Let’s start with the terms you need to know a little about – here are the factors which generally dictate the options – and price – of any kit and caboodle you might buy.
Form factor: Once upon a time, there was only one sort of computer: the desktop. It was a big box – big enough, in fact, that it usually lived under your desk instead. Now there are a bewildering array of options, from laptops (where the display flips open from the keyboard), to tablets (super-portable, often without a keyboard because you can type on the screen) and plenty in between. These build-types are called form factors.
CPU: The Central Processing Unit, measured in GHz (gigahertz). The CPU is the engine of your computer, and just like the engine on your car, bigger is better.
RAM: Random Access Memory. This is where your computer stores what it’s currently working on. Again, bigger is better: the larger your RAM, the more things your computer can do at once, and the faster it will get round to doing them. Remember that most computers are doing several things at any one time (or ‘running many processes’ in geekspeak), even if you’re only looking at one thing at a time. It’s measured in GB (‘gigabytes’ or ‘gig’ for short).
Hard drives: This is your long-term storage. It’s like a library. Again, bigger is better – the larger your library, the more you can store; but speed (how fast you can dig books out of the library) also matters.
Displays: Traditional desktop computers have separate monitors. Laptops, tablets and smartphones have built-in displays which trade off size for portability in all sorts of options. As well as size, consider resolution (a higher resolution gives you a sharper picture and fits more on the screen) and format (if you like watching films as well as beavering away, a 16:9 cinema-style format may be a priority for you).
So, what do you want to do?
Now that you know the basic terms, you’re ready to go shopping. To return to the analogy of buying a car, your purchase depends very much on what you want to do. You wouldn’t buy a van for the doing the school run, and you wouldn’t buy a little runabout for offroading through the fields. Whereas your little runabout would be perfect for economical city driving, and the van is the ideal resilient choice for deliveries. There are plenty of options, and the most expensive isn’t always the best for the needs of a business.
Mary Branscombe is the author of “Windows 8: What your business needs to know” and “How To Do Everything Windows 8” and has been advising on technology for over two decades in publications like the FT, The Guardian, ZDNet and TechRadar. She says, “The form factor is all about what you’re going to use your machine for. If you’re out on the road a lot, think about portability – both size and weight. Also look at battery life. Today’s notebook PCs and tablets have much better battery life than you might be used to – I have used a Surface Pro with power-hungry wi-fi switched on constantly, and still achieved a ten-hour battery life.” These are perfect for doing presentations, on-site work or staying in touch 24/7. If, however you need several documents open side-by-side, or you need to type long documents, then a larger screen and the ability to sit and type for long periods may be more of a priority.
Similarly, your CPU depends on your planned usage. Price is very CPU-dependent, so it’s an important decision to make. “The top end machines are for intensive work like video editing or heavy graphics visualisation. If you need that heavy-duty power, go for the extra horsepower. For most business purposes, a better mid-range machine will be just fine. Equally, don’t just automatically buy what’s cheapest. A low-powered machine will either disappoint you by being slow, or, as programs and services get ever more sophisticated (which they do every year), it will simply become out of date much more quickly than you would like. It’s well worth investing at the higher-end of your needs today.”
RAM and hard drives deserve to be considered together. Branscombe says, “RAM is fairly easy: get as much RAM memory as you can reasonably afford. Don’t go for less than 4GB or 8GB for a power user.” However, the speed of your PC is influenced both by RAM and your drive storage; because your machine is constantly moving stuff between your drive (the library) and RAM (where work is done). So, slow hard drives can negate the benefit of a zippy high-RAM machine. And there’s a new cool kid in the world of hard drives: SSD (Solid State Drives). Older hard drives are mechanical wonders, with discs spinning thousands of times per second. Solid state drives are simply memory chips with no moving parts, they are faster, lighter, more reliable and without doubt the future of storage. However, they are currently restricted to a smaller size than old-style spinny-discs.
So: what to do? Says Branscombe, “If you can get an SSD, that’s the single thing which will speed up your machine the most. A Windows 8 notebook with SSD will go from pressing the button to turn it on to being at your first application in ten seconds. It may cost a bit more, but SSD is worth it. If you need larger storage, look at keeping an external hard drive in your office. Or use a device called a NAS (Network Accessed Storage – an extensible drive which lives on your office network). Keep these big drives around for storing backups, for example, and use the SSD for day-to-day work or out on the road.”
Displays are also one of the easier decisions to make, mainly because, whatever you buy, the quality is generally very good and you can bolt bits on at a later date. Branscombe says, “Even many small Ultrabooks at only 11’-12’ screen sizes now have gorgeous full high-definition screens which would make any movie buff proud.
What matters, though, is long term usability; and the secret here is Display Management- software tools which will let you do clever things with your screen. Windows 7 and Windows 8, for example, both have the ability to zoom in to compensate for the screen resolution, so that you can do close-up work more easily on a small screen. Similarly, most laptops and notebooks (but not all tablets) will allow you to connect an external screen. That means you can bring a presentation to a client’s office on your notebook, and plug in to their monitor – which will do your back a world of favours! PowerPoint 2013, Microsoft’s presentation software, is perfectly optimised for two monitors, and also allows you to simulate ‘Presentation View’, so you can rehearse your presentation on your own PC before you do it for real.”
Finally, we haven’t yet mentioned touchscreens. As many smartphones and tablets use touchscreen technology, so it has rapidly been adopted by manufacturers for larger form factors. Branscombe says, “If you can afford it, get one. It’s a bit of a luxury, but Windows 8 and modern software tools are all becoming more naturalistic to use through touchscreens. Even just reading a webpage is so much nicer when you can scroll down with your finger.”