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Guidelines on purchasing a new laptop

Recently a friend asked me for advice on purchasing a new laptop. Here is the bulk of the email I sent him - perhaps you'll find it useful as you search for a new computer:

There is a lot of stuff on the market and here are some basic, ground rules for what you need to think about when your purchasing:
  • set a budget figure for the new machine and stick to it. I usually drop at least $200 below my actual budget so I can include a new laptop bag or some sort of accessory (I love gadgets!)
  • Decide how big you want the laptop to be - i.e. are you travelling? If so, then a 17" notebook is going to be very heavy and cumbersome and you'll hate dragging it through the airport all the time. Are you doing complex work with a lot of information on it? If son, then an 11" notebook will probably be too small. Usually I suggest an 13" or if you are doing a lot of complex work, then a 15" is probably acceptable - although these can be heavy
  • Are you more comfortable with Mac OS X or a Windows based operating system - this step can easily eliminate a large number of machines
  • Extra warranty can be handy - see if you can get 3 years worth of it as this is the usual lifespan of a notebook before it needs a refresh or you've broken it. 
  • How much data will the laptop hold? How much does your current one hold? Are you going to be saving all your photos and videos to it?
A few notes on specifications and what they mean:
  • SSD - solid stat disk: These replaced the old mechanical hard drives in many notebooks. They are faster, have no moving parts so don't get damaged if you drop the laptop inadvertently. Downside is - they are smaller and more expensive :(
  • RAM - system memory: more is better but 4GB of RAM is typically enough for most day to day computing activities. If you're a gamer, get more.
  • Core i3, i5 and i7: these refer to the processor and it's type. i3 is aimed at general day to day work, i5 for harder work and maybe a bit of gaming and i7 for high end work and gaming. I prefer i3's for general office type work and find them to be fast enough for anything in a normal office environment, including most finance packages. For my general work in IT I have i5's everywhere - a solid compromise between cost and power without huge amounts of heat generation. And for my gaming rig, and my high end workstation running multiple virtual machines and doing heavy lifting (in a geeky way) I've got the big i7 on my desk. It takes a heap of power and was quite expensive.
A few notes on differences between Mac and PC
  • The Apple (Mac) environment is all locked up and proprietary. This is good and bad. Good because 99% of the time the software just works and the upgrade to new operating systems (like El Capitan) is free. Generally the upgrade is also pain free and just works. The bad news is, you're locked into the Apple way of doing things on your computer. There are ways to get around this - using Parallels or another virtualisation platform to run Windows and associated software, but this can be expensive in terms of cost for software (Parallels plus a Windows Licence) and expensive in terms of hardware utilisation. Generally though, the Macs on the market at the moment can well and truly handle it. The Mac will run Microsoft Office, or Apple have their own software - Pages / Numbers / Keynote.
  • PCs typically will run Microsoft Windows and at the moment, they're all coming out with Windows 10. Love it or hate it - that's what you get. Lots of applications, lots of viruses and vulnerabilities. Without a fair bit of work you can't get Mac OS X to run on a PC. Generally you can get a fairly well specced PC for a lot less than a Mac.
Finally, consider carefully what you'll use this computer for, then try to match the laptops you can get in your price range to those requirements. Most people will also look at which one is prettiest and which has the keyboard they prefer. These are important factors to consider so try to get eyes and hands on a machine before you buy.

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