There comes a time when your much loved personal computer, whether it’s a Laptop or Desktop PC, becomes “beyond economic repair” or upgrade and inevitably needs replacing. Don’t just rush out to buy the next “best” thing that’s on offer at your local retailer, take a little time to read through my guide for considering a new machine.
One thing I would like to point out is that there is no “best computer or laptop to buy” or “the best make”, there is only “the best computer or laptop to suit your needs”. There are however manufacturers that have loads of experience in building computers and laptops to do certain jobs and these computers are usually in the £500+ and above price band. Then there are manufacturers that use lower quality components in order to give value for money with lesser experience in the market which are anything from £400 and lower. These cheaper or lower-end computers are usually a disappointment to most people because the overall lifespan of the machine is much less than a higher quality machine and more often than not suffer dramatically from “Laptop Slowdown”.
What to consider first
When you decide that you need to get a new computer there are so many factors that you should really consider before splashing out your hard earned cash on your next technological partner. The most obvious is budget, second to that platform (Mobile or Desktop) which does have a major governing factor over budget, thirdly “What is it’s primary job going to be?” and lastly, “Do you require Touch Input?”.
Most people these days are only interested in Laptop and Notebook or even Tablet computers, but if you want a machine that will have a longer lifespan overall the Desktop PC will live longer, is cheaper and usually more powerful delivering a better overall experience of everything a Mobile Computer will give, the only drawback is you are limited to where you can use it and this affects what you can do on it in a big way.
Firstly, think about what you do on your current machine (if you currently have one, if not just think about what you would do on someone else’s), what you expect to be able to do with your new machine should be similar unless you’re planning on buying a more powerful machine because of a change in what you require it to do. Most of us are consumers in that we use media and services that are generally produced for us so therefore don’t need hugely powerful systems to enjoy and use that media and the services available, so a lower-end laptop or mobile computer will probably do just fine. There are some common drawbacks with lower-end laptops and mobile computers though.
If on the other hand you produce media then you should think about what exactly it is you create and how your current machine performs when doing so and where you will be when doing this work. Generally people who create media use a desktop system, but again with today’s mobile processors the power available in a laptop or notebook computer is far above the requirements of some, yet not quite enough for others and because of this there is a change in how people create. I’m writing this blog post on a 4 year old laptop which is more than powerful enough for this task, but if I were required to start producing graphics then I would be pushing the laptop nearer to it’s limits. It’s OK for non complex graphical work on say photo editing like cropping, resizing, red-eye removal and the like, but move on to multi-layered imagery programs like Gimp, Photoshop and CAD and then it starts to struggle. I would move over to my Workstation, which is a very powerful Desktop PC, for this sort of work not just because of the processing power available to me, but because generally I like to keep work separate from entertainment.
Laptops and Mobile Computers
Modern laptops and mobile computers are great for a number of tasks and these days are very powerful tools that can do pretty much what a desktop PC of a couple or so years ago could do. That’s not to say that desktop PCs are getting slower, it’s primarily because the power of today’s mobile processors are increasing with great momentum. If you enjoy watching Video On Demand, DVDs or Blue-rays then a laptop which has a blue-ray drive will be quite capable and will usually incorporate an HDMI connection with which you can output the media to a HD TV or Display through.
If you need to be able to take your work with you on the move, or if you simply don’t have one place where you can do your work all the time then a laptop computer is probably the way to go. If it’s primary function is for work, you should probably consider spending more money on this device so that it has at least enough processing power for the tasks you’re going to be doing. Internal storage capacity is important to a certain extent, but not essential because of the multitude of external storage devices available for expansion and backup. Always backup to an external device or media.
You can do more complex things with a modern mobile computer like Video Editing, Multi-Layered Graphics and even play some high end games. When I mention games, I’m not talking about the little web browser games like Angry Birds and Bejeweled etc. that you can play on social sites, I’m talking about games that people would usually consider playing on a games console that usually require a high powered processor and graphics adaptor. I wouldn’t suggest buying a laptop or mobile computer if video editing is your thing, even though they can, because of a number of factors that govern the speed of the processor using a mobile device for this is not recommended. Mobile devices are designed around battery longevity and processor intensive operations such as video editing and graphical work stress the processor immensely which will in turn thrash the battery and all the cooling components. You will also suffer from “Laptop Slowdown” (See below for a section on Laptop Slowdown).
There are many different types of mobile computers out there and they are all suited to certain jobs, mainly consuming video and entertainment services, but move up the price band and you can be surprised at what your device will be capable of.
There is also the battery that must be taken into consideration. Most manufacturers only guarantee your laptop or mobile device’s battery for around 6 months or a certain number of charges and discharges. Modern batteries are classed as consumables because the battery will degrade over time to the point that it will not charge or will not hold a charge of enough power to run your laptop for enough time to unplug from the mains to plug in elsewhere so be prepared to have to replace the battery around once a year.
For important information regarding the care and replacement of batteries in mobile devices see my article “Buying replacement batteries for Laptops and other Mobile Devices“.
External Hard Disk Drive or Storage Media
Don’t be fooled by fancy gizmos, carrying cases or massive storage capacities to tempt you into purchasing a computer. You can buy carrying cases and accessories for all computers on the world famous ebay and on Amazon and even in some retailers at great prices. The one thing you really should consider is an external hard disk drive or storage media of some kind. Remember that this computer is a mobile device and therefore very portable and a keen target of theft or even loss. If you don’t back up your stuff onto an external device you have lost it for good under those circumstances. With all computers there is the risk of catastrophic failure of the hard drive or storage device leading to expensive data recovery charges so backing up should be a priority whether it’s a mobile or desktop computer.
Lower end laptops and notebooks can sufficiently provide decent quality video playback while giving you the freedom of mobility, but try to do more complex things with them and they will most likely disappoint. Mobile processors have a special kind of design within the technology which enables the processor to speed up and slow down according to the demands you put on it and the reason for this is energy efficiency with battery life in mind. Stressing the processor will cause it to warm up considerably, and while the small size of mobile computers is a benefit, it is also a drawback because of the lack of space for sufficient cooling of the components that heat up when working hard. To combat this lack of space there is also a technology that has the ability to slow the processor down when temperatures reach certain thresholds in order to give the cooling components a chance to dissipate the heat that’s been generated.
You may have noticed this inadvertent downfall of the technology at work in your older laptop. Your laptop seems nice and quick when woken up or started up from cold, but when you watch an HD video or after it’s been on for a little while the playback of HD videos becomes steppy or the performance of your laptop becomes sluggish, all the while the fan is thrashing itself trying to blow the heat out through the vents at the side or back of your laptop. Usually the main cause for this is the heat spreader or heat-sink has become clogged up with dust which reduces the ability to dissipate the heat into the air. Sometimes it can be cured by cleaning, but more often than that it is incurable because of the amount of software and processes running due to software updates and programs you need to use.
The laptop I am using was originally shipped with Windows Vista, I later installed Windows 7 on it and because of the way Windows runs it requires a large amount of processing power just to sit and idle, so in order to extend the lifespan of my laptop I replaced Windows altogether with Ubuntu, a sleek fast Linux operating system that allows me to do everything I could do before at much less demand on the processor. Higher-end laptops are not free of “Laptop Slowdown” but don’t usually suffer as much from it because the processor is not working as hard as a lower end laptop to do the same tasks. That doesn’t mean they’re not affected by it, all mobile devices will eventually suffer from it.
As with all technology the more it costs, the better it will be. Spending more means not only will it be able to do more but as a rule higher quality and smaller components are used and a bi-product of this is it will raise the efficiency because smaller components use less power and generate less heat.
One thing I’ve always said to people who ask is, “If you want to play games, get a games console and don’t expect your laptop or computer to do the job.” I still stick by this because although modern mobile computers are capable, it doesn’t mean it will be simple!
“So why did you mention gaming then?” I hear you ask. That was simply to point out the boost in processing power of today’s mobile devices. The reason I stand by this is because games consoles are designed to make the process of getting a game running with the lowest amount of effort on your part and being able to play it in the simplest possible way. Trying to get a high-end game running on a PC or mobile computer is not the easiest of things to achieve at the best of times. Take into account that you need to ensure that you have all the latest drivers for your hardware installed in order for the game to run stably and not crash is something most people are not familiar with and therefore will endure a bad gaming experience.
If PC gaming is something you are interested in then consider a desktop PC, there are many manufacturers and computer suppliers who design purpose built or custom machines for such activities as PC Gaming.
Desktop PC’s and Workstations
If you are going to be doing a lot of work on your machine like graphical, video editing or even just writing, whatever it is, you might want to consider using a desktop PC. There are many things that a desktop PC can do, but it is designed to be used in one place and at a desk, hence the name “Desktop PC”. If you do a lot of work and you only do it in one place, then a desktop PC is probably a good idea. Keep in mind that you can’t take it with you, but if you’re doing a video edit on a large file or working on anything that uses large data files, taking it with you is going to be a problem anyway unless you have a very powerful laptop with large storage capacity. I only really suggest a desktop PC for serious work or the serious PC Gamer.
The main reason why I suggest using a desktop PC for work is because you want to keep your work and pleasure separate. A working environment is usually a place you go to to do your work and then hopefully when you’ve finished for the day you can close the door on it and forget about it – unwind and relax till the next day. Separating work and play is essential for your own mental health and your family bonding time. There’s also the crossover problem that if you use the same machine for work and play, you may end up procrastinating which is very unproductive, need I say more.
A lot of people have issues with budget when buying a computer. If you have a lower budget but require more power, then a desktop PC will usually out-perform most mobile computers and as it’s made of more standard components, it can be upgraded at a later date to lengthen the overall lifespan giving you more for your money essentially. Also because it’s not designed around throttling the processor up and down dependent on demand in order to save the battery you won’t generally suffer from the same slowdown problems as can be experienced on most laptops when stressed heavily.
As part of my work I create important analytical data for companies and produce precision graphics for a number of different tasks which means I have to have a hugely powerful desktop PC. My desktop PC is a top of the range 8 (logical) core machine with 4 displays attached because the work I do requires that I have a massive amount of “desktop” workspace. There is only one place that I can do this work because I need to be able to concentrate and focus entirely on what I’m doing so the desktop PC becomes my “Workstation” and there is currently no laptop or mobile computer (at time of writing) that I know of which can perform anywhere near half as well as my workstation, if there was I would probably be using it!
Desktop PCs are at the very least highly upgradeable. So if you buy a PC within a certain budget you can usually spend the money you would save in not having to replace batteries every year on upgrading the hardware within in the future.
The internet is evolving very rapidly, one such important feature of this evolution is the ability to interact with objects or services through touch input. There aren’t a great deal of Mobile Computers aside from “Tables” that feature touch input yet, but there are lots of benefits in having touch. For example if you are artistic and want to be able to use a pen or your finger or some kind of input device other than a laptop’s trackpad or PC mouse then having touch or pen input is a huge productivity booster.
You can add touch input to any desktop computer in the form of a “Touch Display” or a “Tablet Digitizer Pad”.
Adding touch to a mobile device that doesn’t have it already is not so easy if at all achievable. There are companies out there that can add touch to your device but it would be a hugely inflate price over originally buying a device with it already in.
Touch input brings the internet to you in a very different way from the standard point and click of a trackpad and / or mouse and therefore makes the internet not only more fun, but a whole lot easier for those who are unfamiliar with it to use.
Microsoft Windows, Apple OSX and Linux OS
All computers will require an Operating System (OS) in order to work. An operating system gives you the environment from which your programs will run and the user interface which is what you see once your computer is switched on and booted up. Most computers come with a version of Microsoft Windows pre-installed on them so you won’t have to do anything. Another brand name you may have heard of is Apple’s OSX or Mac OS, and the least heard of OS is Linux of which there are hundreds of different versions and currently apart from Google’s Chrome Books and some cheaper Net-top PC’s there aren’t many manufacturers that offer consumer computers with a Linux distribution on. Servers and data centres (the stuff the internet is built upon) use versions of Linux because of it’s rock solid stability and security features. Apple’s OSX operating system is also a derivative of the Linux OS.
Choosing a computer doesn’t usually involve making decisions about what operating system you want on it, you usually get whatever the manufacturer pre-loads onto it with bundled software for various different tasks including Anti-Virus and Internet Security Suites on the Windows platforms, and things like iCloud, iTunes, iMovie and other “i” named programs on the Mac OSX platforms.
If you are considering a desktop PC for PC gaming, then usually Windows is the operating system of choice as it is really the only environment that games developers currently support. Mac OS is not really considered a viable option for gaming as the hardware it runs on is not usually to the same standard required for high performance gaming by most game developers, although there are versions of some high-end games for this platform out there but there is little known support. There is however support in the pipeline for a Linux version of “Steam” from Valve Software which is a massive on-line games distributor but as of yet no official date. There was recently a report stating that games from Steam could run faster on a Linux based machine than the exact same machine running Windows.
All of these different operating systems have versions of programs for all kinds of creativity and productivity and usually the high-end software developers provide cross-platform support but the only barrier is price. Linux has hundreds and thousands, possibly tens of thousands of pieces of software for all manor of tasks that are free to download and use because of the open sourced community and their belief in GNU/GPL Licensing Scheme.
Anti-Virus, Anti-Malware & Internet Security
All computers at some point will have been or will be vulnerable to attack from some kind of internet originated threat, whether you’re running Windows, Mac OSX or a flavour of Linux. Windows is notorious for suffering from Viral Threats and Mal-ware (Malicious Software) because of the way the operating system gives people the ability to run any-old software that can be downloaded from the internet. I simply can’t stress enough how important it is to have at the very least some form of anti-virus software and to keep it’s virus definitions up to date. Even those stubborn people who run Mac OSX and Linux who believe themselves to be free from the threat of viral infection, you are not!
Because of the growing percentage of people buying Apple products and Linux based products, the rogue software developers are turning their attentions to other software platforms, not just at Windows based systems any more. Whatever operating system you use, you should do your bit towards the fight and help stop the spread of any kind of mal-ware or virus by installing an anti-virus program to catch and kill the virus that may pass undetected through a Linux based or OSX system onto a system which it will infect.
There have been viruses written for Linux based and OSX systems before, and there will undoubtedly be again a threat if someone is nasty enough to want to do it.
Having taken all of the information that I’ve provided into account, you should be able to come to some kind of decision on what sort of computer you should buy. No one can tell you what you should buy because only you know what you want it to be able to do. Just remember the one key rule, “you get what you pay for”. If it’s cheap, it will likely disappoint you sooner than a more expensive device or machine would. Make your decision carefully, always buy an external storage device for backing up onto and use Anti-Virus not just to protect yourself, but to help protect others you know from being infected by inadvertently forwarding on an undetected threat in an email etc.
Comments and questions are welcomed.
———- Edit 3rd Decemeber 2012 ———-
CNet’s Craig Simms posted an interesting article on lies that salespeople tell about laptops. Be sure to read this for more useful information regarding your decision to purchase a laptop.