I too am looking for a laptop for my son. He turns 14 in October and will be starting his GCSE courses. He will mostly use it for school work in Microsoft Office. (He tends to use his PlayStation for games.) He’ll also want to store videos – so plenty of storage is paramount – and he wants to create videos for YouTube. My budget is £300-400.
I have taken note of your recommendations in an earlier article, Which laptop should we buy for our child? Paula
Last year I noted that many schools were adopting Windows detachables or two-in-ones, and these now have a wide market. Their main advantages are that they do double duty as tablets and laptops, while being both portable and very cheap. They also tend to be reasonably robust. Teenagers tend to break laptop hinges, and that’s generally less of a problem with detachables. In fact, some models have no hinges to break.
The drawbacks with cheap 2-in-1s are that they don’t have enough memory or storage for much serious work. They usually have only 2GB of memory and 32GB eMMC Flash memory drives, which work more like SD cards than SSDs (solid-state drives).
These machines are certainly capable of handling email, YouTube and iPlayer videos, social networking, web browsing, word processing and general school work. They can run Microsoft Office programs, though you’d probably not want to run more than two at once. However, they don’t have enough storage for anyone who wants to make and/or keep videos, and they don’t have enough processing power to do much in the way of video editing.
In fact, the amount of importance you ascribe to video editing may well govern your choice.
Today’s mainstream laptops come in two varieties, which can be roughly characterised as new and old. The new ones are convertibles with hinges that allow you to fold the screen back through 360 degrees for tablet use. These PCs are usually thin and light, and they are designed for portability. Lenovo pioneered the 360-degree hinge with its Yoga range of laptops, but now almost every PC manufacturer has similar models. The HP and Asus versions are also worth a look.
The old ones are traditional laptops of the sort you could buy a couple of decades ago, albeit for many times the price. They usually have 15.6in screens, and many still have built-in DVD or Blu-ray optical drives. They have large hard drives rather than new-style SSDs, and they don’t offer long battery life. You can move them around easily enough, but most of them are not designed for portability. You wouldn’t want your son to carry one to school.
If you decide on a new-style convertible, look at the Lenovo Yoga 300 and 500 ranges – your budget means you can afford a Yoga 500, but probably not a Yoga 700 or 900. You should be able to pick up a Yoga 500 with a 14in screen, Intel Core i3-5005U processor, 4GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive for £349.95, and this week, John Lewis is offering them with a free three-year guarantee.
This would be a decent all-rounder, and it has more than enough storage space. It should also be able to handle YouTube videos, which are usually short and not high resolution (eg 480p or 720p). However, you can also find Yoga laptops with 8GB if you shop around, and sometimes they go for on sale for very low prices.
The Dell Inspiron 11 3000 range of 2-in-1s is also worth considering and is now stocked by John Lewis. You could get one with a slower Intel Core M3-6Y30 processor, 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive for £329.95.
If you decide on an old-style laptop with a 15.6in screen, there are endless options. Have a look at the Asus X555LA and similar X55 models, the HP Pavilion range, and the Lenovo IdeaPad 300.
All these come in dozens of variations, with the processor being an important component of the price. The cheaper models will have Atom-based Pentium or slower Celeron processors. After that, the price climbs as you move up from a Core i3 to an i5 or i7.
The price also increases according to the age of the processor, which is shown by the first number in the string that identifies the actual chip. For example, a second-generation – now very old – chip would be identified as a Core iX-2xxx and a fifth generation as a Core iX-5xxx. Seventh generation Core chips, codenamed Kaby Lake, are on the way.
For example, you could get an ASUS X553SA with a Pentium N3700 for £279.95, a Dell Inspiron 15 5000 with a Pentium 3825U for £349.99, an HP Pavilion 15 with a Core i3-5157U for £349.98, or a Lenovo IdeaPad 300 with a Core i5-6200U for £399.95. All four have 8GB of memory and 1TB of storage and would be fine for most purposes. However, the fast Core i5-6200U would be far better than the slow Pentium N3700 for video editing.
At this price level, there’s not a huge amount of difference between leading brands such as Asus, Dell, HP and Lenovo. It’s best to visit a store such as John Lewis or PC Warehouse and check them for rigidity, keyboard quality, screen brightness and so on.
Most people who dabble with video do some editing. It may be as simple as topping-and-tailing camera footage, grabbing clips from longer videos, joining clips together and adding titles, or converting videos between different formats (avi, mp4 etc). You can do things like this with almost any PC, but a slow machine will take much longer.
In general, a video-editing PC should have the fastest processor you can get, the maximum amount of memory, and the fastest possible hard drive or, preferably, SSD. The minimum for serious work is 8GB of memory and a Core i5, but professionals would be more likely to go for a desktop PC with 16GB to 48GB of memory and a Core i7. Processor speed doesn’t matter that much for word processing, email and casual web browsing, but it really does matter for video editing. It can be the difference between a 5-minute job and one that takes an hour.
Of course, it depends what you’re doing. You need a high-end or gaming laptop – or a desktop PC and a render farm – to process long, high-definition movies with lots of effects. You don’t need anything that much power for editing YouTube videos. It’s possible to produce acceptable results on a smartphone, or you can edit videos online at YouTube and other websites. But still, other things being equal, it’s better to have a fast chip than a slow one.
NotebookCheck has a Comparison of Mobile Processors table online where you can find benchmarks for most current processors. You don’t need to bother with the results: the chip nearest to the top of the list is probably the best. At the moment, for example, the Core i5-6200U is in 169th place, the M3-6Y30 is 311th and the Pentium N3700 is 484th.
If two processors are on the same page on the table, there’s probably not enough difference to worry about. If they are as far apart as those three, it matters.
Have you got a question for Jack? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com