Buying a new laptop guide – Basic hardware and current trends.

A lot of people these days ask me what laptop to buy and I thought I should write this because it saves me work besides avoiding  the problem of me forgetting key technologies, features, or tips. My apologies for generalizing, but I am assuming you want to buy a laptop that gives you the most for your buck. I am also assuming that you don’t belong to any of the extreme classes of laptop consumers – such as gamers, for whom the hardware has to be extensively robust and highly customized  And yeah, I don’t think I will come back and update this, so if any of you find that some of the information provided is now severely outdated/wrong, please let me know and I will write something afresh with better content. If you happen to spot any errors, please report and as usual I’ll buy you beer when I am older and have the money.

So, I will begin with the components and then discuss new trends and stuff. Knowing your hardware is important, because after all, that is what decides how much you will eventually love/hate your machine when you most need it. I will try to cover the principle hardware components in the most layman-friendly way:

1. The processor: The first thing to look out for. Essentially, good processors are fast and consume less power, as a result of which they heat up less often. There are all sorts of cooling mechanisms catering to desktop computers, but as laptops have to be portable, fitting fans and other machinery inside them is impractical. Of course, there are accessories to help you with that.

Now, quite simply put, there are obviously many models of processors. Most people buy Intel or AMD. I frankly don’t even know if there are more. Assuming that a major portion of your time is spent watching movies, on the internet and doing spreadsheets or presentations, an Intel i3 or (if you are keen), an i5 processor, is more than sufficient. Just so that you know, there are i3, i5 and i7 processors offered by Intel, in the increasing order of their “advanced-ness”. The more advanced the processor, the more faster your work gets done. Again there are 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation i-series processors. Needless to say, the 3rd generation is newer and most powerful. So you can almost say a 3rd generation i5 processor is almost as capable as a 1st generation i7, although they both cost around the same.
The 3rd generation processors are fondly called “Ivy Bridge” processors and 2nd generation ones are called “Sandy Bridge”. I don’t know what the first generation ones are nicknamed because I guess no one buys them now.
(Note: If all this was too complex for you, simply go to the shop and ask for a 3rd generation i5 processor and you’re safe. If you don’t have the money you can opt for a 2nd generation one or buy an i3. If this was too stupid, I will soon explain processors in more detail in another post and add a link here).

2. The Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)/Graphics Card: What determines how things look on your screen. I am not a gamer myself, so I will probably not lay as much stress as is needed on buying good graphics. But the fact is, they are important if the quality of videos you watch is in no way an allowed trade-off with price. There are again two kinds of graphics cards – integrated and discrete. Integrated simply means your CPU has an attached graphics unit and you needn’t add a dedicated unit. All CPU’s come with integrated graphics. Discrete graphics were luxurious things earlier, as only gamers and people into movie rendering would use them. Now-a-days, with the advent of HD and so on, more people are buying discrete graphics and debates on a better card are commonplace. I am not much of a graphics card guy myself, so I would say invest in a decent graphics card, but unless you are severely into gaming or movie production, you don’t necessarily need to break your head on this one. Find a few good reviews here. If I do learn more about graphics, I will keep you readers posted.

3. RAM: I will not even expand this for you, because if you can’t do that on your own then it’s time you asked your shopkeeper to choose a laptop for you. It’s undoubtedly my most favourite piece of hardware and as a programmer, I live by my RAM. More RAM = more work. Remember, that more RAM does not equate to faster work. Basically, every program you run takes some resources from your RAM. If you have more RAM, that simply means you have more resources to give at any instant and can run more programs simultaneously. These days, RAM is getting really inexpensive, so go ahead and buy as much RAM as you can, because it doesn’t hurt at all. Good to have at least 4GB. More than 8GB wouldn’t generally be necessary.

5. Display: One of the integral parts of the machine you’re going to select. The most obvious parameters I can think of are screen size and resolution, besides other features. Screen size, as the name suggests, is how big your screen is. That you get to decide for yourself. Commonly, it would be somewhere in between 14-16 inches. Screen resolution is a slightly confusing concept if you’re new to it. Screen resolution basically tells you how many pixels your screen can contain. The more the resolution, the more the pixels and hence, more the workspace. More resolution implies small text size but more text. Less resolution implies bigger text size but less text. Think about it. Suppose you have two screens of the same size but different resolution. The one with more resolution can show you more of the webpage you’re browsing, or more of the document you’re reading. That kind of thing.
There are additional parameters too, but there are so many of them and it’d be impractical to discuss all of them. Most of them are vendor specific. For example. you might want to buy LED displays over traditional LCD ones, as they tend to save energy. In most cases, that translates to longer battery life. They are even said to have crisper display and better contrast, whatever that means. 😛 You might also want to buy anti-glare ones, if you work outdoors. They are less bright, but they are cool. Needless to say, all this comes with extra cost attached. Most vendors now ship one or more of these extra features anyway and claim to provide awesome displays. I am not against that, but make sure the basic features that I mentioned are good.

6. Storage: Now this is something entirely based on your needs. Every other person I know has the wrong hard drive, first in the list being me. Storage is what tells you if you can store 1500 movies on your hard drive with still room for a game download. Your laptop has a unit called hard drive, the more the hard drive space, the more it can store. Hard drives are judged on two criteria at large – storage capacity and speed. Storage capacity depends on what you normally use it for. If you are the kind of person who likes to save up a lot of movies, you need good amount of storage. Upwards of 500GB, mostly. Speed is expressed in terms of RPM – Rotations Per Minute. The more rotations, the better. That basically reflects on the read-write speeds. How fast stuff is copied to and from your hard drive to other media and so on.
If you really have good money, buy SSD – Solid State Drive. They are damn damn fast, but cost a lot. For a lot less space, you pay a lot more. They have no moving parts, so they are tremendously more durable too.

Component wise, all this is good to know. This was not an exhaustive list of components. For example, I haven’t yet discussed USB 3.0 ports, or backlit keyboards. But then, this is a laptop buying guide. It’s always good to address the more critical elements first. There are good chances that once you are finished selecting a laptop based on this list and your needs, you don’t have much more variety left. Some models may come with a fancy choose-your-favourite-colour option, while others may come with HDMI ports. It’s important to overlook features that sound good but aren’t going to be put to good use. If you come across a tight choice over two laptops that have the same critical configuration, but unique extra features, feel free to bring them up 🙂

Now comes the fun part: Current trends. This paragraph will almost certainly die out in a little time, so keep yourself updated. Currently, you can buy one of these kinds- Desktop replacement, Ultrabook, Tablet-convertibles and Touchscreens.

Desktop replacements are the usual kind you see. They have really good hardware. Typically, think an i5 processor, upwards of 4GB of RAM and 500GB of hard disk space. They tend to be heavy and often compromise on looks. Then there are the Ultrabooks. For the same money as a desktop replacement, you can buy an ultrabook that comes with a little less RAM and a little slower processor. Storage depends on whether the medium is a hard disk or an SSD. Ultrabooks are fast at what they do, extremely light and thin, and typically look sexy. Touchscreens do what their name suggests – allow you to touch their screen. Often, the touch capability is limited to a specific kind of software. Tablet-convertibles are essentially touchscreens, with the additional feature of letting you detach or play around with the monitor.

It’s actually interesting to attempt answering the next question that comes to you once one reads this – So which one works for me?

You’ll almost always fall into one of the following categories of laptop users:

1) The Commuter. You carry your laptop with you every day to work or class, and most of your laptop use revolves around entertainment (movies, music), slideshows to project in class, surfing the internet. For that kind of work, an Ultrabook suits you best. You’ll find good ultrabooks starting at around Rs. 35k, and it can go up to about 80k as you improve the configuration. What you’ll have to compromise might have to be – an optical drive and hard disk space. CDs will be around for quite some time, but people are moving towards flash drives. Look for more “USB 3.0” ports as they increase read-write speeds by up to 10 times. Of course, your flash drives and devices will have to be USB3.0 compatible. Hard disk space is something that entirely depends on what brand or model you choose to buy. But yeah, you can always buy an external hard disk or optical drive if that is a must. You will invariably end up getting a good choice of colours and customization options.

2) The Geek. You stay glued to your laptop, but don’t carry it much around. Besides the work The Commuter does, you also spend time learning new software. Quite often you play around with Photoshop or Maya and do a little bit of odd gaming. You are now asking for a desktop-replacement. That means more power, but also implies weight and perhaps chunky boxy looks (though it doesn’t have to be). You probably will earn the best in terms of performance, but if you are looking for a glossy pink color device that will easily fit in your bag, then  this won’t help. Buying an extra bag is in most cases, mandatory.

3) The Windows Fanboy geek. You possess the same characteristics of the The Geek, but are fascinated by Windows 8. However, a dual-boot linux partition is more important than a detachable tablet. Or better still, you have to stay vary of jealous hostel inmates who may come and steal your monitor, leaving your computer headless. If this defines you, then you can easily go ahead and buy a Touchscreen. The perks and compromises would roughly be the same as a desktop-replacement, just that you get to touch your screen sometimes and feel happy.

4) The Gadget Freak. Your hardware has to resemble transformers in the best way possible. There is an entire generation of convertibles now, and they transform in many ways. Some swivel around a frame, others can be completely detached from the rest of the machine. These gadgets come in various configurations by themselves, so I can’t tell if all tablet-convertibles will fit your usage requirements. Photo here.

Once you have decided what category you fall into, just go to some online store like flipkart.com, and set your filters. It’s not a bad idea to buy a convertible at all, but make sure you are going to need it. Because if you are later going to boot into linux and use it, there is hardly any fun buying a device that wasn’t meant for your software. Now another important point I’d like to add here. Vendors are going to charge you for the software you find in your laptop, as well as for their installation. For example if Windows costs around 5000 for a box, these guys will install and give you for 6000. Something you’re not going to like. Especially for people who are eventually going to use only linux, or have discounts on Windows, it makes little sense to pay for a pre-installed OS. So look around for laptops that come with FreeDOS or Linux installed, so you aren’t spending anything extra. Just a tip. 😉

Now go ahead and choose your laptop and remember to recommend this to anyone who plans to buy a laptop soon. Thanks!

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One thought on “Buying a new laptop guide – Basic hardware and current trends.

  1. @Geeks: If you are looking for a laptop with awesome specs and which comes under your budget, I would suggest you buy an ASUS K53Sm- XD10D, Now, this has got the same spec as a HP DV6 or a LENOVO Z570, and it comes under a much lower price. The Graphics Card is also better than that of LENOVO, ASUS uses a NVIDIA 630 M while LENOVO Z570 still is in the CUDA range. And also , ASUS comes with DOS, so you needn’t pay for the windows software (Now prices have gone upto-10000/- , since the coming of windows 8 ).

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