Friday, September 20, 2013

What to Look for in a New Computer

“What should I look for in a new computer?”
That's a great question with almost too many answers.  With the choices in screen size (from 11.6 to 18 inches), in processors (from the lowly AMD E-300 to the massive Intel Core i7), hard drive sizes (from 250 gigabytes to 1000 gigabytes), memory from 2 to 32GB, and many other options, you could easily start to suffer from "analysis paralysis."  Just picking a computer manufacturer is one of the hardest things to do.  Go with a second or third tier maker, or go with a first rate?  And then some manufacturers specialize in certain kinds of computer.  Dell, Toshiba and HP tend towards the casual consumer.  MSI and Alienware go for the gamer crowd.  Lenovo makes a good business computer.  Of course there is some overlap in the offerings, and with some information you can be armed to pick the best fit for your needs.
Since laptops are the Big Thing going right now, I'm going to concentrate on them, but the same general idea applies to desktop machines, other than the mobility factor.
If you are looking for a very mobile laptop, you might look at something in the 11 to 14 inch range.  These machines are small, light and fairly powerful.  Because of the size, they tend to shy away from processors that generate lots of heat, like the Core i7 quad core (core refers to how many "engine" a processor has to do work with).  They can also be called "ultrabooks" if they meet certain criteria set by Intel.  In the name of weight saving, they skip the optical drive (something I was reminded of after making a recommendation) and go for low wattage processors (CPU).  Normally, if you are looking at something Intel powered, the CPU name will be followed by a "U."  You might see a model name of "Core i3-3227U."  This CPU trades a bit of power for power, which is processing power for longer battery power.  In the case of Intel Core CPUs, it’s not a big trade-off as they tend to be pretty powerful for most uses.

A 15 inch laptop is a good choice for an easy to read screen and easy to carry around.  These laptops are thick enough to run regular wattage CPUs and carry a battery to power them for at least two hours, but can go for three or more.  They will also most likely have an optical (DVD) drive, unless it’s billed as an ultrabook.  Intel Core i3 and i5 CPUs and AMD A4, A6, and A-8 CPUs are the norm here.  Intel’s lineup is a bit easier to follow than AMDs as the Intel Core CPUs are almost all dual core while the AMDs use a mix of dual and quad core CPUs.  Good rule of thumb to look at is the larger the number, the more it’ll cost and faster it goes.

Then there are the 17 inch laptops.  These can be heavy and hard to transport.  Sometimes, you’ll see them called “desktop replacement” machines as they have all the power you’ll need and screen that nice to look at.  And, as with CPUs, the larger you go, the more they cost.  There will also be a full keyboard with number pad if that’s important for bookkeeping or data entry.  Also, they have the full mix of CPUs available to them from the bargain bin to the top shelf.

On top of all the screen size options, there are touch screens.  A touch screen allows you to run your computer without a mouse by just using your finger.  They also add cost to the laptop, but can make using the laptop more intuitive and fun to use.  Some can found for well under $400.

A word (or a hundred...) about CPU / processors.  For the most part, any CPU you end up with will do the job for email, web browsing and watching YouTube videos.  But, with the arrival of Windows 8, the need for something a bit more powerful is in order.  Stores will advertize the weekly special with the E-300/450/E1/E2 or Celeron/Pentium Dual Core CPU and 2 gigabyte of memory for about $250.  That’s a great price considering that at one time, a good laptop would cost somewhere closer to $2500.  However, there is a point where cheap is too cheap.  I would strongly suggest staying away from any laptop running an E-series or Celeron CPU.  “But, can’t I just change the CPU later?”  Short answer: No.  Longer answer:  Some CPUs are soldiered into place and cannot be replaced like a desktop.  So, once you buy a laptop, it’s usually stuck with whatever CPU it came with.  I have an old Gateway that is one of the very rare exceptions where Gateway sent a manual that shows how to replace some internal parts. 

Acceptable CPUs:
            Intel Pentium B-series, Core i-series (2nd generation)
            AMD A4 and A6 dual core

Good CPUs:
            Intel Core i3, i5 (3rd generation)
            AMD A4 and A6 quad core

Excellent CPUs:
            Intel i5 and i7 (4th generation)
            AMD A8 and A10

Entry Level:
            Intel Atom and Celeron
            AMD E-series (E-300, E-450, E1 and E2)

            Skip anything that only comes with 2GB (gigabyte) of RAM (memory).  You’ll spend as much upgrading to 4GB as you would have just getting it to start with, or more.  And like everything else, more RAM is more money.  Right now, 4GB is still a good spot for most use.  Of course, if there’s a good deal with 6 or 8GB, go for it.  Many newer laptops can run 8 or more GB of RAM.  If you are doing still picture editing, 4GB is plenty.  If movie editing is in the future, then more may be an option.  RAM is usually pretty easy to upgrade and is the best return for money in an upgrade.

            Hard drives are the file cabinet of the computer.  There are sizes from 250 to 1000GB.  In a laptop, they tend to be slow spinning, 5400rpm drives.  It takes power to spin the motor, so a slower drive uses less power, and can impact performance.  A new laptop might also be equipped with an SSD (solid state drive).  This is a hard drive with no moving parts, meaning it uses very little power.  The trade off for this smaller size (under 128GB) and higher price as SSDs are still hard to make.  HDs are a bit harder to upgrade as the entire OS, programs and data would have to backed up and reinstalled after replacing the old HD.

            Most laptops come with integrated graphics.  This means the video system is built into the motherboard of the laptop and cannot be changed or upgraded.  Intel’s video is fine for playing DVDs and streaming video.  AMD does a good job for some gaming.  Integrated video will use memory from the system.  This use is dynamic, meaning that the video and operating system will use amounts of RAM according to the need.  Laptops with discrete video tend to be expensive.  Integrated graphics cannot be changed.

            Windows 8 is Microsoft’s new operating system.  It’s supposed to be faster, more secure and easier to use.  Win8 changes the Desktop and Start button to making the Desktop a tile on the Start Screen with other programs and applications (apps).  Win8 really is designed to be used on a tablet, but can be used for a laptop and desktop with some learning curve.

            Other things to think about are:  HDMI output to an HDTV, USB 3.0 ports (for high speed devices like external hard drives), memory card readers, Bluetooth (for transferring files to and from cell phones and tablets), speakers, how the keyboard feels, the size of the keys and the color (grey letters on silver buttons is not good), battery life and capacity of the battery, a built-in webcam for Skype.

            One good option is refurbished laptops.  Lenovo has had laptops in their Outlet Store for as low as $124.  These are computers that have been returned for one reason or another, or are off lease.  They might have some cosmetic issues, scratches and dents, but shouldn’t affect performance.  If Windows 7 is needed or Windows 8 is not desired, this where Win7 can be had for a discount. Usually, refurbs have a 90 day warranty.  Newegg also carries refurbished laptops; these are usually older machines running Core 2 Duo CPUs and Windows 7 for about $200.

            After owning (arguably) too many laptops, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, and Lenovo are good picks.  Sony tends to be pricey and HP lately is lacking in reliability.  Asus, Acer, and other companies make fine computers.  No matter what, some company will be missing.  However, if there’s a flier or web site, always ask if there are questions or concerns.  There are plenty of options for (almost) every budget and every mission.  From web browsing and email to designing hyper-sonic jet fighters, a laptop can be found for your needs.

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