Tuesday, 1 May 2012

I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?


Right. This is the first part of a short series examining all the laborious and tedious decisions which have to be made when buying a new computer (see the first blog on this here).

If I want to make sure I am not spending money for technology which I am never going to make the most of, I need to think carefully about what I use computers for.  This is not necessarily quite as straightforward an issue as it has been in the past.  When I started out in education, PowerPoint was about as radical as multimedia in the classroom got.  Now though, what was once expected in a few template slides is now expected in video, audio, image, animation and interaction.  In other words, common computing tasks are much more system intensive than they used to be.  They are, as well, much more varied.  There was a time when if you wanted to edit a photo, you would have pretty much had no choice but to invest in expensive software like Photoshop.  Now, there any countless alternative options which are designed to meet the needs of varying levels of expertise - from the professional designing a nationwide poster campaign, to the amateur wanting to transplant Brian May's hairstyle onto a photo of their Mum for a laugh.

There is a significant longevity issue as well: Deciding how you can best future-proof your computer against becoming redundant too quickly.  Again, in the past this has usually been a question of ensuring that your computer has enough space capacity to deal with the various software upgrades which occur in the future.  There was no point buying a computer with exactly the right capacity to cope with Windows XP when you knew that in a year or so the system upgrades would mean you needed to upgrade your machine again.

Now though, the capacity of a machine in terms of memory space is less of an issue. We are becoming more dependent on the internet to both store our files, and run our programmes (see Simon Brisson and Mary Branston's article on ZDNetUK).  This means that the speed of a computer and its internet capacity are likely to be more of an issue in terms of future-proofing your computer.

My own computer needs are relatively basic. I spend a great deal of time writing and designing presentations, and often what I write / present involves a lot of formatting of pictures. So I often use word processing programmes, presentation programmes and photo editing software (which has the added benefit that I can use the same software to edit family photos as well as things for work).

Like many people working in education, I am becoming increasingly dependent on multimedia, and this makes video editing an important aspect of my work. This is something which can sound impressive, but it really isn’t.  I’m certainly not trying to compete with Pixar or anything like that.  The most I need is something which can extract clips from documentaries; link, cut and paste video sections; or add annotations.  Basic Open Source (i.e. free) programmes like OpenShot (for video) and Audacity (for audio) have served my needs perfectly well up to now.

A laptop is preferable to a desktop computer, because much of my work is done in libraries or (whenever possible) salubrious coffee shops.  Even if this were not the case though, the era of the desktop computer certainly seems to be nearing its end, and unless you have the luxury of a dedicated office in the home the ability to move from room to room seems to be a given.  Some laptop computers now are even classified ‘desktop replacements’.  Generally all this means is that it is a laptop with a big screen – but again, more on this later.  The extent to which I am dependent on the internet means that wifi is essential too.

So, to summarise.  I need a laptop, so I can work on the move.  It needs to be powerful enough to drive some video software, but not so powerful that I am spending money on capacity I will not be using.  It needs to be able to connect to the internet wirelessly.

To find something that meets these needs, I need to consider the following areas:

  • Screen size,
  • weight,
  • manufacturer,
  • operating system and applications,
  • memory size and processor.

I will be attempting to cover each of these areas in future blogs!

My Laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?