Q: I want to get a new laptop but I don't want to spend a fortune on it. I need it mainly for email, web browsing and shopping. I might use it for Netflix, too. What's the best option?
A You haven't defined your budget but I'm assuming you mean under €1,000, and ideally closer to €500. For that, you're looking at a Lenovo, a Dell or a HP. All will do much the same thing, although some are styled more nicely than others.
First, the basics. Your laptop should be fairly slim, light, comfortable to type on and make some effort at being nice to look at.
Technically, it should have at least 256GB of storage for things like photos and videos, 8GB of Ram to make it powerful enough to run quickly and have a modern chip from a company like Intel or AMD.
You're not going to get an Apple MacBook on the budget I think you have, as the cheapest model (a MacBook Air) is €1,180. I'm a fan of MacBooks and generally recommend them, but they're never available for under €1,000.
That leaves you with a Windows 10 laptop. Even here, you still have meaningful choices. Lots of laptops now come with touchscreens. In my experience, these only come in handy if you use your laptop a lot for multimedia. If you want to use it for YouTube, Netflix or other online streaming services, it's handy to have touchscreen capability. For example, Lenovo's Yoga 510 touchscreen model (from €500 depending on the shop and spec) has a screen that flips right over so you can stand it up like an easel to watch movies. This works really well. On the other hand, if you're fairly sure you're not going to use your laptop for this kind of activity, a touchscreen is a total waste of money.
Compared to a phone or a tablet, which are optimised for touch operations, Windows laptops are very awkward and perform badly. This is one reason why hybrid laptop-tablets, such as Microsoft's Surface (from €950), have struggled. Despite superb build quality, the Windows operating system is sub-par as a touchscreen operating system.
That said, do try to get the best possible resolution screen you can. Understand that websites and streaming services are starting to really ramp up their own output quality, with more and more TV consumption drifting away from TVs to laptops, tablets and phones. So a good screen is definitely an investment. For the same reason, don't underestimate the importance of speakers.
For a modern laptop, they're way more important than you'd think. Do you need features such as fingerprint security sensors, available on some models? If you're travelling a lot or are going to use the laptop for sensitive business, it's nice to have. But I don't think it's essential for casual home use. As for battery life, any laptop you get now will typically last you over five hours of 'real world' usage (a rule of thumb is to take about a third off what the laptop ad says).
You'll see laptops that look similar to mid-range models for around €300. If you're strapped for cash, these will do a minimal job for you. But know that they tend to have inferior build quality, weaker power and lower-resolution screens. They're slower, harder to type on and are more vulnerable to crashing easily. They also have less storage memory (as low as 32GB), which is a killer unless you only want the laptop purely for online usage. In short, I have found cheap laptops to be something of a false economy.
Recommendation: Lenovo Yoga 510 (left), 14-inch, 256GB (€819 from PC World)
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HP Elitebook X360
This laptop is at the top end of what's currently available on the market. It's slim, light, very powerful and has an excellent 13-inch flipscreen, which means it can double up as a really effective second TV. New to the Irish market, I found it to be excellent device overall, even though I had no need for its touchscreen pen. The only drawback is the price which, at €2,100, puts it out of reach of all but those who live off their laptops.
Now TV box (€25)
Sky has just launched Now TV in the Irish market. It's an online streaming service that shows most of what's available on Sky, but you can pay for different bits individually through weekly or monthly 'passes'. You can get it on to your TV through a Now TV set-top box, which connects to your Wi-Fi. It's a no-frills device that comes with a remote control and works just fine.