful i5s are often available in computers that cost over $500.

Pentium represents a step down from the Core i series. It wasn’t always this way—in the 1990s, Pentium served as the halo of the Intel brand. When Weird Al sang “it’s all about the Pentiums, baby!” he wasn’t talking about Intel’s next-to-slowest processors—he was talking about what was, at the time, their fastest! (Digression over.)

The latest Pentium processors are actually fairly capable, and would serve many people’s needs (web browsing, word processing, slideshows, watching movies and videos, etc.) without a problem. A lot of people would automatically count them out, but don’t be so quick to join them! If your needs are simple and you’re looking for a computer for under $350, a Pentium should be a good option!

Celeron processors are the weakest Intel processor these days. They are often used in tablets and budget computers under $300. As better value can be found in sales on faster computers, I rarely recommend Celeron-powered computers. For the most basic uses, a Celeron is fine, but you'll regret being cheap if you ever need to do something more demanding!

Which generation?
Newer generations of processors are typically more powerful and more power-efficient than their predecessors. How can you tell which processor is which generation? After the i3, i5, or i7 designation, a series of 4-digit numbers are affixed. Examples include the i3-3110M, i5-3210M, and i7-3612QM. The ‘3xxx’ indicates a third-generation, or “Ivy Bridge” i3, and the ‘M’ (for ‘mobile’) indicates a processor intended for a laptop. 4xxx indicates a fourth-generation “Haswell” processor (ex: i3-4010U); 5xxx denotes the brand-new Broadwell processors (ex: i5-5200U). Broadwell is the most power-efficient Core i to date.

The common ‘U’ designation (ex: i3-3217U; 3rd-generation) indicates a processor designed to use less power, and hence extend battery life (compared to a processor labeled with an M, like the i3-3120M). The less-common ‘Y’ (ex: i5-4210Y; 4th-gen) indicates an ultra-low-power processor that aggressively conserves battery power, even at the cost of top-end performance.

Pentium and Celeron processors were also made in the same generations. The Pentium 2020M or 2127U, for example, are based on the Ivy Bridge architecture, just like the i3-3110M or i5-3210M. Haswell-based Pentiums include the 3558U, 3560Y (this one is rather slow), and 3550M. Haswell-based Celerons include the 2950M, 2955U, and 2970M.

As processor performance improves from generation to generation, you’ll see more ‘U’ and ‘Y’ processors. For most modern (3rd and 4th-gen, and especially the newest 5th-gen) processors, performance is so good that manufacturers are more concerned about improving battery life than top-end speed. The first 5th-gen (Broadwell) processors to be announced include the i3-5010U, i5-5200U, i5-5257U, i7-5500U, Pentium 3805U, and Celeron 3755U, as well as the new Core M processors, designed for use in fanless computers and tablets (by requiring little electricity and generating little heat).

You may have noticed that I only discussed the third generation and onward. The 2000-series, or Sandy Bridge, represents the second generation of the Core i series (ex, an i7-2617M). I wouldn’t recommend computers with these older Sandy Bridge processors (let alone the even older Westmere/Nehalem chips!), because newer processors will feature superior speed and battery life.

Intel isn’t the only manufacturer in the game. Through some shady tactics (offering big rebates to manufacturers who sold a certain number of computers with Intel processors—a tactic that cost them a billion dollars in an anti-trust lawsuit in the US), Intel nearly drove rival AMD out of business about 7 years ago. Unfortunately, AMD is still struggling today, in January 2015. They are hanging on, though, and they’re shifting their strategy a bit to leverage their greatest strength, which is in graphics performance (rendering games, movies, videos, ultra-high-resolution pictures, and so forth).

AMD’s processors tend to be a bit cheaper than comparable processors from Intel, and AMD’s processors also tend to have better integrated graphics capabilities. With the ever-improving technology produced by both companies, the difference in graphics becomes less meaningful, though AMD continues to make innovative changes to processor design and operation.

AMD processors have a hierarchy of their own. The E1 and E2 processors are the slowest offerings from AMD, comparable to Intel’s Celeron. AMD’s E1 and E2 are found in the cheapest laptops, the sub-$300 examples that just get the job done for people with limited needs. Only the latest E2 processors, like the E2-3800 or the newer E2-6110, are powerful enough to avoid causing their owners frustration.

The next step up is the A4. The latest A4 processors, like the A4-5150M, are comparable to Pentiums: solid but unspectacular. The A6, A8, and A10 are often compared to Intel’s i3. The A8 and A10 perform comparably to Intel's i3, and sometimes the comparison favors the AMD! For example, AMD's processors feature better integrated graphics, for better performance on games or HD videos. On the most demanding processor-intensive tasks, however, the i3 often pulls ahead.

In any case, just look for the lowest price when comparing computers with an A6, A8, or i3. AMD-powered laptops, though relatively rare, are typically cheaper than their Intel competitors, even though everyday performance will be similar.

The generations of AMD processors are a little tougher to pick out than Intel’s more logical layout. The A4-5150M mentioned above is part of the 3rd generation of AMD’s processors, not the fifth. The first generation, called “Llano,” started numbering in the 3000s, as in the A6-3420M [do yourself a favor and avoid these. Just like their Intel Sandy Bridge counterparts, they’re neither fast nor power-efficient]. The second generation, called Trinity, used numbering in the 4000s, like the A8-4555M. Richland followed in the 5000s (the A4-5150M is in this third generation), Beema (ultra-low-power chips) came after Richland, and Kaveri (numbered in the 7000s) is the most recent.

Kaveri is too young and shy to make an appearance in laptops right now. Mobile processors based on Kaveri architecture are expected later in 2015, but until then, Intel processors can be found in about 90% of laptops sold today. Ouch—looks like Intel’s illegal practices caused them to lose the legal battle but win the sales war :(

Graphics
People who render high-quality pictures or video, or those who play intensive video games, prefer not only fast processors, but a capable discrete graphics card as well--an area where AMD actually has an marked advantage over rival Intel. Discrete graphics are essentially a separate processor dedicated just to rendering visual information, like games or high-definition videos.

If you don’t plan to do photo/video editing or play graphically intensive computer games on your laptop, then you don’t need a computer with discrete graphics. Discrete graphics are only necessary for the most intensive tasks. 

You may remember the lag on older computers: if you'd open a bunch of browser tabs or a couple different programs, and then minimize everything, the desktop would not appear at first. Then, slowly, the desktop would fill in, right before your eyes!

This occurred when the integrated graphics were stretched beyond their limits. That isn't likely to happen on modern computers, as improvements in processor technology have enabled more powerful and more efficient data processing. Integrated graphics are fine for most uses, including watching high-def movies, or even playing some light games like The Sims or World of Warcraft.

If no discrete graphics are listed, like NVIDIA GeForce or Radeon R9, then a computer comes only with integrated graphics (as part of the chip containing the CPU). If you’re not getting something marketed for gamers, and costing over $1000, it probably doesn’t have discrete graphics...and that's okay! Most modern integrated graphics are capable of just about anything a typical consumer would want to do, from playing Blu-ray movies, to powering high-resolution screens.

The good news for budget-oriented consumers is that you won't need discrete graphics for anything short of running graphically-intensive programs like Photoshop or CAD, or playing demanding games like Battlefield 4, Metro: Last Light, or Crysis 3.

RAM
RAM allows you to more easily multitask. In general, more is better, but more than 8 GB of RAM is completely unnecessary for all but a few people who do highly specialized tasks. 8 GB of RAM will enable people to do most demanding tasks. Got a dozen browser tabs open, as well as playing music, editing a Word document and creating a PowerPoint all at once? No problem!

More RAM is also good for running intensive programs, like Photoshop or AutoCAD. Of course, if you’re using programs like this, you’ll probably want discrete graphics as well. The computers I recommend come with 4-8 GB of RAM. If you ever need more RAM, it’s usually easy to upgrade (but check into your particular computer before making an attempt to add more RAM).

Screen
The standard laptop screen is a 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display. Manufacturers call this an HD display, but I refer to such screens as “standard” displays, because these screens are used on everything from the cheapest $200 laptops, to those that cost $800+. These displays are typically fairly good, and unless you’re used to a higher-resolution screen, you probably won’t mind one of these displays.

Higher-end computers will frequently have 1920 x 1080 displays, commonly referred to as “Full HD.” These screens will be a little clearer and more detailed, especially if you’re looking at a hi-res image, small text, or a fast-moving picture (like a game or HD movie).

Some manufacturers prefer to outdo their competitors with ridiculous resolutions, like the 2560 x 1600, 3200 x 1800, or 3840 x 2160 “4k” displays seen on some expensive laptops. With these screens, you’ll constantly have to zoom in to things you want to see, because automatic scaling for these resolutions isn’t always good in Windows. If you’re one of a handful of people who edit photos or videos professionally, you probably have a desktop computer with a hi-res monitor, and you may not need an ultra-high-resolution screen for your laptop. If you don’t get paid for photo/video editing, it just amounts to a useless spec war between manufacturers.

Another point to consider with laptop screens is the type of screen. TN panels are common, especially in the standard 1366 x 768 display common in lower-end computers. IPS displays are more common in the higher-end laptops, because they have wider viewing angles and truer color reproduction. However, IPS displays aren’t as good for watching fast-moving images (such as sporting events, action movies, or computer games), because they leave a gray trail behind a fast-moving subject. (A great explanation of the difference between TN and IPS displays can be found here: http://www.slrlounge.com/what-is-an-ips-monitor-understanding-ips-displays/) So, pick your screen wisely!

Data storage
Most computers, particularly the lower-priced ones, come equipped with 500 GB, 5400 rpm hard drives. This is where all your data is stored, including the operating system and all of your programs, along with your documents, pictures, and videos. Hard drives are mechanical devices, with a spinning platter on the inside that must be read by a little mechanical head. The concept is similar to that of a record player. This governs how fast your computer will start, how fast programs will open, and how fast any sort of data can be read or transferred.

The standard 500 GB hard drive is tried-and-true technology. It’s relatively cheap, allows you to store massive amounts of data, and is generally reliable. Though most mechanical hard drives spin the platter at 5400 rpm, there are faster 7200 rpm versions available for speed demons. Obviously, faster is better here. There are also various amounts of storage space. A few drives come in smaller 320 GB capacities; it is more common to see 750 GB or 1 TB (that is, 1024 GB) hard drives for even more storage space!

The more data you store on a hard drive, though, the longer it takes to find the data you’re looking for. With a full hard drive, your computer will take noticeably longer to start, to open and run programs, to read files, and to shut down. Another problem with these drives is that, if you drop a laptop equipped with a hard drive, the head can break off due to the force of impact. This will render your computer useless until the drive is replaced.

What if I told you there was a different kind of drive; one that runs at least 3 times faster than even the fastest mechanical hard drive? What if I told you that such drives are also more reliable than mechanical hard drives, and they are less prone to break when the computer is dropped? What if I told you that this drive also extended the battery life of a laptop, because it draws less power than a mechanical hard drive?

Well, that technology has been around for several years: it’s called a solid-state drive, or SSD, and it isn’t terribly different from a common flash drive (also known as USB drives or thumb drives or jump drives). Tablets and Chromebooks almost always feature small SSDs, as do smartphones. Capacities of 16, 32, and 64 GB are common for these smaller devices. Apple also uses SSDs for their laptops, like the MacBook Air. Computers like this usually feature 128 GB SSDs, and the more expensive ones may have a 256 GB, or even a 512 GB SSD.

You’re on the right track if your first reaction is, “How much more expensive is this solid-state drive?” Though smaller-capacity 128 GB SSDs cost only a few dollars more than their 500 GB mechanical counterparts, they obviously offer much less storage. But what they lack in storage, they make up for in speed and reliability! 128 GB is the smallest SSD you’ll see offered in a commercial laptop today (120 GB SSDs are sold to customers, but manufacturers don’t include these in any computers that I’ve ever seen). There are SSDs with almost a TB of storage, but they generally cost around $500—more than some computers!

The obvious disadvantage of reduced storage space in a reasonably-priced SSD can be ameliorated by combining both types of drive into a single package. Solid-state hybrid drives consist of a traditional mechanical hard drive, operating in concert with a small (often a 16, 24, or 32 GB) solid-state drive. The operating system runs on the SSD part, leaving the hard drive for storage.

Hybrid drives, however, do not achieve the speed or the reliability of a true SSD, and they often cost more than an SSD. Bearing the weaknesses of a mechanical drive and the costs of a solid-state drive, these hybrid drives represent a flawed compromise that doesn’t really fix the problems with either kind of drive. Therefore, I recommend going with a true SSD if you can.

128 GB SSDs usually come in computers that cost close to $1000; versions featuring 256 or 512 GB SSDs command an even heftier premium. This irks me a bit—it’s an example of manufacturers purposefully keeping costs higher than they need to be.

SSDs should be offered in sub-$500 computers. Here’s why: an ASUS D550CA with a capable (though old) i3-3217U costs under $400 (as of the time of writing, it goes for about $370 on Amazon), and a 128 GB Crucial MX100 or 120 GB Silicon Power S70 SSD costs around $60.

I can buy these two items (along with a $10 SATA-to-USB cable like this one) and use a free cloning program to copy all the information (crucially, the copy of Windows that’s included on a new computer) from the hard drive to the SSD. Once that’s done, I unscrew a panel on the bottom of the laptop, remove the original hard drive, and replace it with the SSD. It really is that easy—there are tutorials online (like this or this), as well as YouTube guides (like this or this), so you can see for yourself!

So, for $440 and a bit of work, an SSD installation will give me a computer that will run much faster than with the stock hard drive, last longer on a single charge, and be less likely to go kaput if I’m clumsy and drop the laptop.

But why can’t the manufacturer save me the hassle? Like many people, I’d prefer to skip all that crap! If ASUS offered a version of the D550 that came with an SSD, I’d jump on it (and I’m sure I’m not alone), despite the fact that they’d probably charge more than $440. Any manufacturer who offered an i3 (or A6)-powered laptop with an SSD for under $500 would sell out in a hurry!

For reasons I can’t fathom, manufacturers insist on including SSDs only in the premium laptops. Lower-powered laptops can benefit from the SSD speed boost and battery life extension just like a fancier, more powerful laptop can! You’d think somebody else would have seized upon this idea by now, but I guess that’s wishful thinking. If you want an SSD in a sub-$500 laptop, you’ll have to do it yourself, at least for now...

I hope this guide was helpful! Without further ado, here are my favorite laptops for 2015:


Happy saving!