Help guide: how to buy a laptop or tablet
We'd stake money on the fact that if you're in the market for a new computer, it is a laptop or tablet. Portable computers (of all types) comprise a significant percentage of total PC sales. Problem is with such a huge amount of choice out there anyone who hasn't been keeping up with the market will be left confused, which is why we're going to try to clear things up with this blog post on some tips for buying laptops and tablets.
The laptop market is huge, and hugely profitable, resulting in a mind-boggling number of systems from a wide selection of companies. So how do you know what to go for? Here are some points to consider.
- How big, or small?
Screen size dictates the portability of a laptop. Stating the obvious perhaps, but it's staggering how many people we see using 17 inch laptops on the train. Maybe they're comfortable with it but anything more than a 15-inch screen is going to get very annoying if you're lugging it about frequently, and really 13 or 14-inch is best for portability. A 17-inch model, though, is brilliant as a desktop PC replacement for your home.
The resolution of a screen is also very important. It is possible to get laptops with Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080) or higher but on a 15 or 17 inch display text will be small, so if your eyesight is poor you may struggle to read it. On the flipside a high res will allow you to fit more on the screen, which is particularly helpful when viewing documents and web sites or opening lots of windows. Often it is possible to spend a bit more and upgrade the display, but only do this if you're not going to be squinting at the screen.
If you're at all interested in games then you will need a system with a 'discrete' graphics card. This means it will have its own dedicated memory so won't consume system RAM, and it'll be more powerful than the basic graphics processors found in other systems.
The topic of laptop graphics cards could fill hundreds of blog posts, so you'll need to do a little research on your own. Luckily it's very easy: just go to Notebookcheck.net and locate the graphics card in their list. That will tell you everything you could possibly want to know.
One more thing - some laptops now include switchable graphics, meaning they'll flick between a discrete processor and a basic chipset as necessary. This is very useful. It'll save battery life and still be capable of playing games.
You may actually want to listen to the salesman when they're talking about an extended warranty. Unlike desktops, fixing a laptop isn't always something that can be done at home and there a lot of things which can go wrong. Always check what warranty is included, but don't dismiss the extended option as it's one of those rare times when it can be a worthwhile investment.
- Consider buying a refurb
A refurbished laptop is a great way to save some money. Unwanted returns or systems with minor cosmetic damage can save you hundreds, and because the systems are tested before being sent out are less likely to run into problems. Some companies offer their own refurbs (like the Dell Outlet store) and there are specialist refurb suppliers.
- Try before you buy
Avoid buying a laptop without using it first if you can possibly help it. There might be something you don't like, be it the keyboard layout, position of the trackpad or even the design. Even if you don't intend to purchase anything go to a store and ask to see a demo.
Some models, particularly larger laptops with discrete graphics, can kick out a lot of heat and make a racket. They can even cause permanent marks by toasting your skin (which is why, despite the name, you shouldn't actually use a laptop on your lap). This is something to watch out for so when you're getting a demo ask them to load a high-def video or game to stress the graphics card and CPU.
Netbooks are increasingly being bundled in with dongles instead of laptops and it's important to know exactly how they differ from a laptop as you don't want to end up saddled with the wrong type of computer. If you don't know why it matters we have a blog post which helpfully explains the difference.
While netbooks are very light and portable they are also much slower and a little more awkward to use than laptops.
Being largely used for internet and work the keyboard is among the most important components, but as it's so small the keyboard will be a compromise with some common buttons relegated to secondary functions.
Once again we highly recommend trying before you buy, just go into a computer store and tap away on the display models. Look at the button layout and make sure the keyboard feels firm and responsive.
In terms of specifications...it doesn't really matter. So long as your netbook isn't one of those ridiculous dirt-cheap Windows CE toys and runs Windows XP or 7 with 1-2GB RAM, the other specs don't matter that much.
Almost every netbook right now will have an Intel processor, at least 160GB hard drive and a screen of between 10-12 inches. Look at hardware review sites and you'll find benchmark results, but the fact is this is almost completely irrelevant as notebooks are not suited for anything more than web browsing or word processing. Even the fastest system will collapse under the weight of a video editor or vaguely modern game.
The only metric worth noting is battery life. This is obviously hugely important, and along with the keyboard should be the main thing that shapes your decision. Some can run 10 hours or more, which is enormously useful. Do not buy any netbook until you have checked reviews to get an idea of battery life.
According to market research lots of people end up disastified with their netbook, usually because they're expecting it to perform like a proper computer, but the problem is even the cheapest PC World sale special will outrun a netbook. Great for lobbing in a bag to web browse on the train but not much cop when you're trying to watch Strictly Come Dancing and it's choking on iPlayer.
If you want a PC mainly for home, do not buy a netbook. If you want something for both home and travel, and can afford it, buy a larger laptop as well as a netbook.
Despite what Apple would have us believe tablets were around before the iPad. They just weren't very good. The iPad has achieved exactly what the iPod managed, giving a niche hardware segment accessibility and sex appeal.
As a result, there are now lots of copycat tablets on sale and there are going to be even more next year, so many that the Chinese may have to invent a new Year of the Tablet for their calendar.
But while tablets may be trendy right now, they are not a laptop replacement. Typing on a touch screen is not the same as a physical keyboard and they lack the hardware horsepower (even compared to a netbook), plus there are a number of other limitations which limit their usefulness in this regard.
The operating systems are designed for mobile use with touch screen interfaces and, unless you buy one of the expensive and clunky Windows tablets, will not support standard applications. Peripherals aren't supported - not yet at least - and certainly not by the iPad which lacks a USB port.
Generally speaking they do a few things very well. Web browsing on a large handheld screen is a great deal of fun, they're wonderful media players and gaming - on the iPad at least - is a real blast. Many people are finding that they're a great addition to a home PC and are using them for web browsing and video on the sofa or in bed.
However - and we say this as big fans of Android - the only real choice out there at the moment is the iPad. Android does not yet fully support tablets, which is why some like the Samsung Galaxy Tab are basically huge phones. They need the phone functionality to provide full access to Android Market. Next year a new version of Android, codenamed Honeycomb, will provide tablet specific features, but until then Android tablets are a compromise.
If you want one right now, there are some important things to check. Ongoing support is important as Android is updated often and it is up to manufacturers to provide the updates to their devices. Archos has some Android tablets at less than £300 but its reputation for providing updates is poor.
You'll also want to try them out before you buy as the performance often leaves something to be desired. Next to an iPad even the Galaxy Tab feels sluggish.
Your best bet may be to hold off until 2011. With so many new models as well as the iPad 2 on the way, plus improved Android software, there's going to be a much better choice with improved usability and lower prices.