Eric Baker

Laptop Buying
Guide

v7.6  27 November 2019  © Eric Baker
www.chericbaker.co.uk



Contents

Operating system
Suppliers
Support and maintenance
Software
Laptops
Desktops
Tablets
Smartphones

Desktops give you much more oomph per £. Laptops are also more expensive to repair when they break but if you want portability it's got to be a laptop, tablet or even smartphone. I like having a variety of devices available; desktop for photo editing etc, laptop or tablet for portable computing and smartphone for ultra portability.







Win 8 laptop

Operating system

It doesn't matter so much nowadays, since so much of what we do is through a browser, but...

Windows 10 is what we run on our desktop and laptop computers and is very good indeed. The best operating system I've ever used. Windows 7 was pretty good too, although slower to start and with a tiny limit on disk partitions. Here's my desktop running Win 10 across 2 HD monitors: Windows 10

Macs are nicely designed but not cheap and are a bit niche (under 10% so most people don't know how OS X works).

Chromebooks running Chrome OS are interesting if your computing needs are mainly browsing the web and dong emails and you want a proper keyboard. Chromebooks are cheap and need very little tinkering but need an internet connection to function. Ideal for granny?

Tablets and smartphones mostly run on Google's Android or Apple's iOS. I really like Android 9 on my Xiaomi phone - very easy to use and it's the Android One variant - no Xiaomi overlays and regular security updates. But I do all my real work (websites, photo and video editing etc) on real computers.
Windows 8

Suppliers

Most people will check things out online now. It's hard to avoid amazon but I always check out a multitude of suppliers, depending on what I'm searching for. If it's a smartphone I'd check giffgaff, amazon, carphone warehouse etc. My wife's Moto G5 and my Xiaomi A3 were from amazon. For tablets it could be direct from Google or Apple but I just got my new Huawei M3 Lite 8" tablet from SVP, cheap because it was ex display. Our Acer mini laptop came from SVP too and desktop from Chillblast, who offer extensive pre-order customisation. I always check John Lewis and PC World too.

Looking around really does work - our desktop cost over £700 but is very fast and has twin 500GB SSDs (much cheaper than a single 1TB SSD) The laptop and two tablets, all very capable, cost around £500 the lot. Many people shell out much more for just a laptop.

Support and maintenance

Laptop, tablet and phone For some devices it's basically a matter of hoping it lasts well and replacing it when it breaks, eg when you drop your tablet and the screen cracks. For my previous Asus tablet I got (and used) very reasonable 3 year all risks cover from Currys. For computers what you really need is someone who'll fix the machine for the first few years and give you technical support indefinitely (eg if Windows will not start or you get a nasty virus). There's a tendency for suppliers to duck out of support obligations now - some will offer reasonable hardware warranties but will not be interested in helping if the machine is unusable because of a software fault (eg Windows needs re-installing). Quite often the only realistic option will be to do a factory reset yourself then re-install all your programs again (and recover your data if it wasn't on a separate partition).

Basically, ask yourself "what happens if the hardware and/or operating system goes crunch - next month, next year and after 3+ years?"

One other thing to think about: our two Win 10 computers each has a system drive, C: and a separate partition (D:) for data. That means taking an image of the system drive every so often is quite quick and a couple of times over the years I've used an image to reset a computer to a few weeks back (installed programs and all) without affecting the data.






Win 10 Start menu


Win 10 taskbar

Software

On tablets and smartphones the basics come with them and you can add all sorts of extras via app stores.

On a computer, apart from the operating system you need security plus an office suite (word processing etc) then something for images, sound, video or whatever, according to taste. For security you can pay for Kaspersky, Norton etc (does your existing subscription cover multiple PCs?) or else use free security software, eg from Avast.

For word processing, spreadsheets and presentations there's always the free Libre Office. It's a little slow at times but pretty good and can read and save in Microsoft formats.

For images the FastStone Image Viewer (free for personal use) is amazingly good and does some editing too. Photoshop Elements is wonderful for any sort of image processing. For video editing I use Movie Studio Platinum.

For music there's a wealth of free players and organisers, eg iTunes, Windows Media Player and VLC (my favourite).

One program I use all the time is Primo PDF. Anything you can print you can divert via Primo to a pdf file and there's an append option. I use it for invoices, storing copies of important emails and all sorts of other things.


Android tablet

Laptops

They get better if not cheaper month by month and you often have to spend more to get real speed, big screens or miniaturisation. Make sure there are plenty of connectors, eg 3 USB ports is better than 2 and at least one should be a fast USB3 one (usually blue). Processors, hard disks and memory are largely a matter of what you spend. I think spending more on a bigger disk and more memory and stepping down to a less expensive processor is most effective. But don't skimp too much. If you look up a processor via CPU Benchmarks I reckon a Passmark score of over 4,000 should be OK for running Windows 10. Make sure you've got an Ethernet network port. Wifi capability is essential, with wireless n OK but ac much better. Bluetooth can also be useful for connecting to phones and other gadgets. HDMI is good for connecting to a TV. Most say a touch screen on a laptop is pointless. Many laptops are now coming with SSDs (Solid State Drives). Our Acer has one and seems very fast but there's not enough storage for all our music and photos.

Battery power is a real issue with laptops. Many last no more than 2-3 hours away from the mains and the batteries don't seem to last many years. Some people say you'll get years more from your laptop battery if you take it out any time you don't need to work on battery power - but the battery in our Acer laptop is not removable. I also read it's better to store Lithium Ion batteries part discharged (say 60%) and avoid completely discharging them or leaving them mostly 100% charged - they especially hate being full and hot.

As of November 2019 reasonable basic Windows 10 laptops start around £400 but you really do need to do the research to see what will suit you. At least you no longer seem to be offered pathetic 1366x768 screens at the cheaper end of the market. We've got a little £350 Windows 10 Acer with a 13.3" HD screen and 120Gb SSD as a home + holiday laptop. Always check for processor speed, memory (2Gb really is mean!), battery oomph, USB3 and HDMI as well as screen size, quality and resolution. And how can you tell what the keyboard is like without trying it?

You can easily top £1000 for fancier laptops but that's not necessary if you don't do anything too demanding. They get faster so relentlessly over time that any new machine will be pretty good beside a really expensive one from 3 years ago. I just checked John Lewis and found a couple of discounted deals (Black Friday week). For £400 they had a Dell 15.6" full HD Windows 10 laptop with 256GB SSD (a bit small), 8GB of memory and a good Ryzen 5 2500U processor. Plenty of connectors. With the JL 2 year warranty that looks like a good deal. For £650 they had a 13.3" HP convertible laptop (turns into a large tablet) with a long lasting battery and otherwise similar specification. But I much prefer having a separate 8" tablet, perfect for my man-bag.




Acer laptop















Dell laptop

Desktops

Desktop PC If you want more flexibility and power and are happy for your main computer to stay in one place a desktop definitely gives you a lot more speed and power for the money than a laptop - but beware power consumption, especially from graphics cards. If you use a computer a lot then the extra speed, bigger screen and better keyboard and mouse of a desktop makes a laptop seem a very crude alternative.

One big advantage is that it's much easier and cheaper to recover from hardware problems with a desktop, eg if the screen dies just get another one - they keep getting bigger, sharper and cheaper. Our last desktop had become very noisy at one stage and I fixed it in half an hour with a new £5 case fan bought online. I've also made my desktop visually much better to use by getting a 2nd monitor. In the image below I've got my local collection of safari images on the right and the flickr organizer online on the left. You can also stretch a video or audio timeline across both of them.

You can also use specialised desktops as media centres, although I prefer a dedicated PVR - much cheaper and simpler to use too. We also have Fire TV stick. There are small desktops that are a compromise between desktops and laptops. They are slim, may use laptop components and should be fine for most tasks if you don't play the latest games or do heavy video editing. There are also all in one computers - space saving but if the screen goes you probably have to throw the rest away.



Chillblast desktop

Tablets

The 10" iPad led the way and tablets of all sorts are still selling well despite phones getting bigger. The immediacy of turning on from standby and being online within a second or so is pretty compelling. But for me a tablet just doesn't do a lot compared with a real computer. It has nothing close to the slickness of browsing, typing, photo editing etc on a real computer (tablets nearly all run phone operating systems). The touch interface is intuitive to a point but far too crude for anything like delicate photo editing. For a start it's often hard to know what all those little symbols mean (no equivalent to hovering with the mouse, no right click) and touching the wrong one can have unfortunate results. And typing is a pain - the on-screen keyboard takes up far too much of the small screen and you have to keep swapping to a different keyboard to get punctuation and numbers. And yet the big brand tablets cost a lot and have hardly any storage - nowhere near enough for our music and photos, let alone videos. iPads also have virtually no ports: no USB, no microSD (to expand memory), no HDMI, no ethernet, no OTG. And all these tablets are going to be slabs of junk when their batteries fail, as they will all too soon.

Smaller tablets are more interesting in a way, as they are so much more portable than a 10" one. I find a 6" phone, 8" tablet, 13.3" laptop and desktop with twin 23" HD monitors cover what I want very well. Others have just a 6" phone plus a laptop.

Google, Apple and Samsung have high quality tablet ranges. There are lots of others, including the Kindle Fire, mainly geared to buying content from amazon and lacking the crucial Google Play store. My first was a cheap no-name Chinese 8" Android 4 tablet in 2012 and that was OK - plenty of storage via a cheap SD card but slow on web browsing and with a poor battery life. So I gave it to a friend and got an Asus ZenPad HD 8" from Currys. It was fantastic for just £130, fast, excellent screen and a very good battery life. And unlike its Google and Apple rivals it lets you expand the storage cheaply with an SD card. So does my wife's Tesco Hudl, shown on the right, which we got mainly with Tesco vouchers. On safari I'd connect our camera cards to it via a cheap OTG cable, review and delete on the very sharp screen then copy the ones we kept onto the tablet and thence to a memory pen so I had 3 copies of all our photos at the end of each day. The people with iPads couldn't believe such a cheap tablet could be so much better than theirs, out in the field with little or no wifi. I'm now about to switch to a Huawei M3 Lite 8", only £130 ex display and it's the one with a data SIM capacity so I'll put a cheap 128GB microSD card in to expand the 32GB of internal storage plus a data SIM from Three to stay connected on our European travels. Why do people still buy tablets without expandable storage?

So we're very nicely set up, now, with Chrome running quickly and synching its bookmarks across our desktop, laptop and tablets. There's a good Gmail client on the tablets (and all our contact details arrive automatically). Dropbox Pro keeps all our data files in sync across desktop, laptop, tablets and phones and OneNote does the same for notes. My tablet's proved excellent for navigation in unfamiliar places (with offline Google maps) and is a super photo album and video player. I can even get films off our PVR, convert them to mp4 and copy them onto the tablets, great for long flights. Some other apps I've downloaded (mostly free) are The Guardian (free offline content), Avast for security, and the Met Office weather app. For file copying I use CX File Manager, excellent, and my new Huawei M3 Lite supports OTG, making copying and moving files so much easier that wireless options.



iPad - image courtesy of Apple










Met Office app


Asus tablet

Smartphones

These are small computers that can do an amazing amount. Apple really got this market buzzing with its very popular and accomplished iPhone. Then Samsung and others got going with Android smartphones, which surged into the lead and are still gaining market share. The trouble for me was that they were so expensive - £400+ for a good SIM free phone, with some over £1,000, or else a lengthy, expensive contract with a 'free' phone. We had several phones passed on to us by our son and now decent phones can be bought SIM free for £200. My wife got a Moto G5 for £160. It's astonishingly good value, you can replace the battery and upgrade the storage and makes me wonder why people are spending £500+ on only slightly better models, mostly through expensive long term contracts.

My new phone is a Xiaomi Mi A3 with Android One (currently on v9 and it should get much more frequent security updates than most). Not that I'd ever do banking on a phone. I upped the spec to 128GB of internal storage and with 4GB memory and a 128GB microSD card it feels pretty high spec for just over £200. It does OTG fine so copying or moving files is ever so simple. With GS Wave I can even use it, anywhere in the world with a data connection to make or receive calls on our 'landline' which is actually a VoIP virtual number - it was our home number for 40 years in Kew and I seized it when we moved across the river.

My wife has a £5 per month deal from PlusNet, with more than enough data, texts and talk time. I just use Three on PAYG. Very cheap usually and it's been great when we've been to the USA and Colombia and I got an add-on that gave us plenty of 3G roaming. Now they've started offering 4G roaming in some countries.

So now I can use Google maps (with live traffic updates and bus/tube departures) on the move or check anything I like via the web browser or apps. When there's no decent signal I can still watch a film or read a brilliant selection of articles via the Guardian app (you can download them via wifi before leaving).

I still find a smartphone screen limited for internet browsing and a tablet is far better for internet and emails. But sometimes it seems a bit OTT, travelling with laptop, tablet, phone and e-reader.
Xiaomi A3

OTG