How to choose a laptop to buy for family use?

Why a laptop?

The short answer to the question in the title is: don't! For most families, unless you're really, really short of space, a desktop machine is a far better bet.

Why?

Well, here are a few reasons:

  1. It will almost certainly work out cheaper for comparable computer power and storage space.
  2. By their nature, laptops are generally slower than desktops. This is largely down to the fact that the hard disk platters rotate much slower in a laptop drive.
  3. Most laptops - even the $3000 variety - are not good for playing games. You may, as a parent, think this unimportant but it has now been shown that some games, played in moderation, can be beneficial to a child's development. Also, some educational software uses the same facilities as games do and so does not run well on laptops.
  4. Your health! If anyone is going to be using the computer for more than an hour or two at a stretch, on a fairly regular basis, then using a laptop is very likely to damage your neck joints and eyes. There are optimum setups which minimise the stress on both of these and you can't get anywhere near them with a laptop.
  5. A laptop is easier to steal & sell on! If you should be the victim of a break-in, a laptop is easily lifted & carried away. If you have a floor-standing PC, preferably full-height & heavy, they'll probably take your monitor but leave the PC alone.

OK, so, why would a family really need a laptop?

  1. You really are short of space.
  2. Some of the family occasionally need a portable PC to use out of the house on occasions.

So I advise anyone considering purchasing a laptop as a family's main PC to think about it very carefully and take the above points into consideration.


What do you want to do with it?

This is the most important question you need to answer when considering what to get. It's just as important than deciding on a budget. This is because if you decide what you want to with a laptop and then discover your budget won't run to a machine that'll satisfy those requirements, you have to adjust one or both - but at least you won't be guessing.

The kinds of activity you commonly use a PC for are:

  1. Surfing the World Wide Web; Downloading videos, music, etc.
  2. Sending and receiving email through a traditional POP or IMAP account (i.e., not webmail sites such as Hotmail)
  3. Writing letters and creating other simple documents
  4. Simple graphical work - taking pictures from your digital camera and using a simple image editor to prepare them for printing and/or posting to the Web (e.g. Facebook).
  5. School homework/assignments. These may require the creation of slightly larger and more complicated documents containing diagrams and pictures.
  6. Keeping a set of accounts. Simple ones can be kept using a spreadsheet program such as Open Office's Calc or Microsoft's Excel. For more complex accounts, people tend to use tools such as Quickbooks.
  7. Computer graphics, including drawing diagrams (e.g. using Corel Draw), computer-based painting (e.g. using Painter or Paintshop Pro), more complex photo editing (e.g. using Photoshop).
  8. Working with video. This might include loading video taken on a digicam or video recorder and editing it, adding background music, inserting stills, applying special effects and cutting a DVD with the end result.
  9. Playing computer-based games. These can vary from simple arcade-style games which will run on most computers to the complex shoot-em-ups such as Halo 2 which require the latest high-end hardware to realise their full potential.
  10. Making or editing music using software synthesis or external hardware synthesiser(s).

A laptop computer is not capable of doing some of these and is capable but not very good at doing some of the others. If you just want to do the basic stuff (activities 1 through 6) then a basic laptop will do the job. These can be had for £300 (say US$500) and for most practical purposes, brand doesn't matter. I will make one exception to that: Unless styling is the most important factor for you, avoid Sony Vaio computers. There is little inherently wrong with them that's any worse than any other brand but, in my experience (which includes time as an IT manager responsible for a large group of laptop users) they have two drawbacks:

  • Sony still seem to think that a PC is no different to a hifi amplifier - if it goes wrong, it doesn't matter if it takes 6 or 8 weeks to fix it.
  • It comes loaded with a ton of software which, again in my experience, drastically slows the machine. In particular, it can take 5 minutes for it to boot as all the extra software starts up. A lot of this software seems to be designed to sell Sony products. It used to take me over two hours to uninstall most of it and if you do it in the wrong order, you may need to re-install Windows from scratch.

As usual, Your Mileage May Vary!

Disc space is an issue if you have a digital camera with many megapixels and you use it at its highest quality setting. As a general rule, get the biggest disc you can within the limitations of your budget.

Let's deal with an easy one, activity (9): most laptops will not play the latest big-ticket games, or only at much-reduced screen resolution and image quality in general. Other games may play on a particular laptop or not - to be honest, it's a bit of a lottery and trying to decide using just the game's requirements and technical spec of a PC requires a fair bit of technical knowledge. What were the big-ticket games 3 or 4 years ago, will usually play on one of today's medium-spec laptop. Some of them from 2 years ago may also work.

Activities (7) and (10) will require a medium-spec laptop - budget for £800 (US$1100) upwards but the more powerful the better. Ideally get one which does not use an Intel graphics adapter such as the GMA series. An NVidia or ATI chip will serve you much better for these types of applications. You may think this odd for the music applications but most of the modern ones have user interfaces which are extremely graphics-intensive and will run much better with a decent graphics controller. At this point, as an aside, it's worth noting that, as a general rule, it makes no difference whether you choose an Intel or AMD processor - you are unlikely to notice the difference unless you run benchmark programs or have very specialised requirements!

Activity (8) generally required the most powerful machine you can lay your hands on, with massive amounts of disc space available, preferably on two discs so that a program can read from one, process the video, and write to the other. A powerful CPU is needed for rendering and compressing to create DVD files. Aim to budget upwards of £1500 (say US$1800) but a good figure to aim at would be more like £2000 or even £2500 (US$2600 - 3300).

It's unfortunate that price is not always a guide to performance: a particular laptop model may be expensive because it has many extra facilities - a high-capacity battery, lots of USB2 ports, built-in Bluetooth, etc.Having determined what you want the machine for and therefore the kind of price bracket to look at, always compare the machine's benchmark test results with a few others in the same price bracket. Ensure it carries that price tag for the right reasons - those that are right for you!

Some other points to note

  • If members of your family will need to travel with the laptop then, obviously, other people can't use it when it's on the road! Also, size and weight becomes a consideration, screen size being the major factor here.
  • Battery life is only important if a laptop really is going to be used disconnected from mains power. Battery life can vary from about 2 1/2 to 6 hours - you need to figure out what your needs are.
  • If the laptop is really a desktop replacement then the bigger the screen the better. You can get laptops with a 17" screen and those also tend to have a decent size keyboard, making them ergonomically much better than smaller machines.
  • Plan to have a laptop serviced at least every 18 months. They are prone to collect dust in their CPU cooler & slow down as they run hotter & the system "throttles" the CPU. Eventually they can start to "blue screen" for no apparent reason. This can happen in the cleanest households. I know it sounds gross, but most of what collects in there is shed skin cells - unavoidable! Oh, and this happens to desktops too but not so much as they have more space for airflow.


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