Laptops buying guide

Take the guesswork out of choosing your next laptop.
 
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04.Laptop components and technical terms

Knowing what’s inside a laptop will help you determine which system will suit your needs. It’s important to remember that if you’re buying a laptop for its portability, it needs to be light enough to carry around. Also, the latest model may have all the top end parts, but if the manufacturers have skimped on the cooling components it could overheat.

Central Processing Unit (CPU) 

The CPU is the brain of the system, and is responsible for running the bulk of your laptop’s activities. CPUs are manufactured by Intel and AMD, and are available in low, mid and high-end models. There are three key factors you need to consider when investigating the CPU: The model grade, the speed rating (noted in gigahertz or GHz) and the number of cores. As a rule of thumb, a higher number in each category means better system performance, faster load times and the ability to run more programs at once. The CPU is just one cog in the machine however, as many other components contribute to these factors. Figures over 2GHz are common.

Remember, there’s more to consider than the figures alone. A higher end processor will still be faster than a lower grade processor running at the same nominal speed. For example, an Intel i7 2.1GHz can perform better than an i5 2.4GHz. Age is also a factor; a new i5 1.9GHz (Ivy Bridge) model can perform better than an older i5 2.4GHz (Sandy Bridge). High end processors can have a heavy impact on battery life, and will usually generate more heat. Newer models use the 4th Generation Haswell processor, which are designed to be more power efficient.

RAM (memory)

More RAM will improve performance when running multiple programs at once. Although you can scrape by with 2GB of RAM, this will only cover you for computing tasks running one program at a time. In practical terms you’ll need a minimum of 4GB, but you should aim for 8GB if you’re an average user or 16GB if you’re a power user.

You also need a minimum amount of RAM to run certain operating systems. For example; 2GB is the minimum required to run the 64-bit version of Windows 8, while the 32-bit version needs at least 1GB. To make full use of your RAM, you’ll need the 64-bit version of Windows 8. The 32-bit can only utilise up to 4GB, whereas the 64-bit version can utilise up to 128GB in the Standard Edition and 512GB in the Pro Edition.

A program can only utilise so much RAM however. Photo editing software for example may only utilise 5GB of RAM, regardless of how much is installed in the computer. More RAM does not always mean better performance for an individual program, but it will let you run more programs simultaneously.

Some laptops include RAM slots, so you can add some further down the line. For example; if there are two slots, one may be left empty for expansion. You can save money by buying a computer with an empty slot to add RAM yourself, instead of buying a computer with the same amount of RAM preinstalled. Just make sure to get the right kind of RAM to suit your particular computer. You can ask a salesperson to install it for you if you don’t feel up to the task.

 

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Graphics 

Built-in (integrated) graphics are suitable for most common activities, but a dedicated graphics card is required for computer games, image processing and 3D rendering. Laptop graphics cards range from 1 - 3GB, and are available in a huge range of models from multiple manufacturers. Average users will find that 1GB of dedicated graphics will suffice, while power users may want of 2GB.  

Sophisticated video games and 3D rendering will look beautiful with a 3GB card, but the heat generated when working at full capacity requires a good ventilation system. This can increase the size, weight and cost of the laptop. If you want to output to a 3D monitor, you will need to buy a laptop with a 3D-compatible card.

3D vs 3D ready

3D monitors are gradually rolling onto the market, but very few laptop screens can display a 3D image. Most are 3D capable or 3D ready, which means the graphics card is capable of outputting a 3D signal to an external 3D monitor. If you’re unsure, ask the salesperson if the laptop is really 3D or just 3D ready.

Screen

While a small screen means a laptop that’s smaller and generally lighter, large screens are generally better for graphics, gaming or viewing HD video. More laptops aimed at the power user market are integrating high definition screens. The table (right) shows the most common screen resolutions you’ll encounter, and the names sometimes used to refer to them. We’ve included HDTV resolutions for comparison as well.


NAME ASPECT RATIO WIDTH (pixels) HEIGHT (pixels)
VGA 4.3 640 480
SVGA 4.3 800 600
XGA 4.3 1024 768
XGA+ 4.3 1152 864
HDTV 720 4.3 1280 720
WXGA 15.9 - 16.1 1280 768 - 800
SXGA 5.4 1280 1024
WXGA (max) 16.9 1366 768
SXGA+ 4.3 1400 1050
WXGA+ 16.1 1440 900
UXGA 4.3 1600 1200
WSXGA+ 16.1 1680 1050
HDTV 1080 16.9 1920 1080
WUXGA 16.1 1920 1200
WQHD 16.9 2560 1440
WQXGA 16.1 2560 1600
COMING TO A SCREEN NEAR YOU
QFHD (4K) 16.9 3840 2160
UHD (8K) 16.9 7680 4320



Storage

More storage space means more room for files and programs. More storage however means more weight, which isn’t ideal if you’re looking for a highly portable model. Mass storage comes in two formats, Hard Disk Drive (HDD) and Solid State Drive (SSD). HDDs are cheaper, averaging around 10c per gigabyte, and they can hold more data. However, they are slower and generally more susceptible to damage due to their moving parts.

SSDs have no moving parts, resulting in faster speeds and greater stability, but they are more expensive, costing between 60c and $1 per gigabyte. Some ultraportables use hybrid drives, which use an HDD to store your media, and an SSD for your operating system. These usually cost slightly more than a laptop containing an HDD, but offer better storage performance.

Wireless

Wi-Fi is standard in all modern laptops, but double check that the model you’re considering includes the 802.11n industry standard. Bluetooth is now standard in all laptops, aside from some of the cheapest models, so you can pair Bluetooth devices to the laptop, such as headphones, mice and even your phone or iPod.

Power Supply

Colloquially called the brick, this is the block and cord that you use to plug your laptop into a standard wall socket. Higher end components increase the laptop’s power requirements, which will usually increase the size of the power supply. Carrying a large power supply around with your laptop can be difficult, so it’s important to check the size and weight of the unit before you buy.

Cooling/heatsink

Laptops can only fit so many fans inside their casing. Manufacturers have come up with different means of cooling laptops including heatsink technology, which extracts the heat from the components and disperses it into the air. If a laptop has a top end graphics card but I will require a better cooling system. This can add weight.

USB

All laptops support USB 2.0 and most have USB 3.0 ports, which offer faster data transfer.

Connections

  • We recommend a minimum of three USB ports. Other connections include video out (using VGA or HDMI), headphone and mic ports, ExpressCard and memory card slots, Ethernet for networking, and even Thunderbolt for high-speed external storage.
  • A memory card reader is useful for transferring photos from your camera to the laptop. Most new laptops have one, but it may not support all the card formats commonly used by cameras: SD standard, mini and micro; MS Pro, SDHC CompactFlash and MMC. Laptops commonly support SD standard and mini or micro with a converter.
  • If you want to expand the hardware capabilities of your laptop, look for a model with an ExpressCard slot. The ExpressCard has replaced the older PC Card (otherwise known as PCMCIA or CardBus), and comes in two sizes (34mm and 54mm) – the slot is usually 54mm, which accepts both sizes, but smaller laptops may only accept 34mm cards. It provides for more flexible extension of your laptop than USB ports. You could, for example, use it to provide 7.1 surround sound via an ExpressCard sound card if the conventional stereo sound via the headphone jack isn’t sufficient.
  • Consider the positioning of the USB ports, which you’ll find useful for everything from USB keys and external hard drives to keyboards and mice for those times when you have desk space. Those located at the back aren’t often as useful as those on the sides, and make sure there’s room to comfortably plug in your most-used devices.
  • Most modern laptops place ports on the side, but some have the headphone and microphone ports on the front.
For more information, see our desktop buying guide components and costs.


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