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A friend emailed me about buying a new computer. As I answered her questions, I began to realize just how much is involved in getting the right computer. Millions of people end up with the wrong computer. You hear people complaining all the time that their computer runs too hot, or it's not bright enough, or the speakers are tinny, or the screen doesn't fold back far enough.
Choosing the right laptop involves more than balancing cost against CPU, hard drive, and memory specifications. Are you someone who just enjoys Netflix, Facebook or YouTube? Or are you a writer, an artist, a musician, a chef, an athlete, a salesperson, a scientist, or a blogger? All these people have different laptop needs.
Do you want a computer that's ergonomically correct for who you are and what you do? You bet! You'll be spending hours on your computer, so you do want to make sure to get one that fits your needs and desires.
In this little book, I'm going to cover the basics you'd expect, such as: What exactly is memory, what does it do, and how much do you need? I'll also cover all the other stuff, because that's often more important than the technical specifications.
Then I'll leave you with a checklist and some in-store tests so you can come away with just the right computer.
The author's Toshiba laptop. Do you recognize the green text on the black background? That's the beginning of this very book, in HTML mode in the author's favorite old-fashioned word processor.
The reason I ask is because who you are, and what you do, is important in determining what kind of laptop computer is best for you.
You might be wondering whether a laptop is even the right choice. Let's look at the alternatives.
photo by EroticDesktops CC-BY-SA-3.0
You could get a desktop computer. They're cheaper than laptops, until you buy a monitor. With a monitor, they generally end up costing the same. They're slightly more powerful. For instance, at the time I'm writing this, it is hard to find a laptop with a two-terabyte drive, but you can have that in your desktop. If you are a programmer, artist, heavy gamer or serious video producer, then having the very most powerful technology may be important to you. However, it might be discouraging to note that today's best desktop computer will only be as powerful as a mid-price laptop next year and in eight years it won't be up to running the ordinary software of the day. You've probably heard of Moore's law. It states that the power of technology doubles every eighteen months. So, if a high-end laptop computer comes with eight gigabytes of memory this year, then in a year and a half, the average will probably be sixteen gigabytes. Just like a year and a half ago, four gigabytes was what you found in high-end laptops.
The desktop computer is more configurable. They are easy to open, and you can buy different components to put inside them. Funny thing about that: No one ever does. Twenty years ago, people were always fiddling around inside their computers. But these days, the computers are so well configured in the first place, there's not much customizing that anyone would want to do.
USB ports changed all that. Everything that you might have added into a computer in the past can be simply plugged into your laptop now.
So, the desktop may be a bit less expensive if you already have a monitor, or if you were going to buy an external monitor for your laptop, and it might be a bit more powerful, but it has some significant downsides.
The biggest problem is ergonomic. For those who don't know, 'computer ergonomics' is the study of the human body in relation to computers. Poor ergoromics would have you slouching in a bad chair that hurts your back, while you damage your wrist with a wonky mouse, while looking at a monitor in a place that hurts your neck.
A desktop computer gives you a rather limited range of ergonomic adjustment. There it is on the desk, and you always have to sit there. With a good chair, desk at the right height, good keyboard and all that, it can be fine. But I've always thought it is better to get up and move around from time to time. Right now, I'm sitting at a table in my office that doubles as a workbench. It is lower than my desk by an inch. I've rolled up my office chair, which is currently set somewhat high. A little earlier, I was laid back in a recliner with the laptop on my lap. In a few minutes, I'm going to place the laptop on a box on the table, and work standing up. Then, I'll probably connect it to my monitor, keyboard and trackball, and use it on my desk with my chair lowered and rolled farther back. Every twenty minutes or so, I get up and juggle three bean bags, or stare out the window, or just walk around and stretch. But taking care of yourself is the subject of another book.
So, the desktop computer might not allow you to take care of yourself quite so well with such a variety of positions. Remember, with a laptop, the positions can include under a shade tree, in the coffee shop, at the library, in your bedroom - you get the idea.
The desktop computer uses more energy. They have big power supplies and big fans. This stuff is not needed. The desktop computer with the same CPU speed and all that could be more efficient, but since there's room in the case, they tend to overdo it with power supply and cooling equipment, harking back to the days when some people added all sorts of potentially energy-sucking and heat-generating equipment inside their computers.
Most desktop computers make more fan noise that laptops. And you can't take it to the coffee shop. Well you can, but it might be a bit bothersome for the other patrons as you set it all up on one of those little round tables.
Finally, the desktop is more susceptible to power fluctuations. If the power goes out for even a split second, any work you haven't recently saved is lost, and the computer will go through a complete reboot. You can fix that problem with a USP (Uninterruptable Power Supply), which is box containing a big battery and some circuitry, but that costs more money, typically another hundred bucks. The laptop already has a built in battery and doesn't care a bit if the power goes out.
The one remaining consideration is CPU speed. For most applications, that's not a bottleneck, but if you're doing heavy video editing or running lot of concurrent operations, you can get a dsekcop computer with many CPU cores, whereas laptops are generally limited to 4 cores, currently.
photo by Intel Free Press CC-BY-SA-2.0
On the other end of the spectrum we have Android and iPad tablets. They've become very popular, and depending on who you are, and what you do, a tablet may be the answer for you. They have the advantage of extreme portability. Whereas some laptops have ten and twelve hour battery life, most don't hold a charge for as long as a tablet. But the tablet also has some drawbacks:
The biggest drawbacks have to do with content creation. If you are a writer, musician, photographer, artist, or anyone who uses a computer to create things, the tablet will probably frustrate you. They have what's called a 'soft' keyboard. This is a keyboard that's displayed on the screen. The keys are virtual. When you touch a key on the screen, it is the same as pressing an actual key. Except you can't feel it. So this would drive a touch typist crazy. You can't feel the home keys. But even if you're not a touch typist, and most of us aren't, you can't quite tell when you've entered a character, and when you haven't. You can turn on an audible key click feature, but it still is not as good as feeling actual key action. So you have to watch out for touching the screen inadvertently. And, the goofy soft keyboard covers half of your surface, so it is hard to use your software when you're entering text. Android and iOS have made great strides in making this better, and you can download a variety of soft keyboards, but it is just not like using a real keyboard.
Now, you can get a real ('hard') keyboard for your tablet. You can get a little case that holds the keyboard and the tablet together. But then you have a laptop, don't you? Well not quite, since it doesn't have hinges. Try putting a floppy keyboard in its case with the tablet in your lap sometime. You'll find it awkward. So if you're thing involves a lot of text entry, which most content creation does require, the tablet may not be the right solution. For instance, a photographer has to name all of the photos, create folders for them, and so on. The photo editor has to select settings for photo enhancements, and probably has to fill out documentation.
The one exception for content creation and tablet use may be digital art. There are a few programs available, such as the Android version of the free program Gimp, that allow you to create and modify wonderful imagery, all with your index finger. Even still, you won't get the editing power, filters, and refinements that you'd have in a Windows or Mac program such as Corel Draw or Adobe Photoshop.
What if you wanted to have the portability, and (OK, I'll admit it), the coolness of a tablet, but need a hard keyboard and the power of Windows? Then you want a 'convertible tablet.' These are sets that consist of a tablet that has a real hard drive and enough power to run Windows, but come with an attachable keyboard and touchpad. So, you can take just the tablet when all you want to do is browse the web, watch a movie, or show slides to a friend or client. Then, when you're doing creation work, you pop the tablet onto the keyboard and there's your laptop. They tend to run a few hundred dollars more than a normal laptop. The screens are usually smaller, although they can be had up to 13 inches, and the keyboards may feel a bit confined to a serious typist. These really qualify as laptops, and so this book is about those too. The Microsoft Edge is a good example. Many, such as the HP Slatebook have a normal battery in the tablet, plus another battery in the keyboard, for a very long battery life.
photo by Marcus Wanner CC-BY-SA-3.0
There is no clear definition of a netbook. In general, it is a small laptop that does not have an optical (DVD) drive. From approximately 2005 until 2012, they were very popular. They seemed to answer to a need for a very portable and inexpensive laptop, one that could easily be put in a backpack or under a car seat.
You might want to be sure to avoid the nine- and ten-inch netbooks. Most had slow CPUs, not enough memory, keyboards that were just a bit too small, and terribly small screens. The problem with the screens is that the resolution was only 1024 pixels (dots) wide, and 600 tall. Many websites aren't designed to show up in such a small window, and so you'd have to scroll all over the place to make use of these websites. In tablets, and smartphones which have even smaller screens, the problem is eliminated because you can pinch or unpinch to zoom web pages to the size you want, seeing the whole page, or zooming in on a portion so you can read it. The netbooks couldn't do that.
You can still get ten-inch netbooks. You can also get 11.6-inch netbooks. These are much better. They generally have more memory, faster CPUs, and screens with a more appropriate resolution. On these second-generation 11.6' netbooks (actually third-generation), the keyboards are just enough bigger to satisfy a touch typist. So, a modern netbook might be just the right answer for a writer who doesn't need to focus much on graphics, animations or sound, but wants something that's super easy to carry, and on which one can enter text without difficulty.
So who are you? If you use your computer for Netflix movies, then any modern laptop will do. However, you might like a large screen and good speakers.
If you browse the web, you might like a touchscreen, or at least a laptop with a multi-touch touchpad, which most have these days, so you can easily zoom text and images for better viewing, and so you can easily click among links by just tapping your finger.
Do you like to travel? If you're always riding on airplanes or on your bike, then getting a small, slim unit might be important. You might like a MacBook Air or an HP EliteBook. You might prefer an 11-inch or 13-inch screen so you can easily carry your laptop, rather than a big 15" or 17" laptop.
Do you have to make presentations to individual clients or small groups? Then you might prefer a larger screen so you don't have to hook up an external monitor. You might also like to consider a laptop in which you can change the battery without tools, and carry a spare battery, so you'll never miss a chance to present because you ran out of steam.
Here too, a touchscreen is a nice feature, since you, and your clients, can touch the screen to control the presentation. If you're doing something involving images or maps, the touchscreen can be remarkably useful in scrolling around and zooming. An old-schooler, who has been brought up on laptops before touchscreens can do all that on the touchpad, and will probably find herself using the touchpad and not the touchscreen.
Do you do a lot of recording involving sound? Then maybe the computer doesn't have to be large, but it has to be quiet.
Are you a writer? Then you'll want the keyboard to feel right for you.
More about all these details as we progress through this book.
Your computer's CPU is the Central Processing Unit, a computer chip through which almost every bit of information and programming flows. It might seem that pressing the [a] key on your keyboard is a single operation. In fact, it results in more than a thousand individual instructions. The computer compares what you pressed to possibilities within your word processing program. It checks the current font and color and then consults a map that shows it how to construct an 'a' on the screen. It calculates where the 'a' should fit within your text, and then translates that to where it will go on the screen. It then sends instructions to light up the dots on the screen corresponding to the 'a' in the right location. It is still not done. It looks into a large file of spelling possibilities checking whether what you have typed is a complete word, and whether it matches something in the file. While this is happening, you might have a YouTube music video running in a little window off to the side, your clock's time is being updated, and your virus software may be exploring your hard drive for new files in the background. You can imagine then, that a slow CPU will make the entire computer slow.
Computers run dozens of tasks in the background and foreground. Each operation is broken into threads. A thread might be thought of as a sub-program, with a specific operation to perform. For instance, while you're word processor is checking spelling in one thread, your CPU is updating the clock in another, and another thread is updating an animation in a browser window, and another is checking for viruses. You typically have thirty or more threads running. In the past, all the threads were divided up and fed through the CPU one little bit at a time. It is like speaking when you're defocused. You can talk about two subjects at once, but only if you spend a few words on one thing, then a few words about the other, then talk about the first again, and so on. Not terribly efficient. With two cores (called a 'dual-core' CPU) one or more of the heaviest threads can be handled in a separate core, while the other handles the remaining threads. That is, if the operating system is efficient at dividing up the tasks. With a quad-core system, there are more cores to handle the threads. Because some processing power has to be used to decide which threads are handled by which cores, and because software and operating systems are not always good at managing that task, and because some software simply deploys more threads if it can, you don't necessarily get a two-fold increase in speed every time you double the amount of cores.
Still, having a quad-core system is better than dual-core. In the next few years, we'll see more and more computers with 8, 16, 32 and more cores. That becomes what is called parallel processing. Within a decade or so, we'll see computers, smartphones and such devices with perhaps 640,000 cores. Then things will get interesting! This author believes the computers will soon be smarter than we are. Already, memory can be stored more compactly, and more accurately than in our brains. It has been estimated that the human brain holds the equivalent of eleven terabytes of information. Four three-terabyte drives take up about as much space as a slice of bread.
The way speeds of CPUs are rated these days is confusing. AMD uses one system, Intel another. In fact even between models of CPUs the speed ratings vary. An Atom processor running at 1.6 GHz is much slower than an i5 running at 1.4 GHz. In most cases, I'd look for something of 1.8 GHz or greater. The Intel i5 and i7 CPUs are well regarded, as is the AMD A6.
Much like high-end bicycles, cameras or musical instruments, as you spend more money beyond a certain point, what you get in return diminishes. For those who want maximum performance, there is a trade-off in addition to cost. The most powerful CPUs run hotter. This can mean than the fan in your laptop will be louder, the battery will drain faster, or the whole laptop may become hotter. For instance, some of the first generation MacBook Pros would run so hot you couldn't comfortably hold them in your lap.
On most computers, the biggest bottleneck isn't the CPU speed, unless you buy a computer with a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor. Watch out for those. They're unaccountably slow. Or at least the computers I've seen with those are slow. They're most often found in the nine and ten-inch netbooks.
Memory can be one of the greater bottlenecks in the speed of a laptop. Memory, also known as RAM ("Random Access Memory") is a temporary scratchpad. The computer needs a certain amount of memory to store your spelling check information, images - such as the next frames in an animation, windows running in the background, music, and so on. Common software, such as Internet Explorer, and Microsoft Word have come to depend on lots of memory. If you don't have enough, then the overflow is put on the hard drive, which takes time, and takes more time to retrieve from the hard drive as needed. One of the best improvements you can make to many slow laptops is to add more memory.
So how much memory should you get? As much as you can afford. But how much is enough? 4 GB, on a clean system will work for pretty much anything. For instance, running Netflix, which is an intense application, will work fine on a dual-core system with 4 GB of memory.
Most of the time, you won't see a performance improvement with 6 GB or 8 GB of memory. For Netflix, Microsoft Word, YouTube or any such heavy application, running by itself, 4 GB is fine. It's when you have several applications running at once that it becomes important. For instance, if you have Netflix running in one window, Open Office with a large spreadsheet in another, a music editing program in yet another, and perhaps a few more windows, then, 4 GB will slow to a crawl. With modern operating systems, people tend to forget that windows in the background are still running. For any average home user 6 GB of memory is fine, and 8 GB is great. If you happen to run Windows on a Mac using VirtualBox or Parallels, then you'll want 8 GB or more.
When scrapping old computers, some people worry that if their memory gets into the wrong hands, disreputable people could recover sensitive information. Not true. When you turn off your computer, all information in the memory is completely gone. Your hard drive, on the other hand, will contain all your information.
The hard drive is a device that stores your information. When you save music, text, pictures, videos, spreadsheets, passwords, programs or whatever on your computer, that's where they are.
In laptop computers hard drives are 2.5 inches or 1.8 inches in diameter. But people always want to know how 'big' a hard drive is. What is that about? They're talking about how much it can store. The measurement is in gigabytes (GB), A gigabyte is a billion bytes. A byte can store a single small chunk of information, such as 'p' or '47,' or how blue a dot on the screen is. With enough chunks, you can build a file, such as a picture, sound, or video.
So how big? A typical picture is one megabyte. That's a million bytes. So one gigabyte will hold 1,000 typical pictures. A three or four minute music file is around two megabytes, so 500 musical selections per gigabyte. A video runs about one or two megabytes per minute, so a typical movie is around 300 megabytes, or three feature length movies per gigabyte. The operating system, and the software that comes with your computer will occupy from around 30 to 100 gigabytes depending on many factors, including the size of the hard drive. Most computers also reserve some space, typically around 30 GB, for a complete backup of the original factory software and settings. You can figure, in very round terms, than 1/4 of your hard drive will already be full when you get it.
Looking at that another way, if you get a computer with a 400 GB hard drive, then you'll have 300 GB in which to store your stuff. That would be 300,000 pictures, or 150,000 songs, or 900 movies. If that's not enough for you, get a bigger hard drive. Or, consider external storage. You can plug an external hard drive or flash drive into your USB port, store stuff on the Internet ("in the cloud" such as with Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Drive), or get a memory card.
If you get a convertible tablet or ultrabook with a smaller SSD, which we'll talk about in a minute, your storage may be limited to 64 GB. So, shortcutting all the math, you could store 48,000 pictures or 24,000 songs or 132 movies.
In the early days of home computers, hard drives that could hold 20 megabytes (not gigabytes) were common. But then, people didn't generally work with sounds or pictures. Just text and numerical data. You could write a large book in two megabytes, and we thought that was just great at the time.
The standard hard drive is a set of spinning plates full of magnetic spots. To get something from the hard drive tiny electromagnetic coils on arms hover over the spinning plates, and read the magnetic spots, converting them into electric signals. To write to the hard drive, the electrical signals magnetize or demagnetize spots as they fly by.
So with spinning plates and moveable magnets hovering over them, you can imagine two problems:
First, being composed of moving parts, a hard drive can fail.
The other problem is that it takes a bit of time for the data you want to spin around to where it can be read by the magnetic coils. The hard drives spin at over 5,000 RPM, but waiting 1/5,000 of a minute is very slow in computer terms.
The hard drives have a trick called caching, in which they guess which data you'll want next and pre-read it into memory, so you don't always have to wait 1/5,000 of a minute for every little tiny thing, and there are tens of thousands of these little things in even the simplest operation, such as storing a spreadsheet. Caching has become remarkably efficient, but is not ideal.
What would be ideal is a hard drive that doesn't have any moving parts. What if it could be like memory, providing the data you want instantly? For a long time, people couldn't figure out how to make memory keep its information when the power is shut off. Now, they have figured that out, and so they can make hard drives out of a type of non-volatile RAM. These are called SSD or "Solid State Drives." So far, they cost more, but they are a bit faster, occasionally much faster, and they are reported to be more reliable. I actually had an SSD, made by IBM Corporation, fail on me. Go figure!
SSD drives (I know, technically "SSDs" since since "drive" is redundant), don't use as much battery, they don't throw off any where near as much heat (although the most heat comes from the CPU), and they can survive being dropped or thrown around much better. So yes, if you can afford an SSD, get it! The place where you notice an SSD the most is in opening applications that haven't been opened recently. For instance, if you reboot your computer (which is also much faster), and then open Microsoft Word or Firefox, on a regular hard drive, you'd have to wait several seconds. With an SSD, it might take one second. The SSD is also dead quiet. No spinning or clicking noise.
The way you can save on an SSD is by getting a smaller one. A 64 GB SSD costs about the same as a 600 GB conventional spinning hard drive. But you limit your storage capacity. For most people, the limitation is almost theoretical, since you can store thousands of text files, pictures, and sounds on even the smallest drives. Unless you are a runaway collector of music, or unless you want to keep copies of all your favorite movies on your hard drive, you probably won't need a large drive. You can verify this by looking at your current computer. How big is the hard drive? How much of it is full?
Between approximately 2010 and 2013, hybrid drives were popular. Although still a good idea, they seem to have fallen out of favor, probably due to cost and only a slight improvement in performance. These were a conventional spinning drive combined with a small SSD. There were two flavors of hybrid drives. In one, you could choose to store some files on the SSD, and others on the conventional drive. The more common flavor takes care of business automatically by guessing what you'll want and when you'll want it. In the background, the hybrid drive moves things to the SSD that you're most likely to access.
CPU, memory and hard drive size are the specifications most people pay attention to in buying a computer. Interestingly, as long as you are not a power user, the most basic laptop will probably provide enough in CPU speed, memory and hard drive size. On the other hand, if you forget to notice one of the following factors, you may end up with a computer that is not as satisfying as you'd like.
Screen size: If you have vision problems, you may prefer a larger screen, so you can have bigger text, and pictures will be easier to see. If you like a lot of data all in one view, a large screen makes sense. For instance, as I'm writing this book, I'm using a 17" Toshiba Windows 10 laptop and I have my word processor window open on the left, and a web browser on the right so I can look up details.
If I were using my 13" MacBook Air, which I often do when I work outside the office, I'd have the same two windows open, but they'd overlap. So, to look something up, I'd click on the right edge to bring the web browser to the foreground, then I'd click at the left edge to get back to my word processor. No big deal.
Jeff's MacBook Air
Early laptops had matte (dull surface) screens. Then, around 2000, they started switching to glossy screens. Now, there seems to be a trend moving slowly back to matte screens. What's the deal? The glossy screens seem to give a crisper, brighter image. During the time glossy screens were popular, their popularity created more popularity. How could you, as a hip and self-respecting individual have a matte screen, when all your friends had switched to glossy? But there is a flaw with glossy screens: They reflect light from what's behind you. So, if you try to use your glossy screen laptop with a lamp or open window in the background, it is hard to see what's on the screen.
But there's more to screens than just size and surface texture. I really like the MacBook Air because its screen is bright and can be seen at a wide variety of angles. That computer is actually remarkable because the screen can even be seen when the computer is in sunlight. So far, few computers can do this, but more are becoming bright enough to be seen outdoors.
The screens on most new laptops have what's known as LED (Light Emitting Diode) technology. Each pixel (dot) on the screen is its own lightbulb. Previous screens used LCD (Liquid Crystal Display) which changed the screen reflectivity, but depended on a little fluorescent light inside to light the screen up. You'll want to avoid any laptop that doesn't have LED, since it won't be as bright and crisp.
I don't like my Toshiba outside the office because the screen is not viewable at wide angles. Oh, it's OK from right to left, but if I tilt the screen too far forward or back, the dark areas of the screen wash out. They look shadowy.
On the other hand sometimes the MacBook Air bothers me because the screen won't tilt back just quite far enough. Sometimes I kind of hover over my laptops when sitting at a desk, and the MacBook Air doesn't work well in that position.
Some people will hook up their laptops to an external monitor, keyboard and mouse, and so then it really doesn't matter what screen size they have, unless they use their laptop as a second screen at the same time.
I have a MacBook Pro that I haven't opened in weeks. It is hooked up to a screen, keyboard, trackball, and speakers.
Jeff's MacBook Pro. It's an older model no longer available.
Speakers: There is no way to quantify speaker quality. Brand name doesn't seem to matter. In some laptops, the speakers are tinny, like a transistor radio from 1969, and others are surprising in their quality. If only you could take these computers apart before you buy them and look inside. In general, larger speakers are going to sound better. The computer manufacturers try all sorts of tricks to coax out better sound, such as adding large resonance chambers to little speakers. You'll almost always find better sound coming from a larger laptop compared to a small tablet or netbook. The only way to be sure your speakers will be satisfactory is to compare them in a store. Try the same sound file on several laptops, keeping in mind that the store environment will be a lot different (generally noisier) than the real world where you'll be trying to listen to Miley Cyrus, the Boston Symphony, or Bruce Springstein. Or, you may prefer listening to speech, such as YouTube how-to presentations. This is where speakers can make a huge difference. If you depend on your laptop's built-in speakers for clearly understandable speech, make sure to test your laptop with speech before you commit to a purchase.
Optical drive: An optical drive, more often called a "DVD" drive, is not always included on the latest laptops, especially the netbooks and the super-thin laptops, called "ultrabooks." If you have occasional DVD movies, CD music, or software on optical disks, not all is lost. You can buy a DVD drive that plugs into a USB port for around $50. If you must have a DVD drive built into your laptop, it will weigh more and be thicker. Many drives have Blu-Ray technology. This is a slightly higher quality video recording system. You can't play a Blu-Ray disk in a non-Blu-Ray drive. Your author believes that Blu-Ray is a flash in the pan. It may be long forgotten a few years from now.
You can also get optical drives that have LightScribe or similar technology. With this, your computer can print labels on CDs and DVDs. This is better-looking than hand-labeled disks, and easier to do than printing labels and sticking them on the disks. The labels created by the drives are one color and low contrast, but can look quite professional.
If you're testing a laptop's optical drive and it makes a horrible racket, the problem may not be the drive. You may have a disk with a label that's out of balance. Try another disk. And, try your out-of-balance disk to see how noisy it is in other computers you're considering.
WiFi: WiFi, also known as "wireless" or sometimes "WLAN," allows you to communicate on the Internet, and optionally send files to printers and other nearby computers. All modern laptops, tablets and smartphones have this. You may have noticed that there are variations, known as 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n. Pretty much all routers and other WiFi devices can automatically downshift if you have an older computer that receives only 802.11b. Most modern computers have at least 802.11g, and many have 802.11n. "N" is considerably faster, but the problem is that the connection between your computer and a router or other devices is seldom the bottleneck. Most of the time if Internet reception is slow, it is due to the connection from the Internet to your home or office, or what's happening on the servers that provide the websites you want.
On the other hand, WiFi is quite limited in range. Anything more than about 60 feet (20 meters) from the source, and WiFi starts to get spotty. 802.11n increases the range a little bit.
Some laptops have better WiFi antennae than others. Testing whether a prospective laptop has a good WiFi antenna is nearly impossible in a store, and entirely undocumented on the Internet. Having been inside well over a thousand laptops of all brands imaginable, I can offer some general information:
Netbooks once again come out weak in this comparison. Many have a single lead antenna rather than a double, although they still work just fine as long as the WiFi device with which they are communicating is close by. The MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models have antennae at the bottom of the screen between the hinges. It would be better if the antennae were at the top of the screen, as they are in almost all other laptops.
If WiFi reception is a problem, you'll probably find it better to relocate your router, get a WiFi repeater, or maybe even use a standard Ethernet cable.
Some of the latest computers, and all tablets, don't have Ethernet (network cable) connections. They just assume WiFi is ubiquitous. You can buy an Ethernet connector that plugs into a USB port if needed.
Ports: Some computers are bristling with connections, called ports, and others have relatively few. In most cases almost everything connects with a USB 2.0 connection these days. Computers are now coming out with USB 3.0, which is faster, but it makes little difference, since USB 2.0 is fast enough for almost everything, and few peripherals (accessories) require USB 3.0. But at some point in the future more accessories may be made that require USB 3.0. USB 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0, ports all look the same. They are backward compatible. You can plug any USB 1.0 peripheral into a USB 2.0 port. The reason you don't need many ports on your computer is that for $10 or so, you can get a USB hub. This little device allows you to plug multiple peripherals into one port. A few peripherals take power from the port for there own uses, such as to recharge batteries, or spin a drive. If they require a lot of energy, they can't be run from a standard USB hub. In that case, you need to plug them directly into your computer, or get a powered USB hub. USB ports can take any of several shapes. Cables and adapters are available to convert from one shape to another. For instance, your digital camera may use Mini USB and your cellphone may use Micro USB.
Cooling: The worst case scenario in cooling is a laptop that just doesn't stay cool enough to work right. These will typically just quit after running an hour or so. If you're lucky, they start up again when they've cooled. But at some point, they may never start again. Fortunately, this is a situation that is rare these days. If it happens to your new computer, it will happen within the warranty period. And, if it does happen, don't exchange it for another computer of the same model, since you'll have the same problem. It can happen to older computers too, but that's because the cooling fins become clogged with dust. A low-pressure puff of compressed air fixes the problem.
Others run so hot that you don't want to handle them, especially for hours at a time. You can test these situations in a computer store. The computers on display are running all day long. All you have to do is lift them up and feel the bottoms, and the palmrest areas. Yet others make too much fan noise. If a computer's fan is running, you can listen in the store. Keep in mind that some have variable speed fans. And, stores are noisier than your home (hopefully). So you might not hear a fan in a store that will drive you crazy once you get the computer home.
Return policy: Therefore, you should investigate the store's return policy. If they are willing to accept returns unconditionally, with no restocking fee, you're pretty safe. Keep in mind that you may have invested time into installing software and getting used to your new computer, only to end up turning it in and getting something else. While you're at it, investigate the store's support policy. Most computer manufacturers offer a toll-free phone number you can call for help. But, you'll find it is very nice if there is a knowledgeable salesperson in the store who can help you figure out why you can't get Open Office to install correctly, or something like that. The problem with some salespeople is that they are opinionated. Take everything they say with several grains of salt. When they are selling you a computer, let it all fly out the window. Only use what you have read in this book, and what you find on the Internet (verified from several websites) to influence your buying decision. I have overheard terrible lies, and just plain stupidity coming from some computer sales people. Here's one: "If you don't keep your printer plugged in, your computer will reboot overnight, every night, and you'll lose all your data." Some computer salespeople are remarkably honest and well-informed, but since you can't know who's who, it is best to dismiss everything they tell you.
Buying a new computer online is risky. Oh, the companies won't just steal your money, and if they do, PayPal or your credit card company insures the transaction in most cases. But the online sellers can be horribly slow in refunding or in taking care of warranty service. They can string you along for three weeks before they tell you what you ordered is out of stock. They can sell you one model, but you receive another. So, if you can find an equivalent deal in a local store, even if you have to pay a bit more, it will be worthwhile.
In most cases, you should avoid buying "new" or "almost-new" computers on eBay unless the deal is very good and everything that you can investigate checks out. The seller's feedback ought to be good, like 99.5% or better. You might try communicating with the seller a bit before the sale and see whether the seller replies quickly and honestly. Again, you won't usually just lose all your money. eBay has some wonderful policies in place to protect you. But you can be hassled and delayed quite a while if a seller pulls something.
Webcam: For Skype and other video conferencing purposes, the most minimal webcams are totally sufficient in terms of resolution and quality. If you are a power user, or doing something more video-demanding, then you'll probably want to use an external webcam even though you have one built into your computer. One of the problems with most laptops is that you can't aim the webcam exactly where you want it. In order to see the screen clearly, you end up showing a video of the top of your head, or everything from your chin down to your chest. A few laptops have been made in which you can swivel the webcam up and down.
Microphone: Most internal microphones are horrible, plus they pick up the vibration and noise of the fan or hard drive. If you are serious about sound recording, then an external microphone will be much better. There are some users who use Skype or similar software with their built-in microphones, and most microphones do work at least sufficiently. It's kind of like a cell phone. If you think about it, the quality of most calls is pretty low, but we put up with cell phones for their convenience. Some laptops have stereo microphones, and some have just a single mono microphone. Since the stereo mics are close together and not tuned for direction, it makes little difference.
Battery: It would be pretty difficult to determine battery life in a store. In some places, you can get an estimate of battery life from the specification charts in the store. Or, you can check online. Almost every laptop is reviewed online. Just enter the model plus "reveiw" into your favorite search engine. You may have seen those square QR Code or Data Matrix codes in the store next to the laptops. You can download QR Droid for your Android phone, or QR Reader for your iPhone, aim it at the code, and in a moment, you'll be taken to additional information about the computer. There, you may find the factory estimate of battery life. The reviews by actual end users are probably more accurate in aggregate, but individuals are likely to say anything. In general, just like mileage ratings for cars, battery life is around 2/3 of what the manufacturer will claim.
Battery technology has improved considerably in recent years, but I still don't trust them. It is better to have a laptop in which you can easily change the battery without tools, since a year or two down the line, you may need to replace the battery.
Here's a weird consideration: Some laptops are hard to open. Some have a latch that may be awkward, but most are magnetic or have hinges with detents in the closed position. The problem with some is that there is no good place to put your thumb or fingers along the front edge to get it to open up.
Laptops can have other casing, often called "plastics," issues. Consider how easy it will be to keep your laptop clean and scratch free. Obviously white and light colored ones will fare worse, unless you buy a protective covering. This is especially true of light-colored keyboards. Plastic casings are generally lighter in weight and more impact resistant than aluminum or titanium casings. The metal casings that Apple uses for their Mac line are prone to denting. The metal casings that some other companies use are prone to cracking. Plastics have improved tremendously. If you're old enough, you might remember a time when if you dropped your TV remote on the floor, it would break. Guaranteed. Now, they just bounce. Well, laptops are heavier and more fragile, but the plastic casings can survive reasonable torture.
You would think that the metal casings would protect you better from electromagnetic radiation. Do we need protection from that? Some scientists and medical professionals think so. Many others don't think so. But wouldn't you rather avoid taking the gamble if you can? Well, it turns out even the plastic laptops are metal shielded. They have thin layers of aluminum inside, or the plastic is coated with metal. This isn't for your health. It is because the United States Federal Communications Commission, and similar agencies in other countries, want to reduce electrical interference in radio signals, and so regulate how much electrical noise can penetrate from computers.
I have tested some laptops with a basic electromagnetic field detector. The general rule is that anything over 1.5 milligauss is considered dangerous. Actually, it is more complicated than that, since steady frequencies in certain ranges may be thousands of times more harmful than others. The craziest range is 2.4 gigahertz. This is the natural resonance of water. Microwaves leverage this by magnetizing food at 2.4 GHz. That makes the water molecules jiggle back and forth so fast that heat is generated within the food. If you put yourself in a microwave oven, even a low-powered one, what do you suppose would happen? What if you were exposed to that 2.4 GHz field for hours a day, days on end?
Guess what? 2.4 GHz is one of the frequencies often used for WiFi, cell phones, and cordless phones. It's a bit off-topic to discuss why, but I'll bet you're wondering. I've been told by an electrical engineer that microwave oven manufacturers were the first to work out all the details in tuning electromagnetic radiation. Rather than doing all the research from scratch in other frequencies, manufacturers in other fields have simply reused 2.4 GHz data for their devices. On top of that the US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has left the 2.4 GHz range open, so licensing is not required to use it.
Of course in this book, we're concerned with the WiFi in the case of laptops. And sure enough, when I used my little meter, the WiFi antennae area of most laptops was the 'hottest' spot, followed by the CPU, and the area around the hard drive. Almost all laptops are about the same. The WiFi antenna is usually at the top of the lid, except in the entire MacBook line, where it is at the bottom of the screen. The CPU is generally under the keyboard, and the hard drive is under the palmrest. My meter was not sophisticated enough to distinguish frequencies. It could only tell me that an inch away from these three areas generated between one and three milligauss.
If you are concerned about electromagnetic radiation, you'll be happy to know that if you connect your laptop to an external keyboard and mouse, you can stay well away from the radiation. Radiation strength falls off by the square of the distance, so when you are two inches away, you get less radiation, and at four inches, much less. With my meter, I could detect no radiation eight inches away.
Another thing you might consider is outgassing. Some new computers stink! Oh, after a year or so, the chemical smell is reduced. Will this bother you? This too, is something you can check in the store. If this is a big issue for you, or if you want to protect the environment by buying a computer with as little toxic impact as possible, you might investigate the Apple MacIntosh ("Mac") line. That company is committed to avoiding as much chemically stuff as possible in their machines.
If you are a touch typist, you might take a look at the keyboard layout and feel. Or more specifically, type some stuff on the keyboard and see what happens. For instance, the [Alt] and [Ctrl] keys may be reversed. How long will it take you to get used to that? For some people, even changes in what the function keys do takes getting used to. On the computers that I use most, I can instantly change volume or mute the speakers, and change screen brightness without even looking at the keyboard. Apple is consistent about keyboard layout from one model to another.
One of the biggest things that happens to laptops is that people trip over the cord or the cord gets pulled for one reason or another resulting in damage. See if the computer you're looking at has some sort of safety mechanism for this. Most don't. Apple has handled it nicely with a system they call MagSafe. The power cord does not plug into a hole. Instead it is held in place with a magnet. If the cord is bumped, the cord detaches harmlessly.
The operating systems with which laptops are supplied come in five flavors.
Android: Laptops that run Android are usually low-end netbooks and convertible tablets - tablets that come with attachable keyboards and touchpads. Android is easy-to-use, well-supported, and runs quickly and reliably. Android does have some drawbacks. The main drawback is that it doesn't run Windows or Mac programs. If you want to do something special that can't be done in a web browser window, you generally get it from Google Play - the Android app store. There are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of programs in the store, many of which are free or low-cost. If you do a lot of work with text, you'll find that highlighting, cutting, copying and pasting is slower than with other operating systems. You cannot upgrade an Android computer to Windows, Linux or OS/X, the Mac operating system. Android does not run Java applets within websites. Java is a programming language, a whole system really, that is not much used anymore in web pages, but you may run into it occasionally such as the US government official clock.
Chrome: Five manufacturers are licensed by Google to make ChromeBooks. These are thin, light, low-cost laptops with the "Chrome" operating system. These are essentially web browsers. The idea is that everything you do on a ChromeBook is done within the browser. As long as you are connected to the Internet via WiFi, that's not so bad. You can do word processing through Google docs, handle spreadsheets, and there are millions of web pages dedicated to special tasks. But you cannot run Windows or OS/X programs, and you can't upgrade a ChromeBook to any other operating system. Occasionally, you'll run into a roadblock. For instance, as of this writing, you can't upload pictures to eBay with a Chromebook.
Linux: Linux is a free operating system made entirely by volunteers. Thousands of people have contributed bits and pieces to make Linux robust and flexible. You can replace the operating system on your Mac or Windows computer with Linux, and a few manufacturers make new laptops that come with Linux pre-installed. Linux uses Firefox as its primary web browser which is fully-functional. Pretty much any website in the world, no matter how complex or bizarre, will run well in Firefox. Firefox is also available as a free download for Android, OS/X and Windows. The problem with Linux is that it is fairly uncommon among laptop users. It is harder to find understandable documentation and support for Linux, and harder to find specialized programs and drivers that run in Linux. For instance, if you buy a new printer, it will work fine with OS/X and Windows, but you may have trouble getting it to work right, or at all, with Linux.
Windows: A computer that runs Microsoft Windows is usually called a "PC" or "Windows computer." Windows is the most common operating system, and therefore the easiest to get support from friends and professionals. More specialized software exists for Windows than any other operating system. Microsoft has gone to great lengths to make Windows suit everyone's uses. If you have trouble seeing, can't hear well, can only use one hand, and so on, Windows has features to make your life easier. If you are running a server, a numerically-controlled machine, or anything from a netbook to a super-computer, Windows has the features you need. The downside of all this support is that it is bulky, cumbersome, and sometimes hard to figure out. It is also a pricey little devil. Upgrades generally cost $90 or more. Windows probably generates more complaints than anything else in the computer world. Much of it is not justified. Much comes from days gone by. Windows is reliable, and once you figure out how to do the things you want to accomplish, it is a smooth-running system.
OS/X: Pronounced "oh ess ten,", OS/X is the operating system supplied with Mac computers, also known as MacIntosh and manufactured by Apple, so they are sometimes called Apple computers. In some ways OS/X is entirely different than Windows, but in many other ways it is almost exactly the same. With OS/X, you click on things to open, drag or answer them. You can click on a web browser and once the window is open, you do everything on the Internet just as you would in Windows. The most noticeable difference is there is no right mouse button. Instead, you hold down the [Ctrl] key, or tap the touchpad with two fingers if you want a context-sensitive menu. A context-sensitive menu is a collection of things you can do that are relative to the task at hand. OS/X has a reputation of being very reliable. It is also almost entirely immune from viruses. While the latest versions of Windows come with built-in virus protection, OS/X is less encumbered with the whole virus/malware problem. If you are used to Windows, then it may take you a week or two to get used to file management, using "Preferences" instead of "Control Panel" and so on. OS/X does have an equivalent to the whole Metro user interface (the opening screen with icons on the new versions of Windows), but it is not 'in your face' the way Windows is. Many people find this simplicity refreshing. As of 2006, Mac computers can also run Windows. Although installing Windows legally costs around $100, you can replace OS/X with Windows, or you can have it as an option. With software such as Parallels Desktop or VirtualBox, you can even run Windows and OS/X concurrently. You can do things like have a Windows program appear in a window within the OS/X desktop. Whereas upgrades to Windows cost $90 and more, the latest version of OS/X is a free upgrade. On the other hand, the Mac computer, whether new or used, tends to cost two to three times as much as a comparable Windows computer.
Buying a used laptop is an entirely different experience than buying a new one in a store. The usual sources are Craigslist and eBay. The biggest consideration is that you don't get much of a warranty with a used laptop, if at all. And they aren't as reliable as washing machines. In fact, they are about as reliable as used cars. Things can go wrong. So, if you buy a used laptop at all, it has to be a good enough deal to offset the gamble you're taking.
Used laptops are usually overpriced compared to what you're getting. You can get a typical used laptop for $250, yet a new one with more power and storage space is only $300. Sure, the $250 used laptop cost $700 when it was new, but it was technology from a few years ago. Remember Moore's Law: Speed and power in technology doubles every eighteen months. So if you buy a computer that's just three years old, it will be one-quarter as powerful as a new one. Would you save a mere $50 to take such a hit?
There is one huge advantage to buying a used computer. You are treading lighter on the earth. It turns out that manufacturing, packaging and shipping a new laptop is a toxic and energy-consuming operation. I've heard that to generate just one of the larger chips on the motherboard creates an eight-cubic-foot cloud of gallium arsenide gas. I don't know exactly what that is, but I believe it is very poisonous. Then too, the computer will be out-gassed. If you are concerned about the chemicals that leach into the air from a new computer, perhaps a used computer is a viable option.
The biggest trick in buying a used computer is not to need one immediately. If you can wait until the right deal comes along, you can sometimes score amazing buys. There are a few people who earn their livings from gleaning eBay and Craigslist ads, buying the occasional great deal, then reselling the computer on eBay or Craigslist.
Let's say you've decided to buy a used computer. Then here's what you'll want to know.
Make sure everything works. It is extremely common for the DVD player to quit working correctly. You may find that when you pivot the lid on the hinges the screen flickers indicating the electrical wires around the hinges are breaking.
If at all possible, run the computer for at least an hour. Sometimes they overheat and shut down.
Does every key on the keyboard work? Does the AC adapter (charger) come with the computer? Sometimes a late-model laptop being offered with with no AC adapter is a stolen computer.
Do you know the background of the computer? Some deals might seem particularly good, but that's because the computer was stolen. Imagine the sad 16-year-old who lost his or her cherished computer!
It is not uncommon for the webcam to quit working.
It is also not uncommon for the computer to smell strongly of cigarette smoke. This never fully dissipates, and bothers some people quite a bit.
The software, especially if it is Windows, could be damaged, or invaded by malware.
Just as with a used car, used laptops are often sold because there's something the owner never liked. Perhaps the keys are too hard to press, the screen isn't bright enough, the fan is too loud, etc. Sometimes, this can result in a great deal. For instance ChromeBooks with just an hour or less of use can be had for $100, because the owner wanted something more versatile. Or, the ChromeBook may have been a gift to a person who already has a good laptop.
Used netbooks in good condition often come up. Most of these are slow, and had a 1024 x 600 pixel (dot) screen resolution, which is a bit hard to work with. These may not suit you any more than they satisfied the original owner.
Almost any laptop over a year old will have a weak battery. Most are available for $20 - $30 on eBay, but some are hard to find and over $100.
Laptops over four years old may not be able to run some modern applications. The most common problem is Netflix and some other websites that can display videos full screen. Older computers such as first generation MacBook Pros cannot display these videos without starting, stopping, and dropping frames.
Used laptops don't hold their value well. A used computer that was easy to sell last year for $200 will be worth $125 this year.
You'll want to know what a computer is actually worth before you buy it. It is very common for the original owners to have paid too much. For instance, you can go into a store right now, and buy a quad-core, 2.0 GHz Windows laptop with a 700 GB hard drive and 6 GB of memory for $1,200. You can find another one with the same specifications for $500. Still, thousands of the $1,200 model are sold. The owners of these will think they are worth $800 when they try to sell them.
So how do you figure out the value of a used laptop? You can use eBay for that.
Sign into your eBay account. Signing up is free if you don't already have an account. Then enter the name and model number of your computer in the search field at the top of nearly any eBay page.
You'll be shown a list of computers, parts, and accessories for your model. You can limit the list just to whole computers by clicking Laptops & Notebooks on the left under Categories. This shows laptops of the model you're considering currently available through eBay. But how do you know whether they'll actually sell, and how much they'll bring when auctions close? On the left of the eBay page, under Show Only or More Options click Completed Listings.
Now you see the computer listings that closed during the past thirty days. Some prices will be shown in red. These are ones that didn't sell, probably because they were priced too high, or they had a significant flaw. Those shown in green actually did sell. You may see quite a range of prices. So, you have to look closely. Some are brand new, and some are broken. To further refine the list, select a Condition on the left of the page. Then, to make sure that there are no surprises that affected the price, you can click specific computers and read the descriptions and see the pictures.
You can browse Craigslist if it serves your area, and you may find quite a few used computers for sale. Craigslist is the wild, wild west of secondhand sales. There is no regulation, and no protection. Make sure you trust a seller and test a laptop to the greatest extent possible before buying it.
eBay is a fairly safe market As long as you follow the rules - conduct a transaction in the usual manner, eBay and PayPal offer protection against a seller that doesn't ship an item, misrepresents, or sells something described as working well, but which is broken. But, you have to play by the rules. If the seller asks you to pay outside of PayPal, if you want the item shipped to and address other than the one you have listed with eBay as your shipping address, if the seller promises something outside of the listing or eBay Messages, the protection is nullified. You can check a seller's feedback. After the seller's eBay username in the listing, you'll see a number in parentheses. This is the number of people who have rated transactions with this seller. You can click the number and see how many were satisfied with their purchases, and how many were not. You can further drill into the dissatisfied ones to see why. For instance, you may find that a seller had 100 transactions with a 94% satisfaction rate. That's pretty low for eBay, so you'd want to know what bothered the six dissatisfied people. You may find they were all upset because it took the seller four weeks to pack and ship their items. If it's an excellent deal and you're willing to put up with that, great! Or, you might find that the six people all said the seller substituted a different, lower-quality laptop for the one advertised. That kind of thing is worth staying away from, of course. Even with eBay's protection, you'd have to jump through some hoops, such as repackaging and sending the laptop back, and waiting weeks to get reimbursed. I once considered a laptop from a seller with three negatives. When I looked at the details, it seems he had been removing memory and hard drives from the computers before shipping them without telling the buyers.
Having worked on a huge number of laptops, I have come to know what most often kills them. Here's the list, in order of frequency:
Malware: Many Windows computers are sold as broken that are just infected. The fast and easy cure is to download some virus eradication software if your computer is still running well enough to download something. Otherwise, burn a DVD on another computer and then run it on your computer.
Be careful of fake eradication software. Several of these actually install more malware instead of getting rid of what you already have. Others, seemingly free, will tell you that you need to spend $19.95. Once you spend the money, you still have the virus.
If the virus is too severe to let you operate your computer, and if all your stuff is backed up, the best cure is to reset the computer to factory original condition. The most common source of malware is untrustworthy websites. You'll always be safe if you stay within well-known sites such as YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, AOL, CNN, Google, and so on. When you stray into sites created by other than big companies, you're taking more chances. Having up-to-date anti-virus software packages helps, but I have always been amazed at what those packages miss. A typical infected computer has browser trouble. You try to log onto a site, and you get something else. Or windows pop up on top of your site and when you try to close them, other windows open up, or your browser navigates to other pages. Additionally, the computer, and especially web browsing get slower and slower. Eventually, you're looking at a spinning cursor for minutes at a time.
Broken screen: The laptop has been dropped or fallen. Quite often this is because someone tripped over the cord. So, don't trip over the cord. The best way to not trip over the cord is to make sure it is always arranged so it is not strung across an area where you, or someone else will walk.
I don't know this strictly from post-mortems, but I believe a lot of these broken-screen laptops are because they were handled by young children. You are taking a big risk putting a laptop in the hands of a child under age eight or so.
Water damage: You'd be surprised how many computers fail because the owner spilled just a teaspoon of water, coffee, soda or whatever on the keyboard. It drips through, shorts out the motherboard, and that's that!
Overheating: People like to use their laptops on beds and upholstered surfaces. It is better to place the laptop on a board or large flat book if you can. You may think your computer is OK, but there's another slower form of overheating from placing the computer on cloth surfaces. The fans create a slight vacuum that sucks cloth fibers, pet hair, and dust into the cooling fins. In time enough material accumulates that the computer can no longer cool itself sufficiently. If you are lucky, it will shut down, and when it is cool, it will run well again. But sometimes, overheating causes permanent damage. If you think your computer may have an accumulation in the cooling fins, you can blow low-pressure compressed air into the cooling ports, and watch a cloud of dust puff out. That fixes the problem instantly.
DVD drive problems: These are fragile and prone to dirt. Be mindful when you insert and eject disks. If you're having drive problems, buy a DVD head cleaning kit. Sometimes it is just an accumulation of dust on the laser lens that causes problems.
Broken hinges: Hinges break when computers are dropped. So don't drop your laptop. Most drops happen when the person carrying the laptop is distracted. They also get dropped when a person is trying to carry too much. They also fall off car roofs, hoods, and trunk lids. I have seen at least three laptops that were just absolutely destroyed when the car took off into traffic with a laptop on top. These have a unique type of damage: All the corners are bashed because the laptop rolled quite a distance across the pavement before coming to a stop. Then there are the ones that had a finishing blow: They were then run over by another car. Sometimes people want to save the data from a dropped computer, but in most cases, even the drive is destroyed.
Another cause of broken hinges, especially in the MacBook Air is that people press the lid back farther than it will go. It doesn't take much force, and if you aren't paying attention, you can break your laptop then and there. Replacing hinges is expensive because both the bottom and the top of the computer have to be disassembled to access the hinges.
Perhaps a bit beyond the actual topic of this book, I also feel an obligation to warn you about backing up data. Whether a computer is brand new or years old, things can go wrong. The hard drive may fail at any moment. The computer may be destroyed or stolen. In general, the computer can be replaced. But the data, that's another matter. Since you don't want to lose your family photos, or the book you've been writing, or the spreadsheet that will save the company, back up everything that's important to you every day. And back up in a way that you can easily restore the data, and the latest versions of the data, should it be necessary. Funny thing is that the people who back up all the time never need to. Everything seems to work out just fine for them. The people who back up occasionally, when they remember to do so, those are the folks who seem to be hit with data disasters. One of the simplest and most secure ways to back up a file is to email it to yourself.
___ Is it the type that will best suit your needs?
___ Is it the right sceen size?
___ Does it have adequate portability?
___ Does it have enough CPU speed?
___ Does it have enough memory?
___ Does it have enough hard drive space?
___ Does it have an optical drive?
___ Is it easy to interchange batteries?
___ Does it have good sound quality?
___ Is screen viewable at wide angles?
___ Does it run hot?
___ Are the sales personnel useful?
___ Does it have an odor?
___ How's the battery life?
___ Does it have a durable casing?
___ Does the screen fold back enough?
___ Does the lid open far enough?
___ Is the fan noisy?
___ Does the seller have a good return policy?
In stores, and sometimes when buying used computers, there are a number of tests you can perform to be sure you're getting the right one.
If the computer has been running for several hours, as they often are in stores, feel the bottom and top surfaces to be sure it is not too hot for comfort.
You might turn the computer completely off and restart it. Some take a remarkably long time to shut down and others a long time to restart. In most cases, you won't do that very much, and the latest operating systems, come back up from sleep mode within just a few seconds. So of course you'll want to close the lid and reopen it to see how fast it recovers from sleep mode.
Next, fold the lid back as far as it is supposed to go. Will that be far enough for you?
Now, with a picture of some sort, perhaps a portrait on the screen, fold the lid up and down to all possible vertical angles at which you may use the screen. Can you see images clearly at all angles? Move from side to side, and see whether when you're looking at the screen along with some other people, that they can see it clearly too.
Is it a touchscreen? Does it react well to your input? Try zooming and scrolling. Sometimes you'll run into a laptop that is too jumpy or reacts to touch input sluggishly. There are some adjustments for that, but with factory original settings, it should work well, or you'll always be struggling with that. One thing that can cause irregular touchscreen and touchpad behavior is if you're carrying an electrostatic charge. Try touching a water faucet or something that's electrically grounded, then see if the problem goes away.
Play some music. How does it sound? Tinny, perhaps? Well, that will be true of all laptops. But if you compare it to some other laptops, you may discover that some laptops are noticeably better at producing sound than others. In a store, you may get a distorted perception of sound due to ambient noise around you, but comparing to other laptops should help sort that out. Sound may not be important to you, especially if you use external speakers.
You can't test the battery life, but you can look at the battery in most laptops. It is usually a large detachable item on the bottom. Ideally, unless weight is very important to you, the battery should be large. Another hint is fan action. If the fan is whizzing away there in the store, the CPU and other components are consuming a lot of energy, which will shorten battery life.
If you are like many people, knowing that a salesperson who is willing to offer some technical support after the sale could be important, you might test the salesperson before buying the computer. A good question to ask is, "Can you show me how I would change the screen resolution?" If they take you right through the steps, they probably are experienced - at least in changing screen resolution. If it takes them a while, or they can't do it, or refuse to do it, then, well, you know what you're getting into.
You bought a new laptop. How cool is that? So what about the old one? After you're sure you don't need to return the new one for any reason, after you're transferred all the data that will ever be important to you, perhaps it is time to get rid of the old machine, if you don't want to keep it for a back up. You might be surprised to learn that there is a hungry market for old and even broken laptops.
If you have used your laptop for banking, or have accessed sensitive websites such as FaceBook, Twitter and so on, you may want to protect your passwords and data.
If your computer is broken, you can remove the hard drive. That's the only place on your computer where data is stored. Some laptops have a door on the bottom that you can open to take the hard drive out. Some require a fairly major overhaul to remove the hard drive. You can look your brand and model plus the words "repair manual" online, to find out what's involved in taking out your hard drive.
If your laptop is still in good working condition, removing the hard drive reduces its value considerably. You can restore the computer to factory original condition. Almost all modern computers have a way to do this. How it's done varies from one brand to another. For most Macs, insert the main original DVD that came with the computer, and reboot while holding down the [C] key. For Windows computers, you can go to the Control Panel, then select Recovery. You can find more details about restoring to factory original condition online. Restoring to factory original condition has one flaw. A person who really wants to discover your data can do so. Hard drives have magnetic shadows of previously stored data. Someone with the right tools can often gather this old information. But that is quite rare.
If your computer is broken, the market is eBay, not Craigslist or your local market, because it is eBay where everyone looks for specific broken computers. People who fix computers will buy it as a project or for parts. You might be surprised how much they'll pay for a late-model laptop. A Windows computer that sold for $800 two years ago with a broken screen might still bring $200. A MacBook Pro with a non-working motherboard can bring as much as $800. Even an broken iBook or HP dv6000 from 2005 can be worth $35 or $40.
If your computer is in good shape, you can sell it on eBay, or Craigslist. Either way, you'll want to photograph it. A photo showing the computer actually running is always a good choice. The more photos the better. One showing the AC adapter, one showing the bottom, one of each side and so on will help people trust that you're selling something nice.
If it has any flaws, it is essential to mention them in detail. I have always been amazed how willing many people are to put up with problems, as long as they know up-front what they are getting into. For instance, you may have a Dell D600 that works fine except the battery doesn't hold a charge and the DVD drive doesn't work. If it were in perfect shape, you might be able to get $150 for it. But as-is, it might still be worth $100.
As with buying a used laptop, you can check completed listings on eBay to find out what your old computer is worth.
By selling your old computer as used, or for parts, you are helping someone keep old equipment running, rather than just tossing it in the dump, and that's an environmentally good thing to do.
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