Friday, August 23, 2013

Still laptop hunting

First day of a long weekend for me today. I've been feeling beat up, so I took today off to try and get some equilibrium back.

(I have a clue why - I suspect I'm allergic to the Fairy washing gloop I switched to after the Tesco "this does nothing but make you think it does" stuff ran out)

I'd like to have been playing with a new laptop today, setting it up to how I'd like it. How come I'm not ? There's a few reasons for that. I suspect my inner good sense (it's there, it's just vewy, vewy qwiet) is steering me away from the £500+ offers for £100 cashback at PC World right now. But it's mostly that the laptop manufacturers aren't really offering what I want to buy at the moment.

Let's have a look shall we ? Along the way, I'll hopefully decode some of the jargon for you if you're looking to get a laptop upgrade.

There's only one factor you should be calling Essential when you're looking at a laptop - Usability. This means different things for different people. My mum is really happy with a new 13" cheap ultrabook. It's small and light, which fits needs imposed by frequent arm injuries. I'm looking for something with at least 900 lines on screen. Mum's laptop is Very Shiny but doesn't fit what I want.

But usability is that key factor. Keyboards, trackpads, mice, screens are how we interact with PCs. In a desktop, there's a dazzling array of choice. I've actually gone back to an old cheap Logitech because a relatively new Microsoft wireless keyboard let me down because it kept dropping the signal, leaving me mired and unable to control my character in games. With a laptop, you're stuck with what you bought. So getting that right is crucial.

You can mostly ignore things like hard disc size, memory and processor. Everything you see on the shelves will be more than adequate for 90% of people using a laptop. In fact, far more than adequate. But what does it mean ?

There are two manufacturers who make processors : AMD and Intel. There's a gap opened up between the two now, with AMD not keeping up in the development race. AMD also push their kit harder, so a laptop you buy that does 2000 Squirtles* per second may actually do only 800 Squirtles per second when it's pushed. And when do you want the maximum Squirtles ? When you're pushing the machine hard. If it limits itself, then you've got something that can't be used to the potential you bought. That extra potential may as well not be there.

(*A Squirtle is an arbitrary number, doesn't mean anything. Or it might be something cute & watery)

In a desktop, you can get around that because the space is there to pack in cooling. But in a laptop, you've bought something that can only do 800 Squirtles but masquerades as something better. So I avoid AMD for laptops.

But what do all those cryptic numbers for the Intel machines mean ?

You'll see things like Pentium D960/B960 advertised. Avoid those, they're old. Processor speed is fairly irrelevant but you don't want to be ripped off with 5 year old technology. Most of the time it's things like i5-3227U.

i3, i5, i7 means how much silicon is in the processor. i3 chips have less processor cores, i7's have the most. What does that mean ? Not much. The i5 chip in my desktop is very close in potential to the equivalent i7. For a laptop, you're probably better with an i3, because less silicon means less power used, means more battery life (in theory!)

The next number is more interesting, it shows the generation of the chip.
i3-500 was first generation
i5-2500K is my desktop's chip (Sandy Bridge) and is second generation
i3-3227U is Ivy Bridge, or third generation
i5-4000 will be Haswell, or fourth generation.

The letters show that the chips are a little bit "different". For a laptop, avoid the K (it's a desktop chip, bad for laptops) but M and U mean they're better for laptops.

That's digressing though. What you need to remember is - 2000 = old. 3000 = not so old. 4000 = not out yet. Newer is better but any of these will be overkill for a machine that gets used just for iTunes, browsing, email and video streaming.

What of the manufacturers ? I go on trust a lot of the time. I stick with manufacturers that I've had reliable kit from and blacklist those who disappoint me. Where I don't have good info of my own, I'll ask around for info. I'd jump at advice from people I know, I'm wary at information on the interwebs.

Acer - I'd go back to Acer any time. We've had lots of good kit from them. But they don't have the "perfect" laptop for me.
Dell - they have the "perfect" laptop for me (Inspiron 17R) but apparently they have bad wifi and I'm not convinced on their build quality. (The random reboots at work are apparently the fault of Dell hardware). So I'm avoiding Dell.
Asus - Blacklisted. They let me down on features for my last 2 boards and I've had questionable reliability.
Toshiba - positive, my sister's had good experience from Toshiba kit.
HP - has probably been fished out of the bin after breaking.
Sony, Samsung, Lenovo - interesting but I'd only consider if they had a "perfect" spec, which they don't.

Asus is a shame, as they have something close to that perfect spec. But - various letdowns in the past (a SP/DIF that doesn't carry surround sound ? What the hell ?) and early hardware failures mean they're blacklisted. Something adding to that is the board that Luth now has, it didn't come out that long before Vista, yet Asus never bothered making Vista drivers for it. That's unforgiveable.

What is that perfect spec ?

At least 900 lines. This is so I get a decent number of lines in iTunes. It's not really for the definition, there's only so much our eyes can pick out. But if software like iTunes has fixed line heights, it affects what's on there.
An Intel mobile chip.
An SSD or a spare bay for one - the Dell has this and a spare bay would let me sort out an issue on the desktop too. The Asus machines typically have an SSD built in. They speed the machine up a lot.

Why not Dell ? I've said things before about their lack of info about delivery times. It's a shame, as today would have been a good day to accept delivery. There's actually a place that could give me the "perfect" spec, PCSpecialist. They're a custom builder. However ... they have a fortnight leadtime on laptops. Not keen on that.

I'll pick out another laptop at some point but at the moment, the following are on my mind :
Offers are tempting me into spending more than I want to
There is no "perfect" spec out there for me
If I ordered online, I'd need to be in to pick it up
It's a damn shame there isn't a native version of iTunes for Linux

I'll close there but If you're confused about the adverts and would appreciate a bit of decoding, leave me a comment.

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