Wednesday, 16 May 2012

I need a new laptop, pt. 3: Brand

The issue of the particular brand of laptop which you use has actually become far less of an issue in recent years.  When considering what kind of new television to buy, or what kind of fridge, you can generally assume than some brands are going to be more reliable than others. With computers though, the issue if often far more to do with who makes the little bits that go inside the computer, than who makes the computer itself.

For example, you could take a laptop made by Sony and a laptop made by Acer. You are more likely to have heard of Sony and to assume, therefore, that the brand must be a more reliable one.  However, you might subsequently find that the Acer has a graphics card made by NVidia, an Intel Ivy Bridge processor and 8GB RAM, while the Sony has an Intel graphics card, an Intel Celeron processor and 2GB RAM.  Most people should not really be expected to know what all of this means, but actually what these internal components do mean is that the Acer is a better machine - even though you may not have heard of them.

In the same way, the variations between different models offered by the same companies are so wide that the build quality of one model may not mean that you can expect the same build quality from all machines of the same make.  For example, in a recent test by Laptop magazine, the highly respected Dell came 3rd for the quality of their laptop keyboards - which would doubtless come as a surprise to anyone using a Dell Inspiron 15R which, despite being impressive in almost every other area, has a keyboard which feels like Rolf Harris' wobbleboard...




(By the way, you've got to be impressed that I somehow managed to work Rolf Harris into a blog about laptop computers)

This is not to suggest that the brand of laptop is not important, but things need to be kept a little in perspective.  For example, tech support is of huge significance for many.  If you want the assurance that if something goes wrong with your computer, that you will be able to speak to someone who knows what they are doing and is actually interested in helping you, then brands like Apple or Lenovo are for you.  An Advent machine (made by the PC World, whose customer support record is appalling) or an Acer (which came last in the Laptop magazine tests for tech support) might not be.

The one exception to all of this advice is Apple. Apple is a little bit different from the main herd of laptop manufacturers, because their computers are constructed exclusively by them, and sold by a tightly controlled number of distributors.  This means that you tend to find much more consistency in terms of what Apple laptops have to offer, and the limited range of machines which Apple offer means that build quality is consistent as well.  Apple always seem to come out top of most laptop polls, tests and surveys (here is another one) - and the simple reason for this is that they are the benchmark of quality against which all other machines are measured. They are the Rolls Royce of the laptop world - beautifully built, with the highest quality components.  The quality of components in an Apple means that it even becomes difficult to measure them against other machines.  An Apple laptop sporting an i3 processor, is still likely to perform much better than a Sony with an i7.

The problem with Apple is that their Rolls Royce computers come with Rolls Royce prices.  A high level machine is likely to set you back around 1500 quid by the time you have added on all the necessary extras.  For myself, I have already set my upper limit price-wise at about a third of this - so for all their beauty and sophistication, Apple's are out and I will content myself with going 'ooo' every now and then when I see one.  A bit like when a Ferrari drives past.

So overall then, the laptop brand is far less of an issue than we sometimes think it is.  If you are in doubt about any particular brand, then just run an internet search or look up some of the excellent tech review sites which are available - here are a few of my favourites:

More significantly though, do try and make sure that once you have shortlisted some laptops which meet your needs that you try and get into a store and have a little bash on them.

The connectivity issue

 This is a hidden aspect of laptop choice, which is actually one of the most important.  On any machine, you will find a whole array of strange-looking sockets along the sides and the back.  What these sockets are, can often determine what you can do with the machine. Here are some of the more common sockets you might want to look for:

  • USB: We are now comfortably at a stage where I can pretty much assume everyone knows what a USB is.  It is where you plug in your memory sticks, and most external devices (like an external mouse) will be USB. Of course, things are never entirely that simple as we now have USB 2.0 and USB 3.0, and some now even called 'SS' (which means 'super speed').  This generally doesn't make all that much difference - the main thing you might notice is that if you have a USB 3.0 socket, and a USB 3.0 memory stick, that copying files accross from the stick to the computer will be a little bit faster.  'SS' sockets are faster still.  This can be very useful.  In terms of USB sockets, by far the more impotant thing to check is how many are there?  If you want to plug in an external mouse, and a couple of memory sticks, then you will be needing at least 3. Want to plug in your mobile phone as well?  Now you need 4.  Of course you could just buy a USB hub - which is rather like a four-plug extension - but this can be unreliable, while adding another piece of kit you have to lug around reduces further the portability of the machine.  Think carefully about what you might want to plug into USB ports, and make sure there are enough sockets on your chosen machine to do so!

  • HDMI: Much is made of HDMI sockets on laptops where they appear.  It is often a significant part of the marketing, as in 'hey! Buy this one! It has HDMI!'.  What does it mean though?  Well, actually all it really means is that you can plug your machine directly into your TV (assuming, that is, that your TV has an HDMI socket). Is this something you need to do? Probably not. It can be nice if you want to watch your digital videos or if you want to watch BBC iPlayer and don't have it already on your TV - but let's be honest, this is unlikely to be a deal-breaker for most of us.

  • Headphones: This is one of the ones which is now so common that is often forgotten, but apart from the USB sockets the headphone socket is the one which is likely to get used the most. Yes, you can buy fancy USB headphones, but if you have bought a nice pear of earphones to listen to on the train, then when you arrive at your destination and want to plug into your laptop you are likely to want to keep using the same headphones.  It is worth checking, just to make sure, that your chosen machine has one of these.

  • Microphone: Another one which can often be forgotten.  The ability to plug in an external mic can be really useful.  Inbuilt microphones are often not the best, and Skype or video calls can often be a lot more comfortable if you don't have to yell into the pin-prick hole built into your machine from about 2 inches away.  If your laptop does not even have an in-built mic, then this becomes an even more important issue.

  • SD Cards: This is the socket which cleverly accomodates most of the types of little memory cards which you plug into your camera's and mobile phones.  Having this socket can be useful, but don't forget that most devices like phones or cameras tend to come with a USB cable as well. I have always though these card sockets were great. I have yet to actually need to use one.

There are countless other sockets and plugs which you may find on your machines.  Again, it is something which sales assistants like to imprssively rattle off: 'Oh, this machine has three SS USB ports, two HDMI sockets, S-video, SD Reader, etc. etc.' As the customer, you are expected to go 'ooo - ok, I'll have that one then'.  It is, as always, far better to know what you need - and what you may not need.

What to look for when checking out a laptop in store


I remember once needing to go into a hardware store looking for a small part of our kitchen tap, which had broken off.  My lack of DIY expertise was wrapped around me like a glowing coat of shame.  Like wearing a Glasgow Celtic shirt at Ibrox.  Often, when you go into a computer shop, or a mobile phone shop, the one thing you are desperately hoping is that oneof the sales team will not notice you, and that you will not have to wear that expression of puzzled and desperate bemusement which will inevitably result in their first question about whether you prefer machines with Vista or OSX.

The best way to avoid this, and to avoid being sold anything you don't want by expert sales folks, is to go in knowing exactly what you need to find out.  This means you can go in confidently - which is an immediate deterrant for salespeople who prefer to tell folks what they need.

Before you go, do your homework.  Make sure you know exactly what you need from the design of a machine.  Do you need an in-built webcam and microphone?  Do you need an HDMI port?  Hopefully you will have checked out the reviews of some machines and have a shortlist of models which suit your purposes. So, armed with your list of shortlisted laptops and requirements, you can go into a store knowing exactly what you are looking for.  Remember that you may well not find the exact same model you need, but you can still look for laptops which are made by the same people, or which are part of the same series.

Once you have found them, here are some tests which you can perform:

  • Feel the weight of them - imagine picking it up and carrying it around with you, or sitting for hours with it on your lap.

  • Type random things on the keyboard - Remember that most things on a keyboard you can get used to, so don't worry too much it it feels imperfect. However, think about how cramped your fingers are on the keyboard. Is there a separate number pad - and if not, do you need one? Is the keyboard back-lit? Do you need it to be?

  • Take a careful look at the trackpad - the little touch-sensitive mouse pad in front of the keyboard.  Move it around on the screen. Is the pad big enough for you? One of the most common design flaws in a laptop is in the touchpad.  Some are so close to the keys, and so big, that you can end up inadvertantly moving the cursor every time you go from the mouse to the keyboard.  This is something to look out for. Avent have a peculiar tendency as well to situate the mouse buttons just a little bit further from the trackpad than most other brands, and this can be an irritation.  Finally, check the materials. Rubberised buttons or keys just means they will disintegrate fast.

  • Look at the screen and see whether its reflective surface bothers you and whether you can still see it from an angle. Don't just look at the screen head-on, but move from side to side and up/down and check where you lose the ability to tell what is on the screen. You will probably find that if you have a laptop screen that can only be comfortably seen when you are right in front of it, and when it is angled perfectly, than you will soon become frustrated by it.  Think about the screen angle as well.  Is the hinge tight?  Can you imagine it getting loose and flopping down?  Does the screen angle back far enough?

  • Look carefully at the buttons and the plugs.  Is there anything which looks like it could get knocked off or broken easily?  Make sure that it has enough USB ports to cover your memory stick, phone, external mouse, etc.. It is preferable if these ports are on both sides of the machine.  If you have your USB mouse on the right, and a memory stick on the right as well, you can end up knocking the memory stick periodically with your hand - which is a nuisance.

In all of these things, the main point is that you think carefully about what it will be like to use the machine - and use it a lot.  What ar the unfamiliar things about it which you might get used to?  What is just going to get increasingly irritating?

My Laptop has died. How do I choose a new one?
I need a new laptop, pt. 1: What do I use it for?
I need a new laptop, pt. 2: Size and Weight