There are many factors to consider when choosing a machine you’ll be spending many hours on–hopefully writing! In this post, I’m going to assume you’re looking for a laptop for portability, and because that’s what I see most writers using. If you want a post on desktops, let me know!
Tablet vs. Laptop
There is quite a bit of crossover now between tablets and laptops, and a lot of those differences go to preference. The two big things you want to be aware of when choosing a tablet are:
1. Does it allow you to install the software you want?
If you’re looking at a Chromebook, for example, those only allow you to install programs from the Android app store. If all you want is MS Word to write in, and Google Drive or Dropbox for cloud storage, that’s an option. BUT! If you plan to use Scrivener, there is sadly no Android version of that program. To use Scrivener on a tablet, you will need either a tablet running a full version of Windows (Not all Surface tablets do, so ask!), or an iPad.
2. Does it have ample storage space for the software you want to install?
Tablets are all about portability, and while they are lightweight some are also lacking storage. Mobile versions of MS Office do take up less space, and you can always use Google Drive to write in Docs without installing anything but a browser on your computer, but if you’re looking to install anything above the basic stuff, like Scrivener or any of the hulking Adobe programs, make sure you have the space!
Keep in mind that the number listed in the specs is the total space you get before any software–including the operating system–is installed. The full version of Windows takes up over 20GB of that space right off the top, and more space will be taken up by drivers and system updates. Too many times I’ve seen someone with a 32GB hard drive unable to even free up enough space to install all their Windows updates, let alone extra software. I would personally never purchase anything with a hard drive smaller than 256GB if it had the full version of Windows or Mac OS installed, and really I’m more comfortable with 500GB. Tablet computers that run the Android OS, Mac iOS (iPads), or the R2 version of Windows (which will not let you install certain programs, so beware) can run with less storage space because their programs are made for mobile devices, and so in that case 32GB would be plenty.
I like to go for anything comparable to Intel’s i5 processor, or above. So, I’m looking for something with 4 cores and a base frequency of 1.6 GHz.
Now you might be thinking, what on earth does that mean? Fair question. Without getting into too much technical detail, most new computers now are going to have quad-core processors, although you’ll see some with two and some with six or eight. The processor’s speed is listed in GHz (gigahertz), and tells you how fast it can process data. Higher numbers are better as long as you are comparing processors with the same number of cores. Each core can only process one thing at a time. When a single core processor appears to multitask (for example, moving files while playing a movie), it is actually just switching back and forth between tasks really, really quickly. The more cores it has, the less switching it has to do, as it can actually multitask. So more cores means it runs faster than a processor with fewer cores but the same base speed.
To know a processor’s true speed, you would multiply the number of GHz by the number of cores. So if you see a processor with 2.0 GHz but only two cores, you would have 4.0 GHz of total processing speed. Let’s look at that Intel i5 I mentioned above. Its speed is 1.6 GHz and it has four cores, so you would actually be getting 6.4 GHz of processing speed.
AMD makes phenomenal processors that are often priced lower than Intel’s models. Just take a look at the speed and the number of cores to see what you’re getting.
Beware of laptops with processors with M at the beginning of their name, or the word mobile in the description. These are made for mobile devices and are not as powerful. If you are choosing a tablet, the mobile processor will likely be your only choice, and in that case it’s fine.
Each operating system has a base amount of RAM it recommends a computer have in order to run it properly. If you stick close to that number, you are going to be frustrated with the way your computer runs. Windows 10 recommends 4GB of RAM as the minimum. It will run on 4GB of RAM, but if you’re a fan of having a browser AND another piece of software open like Word or Scrivener, and you don’t want to wait 30 seconds for a response every time you click, you should probably consider 8GB your minimum. Definitely go with at least 8GB if you will be using any heftier programs like Adobe Pro or Photoshop.
Size and Weight
Five pounds may not seem like a lot, but you’ll more than likely be carrying around more than just a computer in your computer bag.
Another important measurement to consider is the screen size. You will need to decide on a balance between how much you want to be able to see at one time, versus how big of a rectangle you want to carry around. Screen measurements are taken diagonally.
Both of these go to personal preference and how often you will be traveling with your writing computer. I bring mine with me to work every day and went for a 14″ screen. I use Scrivener and often wish I had more space to spread out its different panels, but its size and weight are great for me. Even if you plan to buy online, it is a good idea to see if the model you want is available at an electronics store near you, so you can go see it in person. Not all screens are created equal, and outside of size you might find you like the glossy finish over the matte, or vice versa.
- Operating system – If you have always used Windows and want to try using a Mac, by all means do so but be aware that there is a learning curve. Switching operating systems goes best if you have someone already versed with the one you’ll be learning nearby. I definitely needed a mentor with my first Mac! This is a good time to go check some computers out at the store and bring some how-to questions for the salespeople.
- Backlit keyboard – I like to write in the dark, and while I mostly touch-type, I still need to look down for certain numbers and symbols. A backlit keyboard is definitely a plus!
- Screen finish – Even if you are unaware of it, you probably have a preference. Mine is glossy! I think it shows colors and details much better over the matte. Matte tends to show less dust and fingerprints, so there is a trade off.
- Ports – Having places to plug things into your computer seems to be going out of style, but I like having these options available. Aside from where I plug in the power, my current laptop has 3 USB ports, enough to plug in a mouse, a keyboard, and a flash drive if I so wished; a VGA port and an HDMI port, so I can plug in two monitors while I’m working at home; an Ethernet port, again for if I’m working at home and want some faster connection speeds; a headphones jack; and an SD slot that I don’t really care about because I take all my pictures on my phone at the moment. Some new laptops only have a few USB-C slots, which are meant to take over the function of all the ports listed above, the problem being you only get maybe three and then you have to buy adapters for every individual function. That is a huge turn off for me, but maybe I’m old fashioned.
- Battery life – Most laptops give you at least seven hours of battery life, and some boast 9+ hours. This is not a primary element I look for, but is good to consider if you’re stuck between two otherwise identical computers.
- Touch screen – I don’t personally care about the touch screen since I mostly navigate with keyboard shortcuts anyway and a touch screen tends to drive the price up! To each their own–for some, this would be at the top of the list.
- The keyboard – If you selected a small screen size (13 inches or below), be prepared for an itty bitty keyboard. Take advantage of the pictures the seller posts (or go see it in store) to make sure the keys are far enough apart for you to work with. Some newer keyboards are flatter, closer to buttons than keys, and don’t necessarily click when you press them. If you need that tactile feedback for touch typing, that is something to consider.
And there you have it! Please let me know if I forgot an element you find important, or if you want additional information on something I maybe could have explained better.