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What's in a laptop?

08 Oct, 2020 | 9 min read

Buying a new laptop is a minefield of technical specs. If you don’t know your RAM from your CPUs, this guide should help you understand what you need to know - and more importantly what you should be looking for - from your next laptop.

Memory (RAM)

Think of the memory of a computer as the “short term memory” - in other words, how much “stuff” the computer can deal with at any one time. The limits of your computer’s RAM will usually present itself when you have too many programmes open at once, or too many tabs open in your web browser.

Most laptops in 2020 need an absolute minimum of 4GB of RAM to stay happy, but if you have the budget aim for 8GB. Modern Operating Systems can be quite RAM-hungry, and the extra breathing space will serve you well.

If you’re going to be doing anything very taxing - e.g. video editing, gaming, or running intensive specialist applications - then try and get 16GB.

RAM is one of the few components of a laptop that is usually relatively easy to expand, so if you find a good laptop but the RAM is a little pokey, then you may have the option to purchase RAM separately and install it.

RAM - by the way - stands for Random Access Memory.

Hard Drive

Very simply, the hard drive is where all the “stuff” lives on your computer. This includes everything from the Operating System itself, to your files and folders. Hard Drive space is different from “memory”, which usually refers to the RAM. It might be helpful to think of the hard drive as your bookshelf, holding all the books you own, and the RAM as your bedside table, holding the book that you’re reading at that point in time.

With hard drives, there are two main things to consider. The first is the size of the drive - how much “stuff” do you want to store. As more and more things are streamed, the trend for larger hard drives has drifted downwards. A decade or so ago you’d need larger drives to store music and photos. With the advent of Spotify and the like, and people’s propensity to backup photos to the cloud, there’s less need. For simple home office / school use a 256Gb hard drive tends to be sufficient, and this is the ‘standard’ drive you’ll find on most laptops.

As with all things, if you have slightly more specialised needs, you might want to look at larger sizes. Modern games, and video editing, both take up large amounts of space.

The other consideration to make is whether to get an “SSD” or a “HDD”. Solid State Drives (SSD) are considerably faster than the older Hard Drive Disks (HDD), and don’t have any moving parts, which gives them a longer lifespan. The downside is that they are more expensive, which means that they may not be viable choice on a budget if you need space. While the typical SSD is 256Gb, a standard HDD at the same price bracket is usually 1Tb - or roughly four times the size.

It comes down to usage. For most use-cases, the SSD is the clear choice - it will run faster, last longer, and still give you ample space for your needs. If you are considering a larger disk space because you want to backup important documents, photos, or videos, then consider instead buying an external disk drive, or a cloud backup solution.

CPU

This is the “brain” of the computer. Everything that the machine does has to pass through here to be processed - hence the name, Central Processing Unit.

Typically you’ll have to make a decision between one of two manufacturers - Intel or AMD. Over the last decade, Intel have ruled the roost, but AMD are starting to put out more viable options. Typically, AMD fair better in the budget and the ultra-high end range, with Intel holding its own in the middle ground. For various technical reasons, if you’re in doubt it’s usually better to go with Intel.

If you want to get very technical, your next decisions will be centred around things like the clock speed, the number of cores, whether the chip has “hyperthreading”. Happily though, if you don’t have the inclination to care about such things (and most of the time, not even I do), Intel makes it easy to establish what these are with a 4-tiered naming convention for it’s main line of CPUs. These are i3, i5, i7, and i9 - the higher the number, the more powerful the CPU.

For the most part, home computing only really needs to consider i3 and i5. The i5 is better, but naturally costs more money. If you can afford the i5 it usually makes for a more fluid machine, and your laptop will probably age better. But if you are just going to be doing some web browsing, a bit of light Netflixing, and typing up the odd Word document, favour RAM over CPU. To put it practically, if I had to choose between an i3 with 8Gb of RAM, and an i5 with 4Gb (and I wasn’t willing or able to expand the RAM), go with the first option.

If you are going to be doing more heavy-duty work, such as video-editing or gaming, then you might want to consider an i7. They tend to be a little overkill for general use (though companies favour them because they have a longer usage, and the incremental cost on corporate rates tends to be minimal).

If you’re doing the kind of work that means you should be considering an i9, you really should be getting your advice from someone else.

GPU

GPU - or Graphical Processing Unit - is a chip that handles the visuals. In laptops, they come in two flavours: “integrated” or “dedicated”.

The good news is that if all you’re going to be doing is browsing the web or watching Netflix, you probably don’t need to worry about the GPU. Integrated is fine, and you don’t need to spend extra money on a laptop that advertises a good GPU. Congratulations, you can now stop reading this section. (Unless you’re planning on hooking the laptop up to an 8K projector for your film nights, in which case you may want to cast your research net a little wider.)

If you are going to be gaming, you’ll need dedicated. As with CPUs, the GPU market is dominated by two main players: in this case you have nVidia and Radeon. Each has a loyal consumer base, but on paper they’re actually pretty equal at each price point (yes I have a personal preference, no it really doesn’t matter what it is). You generally get what you pay for with GPUs, so the more money you spend, the better your game is going to look.

If you’re video editing, your choice of GPU should depend on the software you’re using - applications such as Adobe Premier Pro have an option to use the GPU to help render, which basically means that the more powerful the GPU the quicker the render. Not all video editing software does lean on the GPU for this though, so check first. If it doesn’t, it means the CPU is doing the heavy lifting, so you’re better off putting your money towards a better CPU.

Operating System

The Operating System is the underlying software that you interact with in order to perform tasks on the computer. There are four major players in the OS space:

  • Microsoft, and it’s Windows Operating System (if you work for a company that has computers, the chances are they use Windows)
  • Apple, and it’s OS X Operating System (which is likely what you use if you have a Macbook or other Apple computer)
  • Linux, with a variety of flavours of Operating System including Ubuntu, Debain, and RedHat (if you haven’t heard of these, don’t worry)
  • Google, with its ChromeOS Operating System, found on Chromebooks.

Broadly speaking, your budget for laptops will determine what OS you’re going to have. For the vast majority of the market, you’ll be looking at buying a laptop with Windows 10 pre-installed. The most likely exception to this is if you’re buying a Mac, in which case you’ll have the Apple environment installed.

What’s a Chromebook, and should I get one?

Chromebooks are Google’s answer to the question “all I need is to access my emails and watch a bit of Netflix, do I really need a £600 laptop?”

If that is literally all you need, then they make for a good option. They are light, fast, and keep themselves secure and up-to-date. If you’re familiar with the Google ecosystem (Gmail, Google Docs, etc), then they are great. (Personal note: I have one, and I really like it.)

But there are a number of things that Chromebooks are not good at. To understand why, there are two main things you need to know about Chromebooks. The first is that they need an internet connection to function properly (the advertising says you can work offline, but take it from me that this is, at best, an oversimplification). The second is that you can’t install applications on to them in the same way you can with a Windows or a Mac. That means that you can’t install Microsoft Office, or the Zoom app, for example. Google’s answer is that everything you can do in Microsoft Office can be done in the Google Suite, which is an entirely online product. That is technically true, but if your place of work, or your university, or your parents, use Microsoft Office, then you will have to do a little bit of legwork to interact with what they send you. (NOTE that this is gradually changing, as Google is allowing some Android apps to be installed on Chromebooks. I would say, however, that your milage is still going to vary quite a lot with this.)

The price of Chromebooks have also slowly increased, meaning that a Chromebook will set you back about the same as a low-end laptop. If you’re happy with predominantly using the Google Suite, and you don’t need applications installed (and, in the right cases, these are very good positions to be in), then the Chromebook may be the better option.