Getting a new laptop: a quick how to

Over the last year and a half, we have seen a trend shift in consumer PC buying. We are selling more laptops than desktops and being asked about what laptops people should be buying for home use. Here is a brief guide as to what to look for in a laptop and how to buy.

More than desktops, laptops are more of a personal preference type of purchase. Not getting yourself the right laptop could be expensive down the road as laptops are not as easily upgraded as most desktop systems (Processors, RAM and Hard Drives) and when they can be upgraded it is more expensive than desktop components. You have to evaluate what you will be using the machine for now and in the future.

A few factors that you should think about when looking at a new laptop. Is it going to be a desktop replacement or a secondary machine? Do you plan on using for surfing the net, word processing and email or will you be gaming and editing photos and video on it as well? Will it be used away from power sources on a regular basis, what kind of battery life do you need? Will you be travelling with the machine frequently? Are there any special applications that will be used on the machine or special hardware needs? All of these questions need to be answered so that you get the right machine for your personal needs.

There are several classes of laptops available to purchase now a days. There are entry level machines, Ultra Portable machines, portables or mobile, desktop replacements, convertibles, tablets and mid level machines. Typically what you will find is that entry level machines, are usually bigger, lesser powerful and do not have the same battery life as more advanced models.

New, used or refurbished? In the Calgary area there are several dealers that sell refurbished and used machines. They sell machines that have been refreshed out of corporations. Refurbished machines are typically machines that have been sent back to a manufacturer for repairs, and the manufacturers have replaced their clients machines then fixed the broken machines and resold them to these dealers. In most cases refurbished machines can be a very good deal for a buyer, but there can be some lingering problems with these machines. They do not always come with a full manufacturer’s warranty although dealers may offer extended warranties. Used machines on the other hand can be a very risky and costly purchase. The biggest problem is usually the battery life of these machines. Batteries for the most part do well for about a year of charging, discharging and charging again. After a year they tend to start to lose their effectiveness and their life. I have seen used machines with battery life as short as 25 minutes! Replacement laptop batteries (especially the original laptop manufacturers) are not all that inexpensive. In addition the technology is typically older and it may not be able to run applications that you will want it to. Components may also have limited lifespan and there is usually no or little (30 days) warranty on these machines. Hard Drives are moving parts and do have a projected lifetime and are usually the most common point of failure in machines. I usually advise clients against used laptops for these reasons, unless they are on a very tight budget, only need the machine for basic usage and don’t need the battery life. I myself recently purchased a used laptop to run a specific set of applications and cameras for astronomy because some of my hardware and applications are not supported on my Vista laptop yet (and one will never be). I picked up a used Dell laptop with XP Home and the basics that I needed for 400.00. Before I purchased the machine I checked the battery in the store carefully (unplugged and replugged the AC adaptor). I was lucky since it was a Dell machine the battery had been replaced in last fall’s Dell Battery recall. New machines are usually your safest bet, but cost a little (or a lot more) than the other two options. With a new machine, you typically get the latest and greatest technologies as well as a full manufacturer’s warranty.

Low Cost Entry Level Laptops.
While these machines are usually quite inexpensive, you often get what you are paying for. Often these machines have very little RAM, either desktop or low powered processors (Celerons and Semprons) as well as smaller batteries (4 cell) as opposed to 6 or 8 celled batteries. Power Management is usually something that is lacking with the desktop based processors and combining that with a small battery leads to very short battery life. These machines also usually feature integrated graphics cards using shared memory and if the amount of memory is low to begin with, the integrated cards will not be able to do any type of graphics work or gaming. They typically have slower hard drives as well.

Entry Level Laptops.
Some of these machines are actually quite good. You can get a half decent entry level machine for 850.00 to 1000.00. These typically are 15.4″ widescreen displays, 1 GB of Ram and a decent mobile processor. This is what I would consider the minimum specs for an all purpose laptop. These usually weigh in around 7 lbs and offer about 2 hours of battery life (more if you are aggressive with your power management). They can be a little big if you intend to move around with your laptop a bit. These are suitable as desktop replacements. Some of these machines can also be found with discrete graphics cards which are good for gaming and photo editing.

Mid Level Machines.
These start at around 1100.00 and run to 1800.00 and are available in a variety of form factors. You can get these from 14.1″ Widescreens to 17″ Widescreens. A couple of things that I suggest looking for are newer processors, 1 to 2 GB of Ram. A SATA or 5400 RPM PATA hard drive (7200 RPM is best) in sizes from 100GB to 160 GB. If you plan on gaming look for a discrete graphics card with its own dedicated memory.

If you want a small portable machine for carrying around you are typically looking at spending about 1700.00 or more. Making a machine smaller does cost more. These also come in a variety of form factors that include convertible laptops (pivoting screens) and tablets (pen based computing). These machines sometimes come with lower processor speeds but are designed to maximize the battery life.

Desktop Replacements.
These are usually large machines, featuring 17″ widescreen displays. They are not really designed to be moved around a lot but they can be. If you are just looking at a way of conserving space in your home this might be the wait to go. These machines often offer a full feature sets including discrete graphics and are often very suitable as a complete desktop replacement.

What to look for.
A couple of things you can look for in a machine. I always suggest to clients to look at some machines in some computer stores. See if there is a design and a form factor (screen size) that works for your needs. Then look for the following features.

If you have a lot of peripheral’s that you want to connect and will be travelling with the machine try to find a machine with 3 or more USB ports. If battery life is important look for at least a 6 cell battery. If you want to edit video, look for a firewire or 1394 port and maybe an S Video out port. If you plan on gaming, look for a discrete graphics card with its own memory as opposed to an integrated graphics card.

We here at Sysguy Consulting offer several brands of laptops from a good selection of Manufacturer’s including ASUS, ACER, chromebook under 300 which is an amazing laptop on the go,Fujitsu, HP/COMPAQ, LG and Sony. We can also custom build a laptop for you with ASUS shells and Verified by Intel Components. This way we can build a machine to meet your needs and not what only the manufacturer offers. To some degree these machines can be upgraded in the future (processors, hard drives etc) and are available with extended warranties. Please contact us if to see if we can help you with your next laptop purchase.

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