University students usually make a lot of mistakes when buying laptops for campus. These blunders are usually due to ignorance and their result is a true incarnation of the dangers of little knowledge. At the very apex is being conned some unrecoverable lifetime savings. However, with a little effort to define exactly what you want and seeking some advice, anybody can get his or her dream machine.
In this article, I am going to dole some useful tips on the things to look out for before making that mistake and throwing your hard-earned money to the trench. I will also give practical examples and infuse it with my experience with computers and a few analogies just to put everything into perspective.
1. Processor speed
The processor can be seen as the computer’s brain or better still as the brawn (engine) of the computer. You can compromise anything else when buying a laptop but never should you compromise on the processor speed. Basically, there are two things to look for in a processor – the number of cores it boasts of and its clock speed. The higher the cores and the speed (often measured in Gigahertz) the faster it will be. There are the two-cores (dual core), the quad-core (four cores), six core and even eight-core processors.
Multi-core processing allows a single task to be simultaneously done by two or more cores thus rendering a computer faster. This feature will only be fully put into use if the applications you are using are built for multi-threading. It is therefore worth noting that having six or eight cores may never improve the general performance of your computer if your applications are unable to make use of multi-threading. In selecting the right processor, one should, therefore, strike a balance between a number of cores and each clock’s speed. A clock speed of 2.6 GHz onwards would be just fast enough.
Ruggedness! Looks like a misplaced subtitle? One factor we often overlook when buying laptops, especially as students, is that moving with a laptop wherever you go (thanks to the thriving laptop theft at our universities) requires some level of durability on the part of the laptop you are buying.
Last week a friend of mine accidentally broke the screen of her laptop, an HP Envy 15 Touchsmart 15-k238TX. The HP support centre informed her that the spare could only be found in India and would cost some 400 dollars to import and replace. So she was to use a whooping Ksh. 40,000 to replace the screen of an 80,000 laptop! That is half the price and sufficient enough to get her another decent middle-entry laptop, probably just two tiers below the HP Envy.
Looking at this scenario, you will agree with me that one of the most viable options my friend has is to sell the components of the laptop, write off the laptop and buy another one. Assuming every other feature of the laptop was upheld but the screen a non-touch, then probably with just as little as Ksh. 10,000 she would have replaced the broken screen and had her laptop back. It is therefore advisable that touchscreen laptops should be shunned by students, given the conditions under which we live. It may look glossy and make you look techy but that will only last as long as that screen lasts.
Generally, laptops are categorized based on their screen sizes and there are three broad categories here. We have the Mini Laptops with screen sizes anywhere below 10.1”, Portable laptops with screen sizes between 12.1” and 13.3” and finally Standard-sized laptops which range between 14” to 16”. While I won’t recommend the Mini Laptops, I won’t recommend the Standard-size laptops with 15” to 16” screens neither.
The Mini-Laptops may be very portable, but they won’t give you the best typing experience. Another downside is lack of certain crucial features like HDMI and VGA ports that may be of great importance to you.
I would, therefore, recommend a size that will offer you the necessary features and at the same time having a size and weight that you can carry wherever you go.
Chances are if you go for the larger size, you may not find it easy carrying it wherever you go (if you stay in an area prone to laptop theft). The smaller one can be carried at a whim and may not need you to have the traditional laptop bags.
So, the 14” laptop size carries the day if portability is your greatest concern, but without losing the full functionality of a laptop.
4. Hard disk type
There are two types of hard disks in the market today. There is the Hard Disk Drive often abbreviated as HDD and then there is the Solid State Drive abbreviated as SSD. The former is the most popular and dates back to the 1950s. The solid-state technology driven SSDs, on the other hand, are new in the market. So which of these is better? Both have their downsides so I’ll leave the verdict for you. The SSDs tend to be more rugged as compared to the HDDs and can withstand falls. Not only will SSDs amaze you with the speed with which your laptop will start but also with the faster running of applications. They also work with almost no noise having no moving parts. This also means you will be able to eke more battery life since none of the energy consumed will be wasted. They, however, come at an extra cost, but you can buy them if ruggedness and speed are key factors to you.
Listen! A computer is only as good as the brand that manufactures it, and the aftersales services it offers for that matter. You will never go wrong on Apple, HP and Dell. I am not saying that any other brand would be a mistake, but those three brands have over time proven that they are the captains of the PC industry. Various reviews will always rank them differently depending on their criteria but I can vouch that buying any of those three brands can never be a mistake.
6. User needs
This is quite important. I talked of the various available processors and explained that their optimization will depend on the software or program you are using. Take a scenario of two laptops, a Core i3 and a Core i7 all being used to perform normal tasks such as preparing documents, watching a video, name it. It may be almost impossible to note any difference in performance of those two machines. It is therefore very important to factor in what you intend to use your laptop for.
For instance, if you are an Architecture student or a Civil engineering student who plans to extensively use AutoCAD I would advise you to not buy a laptop with a RAM capacity below 4GB if you want to optimize the performance of the CAD software.
In fact, Autodesk recommends 8GB RAM for a more fulfilling experience. For the 32-bit architectures, 2GB would do. It is therefore very paramount as a user to consider what you intend to use that laptop for. Buying an 8-core processor, just because you have the money, when all you need is a 4-core processor would be analogous to using a 67-seater to move four passengers when a salon car could as well have done that. So, if you are not going to push your computer to its limits, go for lower specifications that suit your needs.
7. Consult before buying a laptop
In an ever-changing and dynamic industry, the factors listed above cannot be taken as a text-book-kind-of-answer. The innovators of the world are not sleeping. Today, AMD is coming up so fast and who knows, tomorrow we may not be talking about the ‘Core i’s – we may wake up to an industry dominated by AMDs 8-core processors; we may wake up to find that Google’s Chromebook is better than Apple’s MacBook. So, don’t confine yourself to the general knowledge that has ruled the past. Read reviews, do your homework diligently, consult your tech-savvy friends and make a decision based on that.
All having been said and done, at the end of the day if you can’t explore the depths of your pocket and fork out 1000 dollars for the latest processor technology that will satisfy your insatiable FIFA thirst, all I have mentioned may not mean much. A careful balance must, therefore, be struck between all those factors mentioned. I’ll, however, suggest that if it has to be anything, let it not be processor- the processor must never be a trade-off. RAM can always be upgraded; external hard disks are becoming cheaper by the day but upgrading your processor may necessitate overhauling the whole motherboard and may, therefore, be an expensive affair.
In an era when unscrupulous dealers have pervaded the market, having some little computer knowledge can prove to be of help. This will not only help you when you are buying that laptop but will go a long way in saving you some money whenever your computer has an issue. I have seen friends who have bought Intel Celeron laptops for the price of a Core i3. Don’t rely on that ‘Intel inside’ sticker. Turn on the laptop and see the system specs and confirm that they match the features you budgeted for and those displayed outside. Running the simple dxdiag command in the Run window could be all that you need!