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Sainsbury's buying guide to laptops 

Laptops are now even more popular than desktop PCs and the good news is that the surge in demand means more choice and better deals. It’s given us some fabulous new hardware too. Faster processors, bigger hard drives and better software are coming along the whole time, so if you’re upgrading a computer that’s a few years old with a brand new laptop you’ll be amazed by the improvements over your last one.

Naturally, your budget will dictate how much memory and features you can expect to get for your money and direct you toward either the basic functional laptops, or the flashy high-end machines. We all use laptops in different ways, so once you have worked out how much you have to spend, it’s just a case of identifying the one that suits your needs best. The way you use your laptop will decide what features it will need.

How will I use my laptop?

Accounting and running a home office: a basic machine will be fine and you’ll probably find one that comes with standard softwarein the box like Microsoft Office .

Playing music and watching TV: you’ll need a more expensive multimedia laptop with plenty of memory, a TV tuner card built in and a DVD player.

Emailing and accessing the internet: all computers have the ability to get online, so any decent  PC will have you surfing in no time.

Design and artwork: a fast processor is an advantage if you plan to run creative programs like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign. Designers often choose Macs over PCs.

Music making: dedicated music laptops are often sold with a suitable soundcard that’ll have all the right connections and the software you need to get started


What type of laptop should I consider?

To make it easier, we can think of laptop computers as falling into five main categories that suit different computing habits. If you know what you want from your laptop, you should be able to choose a category first and then think about what specifications to look for.  


Sub notebooks and ultra mobile laptops. These are the fastest growing categories and include the smallest laptops that can fit into a handbag or coat pocket. Both types tend to run Windows OS, so they work just like a desktop PC, but sub notebooks often have no optical disc drive. In which case, you will probably need to buy an external drive to load some software and play CDs.

Entertainment or multimedia notebooks. Some laptops are designed especially for using at home to play music and DVDs and watch TV. They will typically come with a TV tuner inside that can record straight onto the hard drive and might even be compatible with high definition movies on Blu-ray discs.

Gaming notebooks. Computer games are so popular, that a whole genre of especially tweaked laptops has sprung up to play them. Gaming laptops need large screens and very fast graphics cards to keep up with the on-screen action.

Business notebooks. Laptops targeted for corporate use in offices tend to have the bare essentials and might not come with any of the fun stuff like a movie player or TV tuner, but they will be able to run software that we commonly use at work, like Microsoft Office, very well.


How do I choose between models?

Once you have decided which category suits your needs the best, there are a number of fundamental areas to choose from, like screen size, and key features, like disc compatibility. Check them off one by one when you’re searching for the ideal laptop and use the specifications that matter to you to make comparisons.


Screen size
Once you’ve decided which category will suit your needs the best, the next thing to consider is screen size, as this will dictate the size and weight of the notebook. Do you need a large screen for laying out pages or manipulating photographs, or would a more compact design that could fit in a handbag be an advantage? Screen size is measured diagonally from one corner of the active part of the plastic screen to the other. Screens rarely get larger than 22 inches in size and the smallest sub notebooks have roughly 7-inch screens.   

Resolution
The resolution is the number of pixels, or dots, that make up the picture, so the more the merrier. This will be dictated by the size of the screen of course, but some monitors pack the pixels in to deliver a higher definition image. For design and photo manipulation and watching high definition video, the horizontal resolution (the number of horizontal lines) should be at least 1,080.

Optical disc drive
All laptops, except for the very small sub notebooks, will have a slot or drawer for loading a CD, but they might not be able to read every kind of optical disc. Most can also play films on DVDs and load software from a DVD-ROM and many can even record onto CD and DVD as well. Not so many are able to write onto dual-layer DVDs – these are the blank discs labelled DVD-R DL that offer twice as much data storage. Only the latest and more expensive entertainment notebooks are compatible with Blu-ray discs (BD). This is a relatively new disc format, which has a much higher capacity and can carry high definition movies. Just work out what discs you need to be able to read and check the ‘optical drive’ specifications carefully.

Memory
Laptops have two kinds of memory, a hard disc drive (HDD) for storing your files and RAM for holding short-term data. Naturally you want as much memory as you can get for your money, because your computer will work more slowly as it fills up with programs and files. The good news is that memory is coming down in price all the time and now 160GB drives are common and you can expect at least 2GB of RAM. A few of the latest laptops use solid state drives (SSD), which have no moving parts, instead of an HDD. They’re more expensive currently, but lighter and less demanding on the battery.
A 120GB storage drive is plenty for storing pictures and documents, but you might need more if you store a lot of music and video files.

Processors (CPU)
The core processor unit is the brains of your laptop, carrying out the calculations required for every operation. Dual-core processors are now common in laptops, which mean they can work as fast as their desktop counterparts. The type of processor, or CPU, depends on the size and category of laptop. Ultra portables have to be power efficient as well as quick, while gaming and graphics machines need to be fast and powerful and tend to run through batteries more quickly.  

Connectivity
Laptops have a range of input options, but the most important one is USB. To this you can connect anything from a mouse to a novelty desk fan, so its best to have two or three if possible. An AV, or monitor output could be useful too if you want to connect a larger desktop display. This could be in the shape of a VGA (a common analogue video socket), or better still DVI (a less common digital video socket) connector. Some entertainment notebooks have an HDMI output as well and that can send a high definition signal to any flatsceen TV that has an HDMI input.

Docking stations
To make the laptop as light and portable as possible, some notebooks come with a separate docking station – a base that connects to the mains to charge the laptop’s battery when it's on your desk. The dock will also expand the connectivity by adding more USB ports, audio and video jacks and any other sockets that wouldn’t fit on the laptop itself.

Internet
All laptops come with the software you need to get online. Many still come with a 56Kbps modem for connecting to a phone line, but dial-up internet is being rapidly replaced by much faster broadband connections that use either an Ethernet cable to your modem, or wirelessly using Wi-fi to your router. There will usually be an Ethernet port, but you might need to check that it is also fitted with a wireless card because this is what will enable you to join the so called Wi-fi hotspots in internet cafés and libraries.

Wirless communication
There are two kinds of cable-free technology inside a laptop. Wi-fi is what connects you to the internet via a wireless router and Bluetooth is how it communicates with other Bluetooth devices nearby. Wi-fi has a long range, especially the latest standard on the newest laptops, which is called 802.11n and can reach from your house to the bottom of your garden in most cases. Bluetooth gadgets like mobile phones can send data to a Bluetooth laptop at close range and it’s quite common across laptops now.

Operating system
Every computer runs on a specific operating system that enables the hardware to read your software and it’s basically a choice between Windows or Mac. The latest Windows OS is called Vista and this accounts for around 95% of the world’s computers, but the latest Mac OS, called OSX or Leopard, is becoming increasingly popular for home use because of its easy-to-use programs like iTunes and its immunity to computer viruses. Creative jobs like design, music and video production are often easier to perform on a Mac.  The two systems are incompatible in terms of software, so you need to decide if you’re taking the Apple Mac, or Microsoft Windows route from the start.

Software
Your new laptop will arrive with the operating system (OS) already loaded and some basic programs to get you started. Typically, a new PC will be running Windows Vista OS and come with Internet Explorer to access the internet and Media Centre to play your music and movie files. Programs like Microsoft Office for Word and PowerPoint and Adobe Photoshop will be sold separately, so don’t forget to budget for that.


Batteries
Every laptop relies on its supplied rechargeable battery and they vary widely. At best, a laptop will last for about six hours on a single charge, but laptops with larger screens use up their power faster, especially when you’re using the optical drive and wireless connections. Some brands offer a larger battery that might stick out a little, but will last longer, or you could buy a spare to charge up and take on long journeys. 

 

Logos to look for

Bluetooth – This means the laptop will be able to connect wirelessly to other devices bearing the same logo
Blu-ray – Only the more expensive laptops will show this logo indicating compatibility with high capacity Blu-ray discs
Intel – This logo indicates that the CPU inside is made by Intel rather than AMD
Wi-Fi – This logo means wireless connectivity using Wi-Fi is built into the laptop and you’ll be able to join wireless Wi-Fi networks
Windows Vista – This logo shows the laptop is running the latest Windows operating system

 

What else will I need to buy?

Your new laptop will include everything you need to get started in the box, but there are lots of useful accessories available that can help get even more out of it.

Laptop bag: the beauty of laptops is their portability, but they need protection when on the move and a dedicated laptop case will be padded in all the right places.

External disc drive: External disc drive refers to a disc drive that is stored in its own case and plugs into a Pc or laptop via a USB cable. These drives are usually compact and are designed for transportability and its power source is  derived from the USB port.

External hard drive: backing up your data onto an external memory drive is a wise precaution and it can make more memory available on your laptop.

Flash memory drive: little USB flash drives are great for transporting small amounts of data (1 or 2GB) onto your laptop.

Media card adapter: most laptops will have a slot for reading the memory cards that you find in portable devices like digital cameras, but there are many different kinds. A universal adapter will plug in at the USB socket and serve all of them.

Software: Your laptop will come with an operating system and some free software, but don’t forget to budget for the other programs that you’ll need.

Wireless router: All new laptops are able to pick up a broadband signal from a wireless router. Just plug your internet cable into the router to turn your home into a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Laptop stand: Raising your laptop up to eye-level on a stand will improve your posture while you work.

Mouse: laptops have either a trackpad or a central stick control to move the cursor around the screen, but a lot of people find it easier to plug in an external desktop mouse or a wireless mouse and use that.

Webcam: these little cameras plug into the USB port and put the video they capture on your computer screen. You can use them for video calls over the internet.

Bluetooth adapter: if Bluetooth technology isn’t built into your laptop, then a Bluetooth dongle that plugs into a USB port will give you wireless connectivity

USB hub: If there’s only room for one USB socket on your laptop, a hub, or splitter, will allow you to plug in more than one USB device

 

Glossary

Bluetooth – A wireless data standard that’s commonly used for connecting devices in close proximity like keyboards and mice, or in-ear headsets.

Blu-ray – A new optical disc format that can carry up to 50GB of data. With its far greater capacity, it’s mostly used for carrying high definition movies.

Bootcamp – The latest version of Apple’s operating system has this feature, which allows you to partition the hard drive and run the Windows operating system alongside.

Cache – A specific type of memory that stores data for frequently used operations to speed up day to day computing.
 
Chipset – this is the collection of computer chips on a motherboard that make up the CPU and associated components

Ethernet – The method for connecting computers on a local area network to each other and the internet. Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) and Gigabit Ethernet (1Gbps) are also compatible with the original slower standard.

Express Card Slot – A slot that allows you to plug in a variety of Express Card devices. A newer, faster version of a PC Card slot. Devices such as memory card readers, television tuners, and external hard drives can be found in Express Card format.

Gigabyte (GB) – This is 1 billion bytes of data when referring to media storage.

Hard Disc Drive (HDD) – This is a device for writing and storing data.

LAN – This stands for Local Area Network and refers to a group of connected computers.

Motherboard – This is the main circuit board holding the CPU inside a computer.

Operating system (OS) – The OS is the platform or interface that gives you access to specific programs

PC Card – Laptops often have a slot for a PC card that could connect a number of devices like media card readers. Also known as PCMCIA.

Processor (CPU) – this is the ‘brain’ of the computer that processes all of the commands.

SCSI (scuzzy) – An interface that’s most commonly used for data storage devices.

Serial Port – This is a nine-pin port that’s being phased out in favour of much smaller USB sockets.

USB – A common type of interface for connecting computer peripherals.

Virtual memory – the laptop may allocate a part of the hard drive to supplement the RAM, when there is not enough available memory.