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Page last updated at 10:53 GMT, Friday, 28 May 2010 11:53 UK

Buyers' Guide - Laptops

Toshiba laptops from 1993
Mobile computing has come a long way since 1993

Computer specifications are very confusing. Know the difference between graphics cards that support new bus architectures and ones that don't? No? Us neither.

The main thing to think about when buying a laptop is what you are going to be using it for. There's no point in spending £2,000 on something that could fly you to the moon (probably) if all you want to do with it is play solitaire and watch Mary Poppins on DVD.

There are five main types of users:

Despite almost every laptop coming with inbuilt wireless technology, hard drive and sound card, the difference between different models can be stark.

While price is a good indication it always pays to shop around.

The final general thing to remember about laptops is that once purchased it is a lot more difficult to upgrade components than in their desktop counterparts.

Are you the sort of user who wants to use the internet, check email, watch DVDs, listen to music and not a lot more? Then you're a casual user.

People after this sort of laptop are often oversold more expensive products by pushy sales assistants as these users often know least about what they are looking for.

MORE BUYERS' GUIDES

Getting something relatively cheap that still does everything you need it to do has become increasingly easy due to the swift price drop of laptops in recent years.

Though it might not be light and may not be have supermodel looks but it should do everything you need it to do.

Here are a few things you should look for:

Price - Don't pay more than £400 for this sort of laptop. You can even now get laptops for under £300 (or free if you are willing to sign up for an 18-month mobile broadband deal, though you should proceed with caution) if all you need to do is very simple tasks.

Memory/Hard drive - Around 2GB of RAM should suffice. You could get away with 1GB if you are not conducting multiple tasks at once. Safe to say that the more RAM the better.

Graphics - For the sort of price you are looking to spend then you are pretty much stuck with what you are given.

This is generally "shared" graphics which means that the integrated card shares memory with the main operating system. Rubbish for gaming or complex multimedia tasks but fine for everyday use.

Always on the go? Tired of lugging around more luggage than you could ever possibly carry? Then you will need something light that slips into your hand luggage.

Acer laptop
One person's netbook might be called a laptop by someone else

Laptop technology is increasingly moving towards the portable end of the market and battery life of new laptops, where once a 3hr stint without a charge was considered revolutionary, is pushing towards and even exceeding 10 hours - although this can be hard to achieve.

Here a few things to look for:

Weight - Weight is all important. As a rule, the lighter it is the more expensive it will be. Ideally, choose a laptop with a weight around 2kg or less. Any more and that laptop bag will start getting uncomfortably heavy.

Battery life - Chances are that you will be away from a plug socket for long periods of time. If you're out on the road all day then a battery life of eight hours would be ideal but very few laptops offer that.

Around 4/5 hours is around the industry standard for mid-range light laptops, however laptops advertising a 12-hour battery life are now on sale, though many reviewers have said this claim is still optimistic.

Size - If you are travelling then screen size is a compromise you may have to make. Average sizes are around 13 inches but can be as small as 10.

If you are not doing complex tasks or wanting to watch DVDs then a netbook might be best. They have smaller memories and longer battery life. The thinnest laptops can be under 3cm in width but really you should aim at no more than 4cm.

Optical drives - or the lack of them. Many "ultraportables" - as they are known - have not included a disc drive to cut down on weight and width.

If you intend to watch DVDs and aren't comfortable, or do not have sufficient free disc space, with them on your hard drive then an optical drive is a necessity.

Hard drive - If there is no internal optical drive then the hard drive needs to be larger to incorporate items that you might have kept on DVD. Around 160GB could be plenty if you don't have a large media library.

If you want to hoard every film made in Los Angeles then the sky is the limit (though most portables don't go much about 320GB).

If you don't use your computer on the go that much but want to replace your cumbersome desktop with something less bulky then many laptop manufacturers will cater to your needs.

Because there is less worry about battery life (because it will be plugged in most of the time) and weight (because it will not be transported that often) they are often cheaper when compared to similar spec lighter machines.

But, if you are replacing a desktop, it will be more expensive like-for-like compared to the computer you are replacing.

Here a few things to look for:

Price - How long is a piece of string? If you really want something that would replace a decent (£500) desktop then the price will be approaching £1,000.

With a little bit of shopping around, however, and maybe a little bit of bartering that cost can come down.

Specifications - The trick here is to aim high. Because weight is not a top priority you can get heavier parts with a high spec for a low price. 4GB of RAM, large (350GB+) hard-drive and quick (2.2Ghz dual core or higher) processor are all a priority to run the wide variety of tasks a family machine has to deal with.

Size - With a large screen comes added weight. A normal laptop screen is about 15 inches in size and really, it depends on how often you want to move the machine around.

A 19 inch screen in no good for checking an email on a train but would be fantastic to watch a movie on. Just remember that the smaller it is the more portable the laptop becomes.

Extras - Blu Ray is becoming more common and should really be included if you intend to "future-proof" your machine as much as possible. That said, many analysts say that the switch to Blu Ray as the main drive is unlikely to happen until 2013.

Ever thought of yourself as a bit of a Rankin or a Spielberg? While video and photos can now be edited on nearly every machine you would buy (helped with Apple or Microsoft's bundled software) if you are planning to do more complex edits then more complex software - Adobe's Creative Suite, Pro Tools and Final Cut are good examples - will need to be purchased.

Laptop
Laptops can be power hungry

Because of the strain put on laptops from rendering video and large image files, computers need a lot of memory and large hard drives. One minute of high definition video can take 1GB of disc drive space and image file sizes are growing exponentially.

Here a few things to look for:

Memory - The bigger the better. 4GB should be fine the moment but a new wave of machines with larger ram capacity is expected in the near future.

Graphics - Important for editing images and video. A dedicated graphics card (with its own memory) is becoming a necessity if you want to undertake this sort of work, ranging from 128MB to 1GB. This decision has to be influenced by your budget.

Ports - If you're using a lot of complex machinery - cameras, musical instruments etc - then you need to make sure that it will connect to your laptop without much trouble.

Standard connections should be three or four USB ports (preferably USB 3.0 though this is very new technology) and it could be the case that you need a Firewire port. Laptop manufacturers often choose to exclude this port.

Fan - If you are recording music using your laptop then does it need to be silent? There are a number of almost silent fans on the market but are quite expensive.

It is also the case that modifications to this part of the laptop can be difficult so if you require a silent machine then it may be best to consult a specialist music supplier.

There was a time when the PC dominated the games market. While the hardcore gamers still use them - specs are generally higher than on a console - many have shifted across to the Xbox, Playstation or Wii because of the ease of use and cost.

Gaming machines are expensive - there is no real way around it. To run the latest software, specifications need to be high and so do not come cheap.

A number of serious gamers refuse to switch to laptops because they often cannot be fully customised or upgraded with ease.

Here are a few things you should look for:

Size - There is no way of making a gaming sleek. To have the screen and the hardware for gaming it cannot really be an easily portable machine.

Processor - Quad core (the equivalent of having four processors in the same machine) is slowly becoming more common in gaming machine.

If there has to be a compromise (because of cost) then general wisdom is that is better to sacrifice a little processor speed rather than graphics.

Graphics - New games on the market require specialist graphics cards. This is vital and new models on the market offer 1GB dedicated memory.

This means that it can store a large amount of video information in a short amount of time. Serious gamers are not really looking at any less.

Also important for graphics is a full HD (1920x1080px) display, or at least somewhere close to that resolution to get the best from your flashy new graphics card.

Memory - While less important because of the graphics card, it would be unwise to risk anything less than 4GB.

If other actions your computer might be conducting get in the way of the game, your character could come to a juddery halt as stumbles along at three frames per second just as you get to the end of a level.



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