Friday, January 23, 2015

Laptops: The quick tech guide

Laptops: The quick tech guide

People who don’t care what laptop specs mean, or already understand them, can skip this article. But for those who just want a quick guide through the ocean of letters and numbers may find this helpful! For people who would like to know even more, I've created a guide to the dirty technical stuff.

If you don’t quite understand all of the technical mumbo-jumbo when you’re looking for a computer, that’s OK—that’s what I’m here for! My handy guides are free! Any computer I recommend will be a great value for its speed, quality, reliability, and common-sense pricing. Some (though not all) will also be lightweight and/or have great battery life. Check out my my latest recommendations by clicking the links below!

Quick Guide

Some computers are advertised with an “HD screen” or “a capacious 500 GB hard drive” or “4 GB of RAM for multitasking power.” Don't believe the marketing hype: these specs are standard on even the cheapest $250 Windows laptops!

Most computers come with 15.6-inch screens (measured diagonally), though there is a wide variety, including 11.6-inch, 13.3-inch, 14-inch, and 17.3-inch. Smaller screens, of course, indicate smaller--and therefore lighter and more portable--computers. If you're constantly traveling and carrying your computer around, this may be a consideration.

To save weight, computers with 11.6-inch or 13.3-inch screens typically do not have optical drives to read CDs and DVDs. If this is important to you, you'll want to look at laptops with at least a 14-inch screen. If you don't plan to move your computer around a lot, then weight and portability are probably of less concern than speed and connectivity (multiple ports, optical drives, etc).

Most laptops, particularly those below $600, feature a 1366 x 768 resolution. This is technically HD-quality, so marketers aren’t lying. They’re just falsely implying that lesser options exist on today’s computers.

Similarly, modern computers have 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB mechanical hard drive for storage. Don’t be dazzled by the numbers or the tech-speak: any laptop with numbers smaller than these should be avoided. [Chromebooks and tablets are notable exceptions to this rule, because they’re specifically designed to run on less.]

Marketers also like to advertise their fancy-sounding dual-core or quad-core processors—but even the cheapest chipset produced today is a dual-core! If a computer has a Celeron, Atom, Bay Trail, E1, or E2, stay away. Even though they're dual-core, these processors are usually designed for tablets or very cheap and low-powered computers. These processors are typically too slow.

A fast processor is important—nobody likes to wait on their computer to catch up to them! The processor will usually tell you about the essence of your computer: the faster the processor, the more likely it is to be fast and feature better build quality and a better screen (and a higher price tag).

Sellers who don’t list the exact processor number are probably trying to pull something over, or at least trying to unload cheap products on customers who don’t know the first thing about computers. Don’t trust such sellers farther than you can throw them! Here’s what to look for:

Light users:
An Intel Pentium or an AMD A4 is okay for browsing the Internet or listening to music. Look for the A4-6210, Pentium 3550M, Pentium 3558U, Pentium N3520 to N3540, or the A4-5000. These should come with the standard 4 GB of RAM, 500 GB hard drive, and 1366 x 768 screen resolution (likely a 15.6-inch). Look to spend less than $350 on these.

Caution: Run screaming from the A4-1250—it would have been considered slow 8 years ago; I have no idea why manufacturers use it! The Pentium 2129Y is also slow, and the Pentium B940 through B980 indicate old technology; avoid these as well.

I’d recommend an i3, A6, or A8 for most students, and for everyday home use. A good option will advertise something like the Intel Core i3-4030U. Really, anything from the i3-3000 series, i3-4000 series, or the latest i3-5000 series will be good. Other good options are the AMD A6-6310 or A8-6410 (these two are similar). Look to spend $350-450 on this class of laptop.

If you’re studying engineering, graphic design, programming, music production, or video production, your department probably has specific requirements; ask one of your professors. You’ll likely want discrete graphics, 8 GB of RAM, and at least an i5 processor. Expect to pay at least $700, depending on your requirements. You’ll probably spend a good deal more than that.

            Caution: In hopes of a bigger commission, or perhaps out of tech-loving zeal, sales staff will try to sell you a more powerful computer than you need, in the name of future-proofing. Things will not change that drastically in the next 4-5 years. If your laptop works well now, it’ll be fine (though probably slower than you’d like) in 4 years, if it still runs.

Business professionals:
An Intel i5 or i7 will be even faster than those listed above. A computer with an i7 is a high-end, expensive model, and provides more power than most people need. You’ll probably spend a minimum of $600; be prepared to spend over $1000 if you get one marketed for business, with special features like data encryption or a spill-resistant keyboard.

If you play graphics-intensive titles like Battlefield 4 or Crysis 3, you’ll want a modern discrete graphics chip and at least an i5 processor. A lot of gamers want high-quality screens, too. For a laptop like this, you’ll definitely pay over $1000. There are other, even more expensive options that ultimately add little to the performance, but you’re still looking at a minimum outlay of a grand.

In general:
If you find a laptop with a standard 1366 x 768 screen, i3-3110M or higher-numbered processor, 4 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB hard drive, this is a solid choice. Expect to pay under $450; you can find a few computers like this for under $380.

If you find a similar computer with an AMD A6-6310 or A8-6410, expect to pay under $400; a couple can be found for under $350. You’ll get similar performance from this less expensive computer, but it may be slower on certain tasks than an i3 laptop. If you’d rather keep the extra money in your pocket, look for an AMD-powered computer. It’ll still do well for most people—but it’ll save you money.

Finally, if you want to upgrade your computer, you have two DIY options: add more RAM, or replace the hard drive with a solid-state drive (SSD). Adding RAM is easy for most computers, requiring only that you buy laptop RAM (usually 2 GB or 4 GB), unplug your laptop from the charger and remove the battery, unscrew a panel on the bottom of your laptop, and drop in the RAM. This will help your computer conduct everyday tasks more quickly and efficiently.

The other option will take a little more time and expertise. Buying an SSD, cloning the contents of your mechanical hard drive to the new SSD, and swapping the old hard drive for a new SSD can make your computer quicker at almost everything. However, it takes a while to complete the process, and it can be a pain to troubleshoot. I’m a big fan of this option, though, for several reasons—check out my detailed guide for instructions and helpful links to guide you through the process!