Buying guide: Desktop PC vs. laptop

Should you buy a desktop PC or a notebook computer? Our guide will help you decide

Shopping Checklist: Desktops and Laptops

• Processor type

There are several types of CPUs (central processing units), and most now have more than one processor in them, known as 'cores'. Ensure that you choose a laptop or PC with a dual-core CPU, which means it has two cores, as it will perform better when running multiple applications simultaneously. Some desktops also give you the option of tri-core or quad-core CPUs, which have three cores and four cores respectively. Gaming PCs and machines designed for video editing will often have a quad-core CPU, and some laptops will also have a quad-core CPU.

• Processor speed

Ask how fast the CPU is. The CPU is an important component of any computer and will affect the performance significantly. Within any specific range of CPUs it’s safe to assume that the higher the frequency (e.g. 2.4GHz, 2.66GHz, 3.46GHz) the faster it is. This cannot be said from one range of CPUs to another.

• RAM

Ask how much RAM (random access memory) the system has and how much it can be upgraded to at a later point. RAM is important because it helps run many programs at the same time. Generally, more RAM will speed up your computer.

• Graphics

Find out what graphics card the computer comes with. The better the graphics card the better you will be able to play games — so if that interests you, this is critical.

• Hard drive size

Ask what size hard drive the computer has. Hard drives are important as they store all your files and information. The bigger they are the more they can hold.

• Upgrade

Ask what upgrade options are possible. Most desktop machines can easily have new parts put in, while some laptops cannot. Hard drives and RAM are usually the only upgrade options for laptops, while you can add and upgrade many components to a PC. If you want to improve your computer later on, this is an important point.

• Screen size

Ask about the size of the included LCD screen. Depending on what you will use the computer for, a big screen may be very handy. For example when watching movies, playing games or looking at several documents at once it can make the task simpler and more pleasant.

• Laptop weight

Ask how much a laptop weighs and even test out the weight yourself. Weight is very important for laptops because they will be carried around. It's important to also know what the combined weight of the laptop and its power supply is, as you'll need to carry it with you between home and office or classroom.

• DVD burner

A DVD burner drive is an essential part of a laptop or desktop PC. It can be used to read CDs and DVDs and it can also be used to write to CDs and DVDs — a great way to back up your files, music and favourite videos. DVD movies can also be watched using a DVD burner. If you also want to watch Blu-ray movies on your computer, buy a machine with a Blu-ray combo drive built-in, which that can also burn to CDs and DVDs.

• USB ports

Ask how many USB ports the computer has. USB ports are needed to connect extra devices, so if you have lots of devices you will need multiple USB ports. It's also good with a desktop PC if there are USB ports at the front of the computer that are easy to access.

• ExpressCard slot

Many new laptops will have an ExpressCard slot, which is a rectangular slot on the side of the laptop. The ExpressCard interface is a high-speed one that can be used to plug in devices such as 3G data cards and even a digital TV tuner.

• Networking

Ask about the PC or laptop’s networking options. Most computers these days have built-in networking, which will save you from buying extra equipment later on. Some networking options are faster than others, so ask which is better and why you may or may not need it. Most laptops will have built-in wireless networking, but PCs generally don't come with wireless networking capability.

• Video ports

Ask what video ports are available. VGA is used to connect the PC to a monitor. DVI is also used to connect the PC to a monitor; however, it offers a better quality picture than VGA. Some computers might also have HDMI, which can be used to connect to a big-screen TV. Component, S-Video and composite are video ports that are often shared with TVs and projectors. Component offers better quality than S-Video and S-Video offers better quality that composite.

• Operating system

Check which operating system the computer comes with, and investigate operating system upgrade options. Most desktops and laptops include Windows 7. However, there are different versions of this operating system. Look into this to determine if the operating system has all the features you need, as it can be costly to change operating systems later.

• Speakers

Ask if the PC comes with speakers. Buying a PC with speakers included in the package can save you buying them separately. In the case of laptops, ask about the quality of the speakers, or try to listen to them. Most laptops will come with built-in speakers, but the quality varies greatly.

• Keyboard, mouse and other peripherals

Ask what peripherals come with the PC. Some desktop PCs don’t come with any peripherals, such as a keyboard or mouse, and this will add extra cost.

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