Technology Buyers Guide - Computers, Tablets, Smartphones & more...

These days, it’s not unusual for individuals or families to have more than one type of computer. If you’re looking to carry your computer to work or on vacation, you obviously need a laptop. And some have slimmed down to weigh as little as a couple of pounds. If mobility isn’t a concern, get a desktop, because it’s very likely that you’ll get more performance for the same money, plus more flexibility in customizing the machine once you buy it. (That’s one reason lots of serious gamers have desktops.)

Those are two major categories of computer, but there are several variations to consider and we haven’t even mentioned the choice of operating system yet. Choices among computers are becoming more confusing as the boundaries between categories blur. For instance, some new desktops are almost as small and inconspicuous as a laptop. Conversely, you can easily find a laptop that’s just as powerful as a typical desktop. And then there are some slightly unconventional categories, such as laptops that can be used liked tablets and all-in-one desktops that don't need a separate monitor.

Desktop Computers - Many people have moved away from desktops in the past decade. However, they still may be useful for many consumers. Desktops typically offer more performance for the money than laptops and are less expensive to repair. They may allow for a more ergonomically correct work environment, generally come with better speakers, and allow you to view your work on a larger screen.

Full-Size Desktop - 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.

Compact Desktop - At less than half the size of full-sized desktops, compact or slim desktops are ideal if you lack space under your desk or if you plan to put the computer on your desk.

Micro PC - These are a subcategory of the Small Form Factor genre. It is a complete computer on a significantly smaller scale than the better-known tower PC. Without giving up any of the powerful performance or dynamic functionality, the microtower is a device based on a single-chip microprocessor just like the vast majority of personal laptops and desktop computers.

All-in-One Desktop - Also known as "all-in-ones," incorporate the computer and 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.

Gaming Desktop - 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 additional components like extra memory or dedicated sound cards. These tend to be quite expensive.

Laptops - These types of computers let you do your work 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. A laptop can also be more difficult and expensive to repair than a desktop. 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.

Smaller (10" to 13" screen size) - A 10- to 13-inch laptop is best for people frequently on the move.

Why? For one, these laptops are typically light enough to be brought, say, to and from your office. They may not have the fastest processors around, but laptops in this size range are nowadays more than capable of handling everyday productivity tasks with ease. Battery life varies but you should be able to get through at least a full workday nowadays.

Medium (14" to 16" screen size) - This size range offers the ideal balance of performance, portability, and price for many users. Midsized models are a good choice if you take your machine along less frequently or if you need to use it extensively for work or school. Such a laptop can easily be configured as a desktop replacement.

Until a few years ago, 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.

Larger (17" to 18" screen size) - For folks wanting a desktop replacement, big enough to sit semipermanently in one place but portable enough to take from room to room, these laptops will deliver. They tend to use top-performing processors with standard hard drives that give you tons of storage, though not top performance.

You might find some with better speakers than smaller laptops can offer. However, they still won't sound as good as external speakers. And, of course, the larger screen can make it more comfortable to work on multiple windows or large spreadsheets.

Apple does not make a two-in-one laptop but you could pair an iPad with a keyboard to have a similar experience.

Other Types - Lighter and less expensive than most laptops, these highly mobile devices offer an extra dose of portability and many but certainly not all of the features.

Chromebooks - These use Chrome OS, an operating system developed by Google. They're generally inexpensive, with some starting at just under $200, and are designed for users willing to work on and store most of their files online. Since Chrome OS is very similar to the popular Chrome web browser some users may have an easier time using a Chromebook than other computers.

On the downside, there’s not a lot of storage space on a Chromebook, so consumers should be prepared to stream, instead of download, content like music and movies. You need access to the internet to get the best work out of one of these machines. And these aren't workhorse computers, though they are fine for office productivity work like email and spreadsheets, and browsing the web.

Convertibles & Detachables - Some laptops are known as two-in-ones and either have a keyboard that can be bent around the back of the display or whose keyboard can be detached entirely. These are called convertibles and detachables, respectively. They may be useful if you want to be able to use your laptop in bed while holding it like a tablet (to stream video, say) or if you want to prop up the laptop like a "tent" to more easily show off the display to other people nearby.

Tablets - These can take the place of a laptop. These machines are lightweight and highly portable. They’re multifunctional, serving as web browser, e-book reader, movie viewer, and music player.

They weigh from just less than a pound to about 1.5 pounds and have 7- to 10-inch touch screens. Tablets are not ideal for office productivity tasks, but you can add a keyboard to many of them.

What's Inside: A Computer’s Inner Workings

Choosing a Processor, an OS, and More - Speed matters and processors with multiple cores can process more data simultaneously, with four cores now increasingly common on laptops. Our ratings say how many cores a laptop's processor has.

Clock speed, measured in gigahertz (GHz), along with the number of cores and other factors, determines how quickly a processor can process information. Many processors can up the speed a bit for a brief time to yield maximum performance. Generally, within a processor family, the higher the clock speed, the faster the processor. Clock speeds typically start at around 1 GHz for a mobile processor. Speeds can exceed 5 GHz for a desktop processor.

Power Consumption - Another important factor when choosing a processor, especially for laptops: Lower power consumption equals longer battery life. If you're looking for a very basic or budget computer to browse the web, email, and work on Office documents, basically every processor on the market should be sufficient. If you plan to watch high-resolution videos or play mainstream games, you should consider the Intel Core i5 and AMD's Ryzen line of processors.

How Much Memory? - The more memory a computer has, the faster it is, up to a point. Memory is measured in gigabytes (GB). On both desktops and laptops 8GB has become common, with 16GB found on higher-end devices. Unless you regularly have multiple large apps open at the same time, 8GB should be your target.

Operating System - Windows 10 brings a more uniform interface across a variety of devices: computers, tablets, Xbox consoles, and smartphones. In addition, "universal apps" developed for Windows 10 will look and work the same on a variety of devices. And far more games are available for Windows computers than for Macs.

Windows 10 Home is designed use in PCs, tablets and 2-in-1 PCs. It includes all features directed at consumers.

Windows 10 Pro includes all features of Windows 10 Home, with additional capabilities that are oriented towards professionals and business environments, such as Active Directory, Remote Desktop, BitLocker, Hyper-V, and Windows Defender Device Guard.

Windows 10 Pro for Workstations is designed for high-end hardware for intensive computing tasks and supports Intel Xeon, AMD Opteron and the latest AMD Epyc processors; up to four CPUs; up to 6 TB RAM; the ReFS file system; Non-Volatile Dual In-line Memory Module (NVDIMM); and remote direct memory access (RDMA).

Windows 10 S is a feature-limited edition of Windows 10 designed primarily for low-end devices in the education market. It has a faster initial setup and login process, and allows devices to be provisioned using a USB drive with the "Set Up School PCs" app. Windows 10 S allows the installation of software (both Universal Windows Platform and Windows API apps) only from Microsoft Store, and command line programs or shells (even from Microsoft Store) are not allowed. System settings are locked to allow only Microsoft Edge as the default web browser with Bing as its search engine.

32-Bit vs. 64-Bit OS: What's the Difference?
Chances are good you're running an x64-based operating system, but what does that even mean?

There are a lot of ways to count, but when it comes to computers there is only binary: 0 and 1. Each one is a considered a "bit." That means for 1-bit computing, you get two possible values; 2-bit means four values; then at 3 bits you double that to eight (2 to the third power, aka 2 cubed).

Keep going exponentially and you eventually get 32-bit (2 to the 32nd power) worth 4,294,967,296; 64-bit (or 2 to the 64th power) is worth 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 values. That's 18.4 quintillion and change.

That's a lot of bits, and the numbers show just how much more powerful a chip that supports higher-bit computing can be. It's a lot more than double.

That's because every few years, the chips inside the computers (even smartphones) and the software running on those chips make leaps forward in supporting a new number. For example:

The Intel 8080 chip in the 1970s supported 8-bit computing.
In 1992, Windows 3.1 was the first 16-bit desktop version of Windows.
AMD shipped the first 64-bit desktop chip in 2003.
Apple made Mac OS X Snow Leopard entirely 64-bit in 2009.
The first smartphone with a 64-bit chip (Apple A7) was the iPhone 5s in 2014.

It's pretty obvious: 64-bit, sometimes styled as x64, is capable of doing more than 32-bit. You might know 32-bit as x86, a term that originally referred to any OS with the instruction set to work on Intel chips like the 8086 through 80486.

These days, you are most likely already running 64-bit chips with 64-bit operating systems, which in turn run 64-bit apps (for mobile) or programs (on the desktop, to settle on some nomenclature). But not always. Windows 7, 8, 8.1, and 10 all came in 32-bit or 64-bit versions, for example.

How do you even tell which one you have?

In Windows 10, go to Settings > System > About or type About in the Windows 10 search box. Under the Device specifications heading, you'll see it at System type: "64-bit operating system, x64-based processor" means you're covered.

Mac users don't have to worry about this, as MacOS has been 64-bit only for a long time. In fact, as of the latest version (10.14 Catalina) 32-bit applications on a Mac aren't even technically supported.

Why 32-Bit at All?
Why would you install a 32-bit OS on a PC? The big reason is because you have a 32-bit processor, which requires a 32-bit OS.

Having such a CPU today is unlikely. Intel started making 32-bit processors in the 80386 range way back in 1985; it was selling 64-bit processors by 2001. If you've bought a PC since the Pentium D chip came out in 2005, it's unlikely you'd have only a 32-bit instruction set inside. More likely, you have an old system with an operating system you installed that only came as 32-bit. Subsequent upgrades, if any, may not have jumped your install up to 64-bit. That may be fine but not all of the earliest 64-bit processors had all the features in place.

Installing a 32-bit OS on a 64-bit-architecture system can work, but it's not optimal. A 32-bit OS, for example, has more limitations with the standout being it can only really utilize 4GB of RAM. Installing more RAM on a system with a 32-bit OS doesn't have much impact on performance. However, upgrade that system with excess RAM to the 64-bit version of Windows, and you'll notice a difference.

This should spell it out in the starkest way: the officially supported maximum RAM on Windows 10 is 2 terabytes (or 128GB on Windows 10 Home).

The theoretical limit of RAM at 64-bit: 16 exabytes. That's equal to 1 million terabytes or 1 billion gigabytes. But we're a long way from having hardware that could ever support that. (Either way, it makes buying a new laptop with 16GB of RAM seem unimpressive, doesn't it?)

64-bit computing features many other improvements, though in ways that may not be noticeable to the naked eye. Wider data paths, larger integer sizes, eight-octet memory addresses. It's all stuff for the computer scientists to take advantage of, to make your computing all the more powerful.

Programs in 64-Bits
You may also notice that some programs you download for your desktop operating system come in 32- and 64-bit versions. Firefox is a good example, where the options are "Windows 32-bit" and "Windows 64-bit" (as well as "Linux" or "Linux 64-bit" the macOS version is 64-bit only).

Why do that? Because 32-bit OSes are still out there for some. Those systems need 32-bit software—they typically can't even install a 64-bit program, and certainly won't run them. However, a 64-bit OS can support a 32-bit program, Windows in particular has built in an emulation subsystem for that, called Windows32 on Windows64, or WoW64.

Look in your C: drive sometime you'll see two Program Folders: one for 64-bit programs, another called Program Folders (x86) just for 32-bit applications. You'll be kind of astounded how much 32-bit code is still out there.

On the Mac, you're less likely to find much 32-bit-ness, which is why Apple is banning 32-bit apps under Catalina, or at least trying. But you can check your apps. On the Apple menu, select About this Mac, click System Report, and highlight all the applications listed under Software. Each will have a "64-bit (Intel)" entry reading Yes or No. Most are going to be Yes. If you have an important program that says No, avoid Catalina for now.

A Bit About Mobile 64-Bit
As noted above, Apple's A7 chip was the first 64-bit processor to go into a mobile phone (the iPhone 5s). In 2015, Apple mandated that all iOS software had to go 64. As of June 2016, opening a 32-bit app in the latest versions of iOS caused a "not optimized" warning: "using it may affect overall system performance."

If you've got an iPhone 5s or higher with iOS 10 or higher, you can't use those older 32-bit apps that haven't had an update. That's the "best" thing about Apple's closed system is it can force that to happen.

On Android phones, it can be a little trickier to uncover details unless you're well-versed on what chip is inside. If you're not running Android 5.0 Lollipop or newer, you're still 32-bit. One app that will tell you is AnTuTu Benchmark; load it, click the Info button, and look for the Android line. It'll tell you the Android version and if it's 32- or 64-bit.

For iOS and Android, this isn't about opening up the OS to using more RAM. In fact, going x64 isn't a guarantee of better performance. Going 64-bit has other benefits, like fetching even more data per cycle (and faster), better encryption, and overall moving to new 64-bit chips with improved features, like power efficiency.

Ultimately, the 64-bit revolution is already here. And you don't need to know anything about x64 to be part of it.

Graphics Adapter and Graphics Memory - Also known as the video card, graphics processing unit (GPU), or graphics card, this hardware is responsible for drawing what you see on your screen. Graphics processing comes in two basic flavors: It can either be integrated into the same chip that's running the rest of the computer or it can run on a discrete piece of equipment.

Most computers have integrated graphics. This has usually been the less expensive and lower-performing option—fine for most tasks but not for serious gaming. If you play mainstream and extreme games with all the visual effects turned on or if you edit video, especially HD and Ultra High Definition (4K), you need discrete graphics. Light video editing and gaming and all other typical computer tasks will do fine with integrated graphics. Some new CPUs integrate discrete-class graphics, offering excellent graphics abilities without adding a separate chip.

All About Drives and the Battery - Solid-State Drives (SSDs) are a different type of storage technology, letting your computer access data without the moving parts required by a traditional hard drive. They are also the single largest performance boost you can give a computer over an identical computer with a hard drive. SSDs don't have the spinning disk of a conventional hard drive, so they use less power, work more quietly, and should be more resistant to damage and less likely to fail mechanically. And because there are no moving parts, access to data should be quicker.

Although they once cost several times as much as traditional hard drives and had smaller capacities, prices are coming down and capacities are inching upward. In general, Consumer Reports recommends solid-state drives over hard drives.

Hard Drives - Also known as a hard disk, this type of drive uses a spinning hard disk and uses more power than a solid-state drive. It is also slower overall. Bigger is better. Hard-drive sizes are measured in gigabytes and terabytes, and commonly range from 250GB to more than 1TB. Speed is equally important and is measured in rpm (revolutions per minute). A slow hard drive will take longer to start up the OS and programs, and complete tasks (such as installing programs or scanning your hard drive for viruses). For best performance, get a desktop with at least a 7,200-rpm hard drive or a laptop with a 5,400-rpm hard drive.

Hybrid Drives - Lower-priced hybrid drives, which combine a hard drive with solid-state memory, represent a good compromise.

Optical Drives - Blu-ray Disc drives are the newest standard. They're capable of playing Blu-ray movies and can store 25GB (single layer) or 50GB (dual layer) of data.

Many of today's laptops come without an optical drive, saving weight and cost. With high-capacity flash drives available, extra storage isn't a problem on these models. But installing older software that is usually distributed on a CD or DVD could be a problem. Most of today’s software is distributed via download, so there’s little need for an optical drive.

The Battery - When not plugged into a wall outlet, laptops use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery for power. Laptops go into sleep mode when used intermittently, extending the time between charges. You can lengthen battery life if you dim the display, turn off WiFi connectivity when it's not needed, and use only basic applications. An increasing number of laptops have batteries that cannot easily be removed by users, which means they'll need to be taken to service centers when the battery needs to be replaced.

Computer peripherals such as monitors, printers, external drives and other devices all depend on your needs and budget.

Smartphones

Whether you're thinking about purchasing your first smartphone or just upgrading from an older model, you might feel overwhelmed shopping for a new smartphone. With so many options to choose from, it's difficult to know if you're getting the right phone at the right price.

What is a smartphone?
A smartphone is a more powerful version of a regular cell phone. In addition to the same basic features, including phone calls, voicemail, and text messaging, smartphones can connect to the Internet over a cellular network. This means you can use a smartphone for the same things you would normally do on a computer, such as checking your email, browsing online, or shopping.

Do I even need a smartphone?
Because of these convenient features, smartphones have become increasingly popular over the past several years. Smartphones can also be very expensive, however; some high-end models cost even more than a new laptop or desktop computer! If you're happy using your existing devices separately, you may not need a smartphone. But if you want to use just one device to access the Internet, make phone calls, take photos, and listen to music, a smartphone is probably a good option for you.

What type of smartphone should I buy, Android or iPhone?
If you try searching for advice on this topic, you'll find no shortage of opinions on both sides; iPhones and Android phones have strong groups of supporters, and most people place themselves firmly on one side or another. There are definite advantages and disadvantages with either option, so let's take a look at some of the biggest factors you should consider.

Affordability
In terms of cost, the iPhone simply can't compete with Android models. If you don't want to spend more than $200 to $300 on a smartphone, you'll want to choose Android over iPhone. Unfortunately, the actual cost of a smartphone may not be immediately obvious. For example, your wireless carrier may offer certain smartphones for free if you sign a two-year contract, or allow you to spread the cost across small installments instead of one single payment. Regardless of how you pay, an iPhone will almost always be more expensive than an Android smartphone.

Support
Because the iPhone is produced by one company instead of several manufacturers, it's often easier to get answers and help directly from Apple's customer support. By contrast, most Android phones work a bit differently from one another depending on the manufacturer and wireless provider you choose, which can make it more difficult to know where to look for help.

Apps and app stores
Both iPhone and Android allow you to download applications, which are commonly known as apps, to add extra functionality to your smartphone. The Play Store for Android and the App Store for iPhone provide a huge selection of apps for you to download. Although some apps are available exclusively for one platform, most are available on both. Unless there's a specific app you want that's only available on one device, this shouldn't be a significant factor in your decision. However, if you already have another device that uses Android or iOS, such as a tablet computer, you might want to consider purchasing a smartphone that runs the same operating system. This way, you'll be able to install any apps you've purchased on both devices.

Customization
Android smartphones allow for a lot more customization than iPhones. Whereas the iPhone offers a few customization options (like your phone's wallpaper and ringtone), Android allows you to change just about everything on your device, including themes, notification widgets, and default applications. For some users, this might not be a very important distinction. But if you want to have more control over the way you'll use your device, we'd recommend choosing an Android over an iPhone.

System updates
Remember how we said before that Android and iPhone use different operating systems? Like desktop and laptop computers, these operating systems are updated just about every year. These updates usually include new and useful features, as well as security upgrades. But upgrading an Android phone to the latest version can be pretty complicated. In many cases, it actually depends on when your wireless provider decides to push the update to your device. By contrast, the iPhone can be updated as soon as updates are available, regardless of your wireless carrier.

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