The Laptop Buyer's Guide: Choosing your Hardware

By Morgan Killick

Why do laptop prices vary so widely? After looking at general considerations for any laptop purchase, this article describes some of the variables the prospective laptop buyer will need to consider.

Introduction

The aim of this article is to explain some of the specifications available on the market and to guide you through to making an appropriate choice for your needs. We assume you are already familiar with basic hardware terminology and you have already decided what Operating System, to go for and aware of the need for Antivirus and security software.

So why is it that laptop prices vary so widely? The short answer is the higher the cost, the lighter, more flexible and more portable the device is likely to be. The longer answer, described below, is that when buying a laptop, the purchaser needs to consider several key variables to find the optimum balance between price, portability and performance.

General Considerations

How many of us really reflect on the rationale for buying a laptop instead of a desktop PC? Laptops are more expensive, more susceptible to theft, difficult and pricey to repair, less able to be upgraded, less powerful and more prone to breakage. For all these reasons, laptops should be only considered when a solid reason for not acquiring a desktop PC has been established. A cheap flash drive or memory stick may be a good way to work on files when you are out of the office. Perhaps you have a server system at work which allows you to dial-in?  Maybe a PDA is a better solution if you just need email on-the-go? (see Knowledgebase article Understanding PDA's) These days, the peripatetic or 'remote worker' is more likely to need internet access than anything. Don't forget that a laptop in itself will not resolve that issue.

Assuming you are still convinced that it's a laptop you need, consider these variables:

  1. Battery life - does the laptop need to be used where there is no power available?
  2. How portable does it need to be? How light, and how compact?
  3. What types of connection does it need? Wireless? Bluetooth? Network?
  4. How powerful does it need to be? What software will it actually run?
  5. Does it need to run any 3D software?
  6. What optical drives does it need?
  7. Should you buy an extended warranty?

We now look in more detail at each of these factors in turn:

Battery Life

The range of battery life available in laptops is quite large - from 1 to 6 hours. It is also possible to adjust the Power options in Windows to make more effective use of battery power. However, this is unlikely to prolong the power by more than 10-15%. One has to bear in mind that laptops like to turn themselves off well before the battery is finally exhausted, so a quoted 3 hour battery life may actually only turn out to be more like 2 hours of actual useage. Battery life is a major price determinant, but there are however some exceptions in the low and mid range, so look out for a bargain!

Portability

Portability is not just about sheer weight. Screen sizes dramatically affect both the battery drain and the cumbersomeness of the device. A 'widescreen' 15.4" laptop is significantly larger than its 15" counterpart. At the expensive end of the market, there is a high premium for a sleek, slim design that is both lightweight and elegant, but if you are after portability on a budget, a 14" screen size on a mid range laptop is highly portable. If you need a bigger screen in the office, you could always plug in a larger monitor on the laptops spare VGA port?

Connections

Wireless networking (or WiFi) is now a standard feature on laptops and it is hard to find one without it. Similarly, an old fashioned 56k modem and an Ethernet 'network' port are found on most laptops (but do check!). Bluetooth can be a useful component of a laptop, but an external Bluetooth USB adapter (so-called 'dongle') is only £20 or so, so it may not be worth the extra to have it built-in. One thing that certainly won't come with your laptop is internet access. It will need to be connected to a company network either by WIFI or network cable to get broadband, or to a moble phone by Bluetooth to use GPRS. The other alternative an add-on card, that plugs into the side of the laptop and involves a monthly subscription purchased separately.

Performance (RAM & Processor)

Unlike desktop PC's, some of the factors above may well be more important for your laptop that hardware performance. 512Mb RAM is still the recommended minimum to run Windows and Office software, although if you are considering Vista, Office 2007 or using your laptop for intensive graphics tasks, you may be better with 1Gb. Laptop RAM can be often be upgraded quite easily (it is usually just a little flap underneath) and you may find that buying a 512Mb RAM upgrade is actually cheaper than looking for a 1Gb laptop. As far as processors go, 'dual core' are now quite cost effective if you need high performance, but they may have a cost in terms of battery life and price, so if you don't need 'dual core', don't bother! Hard disk speeds in laptops are usually the main bottleneck in performance and you would have to pay a small fortune for one that is faster than the default 5400 RPM - 25% slower than most desktop PC's.

Graphics Capabilities

Playing games on a laptop is an increasingly common requirement as more and more people seek to combine work and pleasure on their computers. Most 'business' class laptops do not have very powerful graphics capabilities. If you need gaming, or 3D design applications on your laptop, look for one with a recognisable graphics chipset - typically nVidia or ATI - and memory rating (128Mb or 256Mb are adequate). If you don't do either of these, any specification will do.

Optical Drives

Although it is easy to buy external CD and DVD drives and writers at a later date, it might be worth looking at having the right optical drive for you built-in. Due to the ubiquity of the DVD format, it is rare to find a laptop that can't at least read DVD's. The main choice in optical drives then is between plain DVD-ROM (read only), a Combo drive (combined CD writer and DVD player), and a DVD-RW (both writes and read CD's and DVD's). For lots of extra money, you can also get Blu-Ray and Dual-Layer DVD drives.

Warranty Options

Many people are ambivalent on extended warranties on electrical equipment. We suggest that laptops are a bit different. They are expensive to repair and the parts are hard to find. Manufacturers' warranties are worth considering for laptops. All goods sold in the UK have to carry a 12 month warranty, but most work on a Return-to-Base (RTB) basis. This means you posting it off with plenty of insurance. Swapping to an extended (usually 3 year) 'Collect and Return' warranty will mean that the manufacturers will do all the leg work if it breaks, and you can cap the cost of the hardware for the next three years. Some warranties cover accidental damage too, which in the case of a laptop is a big advantage. Expect to pay £75-£120 for a 3 year warranty. One word of caution though - manufacturers wont rectify problems with the software, so don't expect help if Windows goes wrong or if you get a virus!

Conclusion

You should now be familiar with the main variables and determinants of laptop specs, and their corresponding prices. We conclude the article with a table showing three very different scenarios and thus three very different laptops. See if you can spot what pushes the prices up!

N.B. This table is indicative only and is intended as guide. Actual specifications and prices vary considerably.

laptop specifications
Variable
Occasional PresentationOffice UserDeveloper
Usage Profile This is a laptop that lives most of its life in a cupboard. Occasionally it will be brought out to do a powerpoint presentation or access the internet This laptop is for a senior office professional. They will sometimes need to wok on Office programs and accounts software at home and on the train. Having a laptop on during meetings is also useful. Demonstrating advanced software to clients and performing a variety of roles including graphic design and AV functions requires a fast processor. Being both a designer and a techi, image is important too and having the latest kit is considered part of the job.
Battery Life 2 hours 3.5 hours 4 hours
Portability Not a factor.
Weight 2.9Kg.
Screen 15.4".
Important.
Weight 2.3Kg.
Screen 14".
Very important.
Sleek design.
Weight 1.7Kg.
13" screen.
Connections WiFi WiFi WiFi & Bluetooth
Performance 512Mb RAM
Intel Celeron M 1.7Ghz
1G RAM
Intel Core 2 Duo T5500
1.8Ghz
2Gb RAM
Intel Duo Core T7200
2.0Ghz
Graphics Not a factor Not a factor Nvidia GeForce 128Mb
Optical Combo DVD-RW DVD-RW BluRay Multi
Warranty Standard 3 year collect & return 3 year onsite with accidental damage
Typical Model Entry level Dell, Acer, Lenovo. Mid range HP, Fujitsu, NEC. High end Toshiba Portege or Sony Vaio
Price Range £250-350 £400-700 £1000+

 

Copyright © 2007 Morgan Killick

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


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