Do PC’s still have a place in a world of laptops and tablets?

Over the last few years, a lot of people have replaced PCs (consisting of system unit, monitor, keyboard, and mouse) with laptops. The reasons aren’t hard to find:

  • Laptops are much neater and take up less room than PCs.
  • The price differential has disappeared.
  • Laptops are more versatile. Would you rather watch a film on a PC at your desk or on a laptop wherever you wish to place it?
  • We don’t often need to open up computers any more to add the latest gizmo.

Laptop vs Desktop

Laptop vs Desktop. This image is from http://computerdawn.com/desktop-vs-laptop/

A lot of my computer support clients ask whether the desktop PC is disappearing. They would probably be surprised to learn that, although PC sales have been falling in recent years, the figures may have bottomed out. Worldwide shipments of PCs in the second quarter of 2014 were actually 0.1% up on the the same period last year (source: Gartner).

One theory to explain this mini-revival is that a lot of people have probably replaced desktop computers running Windows XP during the second quarter of this year (as Microsoft stopped support for XP in April). I suspect that a high proportion of such replacements will have been in the business sector. I’m certainly surprised at the number of home users that I encounter who are sticking with XP machines (at least for the time being). It’s true that I haven’t yet heard of any “killer malware” that is frightening people out of using their XP machines. Nevertheless, it could happen any day and that would probably boost Windows 8 desktop sales for another few months.

Another theory that reconciles falling PC sales (over the last couple of years) with optimism about their future is that, generally speaking, we are replacing PCs less often than we used to simply because they are now good enough to run whatever is thrown at them for longer. As computers get older we notice them slowing down. Many people can’t help anthropomorphising about this: they think that computers “slow down in their old age” just as we do.

Sony All-In-One

Sony All-in-One. Less visible hardware, more visible screen.

That’s not the case. It is true that Windows computers do tend to accrete a load of rubbish over time that doesn’t help performance (eg temporary internet files, any number of different fonts, redundant programs), but a bit of housekeeping can help in this respect (I recommend CCleaner but avoid registry cleaners unless there’s a known problem). The main thing that makes a computer seem slower over time has been that software gets ever more bloated. We are forever installing newer versions of browsers and other programs that are written with modern hardware capabilities in mind. Therefore, as time goes on, your hardware starts to struggle a bit with newer programs. However, Windows 7 and Windows 8 have bucked that trend by being designed to run on hardware that would run Vista. So, there’s reason to think that we need to replace computers less often because they are not being outpaced by software demands in the same way as they used to be. We’re still buying PCs – just not as often. Have a look at this link for more on this.

Another thing that may be helping desktops sales (and laptop sales as well) is that people don’t seem to be upgrading their tablets. It seems as if developments and improvements to tablets are just not sufficient to make users think they are missing something. That being the case, funds are probably more likely to be available to replace the ageing workhorse PC in the office or home. If you’d like some overkill on figures about Tablets, have a look at this link.

HP Hybrid Laptop

Devices like this HP Hybrid are blurring the distinctions. Is it a laptop? Is it a tablet?

It is true that tablets may have taken a big chunk of users’ budgets in the last couple of years, but that doesn’t mean that tablets are displacing PCs. Despite improvements in tablet software (eg Word, Excel, and Powerpoint are now available on the iPad and other tablets – see this recent blog on Office 365), it seems that most people prefer to use their tablets and smartphones for data CONSUMPTION – eg watching films, checking Facebook and Twitter, listening to music, viewing photos and so on. However, when it comes to data PRODUCTION (eg report writing, PowerPoint creation, database work, photo editing) most people head back to their laptops and desktops.

OK, so tablets haven’t knocked desktop PCs out of the game, but why haven’t laptops finished the job off?

I’m not really sure. In an office situation, I can see that a desktop PC still has certain advantages:

  • There are usually more ports (eg USB ports) than on a laptop.
  • A desktop PC can actually take up less desk space as the monitor can be permanently fixed above the desk, the system unit placed beneath the desk, and a wireless keyboard can easily be moved aside if you need all your deskspace.
  • Despite the need to get inside a computer’s case being less obvious than it used to be, a desktop PC is still more versatile in this respect.

So, there may be clear reasons why desktop PCs are holding on against laptops in an office situation, but I’m not really sure that those reasons aren’t outweighted by the flexibility of laptops in the home.

It’s clear, though, that there are plenty of reasons why “laptops/desktops” considered together should be holding their own against tablets. When my computer support clients ask me whether they should replace ageing desktops with another desktop or with a laptop, there’s no “one size fits all” answer. In giving computer advice on this, I usually stress the flexibility of the laptop over the PC. I also point out that my own experience and that of others is that tablets are probably not versatile enough to replace their bigger siblings but the choice between laptop and desktop is much less clearcut.

In conclusion, I would say that – as far as functionality is concerned – a laptop is probably as good as a desktop PC and also the “all-in-ones” that are becoming increasingly popular (possibly because they take up less space than a desktop but offer the screen size of a desktop). Don’t worry that desktops are disappearing and that you may be the last person ever to buy one! There’s no real sign that that’s going to happen any time soon. Buy whatever you prefer: the basic functionality and power is comparable between all three formats. And by all means have a tablet: they have lots of uses but they are not replacing “proper” computers.

If you are still running Windows XP then I very seriously suggest that you consider upgrading (buying something new!)

More laptopsMicrosoft will withdraw support for XP (and Office 2003) in April. The hackers, malware writers, and virus creators may have a field day. See the following blogs:

Replace Windows XP
Microsoft Will Stop Supporting Windows XP in 2014

Irrespective of Windows XP, you may be thinking of buying a new laptop, anyway. There are some real bargains out there at this time of year. Several of my computer support clients have asked for advice on this in the last few weeks. The obvious questions they ask are:

  • What do I need?
  • How much should I pay?

If you are in this position then please read my previous blogs on this subject (see the end of this blog post for links). Let’s bring it up to date with the basics of a current specification that I think would suit my typical computer support client:

  • Processor. If you go for an Intel processor (as opposed to AMD) then it is likely to be in one of the three families of i3, i5, or i7. Considering that i3 are generally “entry level” processors, and that i7 are more expensive and geared towards the needs of computer “gamers” and people editing movies and the like, I suggest that an i5 processor (the middle ground) is the one to favour.
  • Disk size. Unless you have a huge library of photographs, movies, and/or music that you will wish to store on your laptop, then any of today’s hard drives is likely to be plenty big enough. These now start at about 500gb and go up to 2tb (where “tb” is a terabyte and is 1000gb). If you go a bit up-market in your choice of machine then you might go for a solid state drive (SSD). These have no moving parts and are meant to be very fast. I don’t have much personal experience of them yet. You will pay more for an SSD drive and will get a smaller drive. I don’t recommend getting anything less than 128gb unless you really know what you are doing and why you are making that decision.
  • Memory. Don’t settle for less than 4gb unless you are buying a budget machine where the last £50 is crucial. 4gb is fine and so is 6gb or 8gb.
  • USB ports. There are still only 2,3, or 4 USB ports on laptops. Go for as many as possible and favour machines that have at least one USB3 port. These are much faster when connected to devices (such as external hard drives) that also feature USB3. USB3 ports are quite happy to work with devices designed for USB2 or even USB1.
  • Screen size. The most popular screen size these days on laptops is 15.6 inches, but there is now an almost continuous range of sizes available from 10 inches to 17 inches. If you are buying a laptop as your “main” machine, be very wary of buying one with a screen size (and keyboard) that might prove too small for comfortable all-day use.
  • Price. If you are lucky, you might get one for as little as £400. Anything up to £500 is a good buy. You would be expecting a higher specification than I have outlined above if you pay more than, say, £550. Just for comparison, my own main laptop (a Samsung RF511) is just over 2 years old. It has a 15.6 inch screen, 8gb RAM, 4 X USB ports (2 of them USB3), and it started off with a 500gb drive. That cost me over £700 in November 2011 and I think I could get the same now for about £550.

New laptopsThis is only a general guide, of course. It is prepared with my “typical” computer support client in mind. Uses would include all internet activity, all Microsoft Office components (the cost of which I have not included above – £110 at the moment for the Home and Student 2013 version from Microsoft), “light to medium” photo editing, playing music, watching movies, and so forth. I think you can pretty well take it for granted that any machine of this sort of specification will also include things like camera, standard wifi (not dual band), HDMI output (for connecting to a TV screen).

As for make/model, you pays your money and you takes your choice. I favour Samsung, Acer, Asus, and maybe Toshiba. Dell are still fine, but a client and I were looking at their website yesterday and the range seemed to be very limited compared to what they used to offer. Personally, I don’t like HP laptops very much. They seem sluggish and clunky to me. It might be caused by all the un-necssary software they include that you just don’t need.

More laptopsWhere from? Well, Micro Anvika (that I’ve recommended before) is no longer in business. John Lewis is good because they include a two year warranty, they never quibble, and are always helpful if you have a problem. I don’t actually have a favourite supplier any more. I’d buy from Sony or Samsung at the south end of Tottenham Court Road (they’re not owned by Sony/Samsung). I’m a bit wary of most of the rest of the “box shifters” on Tottenham Court Road. I’ve always said that PC World are OK unless you have to ask for advice or technical information (at which point they usually depart for La-La land and tell you the first thing that comes into their heads). However, I think it’s only fair to add that I’ve made two recent visits to the branch at the north end of Tottenham Court Road and had detailed, accurate, friendly advice on compact digital cameras (and bought a Sony Cybershot from PC World that seems rather nice).

Happy hunting. Let me know if you need specific information or would like help transferring from your old computer and setting up your new one.

Here are some previous blogs on this subject:

http://www.davidleonard.net/2010/12/24/buying-a-new-laptop-computer/
http://www.davidleonard.net/2012/03/17/buying-a-laptop-updated-part-1-of-2/
http://www.davidleonard.net/2012/03/24/buying-a-laptop-updated-part-2-of-2/
http://www.davidleonard.net/2013/09/21/should-i-change-to-a-mac/

More laptopsMost things in the earlier blogs still apply, but Windows 8 has, of course, been released since the blog post of December 2010 and tablet computers seem to have taken over in lots of situations that might have been handled by netbook computers two or three years ago.

PS

Sidebar Box - search for a specific word

Look for specific text in all web pages and blog posts on www.davidleonard.net

How did I find the blogs with the links given above? I just went to my website, looked for the search box on the righthand side, typed in “new laptop” and the blog posts were automatically selected and presented on-screen.

You can do this for any subjects I may have covered in about 170 consecutive weekly blogs since late 2010. You are very welcome to search this whenever you wish. See this page on my website for more information about the new ways to access these blog posts.

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!

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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