When buying a new laptop, make these your minimum requirements:
- An Intel i3 processor
- 8 GB RAM
- 500GB storage
- At least two USB ports, one of which should be USB 3
- HDMI Out
If you prefer installing software from CDs or like to watch DVDs on your laptop, be sure to get a model with an internal DVD drive as well.
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In Part 2: RAM and Storage, we discussed RAM and storage and how they affect the performance of a computer. This installment involves features that are often overlooked but that are very important in their own right, the screen and keyboard.
Because most people use a notebook these days, screen size should be an important consideration. This is because you will likely look at the screen frequently or even all day. The vast majority of notebooks available today come with a screen that is 15.6″ (measured diagonally) with a resolution of 1366×768. That means that there are 1,366 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically. This is good enough for most people, but if you work a lot with high resolution photos you will want a higher resolution screen, such as full HD at 1920×1080 pixels. On Apple computers, the high-resolution screens are called a “Retina Display”. You may have to order such a system online or directly from the manufacturer, although they can be found at retail in some cases. Note that a higher resolution screen will make your computer more expensive.
There are a few different technologies used for notebook displays, and they can be quite technical to explain in an article like this. Instead, when evaluating a system, focus on viewing angles. While looking straight at a notebook display, you should see bright, rich, even colors. If you move to the left or the right (and in some cases up and/or down) you will see the colors start to “wash out” or become less vivid. The amount of distance you move from dead center before noticing color changes can help you gauge the quality of the screen. Higher quality screens will allow you to see great colors even at odd angles, which is good if you will often have someone looking at the screen with you. Lesser quality screens will wash out much sooner, and sometimes will even display “banding”, where a gradation in color will look like distinct bands of changing shades.
Glossy vs. Matte
While most retail computers come with a glossy screen, many find them to be annoying in bright light situations. Matte screens are available, but tend to be an extra cost option and are often only available when ordering direct from the manufacturer.
Of all the things to consider when purchasing a new computer, one of the most overlooked is the keyboard. Because it is the single most used part, it should be given a great deal of consideration. The bad news is that even on some expensive models, keyboard quality can vary wildly. They can feel mushy, or make too much noise, be too cramped, etc. Testing the keyboard in a store is very important. A noisy keyboard could be a problem in a crowded classroom. A keyboard that is too mushy or lacks sufficient key travel (the distance that the key moves when pressed) may prove to be uncomfortable during long typing sessions.
Notebooks with 15.6″ screens usually have a dedicated number key pad to the right of the keyboard. This is useful for anyone who often types numbers. Notebooks with smaller screens will usually not have dedicated number keys. Desktop computer keyboards virtually always have dedicated number keys.
Here are some things to look out for when evaluating a keyboard:
- A solid feel on the outer edges, but a mushy feel (or flexing) in the center keys.
- A clicking or thumping sound when pressing keys on the perimeter.
- Poor key travel, making it difficult to touch-type because you can’t tell if you pressed hard enough.
Backlit keyboards are great for situations where there is not enough light to clearly see the keys when typing, but this feature is usually only found on more expensive models.
For Part 4, we’ll take a look at the many different types of laptops available, including 2-in-1’s and detachable tablets.
Other posts in this series:
Last time, we looked at multi-core processors. But the processor is just one part of what makes a computer fast. RAM (memory) is just as important.
Remember our office? memory can be thought of as the size of the desk that each worker has access to. If you have a tiny desk (low memory), you’re limited as to how much you can do and how organized you can be. If you have a large work space (more memory), you can spread out and work much more efficiently.
Memory is the space that a computer uses while it is operating, similar to a notebook that is used while working, but the notes are discarded when no longer needed. If the computer doesn’t have enough memory to do what it needs to, it has to temporarily offload some of its information to the hard drive (storage), a process known as Swapping. Because the hard drive is many times slower than memory, swapping slows everything down. Having more memory reduces the need for swapping and keeps things running at a fast speed.
Most consumer level computers come with 4GB of memory, and that is adequate for most needs. In general, you should avoid any system, laptop or otherwise, with less. There are many low-cost 2GB systems available, but their performance and intended use cases will be insufficient for the vast majority of people. If you have specialized needs such as video or audio editing, very large spreadsheets or databases, then a computer with 8GB of memory or more will be appropriate for you.
The next thing to look at when evaluating a computer is storage. In our office, storage would be the equivalent of the file cabinets that hold all of our important information. Storage is often confused with memory because they are measured the same way, in Gigabytes. Of course, the more gigabytes, the better. Most computers currently available come with a minimum of 500GB of storage, which is enough for the average user. If you take a lot of very high resolution photos to be stored on your computer, have a very large music and/or video collection, or want to work with editing video, a larger drive will be in order. Remember that you can always add an external drive for extra storage. These drives come in many capacities and are very reasonably priced.
What’s the difference?
Basically, the thing to remember is this: Memory is temporary, while storage is permanent. More of both is good, but especially memory.
Coming next: a look at other factors to consider when buying a computer, such as the screen and keyboard.
Other posts in this series:
The processor (or brain) of your computer works much like a traditional office. Historically, that office was occupied by a single worker, known in computer speak as a core. Work was done in a methodical fashion, with each task needing to be complete before another could be started. That single worker (core) could go faster sometimes when needed, but when multiple tasks needed to be done, they quickly got bogged down. Over time, dual-core processors were developed to increase performance and efficiency, and are now the standard.
A dual-core processor basically adds a second worker to the office. Now two tasks can be done at one time. Naturally, it would appear that two workers would be twice as fast as one, but in reality that is not true. Someone has to manage the tasks assigned to each worker, and that management process slows them down a bit. In computer speak, that process is called Overhead. Because of overhead, two workers (cores) are faster than one, but not quite twice as fast.
These days, it is also common to see quad (four) core processors. Again, four cores are not four times faster than one. The overhead involved in managing four cores is generally greater than that of two, so the speed gains, while often significant are not a four-fold increase.
With the rise of smartphones and tablets, you may now see octo-core (eight core) processors, and specialized computers can have even more. The same basic rules apply: the more cores there are, the more management is needed to coordinate their workloads, so an eight core processor is not necessarily eight times faster than a single core processor.
The number of cores means nothing if the software you use is not multi-threaded, or written to take advantage of more than one core. All modern operating systems are multi-threaded, but not all software you may use will be. Photoshop is a great example of a multi-threaded program, as it can assign tasks to multiple cores to operate much faster than if it had only one core available.
Multi-core processors are also good for people who like to run many programs at the same time. Again, the ability of the operating system and software to manage the cores, as well as the number of programs you are running will affect the perceived speed of the computer. I have often heard complaints like, “I have a quad-core processor, but why is everything so slow?” The answer to that is there are likely programs using three of the cores, leaving just one for whatever you are doing at that moment. In that case, you are effectively using a single-core system, and the speed may be perceived as slow.
So which one should you buy? Depending on your needs, a dual-core processor may be sufficient, especially if you mostly do basic web browsing and e-mail. However if you like to run many programs at once, always opt for a quad-core model.
Beyond cores, there are several other factors to consider when thinking of a computer’s performance. In the next post we will take a look at memory (RAM) and storage.
Other posts in this series:
Since Windows 10 was released about a week ago, I have received a lot of questions about it. Here are some of the most common questions and my responses to them.
What is Windows 10?
Windows 10 is Microsoft’s latest version of Windows, the operating system that runs on most computers. It was released to the public on July 29, 2015.
What makes Windows 10 different from past versions?
Windows 10 attempts to take the best parts of Windows 7 and Windows 8 and unify them into one operating system. In my opinion, they have succeeded at doing that. One of the biggest complaints about Windows 8/8.1 was the removal of the traditional Start menu, but in Windows 10 it has returned, with new features. Windows 10 also retains the speed improvements that Windows 8 had over Windows 7. In addition to PCs, Windows 10 is designed to work well with tablets and other touch-friendly devices.
How much does it cost?
If you are running a “genuine” (meaning legal and legitimate) version of Windows 7 (with Service Pack 1) or 8.1 (meaning it came pre-installed on your PC or you bought a legal retail edition) you can upgrade for free for one year. If your version of Windows is not genuine, you will need to purchase a legal copy of Windows 10.
How do I get it?
A. Microsoft has a site set up that explains the process here. You can reserve a copy now and upgrade at a later time.
Should I upgrade now?
In my opinion, no. As with any new operating system, it is always a good idea to wait a bit to ensure any glitches are worked out. I have already heard of a couple issues involved in the upgrade process, so I would hold off for at least a month or so. I have also had a few minor issues myself. However, once installed properly, it seems to run very smoothly. I am typing this FAQ on Windows 10, and so far I have not had any issues that would affect my ability to work.
Can I do it myself?
In the vast majority of cases, yes. If your computer is working fine, your upgrade should go smoothly. If however you have had a recent malware infection and you’re not sure that your PC is thoroughly cleaned, you should hire a professional and consider a “clean” install. That process takes longer but increases your chances of a smooth upgrade.
My computer manufacturer says my computer is “certified” for Windows 10. Why should I wait to upgrade?
“Certified” means that the hardware in your computer is indeed compatible with Windows 10. It does not guarantee that your upgrade experience will be smooth. If you have any type of malware or other software issues, the upgrade process may be affected. Again, waiting about a month for any major issues to be worked out is your best bet. Remember, you have a full year to upgrade for free.
I don’t know if my PC is compatible or not. How can I make sure?
If you are regularly installing Windows updates, you will eventually see a Get Windows 10 icon (a small windows logo) appear on your taskbar. Right click this icon and select “Check your upgrade status”. Then click the menu icon in the upper left of the window that appears and select “Check your PC”. ZDNet has a blog entry that explains this process with photos at this link.
Is there anything else I should know?
- Before performing any upgrade, backup your data. I know you are probably tired of me saying that, but it is so important. If something goes wrong and you have to go back to your old version of Windows, you may have to wipe your PC clean first. Without a backup, all your files, pictures, music, etc. will be lost.
- Check your computer to see if you have a utility that will create system recovery media. You will need at lest two blank DVDs for the process, but they will be needed if for some reason you have to go back to your original Windows version.
- Once you decide to take the plunge, read everything that is presented to you and think before you click; be sure you understand what is going on.
- Allow a few hours for the upgrade process to take place. Do not unplug or move your computer during the upgrade.
- Don’t attempt the upgrade during a storm or other weather event that may cause a power outage.
- If upgrading a laptop, make sure it is plugged into a wall outlet and that your battery is at least 50% charged.
Of course, if you have any other questions, you can send me a message via the form on the Contact page.
Managing a Google account, with all of its various services and settings, has become a difficult task. Apparently Google themselves realized this, and has consolidated many of those settings into a single tool called My Account.
Your Sign-in, Privacy, and Account preferences can all be managed from a central location. There are lots of options, and the sheer number is a reminder of how important it is to keep track of your online activities.
You can find the My Account tool at this link.
Instagram is a great way to share photos from your phone or other mobile device, but it also can be an effective marketing tool for your small business. Before you dive in though, be sure to make note of these tips.
If you have a mid to high end phone, you likely have a good quality camera that can be used for your marketing photos. If you are creating custom graphics on a computer however, you need to remember a few things.
It’s Hip To Be Square
Instagram requires square images. That means that any image that does not have a one to one height to width ratio will not display properly, even after cropping it in the app. If your image originated from a traditional digital camera or scanned photo, be sure to crop it to a square size that contains all the information that you want the viewer to see.
If you are creating an image from scratch, remember that the maximum size of a photo is 2048×2048 pixels, but you generally will be fine with anything that is at least 800×800 pixels. In a program like Photoshop, set your cropping tool to a 1:1 aspect ratio to insure a square image.
Posting is Mobile-only
Because Instagram is designed for mobile devices, you cannot post from the Instagram website on a computer. You will need to e-mail the image to an account that is accessible through your phone (or tablet), so that you can download the image. Once downloaded, the Instagram app can use it for a post.
Instagram is all about photos, but it’s the hashtags that get the attention. Use of hashtags will open up your images to a much wider audience, but it’s good to see which hashtags are getting attention for the type of image you’re posting. Use Instagram’s search function to look up common hashtags, and look at posts you like as well. Make a note of the hashtags that are appropriate for your post, and be sure to use them.
Instead of posting a ton of images at once, consider spreading posts out over the course of a day, or even several days. Rapid-fire posts not only clog up a user’s feed, they rob you of the chance to remind people about what you offer. Spreading posts out will make your posts more attractive and will provide a steady stream of images until your next batch.