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Guide to Buying a New Laptop – Part 2: Hardware


Guide to Buying a New Laptop

Part 2: Hardware

Last week we looked at the bewildering (and confusingly named) variety of laptops available to buy at the moment. Now, we enter into the even more bewildering world of hardware, the baffling jumbles of metal and wiring that somehow allow you to watch funny videos of cats falling over and fill out a hundred different BuzzFeed quizzes in a row. This week we will be answering questions such as ‘Do I need an SSD?’, ‘Is memory really RAM?’, and ‘Why do computers involve so many capital letters?’ to help you choose the laptop that’s right for you.

So, if you’re more of a Jen than a Moss, look no further for your guide to the complicated world of computer hardware.

Hard Drive

This is the internal storage space of your laptop, measured in Gigabytes (GB). As a rule of thumb, one GB can hold about 250 MP3s, or one full HD movie – so look for storage space in line with how much media you plan on storing on your laptop. If you have a big music and video collection, or plan on playing games on your laptop, then you’re going to need a bigger hard drive. As media moves more to streaming, however, large hard drives are becoming less necessary over time – if you use Spotify and Netflix over downloaded music and TV then extra hard drive space is pretty much useless. If you ever need some extra space, SD cards are getting bigger and cheaper by the day, and are particularly useful for tablet users.


The only other question with hard drives is ‘To SSD or not to SSD?’ SSD stands for ‘Solid State Drive’, which means that, unlike normal hard drives which have a large spinning disk inside, SSDs have no moving parts, making them more reliable and more compact. They’re basically just scaled up SD cards. They’re much faster than normal hard disks (meaning Windows will boot up in a matter of seconds), but also more expensive and generally smaller in terms of storage space. They generally come as standard in Ultrabooks and other super-thin laptops due to their compact size, and for those with a bit of extra cash to spare, they can give a definite boost to the performance of your laptop. For gamers, particularly, an SSD will mean superfast load times, so no more twiddling your thumbs while waiting for the next level to load.


RAM (Random Access Memory) is the short term memory to the hard drive’s long term – it’s the frontal lobe of your computer, remembering stuff that’s relevant to whatever you’re up to. RAM is still memory (it’s in the name) and so, as with hard drives, it’s measured in Gigabytes. 4GB is about the standard for most laptops, and will perfectly suit the average user, allowing for smooth browsing and fast multitasking. If you intend to play any relatively demanding games on your laptop or use it for video or photo editing through programs like Photoshop, then bringing your RAM up to 8 GB can have some genuine benefits. For most, however, 4 GB is more than enough to have your laptop running smoothly, and anything above 8 GB is just a waste of money for anyone except those doing ridiculous amounts of multitasking or frequently running several memory-intensive programs.


If the hard drive is the computer’s long term memory, and RAM the short term, then the CPU (central processing unit) is the brain itself, figuring out what to do with all of the information floating around. Memory stores all of the zeroes and ones, while the processor figures out what to do with them. In terms of general performance, the processor is the best determiner of how well the whole computer will function as a whole. The processor is the engine around which the rest of the system is built around, and, as such, its performance is measured in terms of its speed, in Gigahertz (GHz). This is basically a value representing the number of calculations the processor can perform in a second and so, generally, the higher this number, the better the processor is.

The only other thing you really need to consider here is additional cores, which is pretty much the equivalent of adding another brain to the CPU, letting it do two things at once. As you might expect, more cores means a faster computer. Two is the standard, with four and six core processors also on the market. Ideally, you’ll want a balance of speed and cores for the best performance for your money. The two main manufacturers are AMD and Intel, who offer different ranges depending on what you intend to use your laptop for, from simple browsing up to high-end gaming, and both cater to a variety of price ranges. Generally speaking, cash put into a better processor will reward you with the biggest increase in performance for your money.

Graphics Card

Most laptops come with an integrated graphics card which is built-in to the rest of the laptop, which is perfectly capable of doing anything the average user could want – editing photos, watching videos, or for just browsing the web. When it comes to more demanding applications like games, an integrated graphics chip is going to seriously struggle. If you want to play the latest games or edit videos on your laptop then a dedicated graphics card is going to be a necessity. This will cost you more, and the laptop is going to be a fair bit bigger and heavier due to the separate card, but it will give you a significant boost to performance when running these demanding programs. As with processors, the more you spend the better the graphics card you’ll get, so if you plan on getting in a few rounds of Battlefield between essays then paying that bit more for a good graphics card will give you a big boost to performance.


Screens pretty much just have two things to worry about: size and resolution. A screen’s size is usually given in inches, and is measured from one corner to its opposite, so a 12” screen is twelve inches from the bottom left to the top right corner. A bigger screen naturally means a bigger, and in turn heavier, laptop, so is usually only a good idea if you don’t intend to be lugging it off to lectures every day – it also makes for a better gaming and video viewing experience as well.

The next thing to consider for your screen is its resolution, which is basically how many pixels it is made up of. As a good reference point, 19200×1080 (commonly referred to just as 1080p) is the resolution of a Blu-ray film, and the standard resolution of most high definition TVs. It is also the most common resolution of widescreen PC monitors, particularly for gaming PCs. For the vast majority of people, 1080p is the perfect resolution. For smaller laptops, however, a lower resolution is a good trade-off for portability and speed. Remember, though, that a bigger screen doesn’t mean the picture will look any better – if the resolution is the same as a smaller screen, then you might notice the pixels more, and edges may start to look jagged.

There are some laptops out there, such as the Chromebook Pixel, which combine a standard screen with a super-high resolution for fantastic picture quality but this comes, as you might expect, at a very high premium, and is totally unnecessary for most users. Though 4K resolutions (displays with a staggering 4096×2160 pixels) are being increasingly talked about with regard to TVs and PC Gaming, anything over 1080p is pretty much pointless in a laptop, and the hardware necessary to manage such high resolutions would be incredibly expensive.