PRODUCTS

By Ben Hart,

Working from home: The case for buying a laptop

This week we’ll be looking at some of your options when buying a laptop. For many, the portability that a laptop offers is non-negotiable. It’s true that a desktop machine will provide you with more bang for your buck, but there are some excellent laptops available right now at reasonable prices. In this article we’ll mainly be focusing on Windows laptops, with Chromebooks getting a brief mention too. If your heart is set on an Apple, be it a MacBook Pro or an iPad Pro – whether because you’re used to, or prefer, Mac OS (or iPad OS for that matter, or you prefer Apple’s understated yet often stunningly beautiful design language, or you just enjoy throwing money down the drain, then we’ll be covering those next week. That last point was perhaps a bit unfair, and as Windows users, we will have our inherent biases, but we will attempt to be as impartial as possible.

Platforms

You have a number of options when buying a laptop. Windows and Mac are the most obvious platforms, but Chromebooks have their place in the market, and Apple’s latest generation iPad Pros, when attached to their “Magic Keyboard” (sold separately, naturally), can achieve many, if not all of the tasks that many laptop users will be looking for. As mentioned, we’ll be looking at Windows and Chromebook devices in this article, but look out for our article on MacBooks and iPads next week.

Windows

Windows is the most widely used operating system in the world, used by around 80% of all laptop users, and is the most open of the four platforms we have mentioned here, having by far the widest range of compatible software and hardware. Although Windows isn’t quite as user-friendly as Mac OS, it is still very easy to get started with. You will need to put in a bit of effort to get the most out of Windows, but there’s plenty of advice available both online and in the real world. Most applications and games are first designed for Windows, then if the developer decides to, “ported” over to other operating systems. This means applications often run better on Windows. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to Apple’s first-party software, which is optimised to run exclusively on Mac OS. Windows laptops are generally cheaper than Apple’s MacBook and iPad Pro machines, although often not as cheap as Chromebooks.

If you use Microsoft Office, want the best specced machine for a particular price, want the widest availability of accessories and software, or you’re just used to using Windows, then we have some suggestions below for some of the best Windows laptops out right now.

Chromebook

Google’s Chromebook platform – based on a version of the operating system Linux – was launched nearly a decade ago, offering excellent value for money, almost to the point that one might wonder whether Google was offering some incentives to the manufacturers of the devices – the likes of Acer, Asus and Samsung to name a few – to make the things. We do know that they offer Chrome OS for free to manufacturers, unlike Microsoft, whose $80 odd licensing fee they charge to PC makers can constitute a significant chunk of the price of a more budget oriented Windows machine. Perhaps if they had taken a larger market share then the various regulators and competition watchdogs that the US federal government, the EU and nations like Germany seem to be in love with would have taken a keener interest in Google’s practices here. As it is, the Chromebook has carved out its own small but stable niche in the market, with casual users, students, consumers on a tight budget and educational institutions being among its most loyal userbase.

As well as their followers, Chromebooks have their detractors too. One anonymous poster on the site Quora said this: “(Chromebooks) aren’t real computers. Real computers have hard drives, file management systems, and file creation programs such as Word or Photoshop. A Chromebook provides no interface for managing and creating files, and is actually more of a thin client to get you on the world wide web. You cannot store or modify files. In fact, you’ll only have access to the world wide web, which isn’t even the entire internet.”

While it’s true that the Chrome OS relies almost entirely on an internet connection, they can still be used for many of the everyday tasks that casual users will want to perform; web browsing, emailing, word processing or using spreadsheets, streaming films and TV shows – all of these can be done on a Chromebook. You may find that the device will slow down if you have too many tabs open at once, and too many processes going on at once, but for general, casual use, they provide an excellent value for money solution to your basic computing requirements.

We’ve selected a few devices at different price points for you to compare, and to give you an idea of what’s available. For more extensive information, sites such as TechRadar offer regular reviews of the latest laptops.

Google’s low-cost alternative

ASUS C233 Chromebook – £199.99 from John Lewis

Demonstrating Chromebooks’ excellent value for money is this ASUS model, pictured left, for under £200. Obviously at this price the specs are very basic, and we wouldn’t usually recommend a machine with less than 8GB of RAM (this model has just 4GB – less than many smartphones) or a processor as low powered as the Intel Celeron installed in this device, but Chromebooks aren’t meant to do intensive computing – they are for basic tasks, relying on access to the internet, and to Google’s web services in particular, to perform their duties. For everyday computing this may well suit your needs at an incredibly reasonable price, and from a respected name in retail too, so you can be confident that in the case of something going awry, you’ll be able to get things sorted without too much bother.

For

  • Excellent value proposition, we cannot emphasize this enough
  • Pleasing, polished aesthetics
  • From an established and reputable, bricks and mortar British retailer

Against

  • Low powered Intel Celeron processor
  • Measly 4GB of memory
  • Unable to perform more intensive tasks

A mid-range Windows laptop

HP Pavilion 15-CW1507SA Ryzen 5 – £599 from Currys PC World

This laptop from computing heavyweights HP features an excellent price to performance ratio, with a solid specification at a reasonable price. Packing a four-core AMD Ryzen 5 3500U from AMD’s most recent third-generation of processors, 8GB of DDR4 memory, a full HD / 1080p resolution touchscreen display, a 256GB solid-state drive and some stellar connectivity, with the latest USB 3.1 and USB-C ports combined with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Also featuring Bang & Olufsen tuned audio, an SD Card reader and an impressive claimed battery life of nine and a half hours, this model offers many of the same features as its more expensive sibling, the ELITE DRAGONFLY below, but for less than half the price.

For

  • Excellent value for money at just £599
  • Smart and sophisticated good looks
  • Decent specification
  • Great connectivity

Against

  • 256GB of storage may run out rather quickly for some users
  • At this price, not much else

Upper mid-range laptop with discrete graphics card

ASUS ROG ZEPHYRUS G14 – £1,099 from Scan.co.uk

This laptop, sold under Taiwanese tech behemoth ASUS’s ROG (Republic Of Gamers) brand, is intended primarily for gamers, but its inclusion of a discrete graphics card make it an exiting option for anyone wanting to work on video or photo editing, or 3D rendering, at a price far more palatable to the average consumer than a dedicated, professional workstation. It comes with a solid stack of quality mid-range components, with a brand-new six-core AMD Ryzen 5 4600H processor in combination with an Nvidia GTX 1650Ti graphics card, a 512GB ultra-fast NVMe solid-state drive and 8GB of DDR4 RAM, all contained within a beautiful magnesium-aluminium housing, with 6,536 perforations, with customisable LED lighting, as seen in the picture above displaying the Republic Of Gamers logo.

For

  • Discrete GPU allows for more intensive graphical workloads
  • Distinctive and inviting aesthetics
  • Ultra-fast NVMe drive with enough storage to be getting on with
  • Good value for money

Against

  • Discrete GPU welcome, however an Nvidia RTX 2000 series card would have been even more welcomed
  • 60Hz display may be a put off for some users interested in gaming
  • 8GB of RAM a little on the low side


The laptop that means business

HP ELITE DRAGONFLY – starting at £1678 from HP

The HP ELITE DRAGONFLY is an ultra-light laptop that proves, much like the Serbian turbo-folk masterpiece by Goga Sekulić – Sexy Biznismen – business doesn’t have to mean boring; rather than the drab looks usually associated with business oriented machines, this device is incredibly easy on the eyes, with its “dragonfly blue” finish and altered HP logo. It’s also a two-in-one, meaning that it can be used in both laptop and tablet mode, with a touchscreen display that can be used in either mode. In their marketing, HP claim that their device is lighter than air. While we haven’t actually weighed it, we suspect this to be an exaggeration. Despite that, it’s an excellent, if pricey machine, with its starting specification featuring a 13.3-inch FHD / 1080p resolution touchscreen display, four-core, eighth-generation Intel Core i5 CPU with onboard graphics processing, a healthy 16GB of DDR4 memory and 512GB of ultra-fast NVMe solid-state storage which is further accelerated by 32GB of Intel Optane PCIe storage. All models feature Windows 10 Pro with HP’s excellent proprietary “Sure” suite of security software to protect the device against malware, viruses or any other type of attack, and come with HP’s three-year warranty to cover you should anything go wrong. You also get Bang & Olufsen tuned audio and first-rate connectivity with Wi-Fi 6, two USB-C type Thunderbolt ports, USB 3.1 and HDMI ports as well as Bluetooth. The range starts at £1678, with an upgraded version featuring a more powerful Intel Core i7 processor, 4K (2160p) resolution touchscreen display, with HDR (High Dynamic Range) for eye-searing colours, and added 4G mobile internet connectivity available for £2026.80 from HP’s online store. We should probably add that the actual weight of the base model is just under a kilogram, so it’s light but not lighter than air as HP claim.

For

  • Stunning good looks
  • Powerful specifications available
  • Generous three-year warranty
  • 16GB of memory enough for the vast majority of users
  • All models come with ultra-fast NVMe solid-state drives
  • HP’s exclusive suite of security software
  • Fantastic connectivity

Against

  • Slightly underwhelming choice of CPUs – we would have liked to have seen ninth-generation, six-core Intel Core processors on offer
  • Rather expensive
  • Lack of a discrete GPU means that the machine will not cope too well with more graphically intensive tasks such as video editing

The powerful gaming-ready monster

HP OMEN 17.3″ Gaming Laptop – £1999 from Currys PC World

Here we have another great laptop from industry titans HP, this time aimed at gamers, although it will also provide an excellent and powerful machine for productivity; many a video editor will find this device more than capable of handling 4K video and rendering it in a relatively short space of time, with its combination of a brand-new tenth-generation Intel i7 10750H six-core processor and Nvidia RTX 2080 Super graphics card. You also get a perfectly respectable 16GB of DDR4 memory, and plenty of storage with an ultra-fast 512GB NVMe solid-state drive combined with a 1TB traditional hard-disk drive. Screen-wise, it’s not a touchscreen, but it is a full HD / 1080p resolution display with a high 144Hz refresh-rate, with Nvidia’s G-Sync variable refresh-rate technology to sync the graphics card’s frame-rate with the display’s refresh-rate and avoid any stuttering, skipped frames or frame tearing, something gamers will massively appreciate. Another thing the gamers will appreciate is the ethernet port – these are becoming less and less common on laptops, and a hard-wired internet connection will always be more reliable and suffer lower latency than a wireless connection, as convenient as a wireless connection is. You do also get dual-band Wi-Fi so you can connect to your router wirelessly should you choose to – the point is that you have the choice at all. You also get the latest and greatest Bluetooth 5.0, as well as USB-C, Thunderbolt, HDMI and USB 3.0 ports, so connectivity-wise, this is probably the best specced laptop here.

For

  • Powerful Intel Core i7 processor
  • Powerful discrete graphics card
  • 16GB of memory again enough for the vast majority of users
  • Plenty of storage with both a 512GB solid-state drive and a 1TB hard-disk drive
  • Unparalleled connectivity

Against

  • The looks may not appeal to everyone
  • An eight-core processor would have helped with multitasking
  • We would have forgone the hard-disk drive in place of a single 1TB NVMe drive


High-end Windows machine with dual 4K displays

ASUS ZenBook Pro Duo UX581GV – £2799 from Currys PC World

This impressive machine from ASUS has not one but two displays, with one of them being a 15.6-inch 4K / 3840 by 2160 resolution OLED  touchscreen, and the other a secondary, 14-inch touchscreen, also with a 4K resolution, albeit with the top chopped off, giving it a 3840 by 1100, ultra-wide resolution. The secondary screen, as you can see in the picture, sits above the keyboard, and offers some extra screen space so valued by video editors or other professional users, who this laptop is aimed at. The dual-display setup is not the only high-end component either; the specification is rammed full of top-tier parts including an unlocked, eight-core Intel Core i9 9980HK processor, a discrete Nvidia RTX 2060 graphics card, 32GB of DDR4 memory and 1TB of ultra-fast NVMe solid-state storage. Connectivity-wise, this laptop benefits from the latest Bluetooth 5.0 and Wi-Fi 6, Thunderbolt over USB-C, 2 USB 3.1 ports and an HDMI output, however it lacks an ethernet port, which is a shame because a hard-wired internet connection is always the best option wherever available for the highest reliability and connection quality. It’s not unusual for laptops to not feature an ethernet port, in fact it’s pretty much the norm, but at this price, combined with the fact that gamers may well buy this system, including livestreamers – for whom the kind of low-latency internet connection that an ethernet connection offers is a must – it’s disapointing not to see one included. Nevertheless, this is a powerful machine for creatives, packing some impressive specs.

For

  • Unique dual-touchscreen setup, including an excellent OLED main display
  • Powerful specification including top-end Intel Core i9 processor
  • Discrete Nvidia RTX 2060 graphics card
  • 32GB of memory is more than enough for most users but welcome nonetheless
  • 1TB of ultra-fast NVMe solid-state storage is also very welcome

Against

  • Some users have complained about the keyboard and trackpad layout, with the trackpad being moved to the right-hand side to make way for the secondary screen
  • Lack of an ethernet port, as mentioned, is disappointing when this is a system that will appeal to gamers, especially those who livestream their gaming on platforms like Twitch
  • There have been reports of poor battery life by some users

Whichever platform you choose, be sure to do the research and check the specification. For a Windows or Mac machine, ideally, we’d go for a minimum of a four core processor, or even better, six core. 8GB of RAM is the minimum we’d recommend, with 16GB being optimal. We’d also recommend a minimum of 500GB of solid state storage, and preferably of the NVMe type. Obviously, if you go for a Chromebook or an iPad the specs will be lower, but these devices are fundamentally different, and as such the usual rules don’t always apply. An iPad Pro in combination with its Apple Magic Keyboard peripheral, can act as an excellent alternative to the traditional laptop, while Chromebooks are a fantastic low cost option for students or casual users who won’t be performing any CPU intensive tasks.

If you want to perform tasks such as video editing, you’ll need a discrete graphics card, unless it is only the most basic video editing you plan on doing, and you don’t mind waiting a while to render and export files.

Laptops have superseded the desktop as the most common type of computers that people use, and their portability is something a desktop cannot compete on. However, the extra engineering required to fit all the componentry into the smaller footprint devices will always result in a price premium. A top end laptop like the Asus ZenBook Pro costs £2799, yet contains components that you would likely see on a desktop costing half the price. Unless you really need that portability, we’d recommend a desktop, and if you want the best value for money, a Windows desktop. However,  there is a fantastic range of laptops available right now, and these are just a few of the options available; the laptop market is pretty saturated and there are many offers to be had. If you shop around a bit you can often find yourself a great deal.

In our next article in this working from home series we’ll be looking at the Apple MacBook and your options for buying one of those devices. We’ll see you then.

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