Friday, April 19, 2013

Comparing laptops and why it's not the brand that matters

A friend is looking to buy a new laptop and as the guru I was asked my opinion; I'm always happy to help but dealing with laptops can now end up a lot like dealing with questions along the lines of "Exactly why does my beef lasagne contain horsemeat?"

The order that I notice people evaluate laptops by is Brand, Spec, Physical Appearance, but in reality it should be the opposite and here's why.
Judging by brand name seems an obvious clue as to the quality of whatever you're buying. Those brands who have made a stock out of good-quality merchandise won't want their name sullied by flimsy products; they're brands you can trust. To an extent this is true, but like so many packaged meals the name slapped on the outside tells you little about how it was made.

Foxconn made the news regarding the number of suicides at its plant. Sadly not because of the suicides per se, but because they were the producer of Apple products. The bit pushed further down the line was that they also worked for Acer, Dell, HP, Sony and Toshiba (etc etc.). Picture someone crowing over their 'higher quality' Apple tablet compared to someone's 'cheap' Acer and laugh as they discover they may well have been made in the same factory.

Okay they're made using different components and materials, but the person making your Apple could have been making Acer's last shift. This isn't like a major car brand or a major food producer where the products are all made on the same line; this is the ready meal approach. Bare bones products shipped over to the 'manufacturer' who slap the easily replaceable components in and wrap their brand around it. And just like ready meals unless you look at the fine print you've no idea who really made it.

Some Brand X's high-end products may result in high praise, but stay clear of their low-end ones. Sounds odd until you realise that they're made by different manufacturers.

Brand is nigh-on meaningless; even past performance won't help if they've recently switched suppliers.

So we need to look at the specifications of the machines? Indeed, but it's the totality of the spec that makes the machine and not its individual parts. Is an Intel i7 processor better than an Intel i5 processor - yes. Is having 6Gb of RAM better than 4Gb of RAM - yes. But is having an i5 processor with 6Gb of better than an i7 with 4Gb? Um. Is having a smaller capacity SSD better than a larger SATA? Er?

The four major components are CPU (processor) GPU (graphics) RAM (memory) and HDD (storage). If you max out on all four, great; but if you need to mix and match what affect does each have on the other?

If you're not going to be keeping a compendium of all your photos, videos, music etc. then the smaller capacity SSD can be faster than the larger standard HDDs. If you're not wanting to play the latest games you don't need that massive GPU. If you're not transcoding full HD video you don't need that high-end CPU. If you're not multi-tasking programmes or video-editing no real need for that wedge of RAM.

In this instance it is more like a car. Sure you can buy a Bentley, but if you're just commuting back and forth through town and sitting in traffic queues it's kind of a waste and you might as well pick up a smaller Toyota or some such.

At this point we reach the end and least considered part - the actual physicality of the laptop. So why do I think this is the point we should have been starting from? Because the physicality is what we're most going to be interacting with.

Any half-decent machine is going to be able to keep up with typing an email. The bottleneck for that video streaming is less likely to be the computer and more likely to be your network connection. But I do have to type using the keyboard. I do have to watch the video on the screen. If the keyboard has been made tiny for space and weight reasons I won't be able to type as fluently. If the screen isn't that good I won't see the colours of that video correctly, heck I might not be able to see it at all if it's coated in Wunder-glossShine™ and I've a light behind me.

Oh sure we may just pick it up to feel the weight, but how does the screen hinge? Where do I plug in the power cord? How easy is it to get to the peripheral ports? How much room do I have to rest my wrists? Will I keep activating the trackpad as I type? How responsive is that trackpad?

All questions that will truly determine how well you can use your laptop and all impossible to answer if you just play 'pick the specs on the order screen'.

Determine what you want to use your laptop for and then go out to a real physical store and just see how they feel when you use them. Then take a look and see if the specs will accommodate your needs

Brand doesn't matter, specs can be changed, but the shell you're stuck with; might want to get that bit right first.