Digital DIY Class: Getting on top of the best laptops
Buying a new portable PC: a late adopters' guide
Despite our increased use of phones and tablets for online activity, lots of us still have a need for a laptop.
But for many people, buying one is a minefield of jargon and confusion. Adrian Weckler answers the basic questions that most of us have about getting a new portable computer
Do I actually need a laptop? Wouldn't an iPad or a tablet do instead?
For social media, basic web browsing and movie or music streaming, a tablet largely performs as well as a laptop. But for online shopping, form-filling, online banking and typing documents (including email), a laptop is definitely better. This is because it's usually faster than a tablet and lets you switch between activities much more smoothly. A laptop's keyboard is almost always better than a tablet accessory keyboard, too. Finally, it's sometimes handy to have USB ports (for memory sticks) to save photos or kids' school projects on.
Will a basic laptop do? Or is it worth spending a bit more on one?
Laptops sell for as little as €250 now (see Best Buy panel). The basic rule is that the more you pay, the lighter and slimmer your laptop will be. The computer's general power and abilities - and therefore its durability - also increase with the price tag. For example, a budget €300 Lenovo laptop from Harvey Norman or PC World will get you on the web, let you store loads of photos or music and do the basics competently. But it's big and heavy with a basic screen, relatively poor battery life and is not especially nice to look at. By contrast, a €1,000 MacBook Air is a beautifully designed machine which is slim, light, has an eight-hour battery life and flies through whatever you want to do. And it will still be going strong in three or four years' time.
Dell, HP, Toshiba, Lenovo, Acer - is there any real difference between the brands?
Mostly, no. Most laptops that use Microsoft Windows (which is over 80pc of them) differ only in small design or specification features. By and large, they use the same components, often made in the same factories. So a €400 laptop from HP is technically almost identical to a €400 model from Dell with the same general standard of durability. Apple is different in that it has its own user interface and controls more of its own components.
What size laptop is best?
Laptops used to come in a standard 14-inch or 15-inch size. But that's too big to be portable, so the better models now come in 12-inch or 13-inch versions. If you're going to simply use it as a desktop machine, the larger 15-inch models, oddly, are still generally cheaper than the smaller versions.
Which are the best 'light' laptops?
Apple have a couple of very light laptops, especially the new MacBook (although this is very expensive) and the existing MacBook Air laptops. Dell's XPS 13 is pretty featherweight too, as is Lenovo's Thinkpad X1. Asus also has a couple of super-slim laptops. But to go this slim, you're generally looking at spending over €1,000.
Which are the best ones for battery life?
These days, a good battery life level in a laptop is considered to be over seven hours. The general rule is that you have to spend more than €600 to get one of these. That's because they need more expensive hard drives (the bit of the laptop that stores all your gigabytes of data) than older models. Lenovo's Thinkpads have very good battery lives, as do Apple's MacBooks.
Do I need something extra to make Skype calls?
No, all laptops now come with a front-facing camera to make video calls.
Can I use my laptop to watch TV? If so, what's the best one for that?
Yes: you can do this either through the various 'players' (from RTÉ or TV3, for example) or from services such as Sky Go. Here, the quality of the screen becomes really important. Microsoft's Surface 3 shines here, as do Apple's MacBook and MacBook Pro (see Best Buy panel).
Some of them seem to have Windows 8 and some have Windows 10. Which one should I get?
If possible, the one with Windows 10 - it's a lot easier to use than Windows 8. Having said that, Microsoft lets Windows 8 PCs download Windows 10 for free, although it could take time and get a little fiddly.
I've no clue about things like Intel processors or Ram memory. Is there much difference between them or what do I really need to know?
If you're looking for something to do the basics, almost any chip ('processor') will do for now. However, a basic device (for example, one with an Intel Celeron chip) will start to stutter within 18 months as online activities like social media and video streaming advance. If you want to get technical about it, you should have at least 4GB of Ram for speed. Better-performing machines have Intel i3, i5 or i7 processors (there are also AMD equivalents). You don't need to worry about specific graphics 'cards' unless you're looking to do heavier activities such as video editing or gaming.
What else? Is there some basic amount of storage I need?
For most of us, a hard drive with 256GB of storage is enough on a laptop: I even find 128GB to be enough, and I put a lot of photos on my machines. Some extreme budget laptops offer 32GB or 64GB of storage. These are fine only if you don't really save things like music or photos on your laptop. (This is possible to do these days thanks to free online storage with services such as Dropbox, Flickr, OneDrive or Google Drive.)
The shops seem to want to sell me 'hybrid' laptops with touchscreens. Are these worth it?
Only if you watch a lot of movies online (and therefore want to bring it to bed or on the couch). If not, a hybrid isn't worth it: there's very little they've come up with that can be done better on a laptop's touchscreen than using its keyboard. (Microsoft's Surface hybrid is an exception: it has a superb screen and it's really usable as a laptop.)
Do any of them still come with DVD and CD players?
It's a shrinking number. You simply don't need a DVD player to load software anymore (it's all downloaded now). And the same trend is happening with movies now, too. Having said that, they are still there. HP has a fairly decent, affordable model (15-inch R204; €550 from Harvey Norman) that includes a DVD drive.
I see some laptops called 'Chromebooks' that are pretty cheap. Are they worth getting?
Chromebooks - sold by Dell, HP, Toshiba and others - are low-cost (around €300) laptops that use Google as the basic user interface. So there's no Microsoft Windows and you can't store much on them. They're designed to be used mainly as web-connected laptops that are always switched on to wifi. So while they're absolutely fine for web browsing, social media and streaming at home, they're not much use on a plane or a train.
Is it worth waiting for sales to buy a laptop?
Not really. In my experience, the price of laptops falls only as new models are released. Sometimes you'll see them on sale in January as part of a wider event, but it's usually only by about €30 or €40.
Is there much of a discount buying one online or should I get one in a shop?
There's very little to be saved buying online anymore, unless you're willing to try a fringe seller on the likes of Amazon.co.uk (pay close attention to delivery costs and the warranty). A new MacBook, for example, costs exactly the same online from Apple as it does in a shop like CompuB or Harvey Norman.