If you’re thinking about buying your first laptop, it’s worth doing a little extra research before spending any money.

Everyone’s needs are different, of course, and any laptop can arguably be used by anyone, but thinking carefully about a few key features will help buy something you don’t regret a few months later.

 

Size and weight

If you just want a laptop because it’s a compact computer and plan to leave it on a table or desk all day, then size is immaterial (but see ‘Screen size’ below).

If you want one to take from room to room or into the wider world, on the other hand, then it’s worth buying a model you can carry easily and use comfortably on your lap.

Thin and light laptops tend to cost more than thick, heavy ones, so look carefully at the weights when buying online, or pick up a laptop in a shop to see how it feels. Anything up to around 2kg shouldn’t be a problem to move around at home, but you’ll appreciate something lighter if you plan to carry it around outside in a bag.

Screen size

The overall size of a laptop is directly connected to the size of its screen, which is measured across opposite corners, in inches. The smallest and lightest models that are still practical to use have 11-inch screens, but unless you have 20/20 vision, something with a 13 or 15-inch is much more sensible.

With Microsoft Windows, a bigger screen also means you can increase the screen magnification (using something called the ‘dpi’ setting — see below) to make everything appear larger without losing too much on-screen space. This can make a huge difference if your eyesight isn’t what it used to be. 

If you’re not too concerned about a laptop you can move that easily, then consider one with a 17-inch screen. This will be big and heavy, but the larger screen gives a much better view on whatever you’re doing, particularly if you use the afore-mentioned Windows dpi feature.

Old couple looking at laptop on grass

What about battery life?

Almost any laptop should last for a couple of hours on battery power, which is enough for a spell of web browsing in the garden — or to see you through a power cut, if you live somewhere out in the sticks. Longer battery life than this should only be a concern if you plan to use your laptop away from a plug socket for long periods, but unless you’re looking at a thin and light laptop to carry around all day, a mains extension lead might be all you need.

Wireless networking

All laptops now have built-in wi-fi, so you can connect to the internet without worrying needing a network cable. This does depend on having a wi-fi network to connect to, so if this is your first computer, you might also need to factor in the cost of a wireless router for your home internet connection - talk to your internet service provider about this.

Wi-fi can also be used to connect to public wi-fi hotspots, so if you only need occasional internet access and don’t have a connection at home, taking your laptop to a local cafe or library might be all you need.

Keyboard and trackpad

Trying a laptop in a shop before you buy is a great way to see if you like the keyboard and trackpad, but you’ll probably find a better price online. Online selling regulations still give you seven days to return a purchase if you don’t like it, though, and some online retailers accept returns for longer.

It’s unusual to encounter a poor-quality laptop keyboard these days, so it’s the size that’s usually an issue. Again, the larger the laptop, the larger the keyboard, but remember that you can always plug in a full-size desktop keyboard if that’s what you’re used to typing on.

The same applies to the trackpad — the rectangular pad below the keyboard that you move a finger on to more the on-screen mouse pointer. This can take some getting used to and are no use at all for drawing, for example, but there’s nothing to stop you connecting a mouse or other kind of pointing device.

Old man on laptop with boy watching

Laptop alternatives

If you’ve never used Microsoft Windows before and you’re worried about making sense of it (particularly if its’ Windows 8), then there are a couple of other options.

A laptop that instead uses Google Chrome OS has none of the security worries of Windows and it’s near impossible for a rogue application, or misplaced mouse-click, to upset. And even something catastrophic does happen, it’s easy to reset it to a factory-fresh state, and restore both your applications and data from the internet storage that all Chromebooks use.

Alternatively, a tablet can make much more sense for a complete computer novice. Touching the screen to type and launch programs is much more intuitive than using a keyboard and mouse, and the simple interface that shows one full-screen application at a time is much easier to understand than a desktop with several applications running side-by-side. The Apple iPad is the better option here, since it’s simpler to use than Android, but cheap Android tablets sold in supermarkets still offer excellent value.

And finally…

If you already have a desktop or laptop PC and are just finding it difficult to use, you don’t necessarily need to buy a new one. You can alter the Windows dpi setting on any computer to make everything look larger — just right-click the Desktop, choose Personalise and click Display on the left of the window that opens. Windows also has a built-in magnifier tool too to make things look even larger — search for “magnifier” from the Start menu or Start screen.