Buying a new laptop isn’t complicated, but there are a few things you need to know when sorting the wheat from the chaff.
There’s such a wide choice of laptops to suit every need and budget. But how do you possibly narrow them down?
To make matters easier, here are the key points to consider when compiling your laptop shortlist:
Tip 1: Fix your budget
Deciding how much you want to spend is critical when buying a laptop.
With new models costing anything from £200 to £2,000, fixing your budget before you start looking will narrow the field considerably — but you’ll still have plenty of choice.
Anything up to around £300 is considered an ‘entry-level’ laptop — one that’s sufficient for everyday office-type tasks (email, web browsing, word processing). It may not be particularly portable, though, unless you opt for a lower specification.
£300 to £500 is a ‘sweet spot’ for laptops, since it’s enough for a capable all-rounder that should be light enough to carry around.
Meanwhile, £500 to £1,000 will buy something stylishly compact and relatively powerful.
Spending more than this, however, is usually only necessary if you want some combination of the latest technology and a very high specification.
Tip 2: What do you want it for?
Knowing how much you want to spend goes hand in hand with deciding what you want a laptop for.
If you want to play the latest games, then you’ll need to spend around £800 or more, while a laptop for web use, word processing and little else needn’t cost more than £250.
There is something to be said for buying the most expensive laptop you can afford, since it’s more likely to last for longer — in terms of both specification and durability. But don’t get too carried away with this idea. Using a £2,000 laptop for five years costs more per month to own than using a £300 model for one year.
Don’t rule out buying pre-owned but nearly-new models. You won’t get a warranty and you’ll need to buy carefully to avoid getting a dud, but you’ll get much more for your money as a result.
Tip 3: How portable does it need to be?
The final major consideration is how portable do you want your new laptop to be.
A 17-inch monster that weighs 5kg obviously isn’t suitable for carrying between work and home, while one with a 10-inch screen isn’t much use if you leave it on a desk all day for working with large spreadsheets.
Generally speaking, the smaller a laptop is, the more expensive it’s going to be — unless the reduced size comes at the expense of its specification.
Netbooks were a great example of how bare-bones specifications made ultra-portable laptops considerably more affordable, but they were very limited in what they could do.
Some laptops can also be used as a tablet, with a touch-sensitive screen that can be folded or rotated to sit flat on the keyboard, or detached from the keyboard altogether.
If portability is paramount, such a ‘hybrid’ laptop is a great idea and models are surprisingly affordable – ranging from the £249 HP Pavilion x360, right the way up to Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro 4 which costs between £749 and £1799.
Tip 4: Which operating system do you want?
All PCs, laptops included, are split into two broad camps — those that run Microsoft Windows and those that run Apple OS X. Having a specific application in mind will usually steer a buyer in one direction, but with OS X now supporting much the same software (including many games) as Windows, there’s little to choose between the two.
Google Chrome is a relatively new operating system option that’s also worth considering, but it can’t be installed by the user — it must be purchased pre-installed on a ‘Chromebook’ such as the Acer C7 (below).
Chrome does almost everything in the Cloud via Google’s various services, although it can still be used without an internet connection. The advantage is that with no real way (or need) to install software, Chromebooks work wonderfully well with relatively low specifications and that makes them inexpensive, highly portable and extremely secure.
Tip 5: What about battery life?
All laptops have a built-in battery that allows them to be used away from mains power, but how long they last is an important consideration.
If you want to work all day without plugging in, then be prepared to pay for such a feature.
Few low-cost laptops last for more than three or four hours on battery power — although ultra-frugal Chromebooks are a notable exception.
Alternatively, if you just want a laptop that you can use in the garden or on the journey to work for a couple of hours, then more or less any model will suit. Just bear in mind that battery life decreases as the laptop works harder, which means a gaming laptop running the latest 3D first-person shooter may not last for more than a couple of hours when unplugged.
Tip 6: Connectivity considerations
All laptops now have built-in wi-fi, so getting online using a wireless network isn’t a problem, but some thin laptops don’t include Ethernet ports for connecting to the internet using a cable, requiring you to use an adaptor.
All have one or more USB ports, too, but pay close attention to the other ports if you have specific requirements.
An HDMI, DisplayPort, DVI or VGA port is essential for connecting to an external monitor and a built-in web cam is more convenient than a plug-in one for online video chat, but only the cheapest or most compact laptops will lack these features.
With most software distributed via the internet, built-in DVD drives are also becoming increasingly unnecessary, but you’ll still need one if you want to watch a DVD movie. That said, opting for an external USB model that you don’t have to carry when you don’t need it will result in a lighter laptop.