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Computer Buying Guide

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Consumer Reports Online

Article courtesy of ConsumerReports.org

 

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Tablets have gotten so popular that even laptops and desktops are trying to emulate them. With Windows 8, Microsoft makes your computer more like a tablet by placing touch capabilities front and center. Meanwhile, Apple updated its new operating system with social networking in mind, making sharing with friends and across devices the focal point of Mountain Lion. Laptops and even all-in-one desktops continue to get thinner and lighter. For example, as you're shopping around you'll find Ultrabooks, which are laptops with Intel-mandated standards for thinness, performance, and other features. You'll also find thinner and lighter laptops with AMD processors, such as HP's series of Sleekbooks. And with its latest all-in-one iMac, Apple offers a desktop computer that measures just under 0.2 inches thick.

Here are some of the new features you'll see in computers:

Touch screens. Touch screens have been available on all-in-one computers for some time. But with Windows 8's emphasis on touch, laptops are also getting touch screens. Even better, Microsoft mandated the use of 10-finger touch for Windows 8, providing a better touch experience than the prior-generation two-finger touch. Computers with touch screens do cost more, however. You don't need a touch screen to take advantage of Windows 8, although it does add to the experience.

Enhanced touchpads. Most Windows 8 laptops also have enhanced touchpads, which add multitouch gestures especially geared toward the new operating system. For example, swiping from the right on an enhanced touchpad will bring up a group of tools known as Charms. Having an enhanced touchpad on your laptop somewhat makes up for the lack of a touchscreen.

Gesture controls. You use gesture controls by waving your hands in various ways in front of the computer, to control volume, fast-forward or rewind videos, scroll through photos, and the like. Supplied by third-party software, this capability is also popping up on some desktop computers.

Hybrid drives. These combine a traditional hard drive with a small solid-state drive (SSD). The SSD stores start-up files for fast start-up or resume, while the hard drive provides plenty of storage space.

Do you need a new computer?

Before you replace a sluggish computer, try these steps to beef up its performance:

Delete programs you no longer use. If that isn't enough, and if the computer is no more than four years old, add 1GB of memory. Adding memory is an inexpensive and easy way to upgrade your computer.

If you're running out of hard drive space, burn your music, photos, and videos onto CDs or DVDs, or onto an external drive, and delete them from your hard drive. To gain storage space, consider adding a hard drive. (Adding an external drive is an upgrade even a novice can do.)

If you're running Windows, run its Disk Defragmenter utility. That will help your hard drive access files faster.

If none of that works, and the computer is more than four years old, it's probably time to replace it. Be sure to recycle your old computer, but don't forget to wipe your hard drive first. We recommend Eraser, available free at http://www.eraser.heidi.ie, for Windows-based computers. Apple computers have an erase feature built in.

Windows or Macintosh?

With Microsoft's recent release of Windows 8, Windows computers in a sense get two user interfaces rolled into one operating system. One is the familiar Windows desktop (without certain Windows 7 features, such as transparent windows). The other, a touch-friendly design, uses a mosaic of large, rectangular tiles for each app (or accessory). You can run each by touching its tile or clicking on the tile with a mouse. Many of the tiles are "live," meaning they are constantly updating, such as letting you know you just received a new message. There are two versions available: Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. PCs purchased between June 2012 and January 2013 can be upgraded to Windows 8 for $15 until the end of February. Windows 8 Pro is available for purchase until the end of January for a $40 download, or $70 for a DVD.

The latest version of Apple's OS X operating system is Mountain Lion. Don't expect any noticeable performance enhancements here, but the many new features added to the operating system make it an interesting upgrade, especially if you have more than one Apple computer (for personal use only), have an iPad or iPhone in the family, or are a fan of social networking. Users of Lion and Snow Leopard, the two most recent prior versions of OS X, can upgrade for $20.

Types

 

Choices among computers can be confusing. New desktops can actually be as small and inconspicuous as some laptops. Some laptops offer features and capabilities that rival those of traditional desktops. And with the launch of Windows 8, there's a new category of computers that have a full computer operating system but with hardware that mimics or converts into a tablet. Here are some types of computers to consider.

Desktops

The desktop computer has become just another appliance you use every day. However, consider these pros and cons of desktop computers in general:

Pros: Desktops deliver more performance for the money than laptops and are less costly to repair. They allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment, let you work on a larger screen, and typically come with better speakers. Desktops are available in various styles and configurations, all designed to appeal to different tastes--and uses.

Cons: With the exception of all-in-one or compact computers, most take up a lot of space, even with a thin monitor.

All-in-one

These computers incorporate all components, including the monitor, in one case. The components are tightly packed behind and underneath the display, making them difficult to upgrade or repair. Meant to be space-savers, they're also designed to look less stodgy than traditional computers. You'll pay a premium for these models.

Compact

At less than half the size of full-sized desktops, compacts or slim desktops are ideal if you lack the space under your desk or you plan to put the computer on your desk. Like their larger brethren, compact desktops tend to be inexpensive. But they may be more difficult to upgrade and repair.

Full-sized

Though they require a lot of room under or on top of your desk, full-sized desktops are the least expensive and the easiest to upgrade and repair. They also offer the most features and options.

Gaming

The sky's the limit for gaming systems. You get the fastest processors, the most sophisticated graphics cards, multiple large hard drives, and lots of RAM. Cases are usually large and offer room for expansion.

Laptops

Laptops let you use your computer away from your desk, but you pay for that mobility with a keyboard that's a little more cramped, a higher price, and sometimes, reduced performance. They're also more expensive to repair than desktops. Technological advances have lessened the performance compromises for the most part, however.

Some new Ultrabooks have solid-state or hybrid drives, for fast boot and resume-from-sleep speeds, and some have ambient light sensors that automatically adjust screen brightness. Intel specs battery life to be at least 8 hours, and the models we've tested have hit the mark. Intel also wants computer makers to hold the price to less than $1,000. Although vendors are shooting for price points lower than you're used to seeing with thin-and-lights, some may find that number hard to reach. Still, you can expect to see more Ultrabooks with prices hovering around $700. Some Ultrabooks are also likely to incorporate touch screens by the time the touch-oriented Windows 8 rolls around, but that could add to the price.

Such thin-and-light laptops have long been available in the form of Apple's MacBook Air. Models with AMD chips are also available. Other features might include non-metal chassis for reduced cost, GPS (their small size makes them suitable for use in cars), and proximity sensors that automatically turn the unit on when you're at the keyboard.

Whether your main consideration is portability or power, screen size will be an essential factor in deciding which type of laptop is right for you:

Pros: Laptops can travel. They can do most things desktops can do, and they take up less desk space. They're easily stowed after use.

Cons: Laptops cost more than comparably equipped desktops, and they are more expensive to repair.

11- to 13-inch

If you're planning to carry the laptop around with you frequently, an 11- to 13-inch model is probably the right choice. In our tests of 13-inch laptops, we found you might have to sacrifice some speed. But you'll also lighten your load by 1 to 3 pounds, compared with 17-inch models. These laptops also have many of the same features as larger models, including webcams and memory-card readers. Some models shave a few ounces by leaving out the DVD drive.

14- to 16-inch

This size range generally offers the ideal balance of performance, portability, and price. At about 4 to 6 pounds, it's a good choice if you take a laptop along less frequently. Such a laptop can easily be configured as a desktop replacement. Until recently, only 17-inch-and-larger models had graphics processors with dedicated video memory, but now some 14- to 16-inch models have them, making them suitable for gaming. Laptops with AMD's new A-Series processors, though they have integrated graphics and shared system memory, are also suitable for gaming. For photo editing, our tests of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display ($2,200) reveal its screen has the best color accuracy we've seen, as well as being one of the crispest.

17-to-18-inch

For an entertainment oriented desktop replacement, this model delivers better performance, a good-sized screen, and better speakers. It will cost more than a comparable desktop, but it's handy if you have space constraints or will use the computer in multiple areas of your home.

Convertibles

Windows 8's tablet-like features make convertible laptops a more appealing category. These look like a regular laptop, but the display either pulls out of the keyboard or twists around and lays flat so it can be used like a tablet. What distinguishes them from tablets is the full version of Windows 8 that they use.

Netbooks

Netbooks are basically downsized laptops with 10-inch screens and smaller keyboards and touchpads. They weigh about 2 to 3 pounds, cost $250 to $400, and are suitable as secondary computers for performing routine tasks. The best offer lighter weight, larger keyboards and trackpads, and longer battery life. All include a memory card reader and webcam.

Performance is slow, so if you plan to use one to watch videos, get a model with Intel's dual-core Atom processor. (If you want to watch a DVD, you'll need to buy an external optical drive.) Tablets seem likely to replace netbooks. Some manufacturers have reduced the number of netbooks they offer, or stopped making them altogether.

Pros: Netbooks are lighter, smaller, and less expensive than most standard laptops, making them great for travel. Battery life is generally long.

Cons: Netbooks have small displays, keyboards, and touchpads, and their performance is slow. You'll need an external optical drive if you want to install software from a disc or play CDs or DVDs.

Tablets

Lightweight and highly portable, tablets are made to be carried wherever you go. They're multifunctional, serving as Web browser, e-book reader, digital picture viewer, movie viewer, and music player. Most of our top picks are very easy to use, have a display with a wide viewing angle, and can download apps from a market approved by the maker of its operating system. They weigh from just under a pound to about 1.5 pounds and have 7- to 10-inch touch screens. Many have webcams. In our tests, battery life ranged from 4 hours to nearly 13 hours. (See our Tablets buying guide for more.)

Pros: Small and light, these multifunction devices have touch screens. Their small size and weight make them highly portable. Battery life can be as long as 12 hours. A wide variety of inexpensive apps is available.

Cons: Tablets are not ideal for office productivity tasks, such as those that require a lot of typing. But you can add a keyboard to many.

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