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Laptops: the lowdown before buying

Pandemic has reversed the phone-first trend as demand for laptops grows

It’s almost time to get back to school and college, which means you might be considering investing in a new laptop.

Despite predictions of their demise when tablets came on the scene, the laptop is still clinging to a sizeable market. Figures from research company IDC showed the computer market in general saw increases in the first quarter of the year, with desktops, notebooks, and workstations growing almost 56 per cent year on year, with a total of 84.3 million shipped. Out of that total, 63.2 million were notebooks.

IDC is expecting that to dip next year, but ultimately demand will stay strong for the next few years.

It has been helped in no small part by Covid-19 and the associated shutdowns, with the push to home working and education reversing the “phone first” trend that had been emerging.


But what do you need to consider when buying a laptop? Here are some suggestions to point you in the right direction.

Operating system

For most people, it will come down to one of two choices: Windows or Mac? The Microsoft versus Apple debate is one that has divided friends and split families, but ultimately, it will come down to individual preference and demands.

Microsoft’s Windows is undoubtedly the most popular operating system out there. There are around 1.3 billion devices running Windows 10 (and probably more still running on older versions of Windows). That means plenty of devices to choose from, and lots of software created to run on them.

To confuse matters, there are a few different versions of Windows 10. Windows 10 Home lacks a couple of security features, such as built in Bitlocker encryption, and some specific business management features that you get with Windows 10 Pro – they’re generally not vital for the average user.

Avoid Windows 10 Home S, unless you want to install only software that can be found in the Windows Store. You can switch to the full version of Windows 10 Home by changing a few settings, so skip the middleman and go for a device that runs the unrestricted version of Windows 10 out of the box.

One thing to note: Windows 11 is coming later this year. Most devices running Windows 10 should be capable of running the updated software, which will be available as a free upgrade on the machines, but it is a good idea to check before you buy.

Apple’s MacOS has plenty of advantages, especially if you are already using Apple devices. The ecosystem is well integrated, so your contacts from your iPhone will appear on your laptop, files can be transferred easily and the newest version of the software, MacOS 11 Big Sur, will more tightly integrate with your mobile apps and services. The soon to be released Mac OS 12 Monterey will take the mobile integration a step further.

Apple was traditionally the choice for designers, with software such as Photoshop optimised for use on the platform. You can do design work perfectly well on Windows PCs, but some people will always prefer to work with Macs.

There is also the security element to consider. The idea that Macs don’t get malware isn’t strictly true; they are capable of being infected, although they are generally considered less vulnerable and have some excellent built in security features to limit your exposure.

There is also significantly less malware out there to attack Macs than there is for Windows devices, just because of the sheer number of Windows devices.

The third option is a Chromebook. These devices are typically lower cost and are ideal for second level or college students. Available from a variety of manufacturers, they have a number of benefits, including being fast to use, security updates that run in the background and easy access to web services.

The one big drawback though is software. If you don’t need any proprietary software, and just want the laptop for word processing, the internet and other simple tasks, the Chromebook will do the job nicely. However, if you need something specific that isn’t available through Chrome’s web store, you are out of luck.


Do you want a two-in-one that doubles as a tablet, or a more traditional clamshell design? The latter are cheaper than a device that folds over or detaches to turn the screen into a tablet.

Having that flexibility can be handy if you think you’ll use it. If you don’t see yourself using your laptop as a tablet, skip the convertible option and go for a clamshell.

Most laptops these days come with touch screens, unless you are aiming at the lower end of the market or going for a Mac. There is currently no such thing as a touch screen Mac, with the closest Apple has come to it being the touchbar on some of its Macbook models.


When it comes to your laptop, size really does matter. How big you need to go will depend on what you want to use the device for.

Most laptops will come in around the 13 inch mark, which is a great middle ground between screen space and portability. You can carry out most tasks comfortably, from word processing and spreadsheets to some design and editing work.

If you want something ultra compact though, you might edge smaller. Beware though; a smaller laptop could mean a more cramped keyboard.

If you value screen space, whether it is for design work or simply watching Netflix, you could opt for a 15 inch or 17 inch device, giving you space to stretch out a bit.

But extra screen space means extra weight. If you plan on carting your laptop around with you, go for something lighter and more compact – the 11-13 inch devices are perfect. If it is going to be deskbound, you can opt for something bigger, or hedge your bets and invest in an external monitor.


Intel or AMD? Core i5 or Ryzen? Deciding what chip you should go for and what their strengths and weaknesses are feels like an impossible task at times. It is arguably the most important decision you'll make though.

The processor is the brains of your computer, and the better and more efficient it is, the more smoothly your laptop will run software.

There are several factors to consider here. First is clock speed, which is an indication of the speed of the chip that powers your laptop. Measured in Ghz, it indicates how many billions of cycles a second the central processing unit will run. For example, a 1.8Ghz chip will run 1.8 billion cycles per second.

Generally, the higher the clock speed the faster it runs, but bear in mind that newer chips may have a slower clock speed on paper but could be more efficient than previous generations of processors, and therefore faster.

You might see laptops with dual core chips, or quad cores. This essentially means that within the chip there are two or four parts of it carrying out processing work. That allows your computer to carry out multiple tasks at once.

So what should you choose?

For everyday use – watching videos, getting online, basic word processing – Intel Core i3 processors, AMD’s A4 and Ryzen 3 will work fine. The next step up is the Intel Core i5 or the Ryzen 5. More powerful than the previously mentioned chips, they can zip through daily tasks and carry out some design work and gaming.

At the top end of the scale, if you need real power, is the Ryzen 7, Core i7 and above, and the Intel Xeon processors.

These are ideal for users who need serious power for 3D rendering or computer aided design, or high end gamers. It may be overkill for writing up some schoolwork or doing online research, but if you plan on keeping your laptop for a few years, who knows what your demands will be.

Apple devices, meanwhile, are now switching over from Intel to M1 chips. The M1 is Apple’s own chip, designed from the ground up for its new generation of machines. It has an eight-core CPU, which covers four high performance cores and four high-efficiency cores, and allows the machines to run software faster, with less impact on battery life.


RAM stands for Random Access Memory, which acts as a sort of short term memory for your computer. As you ask your computer to perform tasks, it will store information in the RAM temporarily so it can access it quickly.

The more RAM you have, the more your computer can do at once; too little RAM in your machine and you will see your computer slow down. Most mid-range computers will have a minimum of 8GB of RAM; 16GB is better.

Power users may require more than that, but, for the average user 16GB should ensure your laptop stays running smoothly.


There are a few different technologies when it comes to computer storage. Hard disk drives (HDD) can offer vast storage for a reasonable price, but there are drawbacks. The spinning disks and moving parts inside the drives make them less reliable than solid state drives, and they are slower than their solid state counterparts.

In terms of size, 128GB will be fine for most people unless you are storing a lot of photos and video; 256GB is even better. If you are running low on space, cloud storage services can be a good place to offload files if necessary.

This article was amended on August 5th 2021