Thursday, October 29, 2015

Techie Hunting (and ... not Writing)

Thought I'd add a bit more about the techie hunting stuff today. But it won't all be about that. (Ed - ok, it was, will talk about writing things tomorrow maybe!)
It's coming near sales season which means bargains to take advantage of. I know some of you reading this will be looking to replace old techie stuff with shinier, faster, newer techie stuff. So what kind of thought process do I go through when I'm looking at things like keyboards, screens or laptops ?

Let's start with laptops because they cover the lot.

First up - ignore anything the shop points you at like Sort By Relevance, Sort By Bestseller. These are metrics invented by the shops to support them selling you the stuff that they want to sell, not what you want to buy. This is very important. You want to come away with something you will be happy with for years after. The shop is interested in throughput. If an item is clogging up the storeroom because no one wants to buy it, those will be the items that draw the biggest discounts. Try to avoid being seduced by the massive discounts, target instead what you want to buy.

I'll add there that it is worth looking out for the big end of line discounts that clear the stock room. I'm hugely happy with the router I bought a few months ago, it has been perfect so far and I don't have to do the unplug/plug in with my audio stuff I had to do before. That was an end of line item in Argos, a £90 router for £43. It just happened to be what I was looking for. If you can find those kinds of bargains, that's awesome.

For all you buy, remember that it is your money and you are duty bound to spend as little of it as possible to achieve your objective : getting something shiny that you'll be happy with for years.

Ok - laptops. What have I been looking at when scouting ?

Definitely not the spec, although I'll come back to that later because it is still important. But not critical because the specs on offer will be fairly indistinguishable between the competition at the various price points.

Will it last ? A couple of laptops ago, I had an HP laptop. I bought that partly because the HP laptop it was replacing was bombproof. It took a lot of punishment. And there was a massive discount on the new one ... (see above for warning ...).

Look out for build quality. That terrible HP laptop had bad alignment on the case, where the case was distorted. This is a massive warning sign that it has been built very cheaply. That's important because computers benefit from being built well. See later. Anyway, that HP started dying on 6 months because it ate something which slowly destroyed the processor fan. It finally carked it after just under a year and ... PC World had nerfed the Sales of Goods Act warranty down to 6 months. Naughty.

Will the trackpad hold together under continued use ? Will the keys fall off ? One reason I retired my first laptop is because the keys were breaking as well as the trackpad buttons.

Most important !!! How will you be interacting with it ? That'd be the keyboard and the trackpad. Look out for odd layouts, like my Macbook Air is missing the number pad but that's ok because it means the keys can be full size. If they'd added a number pad, it would have been awkward to type with. Tap out a few sentences on the keyboard, see how it feels. Does the activation travel and maximum travel fit with what you get on with ? I usually type something with lots of different letters. Here's an example from when I tried a nasty one :

"I am trying out this keyboard to see what it feels like and HOLY CARP IT IS NASTY".

Yep. Use caps too. Use that keyboard like you mean to type out an essay on it. Or is that just me with Wall of Text blog posts. Or if you're another way inclined and want to use it for games, look for robustness again. Backlights are handy too, I miss that on my new desktop keyboard. If you are buying a separate keyboard, check the features. This one does me very well because ... it's just a keyboard. It doesn't have the faffery that gaming keyboards have, which make it wider. This means I can plonk keyboard and flightstick on my desk side by side. Couldn't do that with a wider one ...

Trackpad - see how you get on with this as well. Where are the activation zones for clicks. One complaint with the new HP laptops was that left click was in the middle, I'm used to using bottom left of the pad for that. I would find that frustrating quickly. Also check out activation pressure and consistency. Do a few operations, including multitouch, to see how you find it. Me ? I was going through the operations to get to Display Advanced Settings, to find out the native screen resolution. There were enough operations there to check out clickiness as well as multitouch.

My last laptop was a big Acer Labs Aspire. I actually turned off multitouch on that because it basically just didn't work and got in the way. But it's a wonderful thing on a Macbook Air. But you are paying for that quality.

Screen ? I didn't think to check this on Monday but check the bezel. Is the screen recessed into a bezel or is it flush fitting like on a tablet or phone ? If it's recessed, you know where the dirt is going to go and you know how difficult it is to get out. Oh and I don't think touchscreens are a good way to go. Think fingerprints ...

I don't think I can put off talking specs for any longer ... Note that all the above is all physical stuff. The keyboard, trackpad and build quality will never be listed on the spec summary they give with the price tag. Yet these are the most important things to consider with things like laptops. If you aren't comfortable using it, then it's not the laptop for you.

Now for natter about the specs ...
I bet a lot of people share that thought when they look at the specs. Here be dragons. And not of the cute variety ...

Processor - go Intel. Avoid AMD. Intel chips run cooler. This means the machine won't overheat when you ask it to do something strenuous. My Acer with its AMD chip couldn't keep up playing videos because it would quickly cut its speed back so as to not cook itself. Cue jumpy, low res videos. I had a reasonably performing laptop, except when I wanted to use the performance. And then the performance would be taken away.

Processor number jargon gibberish. The better Intel chips have an i number and a generation tag. This desktop is an i5-2500K. The i5 means it's middle of the range. Avoid i7 because you don't get much value out of the extra money. The 2 in the 2500 means it is a 2nd generation Intel Core chip. My Macbook runs off an i5-4250U. The 4 means it is 4th generation. This is a VERY good thing for a laptop, try to avoid laptops of 3000 series and before. The 4 series is codenamed Haswell and Haswell laptops have literally double the battery life of the earlier chips. We're now seeing 6th generation Skylake processors appear. Ask Google what the processor code means, that U in the 4250U means it's a laptop chip that gives better battery life. The 2500K is an enthusiasts desktop chip.

Memory and storage - 3GB is enough for Windows 7 but it's the minimum. With the drive, if you have a choice between a 250GB (ish) Solid State Device machine and a 1TB conventional machine, choose the 250GB one. EVERY TIME. SSD machines are so much faster and smoother, the drive is the major limiting factor in performance. And you can always add in an external drive if you want to store loads of movies or other things like that.

That said ... gaming ... This takes a lot of space on a machine. But I wouldn't want to do any serious gaming on a laptop. It's a bit cruel on the laptop. And they're not really set up for gaming either, the screens are a bit small and at a bad angle.

But gaming does point to another bit of hardware - graphics. Unless you have any interest in playing fast moving graphics games on a laptop, avoid dedicated graphics ... like the plague. It's a detractor. The graphics hardware takes up valuable battery life and you won't get much benefit from it. For ordinary stuff, including watching videos, the graphics hardware in modern processors is just fine. That said, pushing the cricket from the internet to the telly is just about the limit of what my Macbook Air seems happy to handle.

I think I'm nearing my limit for what I should post here ... Time to sum up ? Look at :

Robustness - will it fall to bits
Keyboard and trackpad - can you work it ? Will it cause aggravation ?
Screen - is it clear, cleanable and consistent ? Can it keep up with rapid movement ?
Performance - is it smooth, responsive and how does it handle getting busy.
(might be tough to test in a shop unless you can stream 1080p video)
Meet the need - stick to a limit, don't go beyond that. I didn't need the extra processor and graphics performance of a Macbook Pro, so I saved the money.

And one last bit to close on - Research. Check out what you're going to buy before you buy it. I wouldn't necessarily buy from Amazon but their review area is chock full of what real people say about stuff. And I don't believe Amazon curate out the bad reviews ... Also ask Google questions. If you see a specification that you don't understand like "why is that IPS screen more money for the same size?", ask Google. You'll hopefully get answers that support the "Is it worth it ?" question.

It's your cash - be careful how you spend it !

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