A few years ago, my computer packed up, so I transferred everything I wanted to an external hard drive and got rid of it. I have a smartphone for basic things like web browsing and checking emails, and for anything else I head for the local library with a USB stick. It’s saved me quite a bit not having an internet connection (and associated phone line) over the last three years. That said, I’m hankering for a laptop, but I don’t know where to start: it’s 10 years since I last bought a computer!
I’d like something that is a good size for a handbag / bedside table drawer (I am in a flat and storage space is premium). I want to run Microsoft Word (I like the fancy features), Excel with macros (I tried Google docs but the sheets I’m working with are too large / sophisticated for it), web stuff — the usual browsing, YouTube, blogging etc — and music. I love CDs, but an external CD/DVD player is something I’ve considered. Budget? I’ve no idea, but not loads. Katie
You’ve picked a good time to buy, because Windows laptops are cheap at the moment. Sales are down compared with last year, when they were boosted by people replacing PCs running Windows XP, and have been further depressed by people waiting for the launch of Windows 10 on 29 July. Manufacturers and retailers are therefore keen to clear old stock.
Today, Windows laptops start at around £159.99, and you can get reasonable machines for £200 to £400. I expect you spent much more a decade ago, probably from £650 to £1,500. (The December 2005 issue of PC Pro magazines had a group test of “bargain” notebooks at £799.)
Any Windows 8.1 laptop you buy now will get a free “in place” upgrade to Windows 10, which should leave your programs and data intact.
Screen sizes and CDs
Laptops that fit in typical handbags have 10in to 12in screens, while a bedside table drawer will probably manage a 13.3in screen (mine does). However, the smaller the screen, the smaller the text (if we assume a screen resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, which is the most common format for cheap laptops). Since you want to run large spreadsheets, I reckon 11.6in is the practical minimum and 13.3in would be better.
If you would prefer a 13.3in screen, then the Dell XPS 13 (2015) is the only one likely to fit in many handbags, but it is out of your price range.
Few if any small laptops have built-in CD-Rom or DVD drives, which are common in laptops with 15.6in screens. Those are too big and too heavy for handbags, and might be too big for a bedside table drawer. However, there are plenty of external CD/DVD writers that you can plug into a USB port for £10 to £25. You could use a DVD writer to burn a couple of Windows recovery discs and make extra backups, as well as play music and movies.
Checking the specs
Today’s cheap laptops have relatively slow Intel Celeron N28xx processors, of which the fastest is the N2840. The Pentium N35xx range offers a worthwhile improvement and, again, the N3540 is the fastest. The Intel Atom Z3795 is another option, and comes between the N3510 and N3520. Any of these will run Microsoft Word, but could struggle with large spreadsheets in Excel. For that kind of job, it would be better to step up to an Intel Core i3 or i5 processor.
Celeron and Pentium are simply brands. Architecturally, these chips are Atom Silvermont (Bay Trail) designs.
NoteBookCheck’s Comparison of Mobile Processors (CPU Benchmarks) is a great way to compare processor speeds. Don’t bother with the scores, just search for the code numbers to see where chips stand in the table. If you also look up the chip in the PC you use at work (search for System Information) that will give you some idea of the relative speeds.
The cheapest laptops have 2GB of memory, which is enough for light use with Windows 8.1 and 10, but 4GB is obviously better.
The cheapest laptops have 32GB of storage, which is basically an eMMC Flash memory chip soldered to the motherboard. Subtract the space used by Microsoft Windows and its recovery partition, and there’s very little left for your data. Laptops like this are usable if they have a slot for a 32GB or 64GB SD/microSD memory card, or you can save files directly to the free online storage in Microsoft OneDrive.
Better laptops may have faster but more expensive 128GB or 256GB SSDs (solid state drives). However, if you want to store music and movies on your laptop, you might be better off with a traditional 500GB hard drive. Your laptop will be less responsive, but it will hold a lot more.
Screens and keyboards
The dramatic fall in laptop prices from £2,000 to £200 is not just down to cheaper chips. Manufacturers are also using cheaper keyboards, cheaper screens, and cheaper plastic cases. As usual, you get what you pay for. If possible, visit the computer departments of John Lewis, PC World and similar shops to see the screens and try the keyboards.
It’s tempting to read the specs and go for the cheapest option. However, if you see PCs side by side, you may decide that it’s worth paying a bit more for a richer, brighter screen, a more responsive keyboard, and a more solid case.
I’d guess that you will turn out to be a fairly light laptop user – you’ve developed different habits while not having one – and a careful one. If so, a cheapish laptop should be fine. The sort of person who has a heavy workload and tends not to look after things should buy something more robust, and therefore more expensive.
A short shortlist
At £169.99 or £179.99, the Lenovo Flex 10 looks like a “best buy” at the moment, though it’s currently sold out at Amazon.co.uk. It has a 2.16GHz Celeron N2840 processor, but unlike most cheap laptops, it has 4GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive. I used a Flex 10 with a faster N3510 processor and thought the screen quality was above average for the price. Also, it seemed quite well made.
The Lenovo Flex 10 wins on portability – it easily fits my wife’s handbags – but I think you will find the screen a bit too small. However, if you like the style, you can get a red Lenovo Flex 2 14 with a 14in touch screen, Core i3-4030 processor, 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive for £349.99. The 1.9kg Flex 14 would overstrain a handbag but could fit your drawer.
The Flex 10’s main rival is the HP Stream 11, which is available in blue or magenta for £159.99. This is a minimum-spec machine – N2840, 2GB, 32GB eMMC – but buyers seem to like it a lot. As the name indicates, it has an 11.6in screen. There’s also a Stream 13 with the same specification but a 13.3in screen for £229.95.
Another alternative is the 11.6in touch-screen Asus VivoBook X200CA with an Intel Celeron 1007U, 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive. This is an older design, though you could also say it has stood the test of time. (It’s descended from the Asus S200E, which I liked a lot.)
If you decide to splash out, there are lots of variations on the Lenovo Yoga 2 convertible touch-screen design with 11.6in and 13.3in screens. The Lenovo Yoga 2 11 starts at around £389.99 (N3520, 4GB, 500GB), or you could go for a silver model with a 13.3in screen for £429.95 (Core i3-4030U, 4GB, 8GB+500GB). Is that a lot? You could spend more on a tablet or smartphone.
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