17 October 2012

Time For A New Desktop, Laptop Or Tablet? First thoughts.

Once upon a time if you wanted a computer you really had just two choices: something big with lots of parts and cables or something portable. A desktop or a laptop. That made decisions fairly easy. Now, life is much more confusing.

There are still desktops and laptops but we now have notebooks, netbooks, ultrabooks and tablets or pads.

As if that wasn't enough, most of us would have only to choose between a Windows or Mac operating system and that was pretty easy - you tended to be a big fan of one of the other or there was a clear case of which best suited what you wanted to do with it and price was quite a significant factor too.

Now we have Windows and Apple's IOS but Google have now properly entered the game with Android.

Some mobile phones, or smartphones as they're better termed now, are almost big enough to be considered as a computing device option for some too but that could really get complicated with Blackberry and others in the mix.

So, with a desktop that is beginning to look and feel a bit slow and a laptop that is noisy, gets hot enough to heat the room and is unbearable on a lap for long and with little more than an hour's unplugged use, it's time to get some new kit. But what? This is a simple run through of what I've found so far. The gamers and those to whom money's no object out there will not approve of my choices, I know, but this may be helpful to those who may have been getting as confused as I have by terminology and the huge range of prices.

A desktop still has many attractions. I tend to switch one on in the morning and it runs all day, being the main workhorse that runs all the programmes I need and where all my files, especially photos and documents are stored. I am increasingly storing documents on-line with Google Drive and working copies of photos on Picasa albums on-line but it will be a long time, if ever, before everything is stored there and, even if it's just for back-up, I can see I'll need a huge local hard drive of some sort that, for a while yet, a desktop provides.

There are nice quiet systems available now which are almost unnoticeable, not that my 4 year old one is at all noisy. My son's, which had a graphics card and power supply upgrade is a lot noisier though so he'd appreciate a newer, quieter box of some sort or size.

Windows 8 would still be the only choice for me as I tend to experiment with software and the things I use regularly, like web design software, design and photo editing software and even Office-type software, albeit to a lesser extent, need Windows and I would have to replace everything if I were to switch to a Mac. With a desktop I can hang on to the decent 19" screen and other ancillaries for a while which all work fine. I would really miss the lit keyboard keys at night so definitely want to avoid losing that. To get the most out of Windows 8 reports say that a touch screen is needed so, in due course, I may have to change the screen but initial prices are likely to be high and, actually at the moment, I can't imagine myself stretching out across the desk to wipe across the screen anyway. I like the screen at quite a distance away and I'll be quite happy to stick with the keyboard and mouse for some time yet which I am sure will be more efficient for much of my more detailed work. The swipe and drag screens are brilliant on phones and clearly suit tablets but I just don't see it being much use with a desktop and I'm sure new types of mouse movements and even good old keyboard commands will do for a while yet.

Something else a desktop will do well is act as an entertainment centre. I already have a decent set of speakers so it would also function well as my CD/DVD/mp3 player and even a radio, TV and video player quite adequately.

The key requirements are a fast processor - at least Intel i5 or AMD equivalent, a graphics card that can cope with most normal requirements (I'm not too worried about the really intense games, just as long as videos and the occasional game my son will play are reasonable), at least 4GB of RAM and a simple DVD player / burner would be useful.

A decent unit from Mesh would cost under £500 for that sort of spec so that's looking good.

Just as I was writing this I discovered while looking for something else an article on PC Advisor's Stateside site where they manage to do all this for under $500 but, of course, they can build it themselves which I can't!

For those that can, though, here's the actual components that PC Advisor (in the US) used to make their own:
Processor: AMD A8-3870K 3.0GHz Quad-Core Desktop APU - $108.99
Graphics: XFX Radeon HD 6570 1GB Graphics Card - $44.99 (after a $15.99 mail-in rebate) Motherboard: ASRock A75M-ITX Socket FM1 Mini ITX Motherboard - $89.00
Memory: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory - $46.99
Storage: Seagate Momentus XT 500GB 7200 RPM Solid State Hybrid Drive - $79.99
Case: BitFenix Prodigy Mini-Tower - $79.00
Power Supply: Corsair Builder Series CX430 430W Power Supply - $24.99 (after a $20 mail-in rebate) Optical Drive: Lite-On iHAS124-04 DVD Burner - $16.99

[ Here's a link to the PC Advisor article ]
I like the sound, or lack of sound, of the new solid state drives and the idea of liquid cooling but these features are still quite expensive additions. The only thing I would like to change is the size of the flaming units. I had a lovely Shuttle about 8 years ago and iCubes offer some interesting devices which look neat and small. You can configure your own and I managed to get something with an i5 processor, a decent graphics card and 4G RAM in a new Shuttle or iCube box for about the same price as the Mesh desktop that met my requirements. That included a 64GB SSD drive which ought to help speed things along and keep the noise down too. That's not a lot of space but maybe I can figure out a way to utilise my old hard drives or spend a bit more if I can't so that's not a big problem for the benefit of the better appearance and space saving.

So for the main unit that's on all day and would do the most work, this Shuttle might have the edge.

Now, for something portable. I have been quite envious of colleagues whipping out their tablets (usually iPads) at meetings so I wondered whether there'd be anything in that line that would do what I needed.

If you need something to carry around, and to work with rather than just use on-line applications, then it will, again, need to be a Windows 8 piece of equipment. An iPad or Android tablet simply won't run any software I want to use so, attractive though devices are, they would seem to be luxury extras rather than essential tools at the moment. I need also to beware Windows 8 RT which I understand to be rather different to Windows 8 so the new Windows Surface devices don't look to be contenders either.

Something that does look attractive is the new Lenovo Yoga which looks like a laptop but the screen can slide to make it a still very thin tablet. But it looks expensive. Similarly the ASUS Transformer which has just come out, is beautifully made, with a screen that actually detaches as a 'real' tablet or locks in to work like a laptop. That's expensive too and is an Android machine so rules itself out on both counts if needed to run local programmes.

Looks like I'll have to give up on the tablet front then.

So, for the portable option, it's either a laptop, notebook, netbook or ultrabook. It may be a good idea sort these out once and for all. As far as I can gather, laptop = notebook so let's stick with laptop for now. A netbook would appear to be a small laptop, screens of up to 10" or maybe 11". They seem to be almost all Windows - one or two 7 inch running Andoid from makers I've never heard of - with a fair bit of choice but not as much as for ultrabooks. Now, ultrabook is a marketing term for a laptop that has been built to a specification set by Intel, in order to ensure a high-quality user experience. The requirements change as new chips are released and, for Ivy Bridge systems, currently include fast startup, a maximum thickness that varies according the screen size, and a battery life of at least 5 hours. So they're laptops without DVD drives made really thin and, ostensibly, with higher end processors, presumably Intel.
Read more ]

Netbooks are lovely little things and could cope with day-to-day software. You'd need to use a portable DVD drive to install stuff. Most come with Intel Atom or AMD's equivalent lower end processors and integrated graphics which are OK these days but not exactly brilliant, although they'll do for most purposes. They are so small, though, that they're far more likely to be used just for checking things on the net for which an Android machine or tablet will be just as good and, with all the free apps available, offers more flexibility in terms of what you can make it do for you on-line.

I'm not too bothered about how thick or thin the device is so it looks like a fairly boring sounding, standard-size, laptop will be the answer at the end of the day, despite all the wonderful new gadgets that are coming along. One with normal Windows 8 should be fine for a few more years. 

There are ASUS laptops with i5 processors, 6GB of RAM and all the features you'd need for about £400, including better cooling and sensitivity control that prevents the trackpad working when you accidentally brush it with a palm. Something like that would seem to make sense, provided you weren't using it all day long.

This is still a bit disappointing, though. I had hoped I might find something that didn't need to be clumsily opened up and which took a while to get going while my colleagues were busy slipping out their tablets and showing each other this or that before I'd even found the start button which, of course, doesn't exist any more. In fact, I am wondering whether I can get away with hanging on to my lap burning device for some time until someone does produce a tablet at a price I can manage that does let me work on some local design software like Serif or play music without an internet connection.

That seems to mean no laptop after all. Wait and see what happens with tablets.

It does seem that most of the tablets are very much 'luxury items' by which I mean they're not exactly needed for anything. That doesn't mean I don't want one - just that I don't really need one. My Xperia phone provides a fast and smart-looking browsing experience and will play movies and whatever else I might need it to do while lying around on the sofa, in bed or in the car. So, if I do persuade myself that I ought to have one I would be inclined to ignore most of the reviews that compare them to laptops in some shape, form or another and instead just get something that has a nice display that works. Android would, I think, be essential at least until Windows populate their apps store and possibly afterwards too, with the attraction of ever-improving free operating system upgrades.

I am very tempted by a Nexus 7, though. Just £190. Even though I don't need it. I would be able to join the 'have a look at this' club.

And put some of the £300 saved towards making a really good Shuttle or iCube perhaps. 


Eamonn Hayden said...

If you like, I'd happily stick that PC Advisor thing together for you some time I'm around.

Andrew Hill said...

Funnily enough I was thinking of asking whether you'd be interested in helping construct something!
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