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Top Ten for going mobile

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  • Newspaper section: Life
  • Writer: Carl Heaton
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A mere 10 years ago, laptops were ugly. Not just ugly, but heavy and expensive, too. Thankfully today's laptops are a totally different breed. They are faster, lighter, cheaper and a lot better looking. But how do you choose? What do you look for and how much should you spend? 

To help, we've created this guide with 10 points on what you'll need to consider before buying a laptop. We are also going to provide you with a budget analysis for each of these points to make your life a whole lot easier.

1. USAGE

First of all, you need to know why you are getting this laptop. Is it to make PowerPoint presentations, take notes, browse the internet and do other simple business tasks? Or do you plan on watching HD movies, playing high-quality computer games or having video chats with friends and family?

Low budget _ Our first example above, for business use, would be a pretty cheap laptop; you can easily spend less than $1,000 (29,300 baht) on a model that will run Microsoft Office and other productivity software.

High budget _ If you do plan on watching HD movies and playing high-quality games, then you'll need a high-resolution screen and also a good graphics card.

2. OPERATING SYSTEM

Another factor to consider: Do you want a Mac, PC or maybe Linux?

Low budget _ Many users choose netbooks and laptops that come with Linux. Some versions of Linux are also open source (free online). But don't buy a laptop with Linux OS only because it is cheaper. Sooner or later you won't manage to work on it and will have to change the OS. This will cost you a lot more.

Medium budget _ The Windows operating system is found on a number of reliable brands, for example Dell, HP and Sony, and their prices can range from very low to very high.

High budget _ While Apple's laptops are pricier than many PCs, there are only a few Apple notebook models to choose from. Apple's extremely light MacBook Air models start at $1,000. The least expensive 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,200, while the 15-inch jumps up to a pricey $1,800.

3. PROCESSOR

A computer's processor determines how efficiently it can run programs and multi-task. Processors get faster and more efficient every year.

Low budget: Intel Core i3 _ Now in its third generation, these dual-core processors are almost exclusively paired with Intel HD Graphics, and are for those who only do the basics: word processing, image viewing, music listening and internet browsing. It is usually what we consider as being the minimum for hassle-free computing.

Medium budget: Intel Core i5 _ Available in dual- and quad-core configurations, as well as low-voltage variants, the Core i5 is the workhorse of the industry, filling many a fine mainstream laptop. At the moment, both second- and third-generation parts are in the market. Vendors are using the older Core i5 parts to offer cheaper laptops _ and, for day-to-day work, these older parts are perfectly fine.

High budget: Intel Core i7 _ The Intel Core i7 processor is a top-of-the-line quad-core processor. Now in its third generation, Intel holds the fastest chips in the mobile space.

4. STORAGE

This is yet another critical component in a laptop. All the files, folders, etc that you have will be stored in the hard disk. Hence, choosing a large hard disk is of the utmost importance. Go for 100 GB, or more, at the minimum if you don't want to run out of hard-disk space real soon. There are 200GB all the way up to 1TB hard-disk drives available these days, so choose according to your requirements.

Low budget _ For years, all laptops stored data on spinning physical discs called hard drives. They are cheap but have slower storage-access times.

High budget _ Faster solid-state drives that use silicon-based memory are becoming more prevalent in mobile computers. Because solid-state drives don't rely on moving parts, they're more reliable in computers that tend to get bumped and jostled around. The downside: They don't offer nearly as much data storage as the hard drives.

5. MEMORY

Random access memory (RAM) is a totally different story from storage. Every piece of software running on a computer and the operating system itself (usually meaning Windows) stores data in RAM to function. The more RAM you have, the better. It's smart to upgrade this component whenever possible.

Low budget: 2GB or less _ Absolute entry level. This will be fine for office work and basic internet browsing, but you may find things occasionally slow down.

Medium budget: 4GB _ Where everybody should start, and it provides a nice balance for 3D gaming, graphics work and video editing.

High budget: 8GB or more _ Recommended! This should ensure that you'll be able to tackle all tasks just fine. Keep in mind, though, that you'll need to run a 64-bit operating system to take advantage of all the memory _ a 32-bit one won't be able to access it all. Since Windows comes as separate 32- and 64-bit editions, make sure you're getting the right one if you intend to run Microsoft's operating system.

6. BATTERY LIFE

Laptop computing is all about mobility, and battery life is perhaps the most crucial consideration when picking a laptop that's going to be used regularly on the go. If you're in the market for a desktop-replacement system _ meaning you'll mostly just leave it on your desk and don't plan on regularly taking it on trips _ battery life isn't quite as critical. Otherwise, pay close attention to how long a laptop's battery will last.

Low budget: 3-Cell _ If battery life is important to you, don't settle for a three-cell battery; notebooks and netbooks with three-cell batteries tend to get less than three hours of battery life.

Medium budget: 6-Cell _ This is widely used among everyday users as it provides the perfect balance between battery life and a laptop's total weight.

High budget: 9-Cell _ Often referred to as "extended batteries", this may add some extra bulk to your notebook, stick out the back and increase the weight by 100g or more. However, if you need long endurance, this extra weight is worth it.

7. PORTABILITY

We break down laptops into three basic categories by weight (with some overlap): ultraportables (less than 1kg to 1.5kg), mid-weight (1.5kg to 4kg) and desktop replacements (generally 4kg or heavier).

Low budget _ Ultraportables used to be expensive, full-featured, yet light laptops like Intel's ultrabooks and the MacBook Air. Occupying the 11- to 14-inch space, these laptops can now genuinely claim great portability with minimal performance sacrifice, thanks to SSDs and reasonably speedy dual-core CPUs. They usually come with good battery life. They're generally not high-performance machines, but should address most of your everyday needs.

Medium budget _ Mid-weight laptops are going through a transition. This category has typically been dominated by 15.6-inch budget laptops, but you can get everything from your basic budget laptop up to a powerful gaming laptop. They're usually bristling with ports and will have a DVD or Blu-ray drive built in. Unlike ultraportables, you'll usually get a dedicated graphics card here (to the benefit of games, but detriment of battery life).

High budget _ If you want desktop power, you need a desktop replacement. With screen sizes of 16 to 18.4 inches, weights as much as 6kg and average battery life of less than three hours, these behemoths are not for people on the go. However, they can accommodate a wide range of performance parts and are just right for power users of all kinds _ especially gamers.

8. DO YOU NEED A CD-ROM?

CD-ROMs (Compact Disk Read Only Memory) have been key computer components since the first CD drives arrived on the scene, but cheap flash storage in the form of USB drives and cloud storage on the internet have nearly eradicated their necessity. When was the last time you used a CD burner?

Low budget _ If you use cheap forms of storage like USB drives or cloud storage on the internet, or if you use Netflix to stream movies, you have no use for a CD-ROM. Ultraportables could work great for you.

Medium budget _ If you need to be able to burn DVDs or CDs for work, that's okay _ there are still plenty of laptops outfitted with CD/DVD combo drives.

High budget _ Blu-ray drives are optional in a small selection of laptops, most commonly the media-focused 15-inch and 17-inch models. But, since this is still a new technology, the prices will be higher.

9. PORTS AND EXPANDABILITY

Make sure that you have enough ports on your laptop. At a minimum, look for two USB ports (three to four is better). USB 3.0 ports would also be preferable, as opposed to the slower USB 2.0; although this won't affect things like keyboards and mice, for storage, it can be a huge benefit.

Connecting a monitor will, these days, involve an HDMI or mini DisplayPort output. Sadly, a lot of monitors (and projectors) still don't have HDMI or DisplayPort support, so you may need to buy an adaptor to connect your laptop to DVI or VGA ports instead.

With laptops becoming ever slimmer, they often tend to drop the Ethernet port, meaning you'll be reliant on Wi-Fi, rather than a network cable to get you online or to connect to other computers. This won't matter to a lot of consumers, but those who demand high, reliable speed will want to make sure that their laptop comes with one.

10. WARRANTY AND RELEASE CYCLES

Buying consumer electronics is always a battle against irrelevancy. It's tough to buy something that will be out of date just a few months later, but there's always new gear just beyond the horizon; you can't put off a purchase forever. To maximise the value of a laptop purchase, buy shortly after a product refresh. New systems usually come out shortly after Intel launches new processors. Look up reviews for laptops. Spotted a model that is highly rated, but which came out nine months before? A newer version will probably be along within a few months. Don't buy a laptop months into its release cycle unless you're shopping on a budget and spy a killer deal.

Picking a warranty isn't an easy decision, either. If you're clumsy and accident prone (or paranoid), opting for a long warranty will put your mind at ease. But it will also cost you an extra 3,000 baht or more, depending on the kind of coverage you choose. Total-coverage packages for accidents are expensive, but you'll be glad you have it if you accidentally step on your screen and break the LCD. And there's nothing wrong with going for the cheapest limited warranty you can _ just don't drop your new laptop!

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