Today we continue the series about what computer hardware specifications mean. In this article I will describe most of the commonly used connections and hardware components that come with laptops. There are of course many more hardware specifications out there, but we will only look at the common ones.
Universal Serial Bus (USB)
For those of you who have been using computers long enough to remember the olden days of COM, LPT and other connectors for the various accessories that can be connected to computers you can remember how cumbersome and varied all these connectors were.
Many years ago, a long long time ago when mice still had balls in them and keyboards where mechanical some very smart people noticed that there are far too many different, interchangeable, some quite large connectors on computers. As a means to make everything a lot easier and compact the USB connector was invented and thankfully it caught on very quickly. In the beginning it was mainly used to connect various peripheral devices to the computer and most of them didn’t really transfer that much data. Gradually more and more devices were using this standard and more and more data needed to be transfered through the USB standard. A large improvement was required.
USB 2.0 started becoming mainstream with the standard implementation in Microsoft Windows XP. This improvement saw a huge improvement in transfers speed, from the 12 Mbit/s of the first USB 1.0 standard up to a theoretical maximum of 480 Mbit/s. This has lead to flashpens, external hard drives, DVD-Writers, various Card readers becoming such a regular sight today. Even today, USB 2.0 is enough for almost anything you can think of connecting.
As all this new hardware also saw improvements over time and got faster and faster, the USB standard hat to be improved further and this has lead to what we call USB 3.0 today. The maximal transfer rate has gone up to 5 Gbit/s for USB 3.0 , or 10x faster than USB 2.0. This opens a whole new world of possibilities for the years to come.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that any of todays devices you can connect through USB 3.0 can achieve that speed, but I am sure in a few years there will be some available.
The most important part of the USB-Port is that it has remained backwards compatible, so any older device can still be connected even to the newest devices on the market.
Display Ports – VGA/DVI and HDMI
Laptops generally have relatively small displays compared to desktop computers. Large screen real estate is usually very good for productivity and being able to connect a laptop to a bigger screen when you are in the office or at home helps with this. Thanks to their high mobility, laptops are ideally suited for making presentations on the go. The need for an display port is basically non negotiable.
The typical VGA-out has been around from the very early laptops. DVI-out was the digital improvement to the older VGA-out, but mostly due to its size never really caught on in laptops. Recently most laptops have started to have this port replaced by the much more modern and compact HDMI-out that is basically the next evolution of the video output port. Compared to the older VGA and DVI ports, HDMI also streams sound with the video and can offer better overall quality.
As devices become more and more compact, the switch to HDMI becomes an obvious choice. This change brings with it a series of challenges when most of the devices that already exist on the market only have VGA-connectivity. Thankfully a wide range of adapters are available to convert the video signal from HDMI back to VGA. In rare cases, you can be lucky enough to find a laptop with both.
A special mention goes to the Display Port. It is the most recent newcomer on the market, most Apple devices have already started using it. It brings some minor improvements over the HDMI-connector and currently there aren’t many devices on the market that actually use it, while almost all of them have HDMI-connectivity. I don’t think it will be able to overthrow the HDMI port so easily as the benefits are minimal. Only time will tell.
Ethernet LAN and WiFi
Since the invention of the computer people have tried to create a connection between them to transfer files. Local Area Networking or LAN for short was needed.
The current specifications for Ethernet LAN, cable connected networking, are 100mbps and 1000mbps(often referred to as gigabit LAN). They come with the same connector and you should really pay attention to this, if your internet connection is faster than 100mbps you will need the better version to be able to use the extra speed. For reference, the transfer speed of a 100mbps connection is very similar to most USB flashdrives. Gigabit LAN is 10x faster or about twice the speed of a regular HDDs write/read speed.
Wireless networking or WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n a/c is as the name implies, wireless networking over radio signals. 802.11 is the name of the used standard and a, b, g or n represent how advanced the installed system is and what kind of transfer speeds you can expect. Because it runs over radio, it has limited range and it does suffer from interference. The n-standard tops out at 150mbps in ideal conditions. So it basically is slightly faster than cable connected networking. When it comes to WiFi you want the newest version available to get the most out of it. The newest standard available today is 802.11 a/c. It is still relative new and speeds varies depending on how it is implemented by the manufacturer from slightly faster than n to 8x faster.
For regular computing, internet browsing, online gaming, watching videos and such WiFi is more than enough for most people. For people who need low latency and instant connections cable networking is still the way to go.
I would like to also mention Bluetooth here. It is another form on transferring data over radio, but due to its very limited range, it has never been used for anything other than short range solutions. The transfer rate is also small compared to the other 2 solutions and this is the main reason its mainly used to transfer audio information and is present on almost all phones.
Oh and by the way, all this networking goes both ways. You might have the newest fastest possible solution, but if the other end doesn’t, you will always get the top speed of the slowest device you are connecting to.
I didn’t add this in the first article because most people don’t actually require a dedicated graphics card to get their work done and most standard integrated graphics cards are more than enough. But let’s explain why all laptops have this as a technical specification and why you should look at it.
In the past, graphics cards really played a big role in the overall performance of a computer. You had to have a decent one installed to be able to run high resolutions and be able to run even the most basic of 3D applications. In recent years though, as I have explained in the CPU section, graphics cards have become integrated inside the CPU itself and their performance is based on the performance of the CPU. This makes theme usually very well balanced due to the simple fact that if you get a powerful CPU it will also be powerful while running 3D applications. So basically, for regular everyday computing, the CPU integrated graphics card is very good.
If on the other had, you want to run 3D games, with any decent level of performance, you will need to get yourself a device with a dedicated video card. A video card that is much more powerful than what regular users need and that can offer you the needed performance to run a game. I have already gone into grate detail on how to select the right graphics card for gaming right here.
Just a few years ago getting 5 hours out of a laptop was a pretty rare thing. Batteries have come a long way over the years. Thanks to the large improvements in energy consumption of most components and the capacity improvements of Lithium Ion batteries, today even the most basic of laptops manages to get 5 hours of battery life. It’s improved so much that manufacturers are actually building devices with much smaller batteries than in the past. Before, just a few years ago, 6-cell batteries was the norm and you had to buy yourself the larger 9-cell battery if you wanted more than 3 hours battery life, now, 3 or 4-cell batteries have become standard and anything with more than this has become quite rare.
Today you can very easily get a quick guesstimate of what kind of battery life you can expect. For example, most of todays processors have an energy consumption around 15w or less. This means, that in 1 hour of full load usage, it uses 15w of electricity. So with an average 50wHr (Watt hour) Lithium-Ion battery, a laptop should be able to get 50/15 = 3.3 Hours of full CPU load computing. You don’t run your laptop at full load very often so you can expect at least 5 hours of productive work.
Of course, battery life depends a lot on what else you are doing with the rest of the laptop, but typically the CPU was the largest consumer. Running the screen at full brightness is another 10+w per hour, running a dedicated video card is another huge energy consumer.
Today most laptops have good battery life.
I think this covers the most basic specifications present on most data sheets for laptops. You should now be able to make an educated choice and be able to select a good laptop for your needs.