In my role as an IT Consultant, one of the questions that I am asked most often is of the type “should I get a new computer?”

I am apt to answer with that most annoying of phrases – “it depends”.

Axeman and computerIt used to be an easier question to answer than it is now. With every new version of Windows, the hardware requirements increased, so buying a new computer was often essential to be able to run current software. That doesn’t really apply any more as Windows 8 and then Windows 10 have not required any more of the hardware than Windows 7. Also, it’s not that often that a computer completely fails. If an aging computer does physically fail, it’s likely to be a hard drive failure that brings an instant decision. Other than that, it seems that things just get slower and creakier (and possibly noisier), and it is easy to struggle on without any definitive event that forces the decision to replace an aging computer.

So, if you are beginning to wonder if defenestration is the answer to your computing problems, here are some guidelines that might help in your decision-making:

  • If you are running Windows Vista then it’s time to replace your machine however nicely it’s still behaving. Vista is being forced into retirement in April 2017 in the same way that XP was in 2014 – see the Windows lifecycle fact sheet.
  • If your computer seems irritatingly slow and it has a hard drive then replacing it with a computer with a Solid State Drive (SSD) will make a huge difference. It’s quite possible to replace a hard drive with an SSD and keep the existing hardware. I’ve done it myself on my Samsung RF511 and on my MacBook Pro. In both cases it made a huge difference. However, it doesn’t make economic sense for me to do this for you: it would be cheaper to just buy a new machine.
  • If your hard drive is running out of space then replacing the entire machine might be a better solution than fitting a larger hard drive. Note, though, that if you buy a new machine with a SSD (recommended) then this is likely to be smaller than your existing drive. Hmm. Maybe it would be better to keep your existing hardware and move some data off to an external hard drive, a large USB “pen drive”, or a large SD card. I’m fairly sure that we’ll soon see machines with both SSDs (to run Windows and the programs) and internal hard drives (to store data), but I searched in vain for such an animal when replacing my own laptop recently.
  • Shiny new laptopIf your machine has started sounding like a concrete mixer then that’s likely to be the fan on its way out. A replacement fan is probably only about £15-£20 but you’ve got to source exactly the right one and fitting it is not for the faint-hearted. In fact, I can’t think of a single one of my own IT support clients to whom I would recommend this course of action. My own Samsung RF511 spent the last six months of its duty without a working fan. I installed software to keep me appraised of the temperatures and everything was fine. Nevertheless, it made me slightly uneasy and a different laptop may well have run too hot for this to be an option (especially one with a hard drive rather than a SSD). You could take your laptop to one of those places offering “laptop repairs” to get a fan replaced, but I’d be very wary of going down that route.
  • If the machine is a laptop and the battery isn’t charging the way it used to, then that alone might push you into a computer replacement. A “genuine” replacement battery can be prohibitively expensive. A “compatible” might be be cheap but it might only last a year. If you use your laptop on the battery frequently, then it’s definitely worth factoring this into your decision.
  • While we are on the subject of laptops, if you carry yours around frequently then size and weight could be a factor. Laptops have become quite a bit lighter and thinner recently (while still offering the same screen sizes), so you might be quite surprised if you currently lug a five year old brick around in your bag.
  • If you are getting loads of software crashes and freezes, and you are running Windows 7, then “mending it with a new one” may be a better course of action than troubleshooting these problems. However, if you are runnng Windows 10, this is far, far, easier and quicker to re-install than previous versions of Windows and, although you may have to reinstall programs, you may not have to re-load your data if you reinstall Windows.

Black Friday ticketThis blog is not meant to be about what specification your putative new machine should have. Nevertheless, I’ll offer a few guidelines for free (since it’s the day after Black Friday and you may have just been tipped over the edge into splashing the cash):

  • Machines with solid state drives (SSDs) really are much faster than those with hard drives (but think about whether the SSD will be large enough and what you can do if it isn’t – such as external data drives).
  • Try to avoid machines with i3 processors unless you are on a tight budget. I5 processors are better (faster) and i7 better still.
  • As always, get as much RAM as possible. I recommend 8gb or 16gb.

And – don’t forget – if you need help setting up your new computer, transferring data etc, then you know where to come!

This is the second of two blogs on this subject.

So many people ask me for computer advice on this subject that I think it’s worth updating a blog that I wrote in December 2010 – the original is here.

Contents

USB Ports
Keyboard and Screen
WiFi
Bluetooth
Camera, Microphone and Speakers
Specific Brands
Where to Buy
Extended warranties
Software
Security Software
What next?


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.

USB3 – if you are intending to back up lots of data via a USB connection then it’s definitely worth looking for USB3 ports on a new computer. See this blog for more info on USB3.

It used to be the case that most USB ports, power ports, ethernet ports etc were placed at the back of laptops. This was my preferred location as it kept the cables away from where I could see them, knock them etc. These days, it seems that all the ports are placed along the sides of the laptop. Maybe it’s worth visualising what any prospective purchase will look like with your cables all plugged in. On my Samsung RF511, for instance, if I connect the external monitor then the thick, inflexible HDMI cable sticks right out of the lefthand side of the machine just where I want to be sliding my mouse around. This is probably part of the world-wide conspiracy against left-handers.


Keyboard and Screen

Sony Vaio Z Series

Sony Vaio Z Series

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 to 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. Liking lots of windows open at the same time is also an indicator that you should have as much RAM as possible (see above).

One last point on the subject of screen size is that I 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 when it’s late in the day and my eyes are tired. 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.


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 is 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 and ditto for a Bluetooth keyboard. Unless you already use it, you can probably live without it, but having it won’t add a great deal to the price. Some cheap Bluetooth devices (such as cheap keyboards and mice) have “connectivity issues” (ie they don’t work very well).


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 now a 15 inch Samsung RF511. My previous one was a Samsung Q35 laptop that was my main machine for well over 5 years. I’ve now put Windows Vista and Office 2003 back on it so that I can use it to help me provide computer support to clients with those technologies. I’ve also had a Samsung NC10 netbook since March 2009 and that, too, is an excellent machine for its niche use (carrying around London with me for onsite computer support visits).


Where to Buy

If you are buying a computer in London and 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 best.

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).

Micro Anvika Store on Tottenham Court Road

Micro Anvika Store on Tottenham Court Road

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 £80 and it even comes with licences to install it on three machines. It includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

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 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. 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 look or feel 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. If you are in London I am, of course, available to help in smoothing the path from your old to your new computer.

Go on – treat yourself. Because you’re worth it!

So many people ask me for computer advice on this subject that I think it’s worth updating a blog that I wrote in December 2010 – the original is here.

This is a fairly long article so I’ve split it into two parts. The second part will be published next week.

Contents

Introduction
General Descriptions
More About Netbooks
Operating System
32-bit or 64-bit operating system
Processor Speeds
Memory (RAM)
Hard Drive


Introduction

Buying a computer is partly a matter of getting the basic parameters right and partly a matter of personal taste and preference. As you would expect, I encounter a fair number of different makes, models, and vintages during the course of the computer support that I provide. It may come as a surprise, but, in my opinion, there isn’t actually a huge amount of difference between laptops. Age and basic specification have far more impact on performance than brand.

So, my advice is to get the basics right and then just go with what you fancy. I really can’t see that it makes any difference whether it’s Acer, Asus, Dell, Samsung, Packard Bell, or anything else. The only really obvious distinguishing features between brands is that Macs come from a different planet to everything else and that Sony Vaios are slightly more expensive and possibly better styled and finished than other brands of Windows-based laptops. I’m not going to consider Macs any more in this article. If you’ve decided you want a Mac then your choice is limited by what Apple offers and there’s little more to be said.

So, let’s have a look at those basic parameters that you need to consider.


General Descriptions

There are several descriptions of types of laptop that you may encounter. Don’t be frightened by these terms, though, as they are marketing terms rather than anything else. They refer to the size, portability, and (to some extent, at least) the power of the machine. A rough guide is as follows:

  • A “desktop replacement” is likely to have a 17 inch screen, be as powerful as the desktop computer it may be replacing, and be too heavy to want to lug about very often.
  • A “laptop” is somewhat smaller (a 15 inch screen is typical), and probably about as powerful. You can put one in a backpack and carry it around but you wouldn’t want to do that too often.
  • A “notebook” may have a 13 inch screen and may be less powerful. You may be more inclined to take it with you than a laptop, but you still probably wouldn’t want to carry it every day.
  • A “netbook” typically has a ten inch screen, is much lighter, and the battery will probably last 7-10 hours (whereas more powerful laptops may last for as little as 90 minutes on the battery). Light enough to carry every day, but still much bigger and clunkier than a “tablet”. We are not considering tablet pcs in this article but you may wish to see this article on Tablets.

There are no hard and fast demarcations between these types (apart from Tablets), but you can use them as guides when assessing your needs for power, portability, battery life, and comfort in use. At the risk of stating the obvious, the bigger and more powerful the machine, the more expensive it will be. Netbooks start at about £230, whereas a high-end “gaming” desktop replacement could be £1800.


More About Netbooks

Asus EEE Netbook

Asus EEE Netbook (images on this page are not shown to scale)

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 notebook, 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 may not need to carry around with you most of the time). 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.

In my opinion and experience, a netbook does not work as a substitute for a laptop. I find them too slow, the keyboard too cramped, and the screen too small to comfortably use a netbook all day long. But they definitely have a place if you need portability. I always carry my Samsung NC10 netbook when travelling around London for client visits and it’s invaluable. I just wouldn’t want to use it all day as my main workhorse. Having said that, I do have computer support clients who use nothing else and you can always make them a bit easier to use at your own desk by plugging into a nice, big external monitor and external keyboard and mouse.

Assuming, though, that you’re looking for something more than a netbook, 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 becoming 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. The less powerful netbooks often come with Windows 7 Starter (which I don’t think you can buy as a separate retail purchase). A later upgrade to a more sophisticated version of Windows is possible, but I’m now re-considering whether it was wise upgrading my netbook to Windows 7 Home Premium as it sometimes takes a really long time to come out of sleep mode.

We are being told to expect Windows 8 towards the end of 2012. It’s too early to say how it will be received but feedback from the Developers’ Preview and Beta releases suggest that there may be some good ideas in it, but it may cause usability problems because it tries to combine a touchscreen approach (suitable for tablets and smartphones) with a more traditional keyboard/mouse approach. As we approach the launch date, it is possible that new computers will have Windows 7 installed but that a free upgrade to Windows 8 will also be included.

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


32-bit or 64-bit operating system

Samsung RF511 Laptop

Samsung RF511 Laptop

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 computers. These run different 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 make use of 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 make use of more memory (RAM) than 32-bit. You can check whether you are currently running 32-bit or 64-bit by following these instructions from Microsoft.

If you are currently running 32-bit Windows then your peripherals (eg your printer) 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.
  • Go for 64-bit and accept that some peripherals may not work.
  • .

You can download and run Microsoft’s “Upgrade Advisor” from this link.


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.

The most popular range of Intel processors come in 3 main products – i3, i5, and i7. It’s reasonable to think of these as “budget”, “mid-range”, and “performance”. If you intend to edit videos I would recommend looking for i7. Click here for further information on Intel Processors.


Memory (RAM)

Do not buy a laptop with less than 2gb RAM, and only be happy with 2gb if you are buying a budget machine and price is a major factor in your decision. If you are buying a 32-bit machine then there’s no point in having more than 3gb as 32-bit Windows can only make about 3.25gb available for use. It’s probably not worth worrying about whether there is 3gb or 4gb installed – 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 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). For a mid-range 64-bit machine that you expect to last about 4 years, I would recommend 4-8gb memory. If you intend playing the latest. most sophisticated, action games and/or if you are going to do a lot of video editing, then I would recommend getting as much memory as you can – more than 8gb if possible.


Hard Drive

The hard drive should be no smaller 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 (1000gb is currently a good size). Hard drives are like wardrobes: they look huge when empty, but they can soon fill up. It’s possible to upgrade to a larger hard drive at a later date, 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 if you are on the move).

It’s worth noting that it is generally videos, music and then pictures (in that decreasing order of size) that take up much more space than anything else. If you don’t have many of these then you probably won’t need more than 250gb of hard drive. At the other extreme, a single video could take up 4gb, a single music album could be up to 100mb, and a single large (RAW) image could be 100mb. You can estimate your total storage needs from these figures (remember that 1000mb = 1gb).

Is your hard drive working properly? Is it likely to fail? What would you do if it did?

A hard drive melting and going down a drainHard drive manufacturers used to rate the reliability of their drives in terms of a number of hours “MTBF” (mean time between failures). This was supposed to tell you how long you could reasonably expect a drive to last before a problem is likely, on average, to occur. It seems they don’t do this any more and I haven’t found out whether it’s because the figure was misleading or meaningless. Certainly, a study by Carnegie Mellon University found that users change their drives 15 times more often than the manufacturers would think they should.

I have seen various figures that suggest that, in practice, the reliability of drives starts to plummet at anywhere between five and seven years. All of this is irrelevant, really. The only important, irrefutable, fact is that drives DO fail. Given that fact, does it really make any difference whether there is a 1% chance or a 20% chance that your drive will fail in the next year? I’m by no means the only person to have known drives fail within their first year of life. The fact that such a drive would still be under warranty is not the point. The value is in the contents – your Windows installation, the programs, and the data. The best computer advice I can offer is that you assume that any drive can fail at any time.

So how do you know if a drive is failing?

Under normal circumstances, you may not know. However, there are two very definite signs that might be present – alone or together – that clearly indicate that something is going wrong:

  • An increasing number of errors, freezes, and program crashes may be caused by a failing drive. Such problems could be caused by disc drive read/write errors or by many others causes. It’s definitely worth heeding the warning and making sure your important data is backed up. You can then investigate further, knowing that you’ve protected the most valuable part of your computer system – your data.
  • A clicking noise coming from the drive. Act immediately. The drive could fail at any time. If there’s any data on the drive that you don’t want to lose, back it up NOW. If you’re not sure whether what you can hear is serious, visit this link and listen to some death rattles of failing drives. Be warned, though, that if your drive is starting to fail it could go at any time, so backing up data is a better use of its dying moments than having it clicking away in the background while you decide which of the sounds on the above link is the best match.


Monitoring a Healthy Drive

Most drives have something called S.M.A.R.T. technology built in so that appropriate software can monitor the health of your drive. The software that I use on my own machines for this purpose – and when providing computer support for clients – is called Active@ Hard Disk Monitor Free. This keeps a constant check on many of the parameters that indicate the health of your drive. It also has a temperature gauge to warn you if the drive is overheating. The only real limitation of the software is that it can only monitor internal hard drives. You can’t use it to monitor the health of, for instance, your USB-connected external backup drive. Nevertheless, I consider this a useful computer support tool that can give valuable warning of problems ahead.

Replacing a Hard Drive

If your drive has failed and Windows won’t start then you need to take a deep breath. There are specialist data recovery companies who may be able to get some or all of your data back but the cost could run into four figures. You may need or choose to buy a new drive and re-install everything from scratch, re-loading any data backups that you do have or that recovery specialists have been able to rescue. You may or may not feel confident to do this yourself: this is the type of computer support that people such as I, myself, offer. Don’t necessarily jump to the wrong conclusion, though. If you’ve just turned on your computer and Windows won’t load then there could be a reason other than hard drive failure, so there could be less drastic and less expensive options.

If your drive does need replacing, but is working reliably at the moment, then the best plan is probably to employ software such as Paragon Partition Manager to clone the entire drive. This is not entirely risk-free. I’ve known such software completely trash the contents of a hard drive partition by making a simple error when creating the clone. My own strategy when using it is to back up important data by a different means first, and then to use the cloning software. This is much, much, quicker than installing Windows, programs, and data from scratch. It has to be said, though, that this kind of task is not for the faint-hearted and may be beyond the technical knowledge of the average reader of this blog. Nevertheless, I hope it’s useful to point out the kind of options you may have if you suspect that your hard drive may be going on the fritz.

To sum up, the best single piece of advice I can give on this subject is this – don’t ignore the signs of a failing drive. You might be able to prevent a problem from becoming a disaster if you heed the warnings and act immediately.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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