January is a good time to buy a new computer. There are often bargains to be had. So, here are a few tips and observations. Don’t take anything I say as gospel. Your priorities and tastes may be different from my own or my typical client. Nevertheless, I hope this guide will at least give some pointers in the right direction.

Netbook Computers

A netbook computer is like a cut-down version of a laptop computer. It usually has a 10 inch screen, small keyboard, no CD/DVD drive, less RAM than a laptop computer (typically 1gb) and a less-powerful processor. It is great for taking around with you and using for applications such as web surfing, email, word processing, and spreadsheets (unless they’re humungously large). The battery life tends to be much longer than laptops but you pay for this by having a less powerful processor and only a 10 inch screen. You wouldn’t want to try doing complicated Photoshop editing on a 100mb raw image on a netbook, but they’re fine for viewing photos and basic editing such as Picasa offers. They can be half the weight or less of a laptop, but you may need to buy an external DVD/CD drive (which you don’t generally need to carry around with you). Alternatively, you can usually download new software rather than install it from a disc. You can also share a DVD/CD drive on another computer on your local network.

Assuming, though, that you’ve decided on a laptop, what do you need to consider?

Operating System

Unless you are buying an Apple Mac then your choice for an operating system is going to be Windows 7. Don’t even think about Linux unless you want to start become an “enthusiast”. There are several versions of Windows 7. There is a detailed comparison here. Windows Home Premium is almost certainly the one to go for. A later upgrade to a more sophisticated version is possible.

If your decision is to go for an Apple Mac then a lot of the decision-making just disappears as Apple produce a limited range of computers and only one operating system. People with Apple Macs often sing their praises much more than PC owners, but you get locked into the Apple Mac way of doing things and this can bring limitations. Macs are also expensive (though beautifully designed and manufactured).

OK, so the assumption from now on is that you’ve ruled out netbooks and Macs….

32-bit or 64-bit operating system?

You’ve decided on your version of Windows (probably Windows 7 Home Premium), but there is another decision to be made. Since the days of Windows XP there have been both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows. The newer 64-bit versions have been quite slow to catch on but it appears that they are now gathering pace. The main difference is that 64-bit can use more memory (RAM) than 32-bit.

If you are replacing a computer that is running 64-bit Windows then it makes sense to buy 64-bit again. This is because you would not expect to encounter compatibility problems with your peripherals (eg printer) and 64-bit machines can use more memory (RAM) than 32-bit. You can check whether you are currently running 32-bit or 64-bit by following the instructions at http://support.microsoft.com/kb/827218#WinVista7 (covers all recent versions of Windows).

If you are currently running 32-bit Windows then your peripherals may or may not work with the 64-bit version. Your options are

  • specify 32-bit again on your new system
  • run the “Windows Upgrade Advisor” on your present system to check for potential problems or
  • go for 64-bit and accept that some peripherals may not work
  • .

You can download and run Microsoft’s “Upgrade Advisor” from http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/en/details.aspx?FamilyID=1b544e90-7659-4bd9-9e51-2497c146af15&displaylang=en

Processor Speeds

Processor speeds are not as important as they used to be as they are all fast enough for normal use. Obviously, a faster processor is better, but as long as the machine doesn’t use the Atom processor (which is optimised for use on netbooks, where the demand for power and battery life are prioritised) then this is not a critical factor. However, if you intend to edit movies, play graphic-intensive games, or do high-end photo editing or desktop publishing (with Photoshop or Quark Xpress, for instance) then it’s better to go for a faster processor if possible.

Memory (RAM)

Do not buy a laptop with less than 2gb RAM. 3gb is better. If you buy 32-bit Windows you won’t get much benefit from having 4gb (compared with 3gb) on account of the way that the memory is used and made available by Windows, but it’s probably not worth worrying about whether there is 3gb or 4gb – just don’t get less than 2gb. If you go for the 64-bit version you can have as much memory as the machine and your pocket will allow. If possible, it’s worth checking out whether the installed memory can be increased at a later date (but remember that the 32-bit version of Windows can’t usefully use more than about 3.25gb).

Hard Drive

The hard drive should be no less than 250gb. If you plan to record and/or store large video files (such as films) then have as large a hard drive as available and affordable (500gb is currently a good size). Hard drives are like wardrobes: they look huge when empty when new, but soon fill up (mainly with stuff that you’re not sure whether to keep). It’s possible at a later date to upgrade to a larger hard drive but this is not for the faint-hearted and involves having the right knowledge and software. It’s also possible to plug in extra external USB hard drives but it may be inconvenient having things like this hanging off the laptop (especially on the move).

USB Ports

Look at the number of USB ports on any machine that interests you and think about how many USB devices you may want to plug into it (external hard drive, mouse, mobile phone (for synchronising or transferring data), digital camera, etc). Some laptops come with as few as 2 USB ports and this can be a pain. Three is obviously a better number and more than that is great if you often find yourself connecting lots of devices.

Keyboard and Screen

The size and type of these is a matter of personal preference. Some people like highly reflective screens and others like them matt, for instance. The bigger the machine, the easier it tends to be to use when it’s on a desk but the harder it is to use on your lap or carry around. If you like a large laptop (17 inch screen, for instance) then the machine will probably be more expensive and have a better specification overall (more USB ports, for instance). It is worth trying out the keyboard to see if it suits you. If you like to have lots of windows open at once then the larger the screen the better as larger screens don’t just make things bigger, they provide more room to display things. One last point on the subject of screen size is that I myself (at my ripe old age) find using a netbook computer (with a 10 inch screen) a strain after a while on account of the small screen size. It’s a fact of life that our eyes are not as good at keeping a sharp focus over long periods of time as we get older and I find a marked difference between viewing a 10 inch screen and a 15 inch screen later in the day. My own personal preference on this is that I find a 15 inch screen (on a laptop ) the ideal compromise on screen size. You can always connect a laptop or netbook to a larger external monitor if desired (at this moment I’m using a 20 inch external monitor on my 15 inch laptop).

WiFi

I can’t imagine that any laptop is supplied without WiFi these days, but it might make sense to ensure that it is there.

Bluetooth

This a wireless technology for communicating between your laptop and some devices such as mobile phones. A mouse connected by Bluetooth saves a USB port from being used by the mouse. Unless you already use it, you can probably live without it, but having it won’t add a great deal to the price.

Camera, Microphone and Speakers

If you use Skype then ensure there is a built-in camera and microphone as Skype is much easier to use with these built in. Most laptop speakers are fine for voice (Skype calls, for instance) but pretty hopeless for listening to music. Ensure that you test the speakers before buying if playing music is important. Alternatively, you can plug in external speakers, but things are now starting to get a bit messy.

Specific Brands

Well, I think “you pays your money and you takes your choice”.

  • Sony have a reputation for quality but they’re more expensive to buy and repair.
  • The IBM / Lenovo ThinkPad appears to have a loyal following and it’s got a long pedigree.
  • Toshiba have been making laptops for probably longer than almost anyone so they should know what they are doing.
  • Dell used to be quite boring but they’re now much more stylish and available from retail outlets as well as direct from Dell.
  • Acer have been doing very well for the last year or so.
  • HP laptops always strike me as boring, but I’m not sure why.
  • My own personal favourite is Samsung. My main computer is a 15 inch Samsung Q35 laptop that is now in its fifth year and still going perfectly well (although it’s true that I’ve increased the memory and upgraded the hard drive). I’ve also had a Samsung NC10 netbook since March 2009 and that, too, is an excellent machine for its niche use (carrying around with me on client visits).

Where to Buy

If John Lewis have what you want then they are a good bet as they’re “never knowingly undersold” and their service is good. People seem to feel comfortable making scary purchasing decisions at John Lewis. By all means buy from PC World if the price is right for what you want, but I strongly recommend against relying on their technical expertise. I’ve overheard some toe-curlingly embarrassing whoppers (or, more charitably, mistakes) in branches of PC World. Not only that, but returning something faulty to PC World can have you queuing in their “technical assistance” for 40 minutes (I know, I’ve been there). Buying online from Dell is usually a safe enough thing to do but I’ve had clients complaining of their inflexible delivery terms. If you are buying online, then Amazon seem to be the benchmark against which to see if anyone else can do better. If you feel brave enough to do Tottenham Court Road then you need to be aware that a lot of the shops there do not put prices on their goods. When you ask for a price then you’ll probably be given a high price. The only way to do business in most of these shops is to get an idea of what you are prepared to pay beforehand. You can usually do this online, but do remember that buying online tends to be a bit cheaper these days than buying retail so you may not be able to match the online price in the high street. So, when the man in the shop in Tottenham Court Road (and they are mostly men) says £599, wince, take a sharp intake of breath, and point out that you can get it online for £399. He will then ritualistically pick up a calculator, clatter a few keys, and say “I can do it for you for £420” (or thereabouts). My own personal recommendation for shopping on Tottenham Court Road is to buy from Micro Anvika. They have three or four shops on TCR. They’ve been around for many, many years and their staff are technically knowledgeable. They don’t discount prices, but neither do they overcharge. I’ve often been grateful for their technical assistance and they never quibble if you take something back. To be honest, some of the computer shops on Tottenham Court Road give the impression that they’ll take advantage of your lack of knowledge if they can. You never get that impression in Micro Anvika.

Extended warranties

My own opinion is that if a computer is going to go wrong, it will probably do so within the first month. You are covered for the first twelve months with the standard guarantee and Sale of Goods Acts etc. It seems to me that the period from one year old to three years old is the very time that it won’t pack up, so I’m not paying an inflated price for an extended warrantee to cover this period. Other people don’t share my view on this so, once again, you pays your money and you takes your choice. One thing that is certain, though, is that many computer salesmen are paid commission on selling extras such as extended warranties, so their disproportionate enthusiasm to sell you one may have more to do with their pocket than your best interests.

Software

You do need to consider what software you will need to buy. If you have been accustomed to Microsoft Office on your current computer then you can transfer the licence to your new computer provided that you bought a retail copy. If your previous copy came “bundled” with your computer when you bought it then you will have what is called an “OEM” licence and this is strictly non-transferable to your new computer. If you don’t need Outlook or Access then the Home & Student version of Office 2010 is great value at about £70-£80 and it even comes with licences to install it on three machines. It includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.

Other software that you have already may or may not be transferable to your new machine. With some software you just install it again on your new computer and everything is fine. With other software, your licence may be non-transferable or you may be able to transfer it after a phone call to the vendor. A further possible scenario is that your old software will not run on a Windows 7 machine at all. You can either investigate all of these things beforehand or buy the new machine, do what’s possible as far as transfers are concerned, and then plug the gaps.

Security Software

Most new laptops will come pre-installed with 60-90 day trial versions of Norton or McAfee antivirus programs. These will also quite probably include a firewall and anti-malware software. When the trial expires you will then be pestered to buy the full product. My own advice is that these products are overblown, too complicated, and expensive (since you have to renew the £30-£50 subcription every year). By all means go with the installed software if you wish, but there are free alternatives – eg from AVG and Microsoft.

What next?

You could do worse than browse PC Pro’s review of laptops at http://www.pcpro.co.uk/reviews/laptops/. Also, it’s worth browsing a few shops even if it’s just to see if you have a preference for particular keyboards, screens and the overall looks of different brands and models.

If you need further, specific, advice about buying a new laptop (or any other type of machine) just contact me. I am, of course, available to help in smoothing the path from your old to your new computer.

Happy hunting!

Which keys are the function keys?
Function keys
The function keys are the keys marked F1 to F10 (or F1 to F12, depending on the keyboard) on the top row of the keyboard. Typically, each of these keys will perform two different functions:

  • they will perform the task assigned to the number of the key (eg F2 may be assigned the “find” command)
  • they will perform the task indicated by an icon on the key itself (often in a different colour from the rest of the keys). On the keyboard illustrated here, the F2 key will indicate the charge level of the battery.


How does the key know which of these two functions to perform?

  • if the key is pressed on its own then the specific function key will be actioned (eg F2 = find)
  • if the key marked Fn is depressed and then (with the Fn key still depressed) the function key is pressed, then the alternative use of that key is actioned (eg display battery state)


So, what are the “functions” that are carried out when a specific function key is pressed on its own?

It depends on the context. More specifically, it depends upon how the current program has been set up to use the function keys. The current program is the one that “has the focus” – ie the one that is currently reacting to your key presses and your mouse movements and clicks.

So, if the current program has been set up to use the F5 key as a “find” instruction, then pressing F5 will execute a “find” command. In Word 2007, for instance, pressing the F5 key executes a “find” command in exactly the same way as pressing the key combination of Ctrl F (pressing the “f” key while the Ctrl key is depressed) or finding and clicking the “find” instruction on the “ribbon” of commands at the top of the screen.

The whole point of the function keys is that they can perform different functions depending upon the program that is using them. Over time, some uses of the function keys have become more-or-less standardised. For instance, the F1 key almost always invokes the “Help” system for the current program. However, a bit of experimentation is needed to find out how a particular program has been set up to use the function keys (or consult the help system for the specific program by pressing F1).

If this is a bit confusing then there is no need to worry about function keys at all. I think it’s safe to say that there is always an alternative way of carrying out whatever the function keys do.

What do the symbols on the function keys mean that denote the alternative use of the function keys?

Sorry about this, but, once again, it depends. This time it depends on the particular keyboard. The best way to find out is probably to experiment, but it is strongly advised that you do not have any programs loaded when you do this as you may get unexpected results and you wouldn’t want to harm a document.

Some of the common icons and their uses are:

  • a moon – puts the machine into sleep mode (standby)
  • two different versions of suns – increase and decrease the screen brightness
  • loudspeaker – turn the sound on
  • loudspeaker crossed out – turn the sound off
  • various icons that denote increasing and decreasing the volume
  • computer monitor – switch the output to/from an external monitor

Will I break anything if I play with these keys?

It isn’t always completely clear what a function key does but if you are not sure if your experimenting has changed something then you can always re-boot the machine. This will return all the keys to the state they had previously been in.

One particular hint that is appropriate here is that laptops often have a key combination (usually the Fn key plus a function key) that turns the WiFi connection on and off. There doesn’t seem to be a universally agreed symbol (icon) for this but if your WiFi stops working after playing with these keys then this is worth investigating. The same key combination that turned the WiFi off will turn it back on again. There may or may not be an LED light somewhere on your laptop indicating that the WiFi is on or off. Similarly, some laptops have a slider switch for turning the WiFi on and off, so it’s worth checking this out as well if your WiFi suddenly disappears. If in doubt, re-boot and everything should go back to how it was before you starting investigating.

In a future blog I will do a roundup of the other keys that are not immediately obvious in their function and use.

Should I turn off my computer at the end of the day or leave it on?
Off-switch

1) A computer that is switched on is a fire hazard

I have never heard of a computer catching fire, so I did some Googling. There were suprisingly few results (about 30,000) to the phrase “computer caught fire” and almost all of them seemed to refer to “enthusiasts” making their own machines, overclocking, and so forth. I found nothing to suggest that I should worry more about a professionally-built computer than I should worry about, say, leaving my fridge or TV switched on.

2) It takes more electricity to switch off and on than to leave it on. A variation of this is that it wears out the components faster if you switch the machine on and off as compared with leaving it on

These seem to be a type of “cyber myth”. I can find no evidence at all one way or the other.

3) Switching the computer off at night makes it run faster

This is true up to a point (with Windows computers, anyway) but not as much as it used to be. However, it’s not the good night’s sleep that’s done it good, but the re-boot (which has flushed the memory out). Windows computers used to run slower and slower the longer they were left switched on as more and more of the memory was allocated to programs and not then released when the program was closed. I seem to remember that in the days of Windows 3 it would have been unheard of to leave a computer on for days on end. It would just grind to a halt. These days this is hardly an issue – if at all. Windows and the programs using it are much better written and there’s much more memory available.

4) It’s far more convenient to leave it on as it takes so long to boot up from scratch

Undoubtedly. I suspect that computers take as long to boot up now as they did 25 years ago. However, “standby” (sleep mode) is almost as quick to re-start as leaving it fully awake and alert.

5) The computer can’t do background tasks and housekeeping tasks if it is switched off

True, but a computer that is asleep (ie in standby mode) can be woken automatically to perform scheduled tasks and then be put back into standby.

6) The computer is not available as a server if it’s switched off

Can’t argue with that. If, for instance, you use a program like TeamViewer to access a machine remotely then that machine has to be switched on!

7) Turning computers off saves electricity.

This is being perceived as more and more important, but it’s nowhere near as clear-cut as you might expect. I tested the power consumption of two of my laptops and my (oldish) Compaq desktop under different conditions. These results are not scientific and the short test time (about one hour for each condition) means that they should be taken as nothing more than a guide. In the laptop tests, the laptop’s own battery was connected and fully charged. In all cases, only Windows plus security programs (firewall, antivirus) were running. Just out of interest, I also tested the consumption of my TV (a Sony Bravia LCD of reasonably modest screen size). The results were as follows:

Power consumption - chart 1

From these results, one thing is very clear. From the point of view of power consumption, there is no point at all in switching off a computer if you leave it connected to the power supply. The power usage is almost exactly the same as leaving it in standby (sleep) mode.

Is it worth switching it off?

It’s almost impossible to apply an average cost of electricity to this analysis as it depends on the company, the tarriff, the price at the margin of use etc. It seems that a kwh (kilowatt hour) of electricity can be anything from 4p to 20p. As guide, though, the next table shows the total kwh that a machine would consume over a complete year. If you know how much your electricity is costing per unit then applying that figure to the annual consumption will give an idea of the potential savings (but remember that your computer may be in use for, say, 25% of the time so savings during that time would not be so high).

Power consumption - chart 2

My own rule of thumb is that I leave machines in sleep mode (standby) if I’m expecting to use them in the next 24 hours and switch them off otherwise.

Memo to self: unplug it if switching it off. Switching it off and leaving it plugged in is pointless. It’s a much better compromise to leave it in sleep mode.

Do you ever wish the “PrtSc” (print screen) button would do what you want – eg

  • Print the whole contents of the screen to the printer
  • Print a part of the screen to the printer
  • Save part or all of the screen to an image file that you can use and refer to later

Gadwin PrintScreen does all of this. Amongst the options are:

  • Capturing the screen, the active window, or a user-defined rectangle
  • Sending the captured image to any or all of the clipboard, printer, email, or file
  • Choosing the file format of a captured image (gif, jpg, bmp, tif, png)

Set your options to begin with and then just use it. You don’t have to plough through the options each time you use it – just press PrtSc (or a different key combination if that’s what you’ve chosen to do). If you set it to load up when Windows starts, it’s always there – at a single keystroke.

A lot of the images in my blog are captured with Gadwin. It’s also excellent for capturing web pages as the results are exactly the same as you see on screen, whereas printing web pages can often lead to unpredictable results and pages and pages of guff spilling out of the printer.

It’s very handy for keeping a record of on-screen forms that you’ve just completed. I have a special folder that only contains “screen captures”. Gadwin is set to always save to that folder so I always know where I saved an image that I may want later. Periodically, I clear the folder of images I’m not likely to need again.

Dilsblog - GadwinI have been using it for a year or two now and I just take it for granted. There is also a paid-for version (PrintScreen Professional – $21.95) that includes an image editor and annotation facility but I’ve never needed this.

Gadwin PrintScreen is free and is available for download at http://www.gadwin.com/download/. It works with all versions of Windows.

… and, yes, I did capture the image above from Gadwin’s website using the program..

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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