Choosing the right portable computer can be difficult. Picking the correct one for your needs doesn’t need to be a nightmare though.
By asking yourself a few simple questions and understanding some important technological terms, you can soon see through the maze.
How much will I need to spend?
The good news is that with netbooks now starting at just £150, and laptops at around £250, you won’t need to break the bank to get connected.
Of course, as with all technology, the general rule of thumb is that the more money you spend the better the product you’ll end up owning.
Faster, sleeker and more powerful machines from bigger brands will cost more money – with the average spend being £400 to £500, and a totally top-of-the-range laptop from a company like Sony costing anywhere up to £2,000.
What’s the difference between a netbook and a laptop?
That is THE crucial question you need to ask yourself and it really comes down to how portable you want your machine to be and how you’ll use it.
Netbooks generally come with a 10inch screen, making them very easy to carry around and slip into a large pocket or bag.
The flipside is that the small size, and lower price, of netbooks mean they do not have as much power, or as many features, as laptops – for example they’ll rarely have a DVD drive and aren’t suitable for gamers or graphic designers.
The clue is in the name really. If all you want to do is surf the net – and use the machine for simple word processing, spreadsheets and listening to music – then a netbook is for you.
If however, you want to go beyond the basics, and have a bit more cash to splash, then you should be looking at a laptop.
What processor should I choose?
The processor is the brain of your computer, controlling all the tasks and requests you make as you use various programs.
The faster and more powerful the processor, the quicker you can work and play and the longer your battery will last, because less energy is consumed. The two main brands are
market-leader Intel and also AMD.
Intel’s laptop processors range from basic Celeron ones to Pentium and then onto the new powerful i3, i5 and i7 range. You will find them in both Dual Core and Quad Core, which can be quite complicated but the more cores, the faster it is.
Netbook processors are designed for simple, portable use, and generally are known as Atom, using a single core. Dual Core versions are now starting to be integrated into the latest ranges though.
AMD’s processors have fancy names such as V-Series, Athlon and Phenom– which go up in price and power in that order – and again have Dual Core options.
Both brands rate their own processors, for example Intel uses a five star system, so you can quickly see how powerful they are.
What about memory?
Memory is not the same as storage and is commonly known as RAM. It is measured in Gigabytes (GB) ranging anywhere from 1GB to 8GB. This is what allows the computer to run many programs at the same time. The more RAM, the more you can multi-task without the computer slowing down, freezing or crashing.
So if you like to have lots of windows open, or download movies and play music while you’re working, you’ll need more memory. The same goes for anyone looking to run memory-hungry software such as video-editing and gaming.
RAM of 1 to 2GB is standard for netbooks while a laptop, especially if it is being used as a desktop replacement, should have at least 4GB.
How much storage will I need?
Storage is often referred to as the hard drive or hard disk. It is where you store your files, programs, pictures, music and movies and again, it is measured in Gigabytes, with one gigabyte equal to 1024 Megabytes (MB).
To put that in context, a high quality digital photo will often be around 2MB, a song 5MB and a movie 1GB. Word and Excel files are very small while surfing the net doesn’t take up any major hard disk space at all.
Netbooks generally have a plentiful hard drive of 250GB and unless you’re planning on starting a virtual film library, that size would suffice for a laptop too – although many now come with 320GB or 500GB drives or even a Terabyte, which is 1024 gigabytes or a whopping 1,048,576 megabytes. You can always add additional storage with an external hard drive or USB stick.
Which screen size is best?
This comes down to personal preference. If you’re after something light and easily portable then a netbook or a smaller laptop is perfect. But if you want a great movie experience or have tricky spreadsheet or design work to do, then something towards the upper 18inch end will be best. The bigger the screen though, the bulkier the machine.
It’s also worth checking whether the screen is the latest LED high-definition, especially for multimedia users.
What software will I require?
All PC laptops come with Windows 7 pre-loaded as its operating system. This is the software in charge of controlling everything that happens on your computer. Netbooks may have a slimmed down version called Windows 7 Starter while you might still find a few using the older Windows XP OS.
On some machines a basic version of Microsoft Office comes pre-installed, which is usually a 30-day trial. To unlock the full version you will need to purchase a copy of Microsoft Office instore or you can buy a licence key online to unlock the full version. This will include PowerPoint, Outlook, Word and Excel.
Some sort of security suite – including a firewall and virus protection – is essential and again most laptops and netbooks have a free trial for a popular program pre-installed. You can then choose to buy.
Software such as Skype, iTunes and Adobe Acrobat may also already be on your computer, but if not they only take seconds to install for free from the relevant company websites.
Are there any other extras I need to know about?
Graphics and Sound Cards are worth further investigation, especially for gamers, with netbooks again only offering the most basic options integrated into the processor.
If you want to play the latest virtual adventures, these require lots of graphical power so look for laptops with a dedicated graphics card, from the likes of NVIDIA or ATI, using its own memory rather than the RAM associated with the machine. This keeps things speedy.
All netbooks and laptops will have wireless Wi-Fi technology built-in to connect to the internet. They may also have Bluetooth, which allows you to hook up your mobile phone.
A HDMI output lets you plug in a cable between the machine and your HD TV to watch things on a bigger screen while an integrated webcam is useful, especially now Facebook has launched video calling.
Netbooks don’t have DVD drives but laptops will range from basic DVD-playing drives to ones that allow you to record onto the discs. Blu-ray drives however can’t be used for recording but are better for playback, providing high-definition quality when watching movies.
If you have a lot of peripherals to connect, ensure you have at least three USB ports. The new USB 3.0 standard is three times faster than USB 2.0 meaning you can copy across data to and from an external hard drive, for example, much quicker.
Memory Card Readers are great for downloading images from your digital camera and cool coloured/patterned laptops are all also available if you don’t want the usual black, silver or
Finally look out for dedicated buttons that can instantly wake up the machine and log you straight into the internet for example or to start playing music. This allows you to check email and surf the web without waiting for the whole machine to boot up.
What about an Apple Mac?
Like with their desktop equivalents, MacBook laptops hold many advantages over PC ones, although they tend to be more expensive. They’re faster to start up and operate, less susceptible to crashes and viruses, better for design tasks and frankly a lot nicer looking.
A drive on a laptop that will play/record CDs, DVDs or Blu-ray discs. You won’t find one on a netbook.
A small slot on the back or side of the machine that lets you connect items such as printers, digital cameras and memory sticks. The standard is still USB 2.0, but a new USB 3.0 has arrived for faster transfer of files.
Memory Card Reader
Allows you to insert a memory card, from say a camera, directly into the computer for the easy upload of photos, videos or music.
Also known as Wi-Fi, this is simply the way to connect your netbook or laptop to the internet without having to use a cable.
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