Laptop reviews: Features explained
If you’re not sure what processor to look for in a new laptop, or what Ram is, you’re in the right place.
We explain the features to look out for when buying a new laptop.
You can click on the links below to skip straight to the information you need:
- Processor, graphics and memory – the specs to look for.
- Storage – hard disk, solid state and disk drives.
- Connections – ports and internet connections.
- Using the laptop – screen, keyboard and battery life
How to buy the best laptop - advice to help you find a laptop with the specifications to suit you.
Processor, graphics and memory
The processor, usually Intel or AMD, is the main brain of your computer and has the biggest effect on how your laptop will run.
Most are at least dual-core - two processors on one chip sharing the workload. Some Intel's processors use 'Hyper-threading', boosting the dual core processor to act like a quad-core one.
Processor clock speed (in GHz) has some impact on performance - the higher the figure, the faster the computer.
If you’re looking for a high-performance laptop, or something that'll last you for a good few years, go for a faster processor.
Ram (random access memory) is your laptop's short-term memory, storing information while you're using the laptop (the hard drive is used for long-term file storage).
The amount of Ram your laptop has determines how many tasks it can accomplish simultaneously.
Aim for as much Ram as you can afford – ideally at least 4GB to make it easier to rip music while you're surfing the net, updating your security software, and sending and receiving emails.
With some laptops you can add more Ram later, but it’s more complicated than adding Ram to a desktop PC.
Laptops come with either integrated or dedicated graphics.
Laptops with integrated graphics use a chunk of the laptop’s memory (Ram). This is fine if you’re just planning to do basic, everyday tasks, but if you want to play games or use video-editing software, for example, it’s best to go for a laptop with a separate graphics card, freeing up your Ram.
Expect to pay more for a laptop with a dedicated graphics card.
Hard disk drive (HDD)
The hard disk provides memory for long-term data storage – measured in gigabytes (GB).
It stores the operating system and applications (programs) as well as files including music, photos and documents.
We recommend a minimum of 500GB hard disk space - storing video, high-resolution photos, music and software uses up a lot of space.
If in doubt, go for more hard drive space if you can afford it.
Solid state drive (SDD)
Solid state drives work like hard drives. There are no moving parts – so they don’t’ get as hot – and should help produce faster start-up times and processing, and also extend battery life. The downside is it doesn't offer as much space as a hard disk drive.
Many premium laptops, such as ultrabooks, have a solid state drive (the most common size is 128GB), or a hybrid of SSD and hard disk storage.
Hybrids often take the form of a 16GB solid state cache to boost loading speeds while keeping the larger storage capacity with the normal hard drive. In this case you can’t save files to the SSD.
Some laptops come with a CD/DVD drive. All but the cheapest models include DVD burners as well as CD burners, so you can save to CD or DVD.
A DVD burner is useful for making your own videos and backing up large amounts of data - DVDs hold much more data than CDs.
Higher-end laptops include a Blu-ray drive so you can watch high-definition (HD) films on the move. Slot-load drives are preferable to tray-mounted drives, as they’re less prone to breakage on the move.
Many ultrabook, or ultra slim, laptops don’t have a disk drive, so they’re slimmer and lighter. With these laptops you may want to consider getting an external drive or cloud storage for backing up.
USB, HDMI and memory card
USB is the most common type of connection. You’ll usually get two or three USB ports on a laptop so you can connect peripherals such as a mouse or external hard drive and save to a USB stick.
They may be USB 2 or the faster USB 3 ports, or a mix of the two.
An HDMI output lets you hook your laptop up to a TV.
Some laptops also have memory card slots, making it easy to get photos off of your camera’s memory card.
Wi-fi and Gigabit Ethernet
Most laptops include a port for connecting to the internet, either a wired 100Mbps or a faster gigabit ethernet connection.
Most laptops will now use the latest 802.11n wireless protocol.
Using the laptop
A 15-inch screen is the average size for a laptop.
A desktop replacement-type laptop might come with a 17-inch display, while ultra-portables might go as low as the 11-inch mark. You will find options in between too.
If you're planning to use your laptop on the move, it might be worth considering a matte screen. Glossy displays tend to suffer from reflections.
Touchscreens are becoming the norm with Windows 8 laptops, certainly on mid and high-end models.
A laptop’s keyboard is smaller than a desktop computer’s - keys are closer together, and may also be smaller.
Many 13-inch models don’t have room for a separate number pad. It’s a good idea to try out a laptop’s keyboard before you buy if you can, to ensure you get one you're comfortable with.
Laptop battery life
The best standard laptops have a battery life of around five to six hours.
Larger, desktop replacement laptops may only last around three hours though, while the longest laptop battery life on the best ultraportable models runs closer to seven hours. Adjusting the power settings within the laptop can preserve the battery.
How important battery life is to you depends on where you are planning to use your laptop - if it's mainly at home near a power point, battery life isn’t top priority.