Remember the days when you simply asked someone if they had a computer? That simple yes or no answer quickly evolved into, “I have a” …PC, Desktop, MacBook, Tablet, Notebook, iPad, Chromebook, or Tablet to name a few. Then there are microcomputers, mainframes, workstations, and servers. Cross into the gaming world and its Xbox, PlayStation, and the list goes on. It is not surprising that the various terms for a computer have lost some of their identity and clarity over the years. In this document we are going to look at one of those computers that have been and continue to be extremely important in the computer ecosystem, the Laptop.
What is a laptop?
A laptop is a computer, that is portable. It has been designed to be compact and function on the go. In general, laptops are typically not as fast as a PC or Desktop. But not noticeably different to the average user. We should first understand what we are comparing too when we say desktop. I will use PC or Desktop interchangeably in this document. A desktop, as you likely already figured out, is your standard sit on the desk computer. In those cases you have a box containing all the components needed to run the computer. This is referred to as the Central Processing Unit, or CPU. The screen or monitor, keyboard, and mouse are additional components that plug into the CPU to run. (Note: Some people assume the video screen is the computer, but it is just a monitor to show you what is running in the CPU.) Other components like speakers, printers and more can also be plugged into the CPU as well.
The benefit a desktop unit has is space. If you have ever opened a CPU before, you will immediately notice that about ½ of the area is open space. This allows not only for different components to be added but space for heat to disperse. Heat is a byproduct of the mechanical parts moving so fast. This is why computers typically have fans. In fact there are ways to monitor the temperature of your computer as well. Heat and electronics are always a challenging combination.
Understanding the basics of a desktop structure, now convert that to a laptop setup. Laptops are made to be compact and must fit all the same components into a confined space and keep the moving parts from overheating the electronics and causing the computer to malfunction. Each component of a laptop is specifically designed to fit into small spaces. So parts like the Processor, Hard Drive, Motherboard, Sound Card, Video card and Battery (we will discuss those shortly), all need to be able to connect and function within the ½ inch to ¾ Inch space available.
History of the Laptop
While the first programmable computer concepts were being worked on in the late 1930’s, the laptop evolved as developers began to realize the potential of a portable computer. Here is a brief timeline of how it progressed.
IBM developed the first portable computer around 1975. It was called the IBM 5100. This beast weighed 55 lbs. which does not make the term ‘laptop’ very appropriate. While it was not a laptop by todays standards, it did lay the foundation for what would eventually become portable laptops we used today.
Ph. D. Alan Kay is credited with the idea for the first laptop. He worked at Xerox Corporations Palo Alto Research Center in 1976 and came up with a product called the Dynabook. It was originally designed as a computer for “children of all ages”. But the target audience was children. Targeted to be thin and weigh no more than two pounds, it included a graphical user interface know as a GUI (pronounced goo-ey) and would have multiple programs available. Dynabook still has an active brand today under Toshiba.
In the late 1970’s the concept was enhanced by Bill Moggridge, who designed the GRiD Compass. This essentially was an operating system but established the typical clam shell model we see now. It was used on the early space shuttle flights. Over the next 10 years multiple players began to get into the market including, Epson, Radio Shack, and the Commodore SX 64, which was the first full color screen laptop. Interestingly, all these models began weighing in at around 25 pounds with only a 5-inch screen and continually decreased in weight and increased in screen size as the years progressed.
The mid to late 1980s is where we saw laptops develop much closer to the current models we see. Hewlett-Packard’s (HP) Vectra Portable CS was one of the first to include a floppy disk drive. Compaq released the Compaq SLT/286 which was the first to feature a Video Graphic Adapter (VGA). VGA has become the standard in screen resolution in describing the number of colors shown and how quickly it can refresh.
It is clear to see that different developers in the laptop industry were specializing in different features that we have come to take for granted today including graphics, weight, and storage to name a few. This quick ramp up only gets us to the 1980’s.
In this decade, leaders began to emerge in the market. IBM release the ThinkPad 775CD which included a CD drive. Microsoft and Intel release the Advanced Power Management (AMP) which became a standard in how the power was resourced throughout the system. Olivetti was the first to release the touchpad, providing the ability to use your finger to select instead of needing a mouse.
The pace rapidly increased in the 2000’s. While many of the base elements had been established, the last 20 years have been about improving and enhancing. Moving from 8-inch floppy disks to 5-inch, to 3.5 inch to CDs, now today virtually all storage can be handled by a Universal Serial Bus or USB flash drive. The USB can hold up to 1 Terabyte today, while Cloud processing just means your computer can wirelessly save and access your data sitting on a secure server (computer) in some obscure location hundreds or thousands of miles away. These enhancements made the laptop able to process and run about any program a desktop can run. Additional enhancements such as weight, speed of processor, internal memory, graphics, touch screen, and additional utilities all are in constant competition. We will look more at some of these current options when looking at how to purchase a laptop.
Primary Components of a Laptop
We have briefly mentioned the advent of various components of the laptop but here we will look and describe what makes them special and important to understand.
Possibly one of the most important aspects of any computer is the processer. Known as the Central Processing Unit (CPU) this part of the computer is the electronic circuitry that executes commands to run the computer. It will call on the data stored in memory to pull back specific details of a program, tell the sound card to function appropriately and send signals to the screen to tell it what to display. The speed of the processor becomes extremely important. Executing billions of commands in seconds is what makes a computer so powerful. The CPU is measured in terms of clock speed, which is how many cycles the CPU executes per second and is measured in terms of Gigahertz (GHz). Hertz are an oscillation measurement. So 6 Hz would mean it cycled 6 times vs 20 Hz cycling 20 times. A Gigahertz is 1,000,000,000 Hertz. That is a lot of commands to cycle through per second but is why we can get back such instant results.
Memory and Storage
Being able to save not only files you are working on but the data that is needed to run a program or multiple programs is vital to a laptop’s performance. The difference in memory and storage is this; memory is how much space a laptop has to essentially ‘remember things’ while it is processing, while storage is holding information until it needs to be referenced.
When you turn on your laptop and do not open any programs, there are still multiple programs running in the background. Utility programs, graphic programs, and programs that manage multiple aspects of your computer. These are sitting in these short-term memory locations to be immediately referenced and used. Items like current settings, current locations, wireless signals etc. There is a massive amount of information that is processed through memory at any given time. As you continue to open additional programs, more memory is required to support and run that program. Therefore you tend to see performance decreases the more applications you have open simultaneously as the CPU is having to manage each one of those programs. A delay anywhere might mean a slowdown in the processing. It is possible to increase memory by buying and installing larger capacity memory sticks and replacing the old with the new. The nice thing about memory is it only holds information while in use. Once the computer is turned off, nothing is being held on the memory stick, so in replacing it, the user does not have to worry that they will lose or overwrite any information.
Storage is handled via a Hard Drive. This is quite important because it holds every file detail from the Operating System, such as Windows, to the details of any program installed on your system. Think of a typical user on a basic computer having Windows, Microsoft Office, and Chrome. Each of those programs have datafiles and millions of lines of code for them to operate in the background. All of that needs to reside somewhere, and that somewhere is your hard drive. More and more is being stored on the Cloud (basically stored on other computers accessible through wireless connections) which means your computer is not having to store everything, but there is still a lot. In addition to the programs, all your personal documents, music, pictures, and videos reside there as well.
Hard drives have increasingly grown in size but have one significant drawback. They are mechanical devices meaning they must physically move to a specific location to read or write data. You may have heard your internal parts of your computer moving around as you work, this is literally a spinning magnetic disc inside the hard drive. Moving to a location can only happen so fast. What this means is that even if a processor can process billions of commands per second, it might be waiting for the hard drive to be read, or written to, to continue its process. This brought on the advent of Solid-State Drives (SSD). These modern drives are beginning to overtake traditional hard drives. They are much more efficient because as opposed to a mechanical device, they are structured in cells with simple binary output (basically answering 0 or 1). These inputs and outputs can happen almost instantaneously to the user. In general SSD drives can increase the processing speed of a laptop from 3 to 30 times faster.
The size of the screen of the laptop is important to consider. Screens are measured diagonally. So if you have a computer with a 13.3-inch screen, you start at the lower left-hand corner and measure to the upper right. Keep in mind if you are working for long periods of time on a small display screen, it can be difficult on your eyes.
With the advance of mobile devices many prefer to simply control what is on the screen directly via touchscreens, and many laptops have responded with this feature. There are pros and cons to touchscreens. Some feel they increase productivity, but they tend to add a little weight and battery drain to the laptop.
We mentioned earlier the advent of Video Graphics Adaptors (VGA) which began a standard of the number of colors, resolution rates and refresh rates. In the 70’s and 80’s you may remember television screens were processed by lines. The image was made up of lines from left to right and if your signal got out of whack, those lines would start to scramble. A computer screen is similar containing a series of dots called pixels. This is handled by the graphics card. The more pixels your screen can handle the higher the resolution and detail your screen can handle. If you have ever looked at a paper or magazine image through a magnifying glass, you will quickly see it is a series of colored dots, the same with a laptop screen.
Today’s standards of HD allow you to see great detail on images, videos and even the interface of programs. They are described in terms of a number like 720 X 480. This means this resolution has 720 lines that are 480 Pixels wide on a given screen. The larger the number the better. For comparison:
- DVD resolution 720 x 480
- HD 720 resolution 1280 x 720
- HD 1080 resolution 1920 x 1080
- Ultra HD “4K” Resolution 3840 X 2160
The video card runs the Graphic Processing Unit (GPU). Like the CPU, it is driving everything graphically for the laptop. They range from standard integrated cards that are good for casual use to Discrete cards that can be added in to enhance the graphic ability of the computer. This becomes important for someone using their computer for advanced gaming where a lower quality card will result in lags in the graphics of gameplay.
Laptops typically have built in speakers, enough to hear the sound where enhanced quality does not matter. Laptops used in the audio production of any sort will typically have upgraded to higher quality sound cards that can process audio signals better thus providing complete sound quality.
The sound cards do allow for sound in or line in, like microphones or other audio signals. Sound out or line out, like headphones, speaker output or output to another device. There are other options in audio production such as MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and FireWire which can transport a high number of signals quickly without losing any audio quality.
Most laptops come with built in WiFi cards to connect to the internet. The modern wireless standard is 802.11ax (known as Wi-Fi 6). Older versions are “b”, “g”, and “n”. The modern standard should be able to link into any wireless signal.
There is not much worse in the middle of a detailed task on your laptop, than a message that your battery is about to die, and you are nowhere near an outlet. So, it is important to consider battery life with your laptop. There has been a focus on improvement of battery life but its not 100% tied to the battery, improvements in power management with the CPU can extend battery life as well as options like touch screens or enhanced GPUs. Most laptops can last 8 hours on a single battery charge which is enough for a workday, but modern batteries strive to do much better. Many of todays batteries are designed to last up to 17 hours which is great for either ongoing work or sitting on the plane and watching a movie. But use impacts battery life significantly. For example, having a bright or dim screen while watching movies will extend or decrease the battery life.
Ports and Expandability
Ports and expandability represent all the places you can plug in or connect to the laptop in different ways. We will discuss each here. All the previous components are included in some form or fashion on most laptops today. But the ports and expansions can vary. It is important to consider how you will be using your laptop and see what ports are available to ensure you can use it as you are anticipating.
The USB ports are small rectangular ports to plug into. They transfer data and power devices as well. There are 5 types of USBs that have slightly different functionality. Your laptop can have multiple USB ports, but not all will necessarily have the same function.
USB -Type – A — This is the most common port. It is used to connect devices such as speakers, keyboards, mice, and some printers.
USB -Type – B – These connections are more square than rectangular and are not on every computer. They are often used to connect printers or docking stations to the computer.
USB -Type – C — These USBs are anticipated to replace the previous types (USB A, USB B, Micro USB). It has been designed as flexible and fast and able to support multiple standard interfaces. This type can charge your laptop, transfer files and output signals efficiently.
USB 2.0 -This high-speed port can transfer data at rates of 480MB per second. It is applicable for multiple scenarios and is a commonplace on most modern laptops.
USB 3.0 – Even faster, the 3.0 port can transfer data at rates of 5 gigabytes per second (Gbps). 10X faster than the USB 2.0. They often have an SS logo next to them on a laptop. This is great for quickly pulling data off a flash drive.
USB 3.1 Generations 1 and 2 – These USBs continue with 5 Gbps speed, but they are designed for the USB C ports and include backward compatibility (meaning they bring current benefits to older technology.)
You can see it is important to know which USB drive is which on your computer. Plugging a phone into one port might not provide as much power as a USB C port. Or transferring data can be slower on a USB-Type – B vs a USB – Type C port.
Micro USB’s and mini USBs are typically found on components, not on the laptop, so you will need a cable that converts from these types of USB to the port size on your laptop.
A Thunderbolt port is the latest and greatest, speed has been enhanced up to 40 Gbps. This is 8X faster than a USB 3.0. A Thunderbolt also carries many other benefits in terms of bandwidth (how much it can process at a given time), transfer rate, and adaptability to connect to displays. It is also able to power two 4K monitors.
High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) is essential if you have any desire to use another monitor, TV, or Projector. HDMI can power and process up to 4K resolution. It also transfers high robust sound data for plugging into an external sound system. If you do not have an HDMI, you can get adaptors and go from a USB-C into a HDMI 2.0 adaptor to connect. This is often the case on many MacBook’s.
Headphone or Audio Jack
This historically standard port is not found as often with many Bluetooth connection options. So if you want to plug in typical headphones or a microphone that is not connected via USB, you will want to ensure these ports are present.
Less computers have these connections although they can be extremely useful. These ports are for plugging in the network cable for your internet signal. While most modern laptops include wireless cards for connecting to the internet, wireless can only process at a certain speed. For example, even if your home internet provides 1 Gbps speed, wireless speed may be 1/5 of that between 100 and 200 Mbps. But a wired connection through this port will be able to perform at speeds much closer to the 1 Gbps speed.
These ports can process up to 4K resolution to a monitor. On current computers they can be replaced by Type C connection or HDMI connections. These ports are also found on docking stations as well.
The Digital Visual Interface (DVI) is often found on monitors or projectors. However, this technology is older, and you will only want to make sure you have it if working with older devices.
Many laptops have SD card readers, and some have Micro SD Card readers. These are often used in cameras, drone cameras, go pros or providing extra memory to devices. Many SD card readers will also read SD shells that hold Micro SD’s, so it is all handled through the same port.
Most external devices connect via a USB port which makes it quite flexible. In rare cases where they do not, there are always adapters available to connect and with a little bit of research you should be able to find a way to connect to the laptop.
Selecting a Laptop
Knowing all the components of a laptop still brings a consumer to the place of having to determine what type of laptop to buy. The answer is…it depends. There are many thoughts to consider related to how you will use the laptop to help you decide which one to purchase. We will look at some of those here.
This comes down to if you are a Mac user or a PC user. MacBook’s have their own operating system, MacOS, that functions completely different than PC’s. It parallels iPhones but much more robust. MacBook’s are notoriously beneficial when it comes to audio or graphical productions although they do have many other features. PC’s use Windows as their operating system. PC’s have historically carried the load when it comes to heavy data processing. Both platforms have worked hard to create software that is compatible with both operating systems. It ultimately comes down to the user experience and comfortability. There are other operating systems but these two are the primary ones.
There are several options in the $600 and less range that are quite competitive. These computers have some reductions in part quality and features. Laptops in these ranges are great if your primary focus is writing documents, email, and general internet browsing. It is a great way to save a few dollars.
When you get into the range of $600-$1,000, you begin to see some additional enhancements. In terms of ROI, this might be the best range. You are getting quality parts, without the high prices. There are many options here so determining what your priorities are will help. Do you want a light computer, large screen, fast processor, or great design? It is hard to fit all those desires into this price range, but these can certainly handle everything from the first category plus basic game play and even some hard-core data processing. It is a great option for 80% of the consumer base.
The $1,000+ category usually means you have extremely specific items you are looking for. Sometimes this is someone wanting the fastest processor and the absolute best graphics card to handle any game they want to play. Stronger batteries and the best quality internal parts are appropriate if you are a power user. Otherwise you may not notice the enhancements.
Here are a few types of laptops one might consider
- Ultrabook’s-Using SSD cards, they are light and compact and efficient battery life. Great for basic word processing, presentations, and communication.
- Business Laptops- Typically more robust in size and rugged shells. Usually larger screen sizes for hours of viewing. There is also typically an increased focus on security and privacy.
- 2 in 1 – These are primarily tablets with a keyboard. They are typically set up where the keyboard can either be hidden or is simply a Bluetooth accessory. Giving the ability to use as a tablet or a laptop. There are several variations, some tend to be on the heavy side and are not always the best laptops available.
- Gaming- These tend to be bulkier; they need to support robust graphic systems with high display rates as well as fast processors and quick access to data.
The Central Processing Unit will impact the efficiency of your machine. Intel has set the standard for the processor and most other laptops can be compared. Intel provides the Core i3, I5, i7 and soon the i9. AMD has also provided strong options. If you want the best processor, then look for the newest ones. It continues to be a competitive market and as processors improve, software and applications update accordingly.
AMD and NVIDIA cover this market primarily. Graphics cards are usually built into the motherboard on the laptop. The latest NVIDIA technology includes the RTX 2060-2080, also releasing the Max-Q designed for high performance and reduced temperatures on the laptop. If you are into graphics, you know the significance of computer temperature. AMD uses an Accelerated Processing Unit (APU). They can be extremely powerful and efficient.
As mentioned, this is essentially the short-term memory of the computer to handle running various programs. If you only have one or two programs open at a time. Then 8GB of RAM is a good place to target. However, if you are a multitasker and always have lots of applications open, targeting 16GB of RAM will likely suit you better.
How you use your computer will determine how much storage you need. Do you need to store lots of images and videos? Then you need to ensure you have high amounts of storage available. This would be easily handled by a standard Hard Drive, unless speed of accessing those is extremely important. If speed is important or you plan to have many robust software applications running, then you want to focus on having an SSD which stores and accesses extremely fast. For example, if you are building complex spreadsheet models with VBA in the background, then an SSD is going to benefit your process.
We discussed the different ports earlier; evaluate how you will be using your laptop. Is it simply to hook up a keyboard and mouse? Or will you need to connect to external systems for presentations or external devices? Once you know these answers then you can ensure the ports provided will meet your needs.
Future of Laptops
As all of the features highlighted by different organizations have become expected, we continue to see the Laptop an essential tool. Where desktops will only stay on the…desktop….and be used…at the desk, laptops provide the feel of a desktop, when hooked to a docking station with multiple screens, and the portability and flexibility needed to take an abundance of information with you wherever you go.
As we have recently seen in the worldwide changes, the need to work remotely has not only been required but has also been possible. While for years organizations where dealing with remote work on a philosophical level, when it came to remote work to survive, it has proven to be effective. Effective to the point that many organizations, like Twitter, announced they would have a permanently remote work environment. The dollars that are saved by not having to travel overseas to give a presentation, or look at someone’s system, or make a new sale speak for themselves.
What is currently mainstay in the business world, such as the use of robust systems like Azure powering Windows, will carry into the consumer market. Google is already moving this direction with Chromebooks, now being used across the world with schools learning to function remotely when needed.
5G has yet to see its ultimate impact in providing reliable fast speeds beyond what we typically have access to. In addition projects like Starlink satellites that are poised to provide internet access in the most remote parts of the world will connect everyone at a faster and faster pace.
Look for laptops to continue to enhance size, weight, and durability all while improving speed, storage, access, and efficiency. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will also continue to enhance as more and more of our world can be learned and controlled by these mighty processors of information.
Laptops have certainly changed the way we do business and interact with the world around us. The market is still incredibly competitive which is great for consumers. The basic components will not change in terms of the need but will be continually enhanced or replaced as better technology comes into play. Knowing the basic functionality of a laptop and the uses of the various parts will benefit anyone in building, buying, or using a laptop. You are certain to find exactly what you need.