There's no doubt in my mind that to get the best value out of a laptop purchase, you need to go online. Not only do the big retailers (think Amazon, or Play.Com) offer High Street bashing prices, but you can also buy direct from the likes of Dell etc and get a much better specification for the same cash. Oh and also, you don't have to face up to the sales people!
However, there is a certain peace of mind, not to mention the instant gratification that comes with purchasing from the High Street and also the knowledge that if it starts playing up, you know exactly where to take it back to.
The other day, my friend Vicky called me and said she wanted to get a new laptop for her Mum, who would be returning from a lengthy hospital stay to finish her recovery at home. In her Sixties, Vicky's Mum knows how to use a computer, but her old laptop was now held together with bulldog clips and was not likely to be up to the job of keeping her mind busy whilst she finished recovering.
Buying a laptop is not easy if you're not "into computers". You walk into a store like PC world and there sit a good 30+ laptops all looking roughly identical, but the prices start somewhere around £250 but shoot up to over £1000! Looking at the details on the label confuses things further as jargon such as RAM, CPU, Celeron, Dual Core etc tells the average person absolutely nothing at all.
So what to do? Well, the first thing we did was think about Vicky's Mum. The person who will use the computer. What do we know? Well, first she's a little bit older - so will probably be happier with a bigger screen than one of the (more initially appealing) smaller ones. She has no intention of taking it out of the house regularly, although it may spend a bit of time on her lap and may make the odd trip to another house by car. Well, that rules out the big 17"+ screen sizes they're just too bulky to sit on your lap comfortably. Sounds like a 15" laptop might be good to start with.
You'll notice that so far, we've not considered anything remotely technical. Well yes, there's no need just yet! Think about how you're going to use the laptop. If you're always on the go and you intend for the laptop to be always on the go with you, unless you want a bad back, or limited luggage space, narrow your selection down to screen sizes ranging 10"-14". Anything bigger is just not portable. However, if the laptop is likely to spend its entire life on the table - why not buy something a little bigger. Typing on the larger keyboard, or enjoying a video on a nice large 15"-17" screen is going to be much more of a joy than squinting at a cute ultra portable laptop once the novelty has worn off.
The next thing to consider requires the first look at the label and what you're looking for is the weight. Using our example of Vicky's Mum, we'd identified that a 15" laptop was probably about the right size. The typical weight for a laptop of this size is about 3KG. Anything quoted as under that weight is quite impressive and anything over - well don't judge it too harshly just yet - read my next paragraph before ruling anything heavier out! Folks who have identified that they need a smaller package to take about with them should be looking for 13" laptops to be around 2KG and 10-12" laptops to be under that down to about 1.5KG. Obviously the lighter the better for the laptop that follows you everywhere, but perhaps not so important for that one sitting forever on a tabletop.
Back to that label again please! Battery life is something that the sales people will always push as a way of selling a particular model. Obviously a computer that lasts 8 hours sounds much more appealing than one that only lasts three - but don't be sold on this figure alone! Battery life depends on a number of factors. Bigger laptops can house bigger batteries, so they have an immediate advantage. However, they have that big screen to drive! Smaller laptops range even more in terms of quoted battery life. Modern laptops are capable of some pretty clever power management stuff these days, but it's still true that a smaller laptop with long battery life will have made a compromise somewhere. Again, rather than worrying about the technical, think about how you will use it. Vicky's Mum intended to use her computer at home. Now you're always within range of a power socket at home. Why spend the money on longer battery life, when maybe the money is better spent on the computer's memory, or processor? Again, you folks out on the road all the time will place a lot more importance on battery life and it's worth focusing more of your money here than perhaps on the processor. If you want everything with no compromises (only gamers should actually need this) then I'm afraid you need to start walking over to the £1000 section.
The Battery Weight Trade-Off
Buying a laptop for sensible money is always about compromise. As we've seen, highly mobile users will want to consider trading off the big screen for a smaller, more portable package. Equally, users who do not need the huge battery life, could trade it off against a better processor, or more memory. Areas we'll touch upon in a minute. At this point I just wanted to make you aware of an option you have with batteries. Laptop batteries are made up of cells. The more cells, the more capacity the battery has for storing electricity. Small laptops tend to come as standard with a 3 Cell battery. If you're offered an extended life battery, by all means go for it if time away from the socket is important to you, but there is a compromise. The 6 Cell option you're buying will add significantly to the weight, so ask to have a look at one with the 6 Cell in place. Secondly, notice that the 6 Cell will not sit flush with the casing. It will stick out. Larger laptop purchasers must consider the same issue, except usually a 6 Cell is standard and the extended life ones have (really quite heavy) 9 cell ones. For Vicky's Mum, we decided that a 6-Cell would be fine.
Processor and Memory
Now these are the two likely to strike fear into the hearts of people who just want to buy something that will work, not be too slow and not be out of date in 6 months. A word of comfort, whatever you buy will be out of date in 6 months. Possibly even 3 months. If you don't heed another word I say, take this away with you; once you've bought something, don't look at the products list again for a long time! You'll only find another bargain down the line you'll wish you'd held out for!
Back to Vicky's Mum. She likes to surf the web. Mostly this involves reading webpages, but occasionally she'll click on a BBC link to a video, or watch the odd Youtube funny that Vicky will send her. Occasionally she'll write a letter or have a play with some digital photos from her camera. If this sounds like you, good news. Pretty much every computer on the high street is able to do this. The main reason to get the best of each of these that you can is to cover yourself for the future. Not only does this include finding new uses for the thing that you hadn't thought of, but also the constant flow of security updates for both the computer's operating system and popular pieces of software have a habit of slowing computers down a little bit at a time.
So, what processor and memory should you get? Well, this is an area that moves quickly but for Vicky's Mum we decided that an Intel Core-Duo processor was the minimum. We didn't really mind how fast it was, in fact the slowest would be fine. We decided we'd rather avoid budget models like Celeron and although there were AMDs in this range - we decided we would go with the market leader. Regarding memory - any computer running Windows 7 get an absolute minimum of 2GB. However, even at the budget end of the market you should be able to push to 3GB or maybe 4GB with a special offer or a trade off on battery or processor. We found several machines sporting Core-Duos with 3GB and decided this would be fine. Should you fancy a cheap netbook (those tiny laptops with 10" screens running Windows XP that you can chuck in a bag not worrying that you only spent £250 - buy an Intel Atom processor with at least 1GB memory but 2GB is best!). Please note, some shops will refer to memory as 'RAM', but they mean the same thing. This is where the programs are loaded into and if money were no object, the more the better.
Other technical jargon to consider
Hard drive capacity: Vicky's Mum would be storing photos, so whilst we didn't want a tiny hard drive to keep them on, we didn't need to be sold on the big 500GB stuff. 250GB is fine for general purpose computing, but if you have a massive music and video collection, look for 320GB to 500GB or consider getting a pocket hard drive to keep them safe at home on.
Wireless Internet (WIFI) - Get the best out of your laptop at home by connecting your broadband with a wireless network. Your WIFI laptop can then be used anywhere around the house! Mobile types can enjoy gratis internet all over the country now in coffee shops and hotels etc, although the stingy ones will charge you. Certainly there are now many thousands of WIFI hotspots around the country available, allowing you your internet fix away from home. WIFI is pretty much standard issue now, but make sure its there. Sales folk might ask you if you want a 'G' specification WIFI or 'N' - unless there are still several computers to choose between, don't pay too much extra for 'N' unless you watch a lot of video off the internet. 'G' is perfectly capable for common computing needs.
Other Non-Technical Considerations
Have a look at the keyboard. Some are very spongy, some very clicky. Some put the 'Delete' key in a completely stupid place! Have a bit of a go on it and make sure it's comfortable.
Lastly, Vicky wanted to know if there were any brands I preferred. Now everyone has an example of every manufacturer where the laptop was unreliable. However, Toshiba currently rule the roost here, extremely reliable machines - but Compaq/HP are very good and Dell (who I occasionally hear bad things about) in my experience (we have estate of over 500 at work) have been very very good. My friends have only had good experiences of Acer and ASUS too and these companies are very price competitive.
In the end, we bought Vicky's Mum a Compaq with a 15.4" widescreen, an Intel Core-Duo processor with 3GB memory and a quoted 6 hours battery life. Paid £379. I'm told she was chuffed to bits.
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Featured image used under 'Creative Commons' license. Thanks to tomergabel