My mum is looking to buy a new laptop after Christmas. Her budget is tight: around Â£200. She uses it for Microsoft Office, browsing the internet (reading the Guardian) and watching TV. I suggested a 32GB SSD drive â which would be really quick â as she will use USB sticks, SD cards and the cloud for storage. I saw one for Â£160, but if she bought that, she would need to buy an external DVD drive for burning music to CD etc. Would it just be easier to stay safe and get a standard laptop with a hard drive? Charlie
There are two kinds of laptop at the low end of the PC market. First, there are traditional laptops, where the base system has a 15.6in screen, 4GB of memory, a 500GB or 1TB hard drive, and (usually) a read/write DVD drive. These machines are not very portable and donât have long battery life, but they do the job. Current prices range from around Â£250 to Â£500.
The second type is much like a netbook, albeit one that doesnât meet all the netbookâs now-obsolete specifications (such as a 1024 x 600-pixel screen). They are designed to be thinner, lighter and cheaper than traditional laptops, and they usually have much better battery life. The base system typically has a 10in or 11.6in screen, 2GB of memory, and 32GB of Flash storage. The touch-screen models often double as tablets: their screens are detachable or have 360-degree hinges that make them into 2-in-1s. Current prices range from about Â£150 to Â£300.
The hardware specifications of new-style netbooks are very similar to Chromebooks and they sell at much the same prices. Like Chromebooks, they are designed for web-based computing, though they can do much more. They can still run traditional Windows programs, such as Microsoft Office and Apple iTunes, and they can easily use external DVD and Blu-ray drives and other peripherals.
Traditional laptops are usually bought as desktop PC replacements. New-style netbooks and Chromebooks are better seen as companion devices that supplement either a desktop PC or laptop â though they could be seen as upgrades for people who only have smartphones or tablets. New-style netbooks are great for casual computing, and for carrying around in handbags, but they compromise on screen size, CPU power, and storage.
Beware of 32GB âSSDsâ
Contrary to what you think, netbooks do not have SSDs (solid state drives) â or at least, not the kind of SSD that can replace a standard hard drive. PC manufacturers often describe them, accurately, as eMMC (Embedded Multi Media Card) drives. They are more like SD storage cards soldered to the motherboard. They are used in smartphones, tablets and low-end laptops because they are very small and very cheap, but they donât perform anything like real SSDs. Indeed, while eMMC chips load data faster than traditional hard drives, they wonât always write data faster.
Apart from that, I think 32GB Flash memory drives are too small for traditional laptop uses. Microsoft has reduced the size of Windows 10, partly by compressing the Windows files, but itâs going to get bigger with use. There will be numerous upgrades, growing log files, swap files, and large caches of temporary internet files. (When I removed Google Chrome, it had about 1.3GB of temp files.)
Windows 10 is getting in-place upgrades twice a year â the Creators Update is coming soon â and these are installed as new operating systems. So, you need space for the current version of Windows 10, space for the new version, and space for a backup copy of the old version, which is preserved so you can roll back the upgrade if something goes wrong. Augustâs Anniversary Update needed 10-20GB of free space to install, and it wouldnât install on my 32GB 2-in-1. which had 9GB free. I had to plug in an external hard drive.
Looking three years or six upgrades ahead, I canât see a 32GB drive coping without some massive clean-ups. Significant upgrades may have to be downloaded separately and installed from a USB thumb drive.
Since eMMC drives canât be upgraded, I recommend buying PCâs with 64GB instead of 32GB.
Stick with tradition
Your mother sounds like a traditional laptop user, and if she wants to install Microsoft Office and assemble tracks to burn audio CDs, sheâd be better off with a traditional laptop. This is a different scenario from someone who wants a very light PC to carry around, whose data is online, and who streams everything instead of saving and owning it.
Of course, traditional laptops are more expensive than new-style netbooks, but if you include the cost of an external DVD, thereâs not much in it.
Although no PC manufacturer now makes traditional laptops to sell for Â£250, you can still buy them for less than that. You can get bargains in the sales, refurbished laptops (which come with a guarantee), and second hand machines. Some companies, including HP, do their own refurbishing and sell Grade A laptops that are almost âas newâ, except for coming in plain boxes. Some companies, such as Tier1Online, sell ex-corporate systems that may have been heavily used but can still be good value.
You will have to shop around. Argos often has sale bargains, especially on Lenovo equipment. Currys PC World sometimes has special deals. Laptop Outlet, on the Tottenham Court Road in London, has deals and refurbished machines. Itâs also worth checking online suppliers such as Laptops Direct, eBuyer.com, Morgan Computers and so on.
At the moment, mumâs best bet could be the 15.6in Acer Aspire ES with a quad core Intel Pentium N4200 processor, 4GB of memory, 1TB hard drive and read/write DVD, which Argos is selling for Â£199.99 (was Â£299.99). The exact model is not specified, and the Pentium N4200 runs at 1.1GHz to 2.5GHz, not the 2.6GHz in Argosâs blurb. However, itâs a decent processor and makes the machine good value for money.
An alternative is the Lenovo IdeaPad 110 with the same specification, except for its much slower dual core Intel Celeron N3060 processor. PC World is selling this model online for Â£249.99, or for Â£269.99 in store.
Laptop Outlet has a refurbished 14in HP 14-AM012NA with the same slow Celeron N3060 and a 500GB hard drive for Â£219.99. However, refurbished ThinkPads tend to be better value. For example, you could get a Lenovo ThinkPad T420 â a business workhorse â with a 2.50GHz Intel Core i5-2520M, 320GB hard drive and Windows 10 Pro from Eflex on Amazon.co.uk for Â£229.99, which undercuts Tier1online. It may have a second-generation Core i5 but itâs still faster than a seventh-gen Core i3-7100U. (It runs at 35W instead of 15W, but your mother wonât care.)
In passing, itâs hard to find real SSDs at this price level, but Laptop Outlet is selling new 11.6in Lenovo ThinkPad 11e laptops with 128GB SSDs for Â£249.99. This is a tough, military-spec system designed for use in schools, and current models start at Â£549.99. The LO version has no DVD and is still running Windows 8.1, but it might suit someone with a child who needs assistive technologies.
Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com