Choosing and Buying a New PC or Laptop

With the end of all support coming for Windows 7 on January 14th, if your existing computer won’t run Windows 10, you will have to buy a new PC in order to be able to keep your web browsing, files, documents, and financial and personal information safe.  There’s the choice of purchasing a Google Chromebook, but if you’re set on a PC then what do you purchase?

The Black Friday, Christmas and New Year sales are all coming up, with big savings to be made.  Not every desktop PC or laptop though presents good value for money.  So here’s my top tips for getting a great value machine.

Processor

The processor (also called the CPU) does all the hard work to make the PC operate.  There are different choices of processor these days, and you should be aware of the major differences between them.  With processors from Intel you can get a Celeron, Pentium, Atom, Core 2, Core 2 Duo, Core M, Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9, with the power increasing as you work through the list.

The Core i7 and Core i9 are overkill for general usage, with the Core i5 being the sweet spot of power and performance.  The Core i5 includes integrated graphics, so can be used for light gaming.  The Core i3 is otherwise identical to the i5, but it lacks the integrated graphics.  As for the other processors, you will get reasonable performance from a Core M, but you should expect the other processors to be slow.

You can also buy processors from AMD.  They have the FX, A-Series, Athlon and Ryzen ranges.  Of these it’s only the Ryzen processors that offer good performance, and you’ll notice slowdowns with the other chips.  AMD chips are cheaper than their Intel counterparts however, so a Ryzen-powered machine could present excellent value.

Display

There are huge variations in laptop display types.  First there’s the panel type, this is the technology that forms the display itself.  Of these LCD panels are the worst.  Colours can be washed out, screens can look grainy, and contrast can be poor.  OLED panels are the best with deep blacks, and good contrast.  OLED screens can be expensive however and so LED screens present a good sweet spot between the two.

Then there’s the resolution.  The lowest resolution you’ll find will be 1280 by 720.  This can be great for older people, whose eyesight isn’t as sharp as it once was, as everything will be larger on the screen.  It won’t be as sharp as a full HD, 1920 by 1080 panel however, and this is certainly the sweet spot and is recommended for general usage.  Any resolution higher than this is only really useful on more powerful PCs, and will also impact battery life.

Storage

There are several different types of storage available.  Traditional spinning hard disks can still be found, and come in two varieties.  5400rpm and 7200rpm with the former being very slow, you’d want to make a cup of tea when starting your PC or loading games.  When it comes to solid-state storage, eMMC should be avoided at all costs.  This is effectively having the type of memory card you put in your phone or digital camera as the storage on your PC, and the performance is woeful.

When it comes to the better types of storage SSD (Solid State Disks) is the sweet spot for price and performance, with NVMe and M.2 drives offering much faster perormance.  These last two types can push up the price of a PC substantially however.  Also, if the interface type is mentioned, PCI drives are generally faster than SATA.

As for the amount of storage to get, don’t buy anything smaller then 128GB as you will very quickly run out of space.  128GB is fine if you just live in a web browser, but 256GB will give you more headroom.  If you have a lot of files and photos, try and go for 512GB or larger.

Memory

The memory is different from storage as it’s what Windows and your software is loaded into when the computer starts.  All types of memory will likely be fast enough for general use, but lower cost machines will have smaller amounts.  Avoid anything with less than 4GB at all costs, the performance will be woeful.  4GB is the absolute minimum, but even with this amount you’ll get a slow PC.  If you can get a PC with 6GB of memory then you’ll get a good deal, but 8GB is really the happiest amount to have on a PC.  Anything higher than 8GB can help, with 16GB being great, but prices can rise sharply.

Battery

Batteries in laptops are all Lithium-ion so you need to look at the mAH power rating, with higher being better, and the specified usage time.  However many hours the manufacturer says the battery will last, it’s always wise to halve the number they state.  Their tests are always done with the screen at 50% brightness, and Wi-Fi turned off.  This is likely not going to match your own daily usage.

Keyboard

The quality of laptop keyboards can vary considerably, with the price of a laptop not necessarily determining how good the keyboard really is.  If you’re purchasing a laptop or desktop (where the keyboard, mouse and screen will likely be bundled) in a shop then have a play with the keyboard.  Look for the solidity of the typing experience, and also for any bounce in the centre of the keyboard when you press down.  If you’re purchasing online it’s always a good idea to search for the computer model online, and find some reviews.

Graphics Card

It’s worth mentioning discrete graphics cards.  These are only required if you want to perform tasks such as PC gaming or photo and video editing.  There’s never any need to purchase the most recent generation of card as they can come with substantial costs.  The previous generation of cards can usually be found discounted and sometimes at a fraction of the cost of the latest cards, and the generation before will normally be perfectly fine for anything except demanding games.

The choice between Nvidia and AMD cards is usually a personal one.  There’s very little in it as a general rule, though for gaming it can be worth searching online to see if other gamers recommend one brand over another for the games you play.

Connectivity

All computers will come with USB ports.  If you want to future-proof your PC however look for USB type-C “Thunderbolt” sockets.  Standard USB-C run at a much slower speed than their Thunderbolt cousins.  For lower-end computers, look for USB 3.0 or USB 3.1 as they are significantly faster than older USB 2 sockets.

Recommendations

The laptops and desktops you will find on sale will always be last year’s models, where manufacturers and retailers want to offload their stock to make way for the latest models that are usually released in the autumn of each year.  These computers are always reviewed online, so a quick search can help you determine if you’re getting a great machine, or a crock.

All of this makes my recommendations for a great PC that will last a good few years…

Budget

Core M, Core i3 or Ryzen 3 processor, 6GB RAM, and 128GB SSD storage, with an LED full HD screen.

Mid-Range

Core-i5 or Ryzen 5 processor, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD storage, with an LED full HD screen.

High-End

Core i5 or Ryzen 5 processor, 16GB RAM, and 512GB or 1TB SSD or NVMe storage, and an LED or OLED full HD or 2560 by 1440 resolution screen.

Post expires at 11:59pm on Monday January 13th, 2020

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