Category Archives: Hardware

How to Buy a Laptop – The rest of the numbers and specs

This is part three of our series on buying a new laptop. We’ve already covered CPU comparisons as well as the meaning of the primary specifications that you’d see in a laptop ad. Today we’re going to look at the secondary specs to give you some idea of what they mean. The big number, the price, is only one of the things you should look at. A low price does not always represent good value. Sometimes, spending just a bit more money can get you a lot more computing power. Here are the links to the previous posts on this topic:

How to Buy a Laptop – Comparing CPUs

How to Buy a Laptop – What do all these numbers mean? 

Take a look at this photo which compares three different laptops:

Photo of Buying a Laptop - The other numbers   1
Something is missing in the middle one. Can you find it?


These specs apply to the laptops that we compared in our last two posts. The things to look at on this comparison, and almost all sites have a comparison setup like this, are these:

Native Screen Resolution – This is where a cheap screen will show up. All three have good resolution but if one had lower numbers, the display would not be as crisp as one with higher numbers.

LED Backlit Display – You should ONLY look at laptops with LED screens. If the spec says ‘LCD’, move on to something else (that includes big screen HD TVs as well). LED screens mean longer battery life, plain and simple, as well as cooler temps and substantially lower power usage. There is no difference in how the screen looks to you so only buy a laptop that has an LED display.

Touchscreen – With Windows 8 and its crazy new features, plus the preponderance of tablets, touchscreen is something that is offered on laptops these days, usually at much higher cost. We can’t see these sense of this so we’d advise to stick to a mouse/touchpad arrangement.

Processor Cores – Four cores is better than two cores, two cores is better than one. Once you’ve checked out the CPUs by reading our previous post, you’ll know all about these specs anyway. Higher speed often means higher power consumption. Unless you’re editing video or recording sound frequently, you don’t need anything extreme here.

RAM Slots – The left and right laptops have one open RAM slot. This means that you could add more RAM later on. The middle laptop has both slots full but it has three times the memory of the other two. If you sacrifice some RAM for a lower price, check to see if there is an open slot so you can add more later on.

Optical Drive –  We think we’re experts, right? When we saw that the middle laptop, the one with all of the great specs, DID NOT have an optical drive, we were shocked. An optical drive, in case you don’t know, is a CD/DVD unit. This laptop, even with all of its delicious specs, does not have one. Make sure you check that the laptop you want has one of these. You can always add an external drive for $20 to $30 but that removes the portability factor. Can you see why you have to make a shopping list AND check the specs before you buy a new laptop?

(Please note that Chromebooks and ‘netbooks’ do not come with an optical drive. No use looking for one that does, NONE of them do. Chromebooks and netbooks are different beasts completely. We’ll do a post on these hybrids later on.)

Built-in Card Reader – Virtually every laptop has a card reader like this. This makes taking the photos from your other mobile devices (phones/cameras) much simpler. Take out the SD/micro SD  card and pop it into your laptop. No wires and no fuss.

Here are more specs to check:

Photo of Buying a Laptop - The other numbers 2
Blah, blah, blah…right? No, there are a couple of important specs here.

We won’t explain all of these since most of them don’t mean much to the average buyer. Here are the ones that we think you should look for:

Bluetooth – This addition would make using a Bluetooth earpiece for conversations on Skype very smooth. It’s not something we would look for but the middle laptop has ‘integrated Bluetooth’. If you use it, you need it. If not, it’s not something we’d add to our shopping list.

Approximate Battery Life/Battery- Number of Cells/Battery Capacity – The hours of use are fairly irrelevant since we don’t know the criteria used but all three of these have decent times shown. The second part, the number of cells, is more important. If you see a good price, make sure they aren’t scrimping on the battery. Dell has recently supplied two cell batteries with their low end laptops. Two cells? That’s not only cheap, it’s just about criminal since very few people look at this spec. The middle spec reads ‘4’ cells, right? The spec that comes next explains why there are only 4, not 6. The middle laptop is sold with a battery that’s over 50% bigger, as far as mAh (milli-amp hours) is concerned. That’s a hefty rating, believe us.

Pre-loaded Operating System – All three have Windows 8, of course. The two on the right use Windows 8 64-Bit. What does that mean to you? Basically, it means the two on the right are better laptops. They have a better CPU that can handle the load that comes with the 64-bit version of Windows. The laptop on the left is under-powered and can only manage the 32-bit version. But, and this is important, the laptop on the far right has only 2 Gigs of RAM. Remember that. Windows 64-bit needs/eats/consumes RAM and, even though it’s offered with 2 Gigs on the laptop on the right, don’t expect it to set any speed records. Your computing will be slow and you’ll be very frustrated while you wait for things to happen. As we said earlier, 4 gigs is a minimum these days, 6 or 8 is what you should look for.

We’re done! Now you’re armed with enough knowledge to make an educated decision when you’re in the market for a new laptop. If we’ve missed something, let us know. If you have questions about anything on this (or any other) topic, make a comment below and we’ll answer as quickly as we can. We love comments, questions, suggestions from our readers.

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How to Buy a Laptop – Comparing CPUs

In the last few months, we’ve purchased two laptops. Because of our interest in this area, the process was relatively stress-free and, believe it or not, quite fun. For you, this whole strange world of confusing numbers and specifications might be very scary indeed. Over the next few posts we’re going to outline some of the differences you should look for when buying a new laptop. By the time we’re through, we think you will feel a lot more confident when shopping online. Why online? Our experience tells us that the customer service reps in the various stores do not know what they’re talking about. The presence of a salesperson just adds more stress, something you don’t need when you’re spending a few hundred dollars of your hard-earned cash. Shopping online can be done at your leisure, any time of the day or night.

The Basics

Laptops are the portable computers that have a screen that folds down onto the keyboard. That may seem obvious but you will see many other mobile computing devices, tablets for instance. Tablets don’t have a separate keyboard as standard equipment and the simple act of inputting words is much less convenient. For these posts, laptops are our concern. We don’t consider tablets to be real computers, they’re more of a toy, at least as far as getting work done.

Laptop Categories

Right now, laptops come in a few different forms. Not only are there different sizes, there are at least two different types you might see. The difference between these two types has to do with their storage capacity. Google has recently come out with what they call a Chromebook. HP, Samsung and some other manufacturers make these Chromebooks. They differ from all other laptops in two ways. First, they don’t run a standard OS (Operating System). Instead, they use the Google OS, as opposed to Windows or the Apple OS or Linux. Second, the Chromebooks have very small storage capacity. Google figures that most of us are online all the time anyway, so they’ve come up with the idea of storing everything online, in the Cloud, instead of on a hard drive. We just bought a Chromebook but these posts deal with laptops with conventional hard drives. We’ll do a separate post on Chromebooks at a later date.

Laptop Sizes

Small laptops, often called ‘netbooks’, can be as small as ten inches. This is the measurement of the screen, measured diagonally. Netbooks are fun, very portable but difficult to type on and, usually, very slow. Beyond that the sizes range from thirteen inches up to about eighteen inches. If there is a standard size, one that matches portability with usability,  you would likely want to look for a laptop that has a 15.6″ screen. This size usually has a full keyboard, often with a number pad on the right, and large keys, not the ‘chiclet’ kind that you see on a netbook.

Comparing CPUs

We’ll get into some of the other laptop specs later but we’re going to demystify the CPU today. What’s a CPU? Basically, it’s the brain of any computer. If you personify any computing device, the brain controls how fast that device thinks. Remember those ‘Intel Inside’ ads from a few years ago? These ads were telling you that the brain inside that computer was made by Intel. At that time there were other CPU manufacturers but these days there are two main makers, AMD and Intel.

Here’s what we see when we check out laptops on a popular website:

Photo of Comparing Laptop CPUs   1
Two Lenovo laptops, different specs and different CPUs.

Pricing and other specs aside, these two laptops have different CPUs. The top one contains an Intel Pentium 2020M while the lower one has an AMD E1 1200. How on earth is anyone supposed to keep track of these numbers or know what they mean? Most of this is deliberate on the manufacturer’s side. Even if you do manage to remember one type of CPU, the names are always changing. Here’s how you can compare CPU specs very quickly.

1. Go to

2. In the search slot, type in the first CPU name, e.g. Intel Pentium 2020M, then type in ‘vs. then the name of the second CPU, AMD E1 1200 in this case. This is how it should look:

Photo of Comparing Laptop CPUs  2
No caps needed, just letters and numbers.

3. Take the first link that comes up,

Photo of Comparing Laptop CPUs  3
Click the link to find out which CPU is best for you.

We’re not sure how they do it but once you type in two CPU descriptions, a page is created that compares one to the other.

4. This is the result of this comparison:

Photo of Comparing Laptop CPUs  5
We thought the more expensive CPU would be best and we were right.

5. For the more discerning searchers, here is how CPUBoss came up with their recommendation:

Photo of Comparing Laptop CPUs  6
Various test results.

5. OK so CPUBoss thinks the Intel CPU is best. This is based on the results of the various tests they put the chips through. You might find it interesting to scroll down the page, at least in this example, to see one interesting difference between the two CPUs.

Photo of Comparing Laptop CPUs  7
Not a whole lot of reason to choose the AMD…except one.

In our example, the Intel is the better choice but the AMD CPU will use about half the energy of the Intel chip. It also has a built-in graphics processor, uses less power but, unfortunately, runs a bit hotter than its competitor. Going back to the original ad, ignoring the other specs again, we see the better CPU is also $120.00 more. Here is where you have to weigh the extra cost against the better performance. The Intel doesn’t seem to be worth the extra money, at least in this case. If other criteria were similar, we’d choose the AMD but in this case, we wouldn’t buy either one. The less expensive laptop doesn’t have enough RAM, only 2 gigs instead of our required minimum of 4, plus both are overpriced.

This exercise shows you how to compare CPUs, taking obscure combinations of numbers and letters and turning them into something a whole lot more meaningful and comparable.

Next, we’re on to the other specs in this same ad. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading!





What is an RMA?

We go through a fair bit of hardware here at Computers Made Simple. Sometimes that hardware doesn’t work correctly or fails after a period of time. If the item is still under warranty, we have to go through the RMA process. RMA (Return Merchandise Authority) can be confusing. Here’s what we know about it.

Last month, we had a Western Digital (WD) 2 TB hard drive fail. We spent hours and hours trying to recover as many files as we could from it, then decided to get a new drive under warranty from WD. We’ve done many RMAs in the past and every one went smoothly. This one didn’t.

The first step in any RMA process is to contact the manufacturer. This can be done by telephone or email but you can sometimes use a contact form on a website. We used the contact form on the WD website to begin the RMA process. The manufacturer must authorize the return, hence the RMA acronym. Each piece of hardware that comes back to a company must have an RMA number on it. Keep that in mind.

Photo of RMA screen
Everything looks efficient on the WD site…but isn’t.

WD emailed us back, explaining that there were two types of RMAs. We already knew this but here’s the low-down on that. Once the company approves your RMA, you could simply send them the faulty product and they will send you a replacement. You pay the shipping one way and they pay the shipping back to you.

Alternatively, you could use the advanced RMA process. The company will charge you a nominal fee for the replacement product, then ships it to you. Once the replacement arrives, you return the faulty product and the company gives you a credit for the same amount that they charged you in the first place. In our case, WD charged us $150.00 for the drive (we only paid $69.00 for it originally) and gave us 30 days turnaround time to get the faulty drive back to them. Initially, this seemed like the best option. Oh, were we wrong!

WD now says that the 3-5 day turnaround is only good in the United States. As you know, we are in Canada.  We really don’t see what the difference is here because the drive is a replacement drive, it’s not something that we purchased. Since it is being shipped as a replacement, it should sail through Customs. WD also says that we could ship the drive back to them before the new drive arrives. This means that we’ll be out the shipping costs. (As it turns out, we shipped the drive off today and will have to absorb the shipping costs ourselves.)

It is now 15 days since the drive was shipped to us from WD. Remember that we only have 30 days to get the drive back to them, right? We are in Canada, not Timbuktu. We get shipments from the United States almost every week. There is no reason on earth that a drive shipped from the U.S. would take two weeks to arrive at its destination in Canada. WD uses UPS, that might be the problem. If you are ever going to ship something, DO NOT USE UPS. The United States Postal System is far better than UPS, as are Purolator and FedEx.

The process usually is flawless. Sometimes, as in our case, something goes wrong. At that point you have several options. We took to Twitter and shouted about it there. We emailed WD several times as well. So far, 15 days into this, the drive is somewhere between WD and us.

We’ve had good experiences with Dell, with HP/Compaq and with Staples. It’s always good to check online to see what experiences other people have had. Usually tech products work very well but when they don’t, you have to go through the RMA process. Hopefully, your experience will be better than ours.

At this point in time, there are only three or four companies who make traditional, as opposed to solid-state (SSD), drives. They are Toshiba, Seagate and Western Digital with Hitachi showing up at some vendors. Many of our old drives from Samsung, Fujitsu, etc. are still working perfectly. Are WD drives reliable? Usually they are. Right now, the only thing that isn’t reliable is the WD RMA policy! It looks like Hitachi has the best warranty, 5 years. Whatever drive you get, make sure you check the warranty before you buy it.

Photo of NCIX extra coverage offer.
Compare the coverage that NCIX offers. (That’s Esther up at the top.)

Tip: Some vendors, NCIX is one, offer what they call “Express RMA’ as an extra-cost option when purchasing a product. On their hard drives, three years of extra protection costs under $50.00. Some products are worth this extra money, some aren’t. It’s up to you to decide. Because of the problems we’ve had with WD, we’re going to spring for this coverage on our next purchase from NCIX.

Update: According to Western Digital, the drive is held up in Canada Customs. We’re not saying that WD isn’t being truthful but we have been around international shipping since 1976 and only rarely have shipments been ‘held up in Customs’. If indeed the shipment, supposedly a whole skid of drives, is in Customs, we suspect that it’s UPS’s fault, not WD’s.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve had problems with RMAs or Western Digital, please let us know.


More Gifts for you Computer

In my last post I discussed gifts that involved the care and cleaning of your computer. Today, I’ll discuss some real gifts to spruce up your rig. Cost will be an important criteria so we won’t be getting into a new video card, know what I mean?

1. Keyboard: A new keyboard can add a whole lot of fun to your computer experience. If you are still using the plain, generic keyboard that came with your computer, why not spring for something better, something with more pizazz! Instead of the normal F keys on top and a number pad on the right side, some keyboards add a significant level of control. This means that you can manage things like the sound volume, the eject button on your DVD unit, fast forward or rewind with your media player or even such things as opening web pages or Google search. You’d have to load drivers for some of the new boards but you should be used to that by now.

2. Mouse: As with the keyboard, a new mouse will add some flare to your daily computing life. The two major prerequisites would be USB connectivity and optical (as opposed to a wheel). Every mouse sold today is  USB and I haven’t seen a wheel mouse to years but you never know. If you are a gamer, you can buy a mouse which allows you to control many different aspects of your favorite game, assigning weapons, for instance, to certain buttons. You can consider wireless with both of these gifts but I have found the battery replacement to be a pain. Wireless is mandatory if you use your computer for a media centre but there are custom remotes with digital keyboards that might be better.

3. A USB Key: You may call these flash drives but they are the same thing. Right now, a 32 gig drive can be had for around $20.00. With a drive that size, you can do a few things to make your work go faster. You could use the drive to enhance your RAM. (Here’s a post on about how to do it.) It’s also possible to load a complete operating system on a large flash key, allowing you to avoid using a slow hard drive. Linux has different packages for this and there are many portable apps out there which add  good amounts of fun and function. On netbooks without DVD drives, you could add movies to your flash key and play them from it instead of always using your desktop. This would be faster than streaming but not as fast as copying the movie or video to your netbook hard drive.

4. A New Monitor: CRTs are dead, LCD is the only way to go. Let me rephrase that a bit. LCD is dead. LED is the way to go. If you are energy conscious, consider getting one of the new LED monitors. Bright, long lasting and very energy efficient, these new LED units are a joy to use. Stick to a brand name such as Dell, Asus or any of the other recognizable names. If you see a good deal on a non-brand name monitor, at least do some research on it.

5. Chairs: A few years ago I sprang for a very comfortable, high back office chair. It reclines, swivels and has arms. It’s light so it rolls fairly easily on carpet. I don’t regret the purchase one bit. Ten years or so later, it still works perfectly. Head over to your local big box office supply store and take a seat in a few display models. Whatever you do, don’t get something cheap. I’ve seen a couple of  accidents with cheap chairs, one which could have ended very badly as in spinal or brain injury. Get a brand name or something that is solid. Cheap plastic legs won’t last. Watch for sales or sign up for email newsletters which sometimes include discount coupons. Have some fun with this and make sure you get something that supports your back adequately. Oh yeah, my chair goes up and down, too. To be really comfortable, you have to be at the correct height, right?

6. Speakers: I like to listen to music while I work. Cheap desktop speakers don’t cut it for me, not since I’ve been spoiled by 5.1 surround sound. Logitech is my company of choice for speakers. I have at least five sets around the house. You can choose a solid 2.1 unit or pay a bit more for a mid-range 5.1 setup. The .1 means a sub-woofer which is pretty much mandatory these days. The centre speaker of a 5.1 system usually sits on top of the monitor with the bracket already built-in. Some monitors have speakers with them but, personally, I’d steer clear of these. Multi-function devices usually scrimp on quality, I’ve found.

Happy Holidays and Happy Computing!

Thanks for reading.

Give Your Computer a Holiday Gift

It’s the holiday season, people. Your computer has given you a year of yeoman service, right? Why not treat your trusty workhorse to a nice gift for the holidays? Here are some suggestions:

1. Clean it up! If you use a desktop, carefully remove the cabling on the back, take the side panel off and vacuum the interior. I’m sure you will find lots of dust bunnies in there, specially if you keep it on the floor. Make sure you vacuum around the power supply intakes, the front intakes (take the front panel off to get to the dust underneath it) and the bottom of the case. If you are really a techno-weenie, remove the cooling fan from the CPU and vacuum the fins of the cooler itself. If you’re not technically minded, get a buddy who is to do that for you. You don’t have to take the whole cooler off, just the fan. Four screws usually do the trick.

2. A Vaccination Shot: If you haven’t done a virus scan in a while, make sure this is one of the first things you do for the holidays. I use Avast , the free version, and it works well. Just this week I did a fully system scan. First I ran it overnight because a full scan takes hours on my large drives, then I did a boot scan the next morning. Microsoft Security Essentials works well, too. Personally, I wouldn’t pay for an anti-virus program but you’re on your own if you want to spend your money that way. There are plenty of free or very low cost pieces of software that do the job. Lastly, download Malware Bytes and run it. Hopefully you won’t have any malware but if you do, Malware Bytes will get rid of it.

3. Update Everything: If you have everything set to update automatically, there still might be some software or hardware around that needs renewal. Your router? A firmware update is always a good idea. Your BIOS? Your fancy multi-function keyboard? I’m sure you will be able to find something to update. Most software gives you the option to update automatically and that’s always a good option to choose. I know Apple is a total pain with updates for iTunes and iCloud, etc. as is Windows. Whatever your feelings are on that, updates are generally better than the current version of most software. It takes time, sure, but it’s worth it.

4. Back Up : If you haven’t set up an auto-backup system for your computer, now is a good time to archive your personal data. DVDs are cheap and lost data is expensive. Digital photos don’t come with negatives. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Time to download Burnaware and get busy. It’s free, fast and simple. Do it now, don’t put it off.

5. Get Rid of the Crumbs : My keyboard has served me well all year, helping me write hundreds of thousands of words. It’s time to unplug it and suck out the Triscuit crumbs. While I’m at it I will get a damp (not wet) J-cloth and clean off the various coffee and scotch spills. If you share the keyboard, maybe it’s time for a rub down with some anti-bacteria cleaner, too. Just don’t get it wet! If it does get a few drops of water inside it, put it in the sun for an afternoon to evaporate the moisture.

6. Watch It! : When your monitors are on, they look pretty clean but I can guarantee they probably aren’t. Get a soft cloth, dampen it and give the screen a wipe. Don’t use anything other than water and don’t spray the screen directly. Make sure your soft cloth is only damp not wet, grease free and lint-free. There are special cloths that you can pick up at the local big-box computer accessory store for this purpose. You don’t need any fancy liquid, just water.

Happy Holidays!

Thanks for reading.