- John Bell
Tech Sense: Laptops
May and June are popular months for graduations, and laptop computers make a popular gift for the graduating student. This month we will take a short look at laptop computers and what you should know before you purchase one. We will look at the operating system software first and then explore the hardware components.
For most practical purposes, there are four operating systems to consider: Windows 10, Chrome OS, Linux, and macOS. The choice of operating system will impact your choice of computer. The macOS operating system is typically limited to Apple computers, and the choice would drive you to purchasing an Apple. In a similar fashion a choice of Chrome OS is going to drive you to a computer that runs that operating system natively. Chrome OS is designed for running applications from the web. Chromebooks are computers built to run Chrome OS. Chromebooks tend to have limited power when compared to other computers and are typically less expensive. They may be a good choice for those people that only need to run applications on the web and check their email.
The Linux operating system will run on most computers, including the Apples, and some Chromebooks. Only a handful of computers are available with Linux pre-installed. Most people that want to run Linux install it to run on a Windows machine.
Windows 10 is currently the most popular operating system for laptop computers. Prices for Windows laptops can range from as low as $200 to more than $2,000. The two most common versions of Windows 10 are Home and Pro. Pro is designed to connect to domain-based networks that are typically in companies while Home is targeted for the typical home user.
Hardware is the collection of components used to build the laptop. The hardware impacts the performance and other capabilities of the computer.
The CPU is the central processing unit, the primary calculating engine for the computer. We could go into a lot of details about CPU performance, like cores, threads, cache size, and clock speeds, but most people do not need that much information. Instead, there are three major brands of CPU manufacturers, Intel, AMD, and ARM. Only a few laptops run on an ARM CPU, and these are mostly lower powered Chromebooks. So, for the typical buyer, the choice is between Intel Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7 or the AMD Ryzen 5 or Ryzen 7 series. The Ryzen 5 and 7 are comparable to the Intel i5 and i7 in performance and are less costly but are also currently less common in laptops. Of these CPU series, look for the most cores and threads you can afford.
While the CPU is the primary calculating engine, the graphics processing unit is the part that sends information to the screen. Performance here is very important for high-end gaming, and movie and photo editing. The GPU is also used to accelerate certain other computation tasks that it can do faster than the CPU. There are three choices here: NVIDEA, AMD, and Intel. Most people consider the current line of NVIDEA GeForce GTX series to be the best for laptop, but the AMD RX series is generally competitive. The Intel HD series is typically used for computers with lighter graphics needs intended for office work.
Unlike desktop computers, the screen is built into the laptop. There are two measures that are important: the size in inches and in pixels. Laptop screens typically fall within the range of 13 to 17 inches with 15.6 inches being the most popular. The three most common laptop screen resolutions are 1366 by 768 pixels, 1920 by 1080 pixels, and 4K or 3840 by 2160 pixels. Windows 10 seems to work best with the 1920 by 1080 resolution
Memory, RAM and Storage
Random Access Memory, or RAM, is used when processing information. The more RAM the better. Four gigabytes would be the minimum most users would need, but eight is better. If you are lucky, you may find a laptop with 16 gigabytes of RAM.
Storage is what we used to call the hard drive. Today there is a choice of hard drive or solid state drive (SSD). SSD is much faster than a hard drive but is more expensive and typically stores less information. Usually, an SSD may hold 256 to 512 gigabytes of data compared to one or two terabytes of data stored on a hard drive.
Occasionally seen is the hybrid drive that offers a small SSD combined with a large hard drive. The SSD stores the data that is accessed most frequently, giving much of the performance of the SSD with the larger size the hard drive.
A modern laptop should have Wi-Fi, Ethernet, and Bluetooth networking capability. Wi-Fi is the wireless technology that allows the computer to connect to the Internet. A new computer should support at least the 802.11ac wireless standards. Some laptops today do not include the traditional wired Ethernet jack. This can be a problem when trying to fix networking issues or when traveling to locations that still don't have Wi-Fi.
Bluetooth is a short range networking capability that can be used for connecting mice, headsets, speakers, phones, and other accessories to the computer. Most computers today offer Bluetooth versions 4 or 5.
If you travel, battery life can be important. I always look for at least 4-5 hours of battery. Many new laptops come with batteries that are not replaceable. I try to avoid these if I can so I can purchase a spare and swap batteries if needed.
I hope this was informative and not too shallow, but that's all the space that I have.