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Explanation WednesdayLaptops

Low-End Laptops are a Mistake

9th September 2015 — by That IT Guy0

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As I was writing the previous article “5 Ways to Cool Down Your Laptop” and talked about overheating Laptops I’ve fixed in the past, I couldn’t help but remember what one of the biggest complaints people have told me about their Laptops, “It’s just to Slow!”. 9 out of 10 times these laptops are low-end Laptops.

Low End Laptops are a Mistake

Lets analyze what constitutes a “Cheap Laptop”

The term “Cheap laptops” doesn’t necessarily have to do with the amount of money you payed for it (you could buy a 3-year-old laptop which in its day was a high-end laptop for a low price, i.e. cheap so really by cheap laptops I mean low-end laptops. The market is filled with low-end laptops, it easily constitutes 75% of all laptop sales. Let’s have a look at two examples and take it from there.

The “Office & Internet” laptop

First of all let me clarify that I haven’t chosen an HP laptop for any specific reason other than it’s the first one I found, all the brands do this, it’s just how it is. So, let’s analyze its specs.

HP Compaq 15-H200NS AMD E1-2100/4GB/500GB/15.6

HP Compaq 15-H200NS AMD E1-2100/4GB/500GB/15.6

1: Processor & Graphics: AMD E1-2100 – AMD Radeon HD 8210 GPU

The AMD E1-2100 is a mobile dual-core SoC for low-end subnotebooks and netbooks, which was presented in mid-2013. In addition to 2 CPU cores with a base clock speed of 1.0 GHz (no turbo), the 28-nanometer chip also integrates a Radeon HD 8210 GPU, a single-channel DDR3L-1333 memory controller as well as the Southbridge with various I/O ports.

The AMD Radeon HD 8210 is an integrated DirectX 11.1 graphics card found in AMD E1-2100 “Kabini” and A4-1250 “Temash” APUs. It offers 128 shader cores and two Compute Units based on the GCN architecture and is clocked at 300 MHz with no support for Turbo. The graphics card does not have dedicated VRAM and will access the main memory of the system (up to single-channel DDR3L-1333).”

The description says this is a dual core cpu rated at just 1.0Ghz. The first ever processor to reach 1.0Ghz was back in 2003. Granted this processor is likely much more powerful than the first 1.0Ghz cpu as that rating isn’t the only thing that counts at all ( a 2.6Ghz CPU could be much more powerful than a 3.0Ghz cpu for example). But the fact that it is as low as 1Ghz lets us know that while it may ok-ish for office work and browsing, it will most likely not run High definition video and you can forget about games, specially without a discrete graphics card, running on the integrated Radeon HD 8210 GPU which is again 2-year-old technology that is equivalent to the power of a 7-year old graphics card and to top it off does not have dedicated VRAM so it will use your RAM memory to do its thing which moves us to the next point.

2: RAM: 4 GB DDR3L 1600 MHz (1 x 4Gb)

While by today’s standards, 4Gb of DDR3 1600Mhz would be the absolute minimum for any Desktop or Laptop, we have to have in mind that this is being shared with the on-board graphics card which means we will not have all the RAM available at any time. The fact that it is all in one stick of memory rather than 2 also means that we do not have Dual Channel technology which allows RAM to receive and send information at the same time meaning that regardless of the amount, it is slower than you’d like.

3: Hard Drive & Screen: 500Gb 5400RPM – 15.6″ 1366 x 768

This laptop comes with an adequate 500Gb but as all low-end laptops it’s a 5400RPM drive which means it’s speed is considerably reduced compared to the Desktop’s conventional 7200RPM drives. The screen is the standard 15.6″ but at a reduced 1366×768 max resolution which on a 15.6″ screen will likely drive you mad due to the low image quality and content reduction due to the fact that you simply can’t fit much in to that amount of pixels, not that it would matter as the on board graphics card would provably struggle with anything closely resembling Full HD.

4: Why it sells so much

Simple answer, 300€/280Pounds/320USD and that is the reality of this, the manufacturer can only include so much for such a low price and that’s what makes it attractive to customers, being able to buy a computer for that price is something most people won’t look over, because, can you complain? No, you can’t and this is the problem. The laptop will feel sluggish from day one, chances are you’ll end up taking it to your local it shop or computer guy/friend and they will tell you that it’s just to low of a spec, that it’ll never feel fast but what they can do is reinstall windows cleanly, without all the rubbish software manufacturers bundle with their Laptops which just slow it down further and if you want to spend a bit of money, upgrade it with an SSD which will no doubt improve the responsiveness of the laptop considerably due to the slow original drive not helping the cause but it’ll still be limited by its ridiculous processing power.

Conclusion: In all fairness, they advertise it for what it is, a basic laptop with the age-old excuse of “if all you want to do is office work and browse”. I don’t know about you but when I open Word or Firefox/Chrome I’d like for them to open and not make a cup of tea while I wait for it. So, false economy, is your time really worth that little?

The “It’s actually less powerful than it looks” Laptop

This kind really pisses me off actually, the previous one at least is straight up about what it is, if the customer doesn’t know better, you can’t really blame the manufacturer, this one however will take advantage of that, to sell you something that looks powerful when it really isn’t.

Lenovo IdeaPad G50-30 Celeron N2840/8GB/500GB/GT820M/15.6
Lenovo IdeaPad G50-30 Celeron N2840/8GB/500GB/GT820M/15.6
1: Processor & Graphics: Intel Celeron N2840 – NVIDIA GeForce GT820M

The Intel Celeron N2840 is a power efficient dual-core SoC for entry-level notebooks. It is clocked at up to 2.58 GHz and part of the Bay Trail-M platform. Thanks to the specially optimized 22 nanometer low-power process (P1271) with tri-gate transistors, performance and energy efficiency have been significantly improved compared to previous Intel Atom CPUs. The N2840 supports Intel Quick Sync and Wireless Display.

Here we see the first sign of trying to sell you something that looks powerful when it is not. 2.58Ghz sounds like a high clock rate, it certainly looks like that way but the keyword here is “Celeron”. Now, if you do a simple google search you’ll find Celeron is the second lowest powerfully range of processors from the Intel family. As if that wasn’t enough of a warning light, we see the N letter in the model which rings a bell… Remember those extremely low powered 7-10″ netbooks from Acer & ASUS? Their processor also started with a N… and then we keep reading and there it is… “improved compared to previous Intel Atom CPUs“, that’s right, they had Intel Atom CPUs which are the lowest of the Intel Family, so this is an Atom CPU but with the Celeron badge slapped on, with a higher clocked rate that translates to the equivalent power of the old Core 2 Duo low-mid range cpus which were a range of processors launched in 2006. So here we have a 2.58Ghz with power equivalent to a 6-9 year old processor.

The NVIDIA GeForce 820M (or GT 820M) is an entry-level DirectX 12 compatible graphics card announced in January 2014. Its core is based on the 28nm GF117 chip (Fermi architecture) and is equipped with 64-bit DDR3 memory. Besides the slightly different clock rate, the 820M is almost identical to the old GeForce 710M and GT 720M.”

So this laptop has a dedicated (also known as discrete) graphics card, the NVIDIA Geforce GT820M with 1Gb VRAM which is good because that means it won’t steal RAM resources from the rest of the laptop. But hold on, low-end NVIDIA integrated mobile gpu…. See, the graphic card manufacturers don’t really give their low-end models on any given series new technology, they are essentially rebranded older hardware with slightly different clocks. So it says that the GT820M is based on the Fermi architecture. It was first used (released) on the Geforce 400 series back in 2010, so again, we’re given hardware based on technology that’s 5 years old. To put it in perspective, if you had a Desktop with the highest end 400 series graphics card (which when first released would set you back 600USD/€/Pounds easily, and that’s just for the graphics card, nothing else), it would not be able to cope with the latest games, design software. And that’s the highest possible model in the range, this GT 820M is the low-end equivalent so you see where this is going.

2: RAM: 8 GB DDR3L non-specified MHz (1 x 8Gb)

This laptop comes with 8Gb of DDR3 RAM with an unspecified Mhz rating which basically means it’s 1333Mhz (so while more than the previous model, comes at a slower speed) and as before the fact that it is all in one stick of memory rather than 2 also means that we do not have Dual Channel technology which allows RAM to receive and send information at the same time meaning that regardless of the amount, it is slower than you’d like. But, it’s 8Gb so it makes it look more powerful.

3: Hard Drive & Screen: 500Gb 5400RPM – 15.6″ 1366 x 768

This laptop again comes with an adequate 500Gb but as all low-end laptops it’s a 5400RPM drive which means it’s speed is considerably reduced compared to the Desktop’s conventional 7200RPM drives. The screen is the standard 15.6″ but at a reduced 1366×768 max resolution which on a 15.6″ screen will likely drive you mad due to the low image quality and content reduction due to the fact that you simply can’t fit much in to that amount of pixels, not that it would matter as the discrete graphics card is so out of date that even though it can handle Full HD (which doesn’t matter because you don’t get a Full HD screen with this Laptop) it can’t handle any modern games, so you’re stuck with older games and any sort of resource intensive software (like Photoshop for example) which again, doesn’t really matter because even if it did have the graphics power, the processor lets you down so hard that it would feel like pushing something really big up a hill, you may be able to get there but not in any sort of record time, or good time for that matter (here I come again kettle!).

4: Why it sells so much

Simple answer, 450€/410Pounds/475USD and it looks, on paper, so much better than the previous model and it’s only 50% more so that must justify the increase in the specs which in turn must mean that this is incredibly more powerful… which brings me back to why this type of laptop makes me angry, the manufacturer is indirectly lying to the customer making something look powerful when it’s actually rather slow and at the same time not breaking any laws because they are not technically telling you that, you’re just assuming it by the way it’s advertised and the numbers in the description so as with the previous example, you’ll most likely end up at the shop/it friend’s house to try and reinstall Windows without all the bundled crap and maybe upgrade it with an SSD.

Conclusion: Ugh *facepalm*!

So what kind of laptop should I buy?

You’d think the easiest answer to this considering the examples I’ve given is “anything over X amount of [insert currency of choice here]” but, unfortunately, it’s not that easy. You see, what determines a good laptop (and by good I mean good for your needs, not in the hardware power scale) is a reasonable combination of its components which means if a laptop must cost no more than X to manufacture, it should not spend a large chunk of its budget on a higher end part and combine it with a very low-end part to offset the costs just so the higher end part can be used as part of a marketing strategy. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get this on the lower side of the laptop spec spectrum simply because it’s not a good marketing move. Furthermore, unlike Desktop PCs, it’s not like we can pick and choose components at a shop and let them assemble them for us (or do it ourselves).

So what are we left with?

We’re left with 4 steps to take into account when buying a laptop.

  1. We have to decide how much we want to spend on our new laptop and, unlike on pretty much any other expensive item in our lives, not stick to it. If spending 30€/USD/Pounds means getting something considerably better, we must consider the extra expense as a possibility.
  2. We have to do our research and find a Laptop composed by components that match each other. By my experience this normally means not even looking at anything under 600€/540Pounds/660USD. Why? Because while you may find some that matches these 2 points, they are far and wide apart which means we’ll spend a ton of time doing so.
  3. Unlike Desktops which are mostly assembled in huge numbers and will be put on sale once they are out of date, Laptops are assembled in relatively small batches as models come out every other week and each model having a second batch depend on how well they sell. This means that it is very rare for laptops to go on sale due to wanting to get rid of stock which means when they are on sale, it’s purely a marketting strategy meaning the supposed “original” price is inflated to give the impression of a “good deal”.
  4. Do not buy a Laptop just because it has an SSD, often it is cheaper to buy the laptop of your choice and simply pay extra for an SSD so you can install it yourself or have a friend/local shop install it for you.

The “Matching Components” Laptop

Here is a decent example (again, only reason I chose an ASUS model was because it was the first I found matching what I was looking for, all brands have equivalents) of what I mean on the previous points. Usually this kind of laptop is what falls in the “negative feedback” zone of marketting. It’s not powerful enough to advertise it as a gaming laptop nor is it cheap enough to do any of the marketing moves exposed in the previous 2 examples and therefore is normally placed on a shelf with nothing special mentioned about it, no sale, no nothing, it’s just there because they have to offer something in between marketing strategies.

Asus K555LD-XX1014H Intel i5-5200U/8GB/1TB/GT 820M/15.6

Asus K555LD-XX1014H Intel i5-5200U/8GB/1TB/GT 820M/15.6

 1: Processor & Graphics: Intel Core i5-5200U – nvidia GeForce GT820M

The Intel Core i5-5200U is a ULV (ultra low voltage) dual-core processor based on the Broadwell architecture, which has been launched in January 2015. In addition to two CPU cores with Hyper-Threading clocked at 2.2 – 2.7 GHz (2 Cores: 2.5 GHz), the chip also integrates an HD Graphics 5500 GPU and a dual-channel DDR3(L)-1600 memory controller. The Core i5 is manufactured in a 14 nm process with FinFET transistors.

The i5 has for some years now been the corner-stone of the Intel range. It’s not a Celeron or atom which is geared to ultra-cheap laptops, it’s not an i3 which is base line of the main processors and it’s not an i7 which is geared for the high-end. It’s that in-between point which is what we want for an all round value/performance good laptop. This specific model (like most laptop current generation i5) is a ULV, which essentially means it uses very little power and therefore giving you considerably more power than lower end cpus but keeping the battery usage in check. It is a Dual Core with HT (Hyper Threading) which means it can handle to threads per core, essentially making it a Quad Core processor which allows you to more things at once without an increased slowdown. It is also part of the Broadwell family of processors which were launched this year and are manufactured with a 14nm process which is also new to this year. This means this is in fact new and up-to-date technology, unlike the previous examples.

Furthermore the CPU itself comes with the Intel HD5500 integrated graphics. This being a laptop with also a dedicated (discrete) graphics card means that the laptop will switch between both of them depending on what you’re doing in order to make the battery last longer before it needs a recharge while at the same time not shying away from giving you the power when you need it.

The NVIDIA GeForce 820M (or GT 820M) is an entry-level DirectX 12 compatible graphics card announced in January 2014. Its core is based on the 28nm GF117 chip (Fermi architecture) and is equipped with 64-bit DDR3 memory. Besides the slightly different clock rate, the 820M is almost identical to the old GeForce 710M and GT 720M.”

I talked about this very graphics card in the second example within this article. The difference here is that while it is old technology it is paired with a proper processor which has its own high-end integrated graphics which in combination with this can provide the power that the previous example could not. And this is what I talked about on 4 points on buying a new laptop. It’s about coherent combination of hardware.

2: RAM: 8 GB DDR3L 1600Mhz (2 x 4Gb)

This laptop comes with 8Gb of DDR3 RAM at 1600 Mhz rating which is today’s DDR3 standard. Being composed of 2x 4Gb sticks, it has Dual Channel activated which means the laptop can handle write and read operations at the same time meaning no slowdowns in its usage (unlike the previous example with had 8Gb of 1333Mhz in one stick).

3: Hard Drive & Screen: 1000Gb 5400RPM – 15.6″ Slimglare LED

This laptop comes with an adequate 1Tb (1000Gb) drive but what we should do here is also acquire an SSD and have it installed (if you don’t know what SSDs are or why you should upgrade to one, click here!). Then, we can purchase an external usb 2.5 enclosure and place the original 1Tb laptop drive in there which will mean our laptop is now much faster and we also have an external backup drive which is perfect.

The screen is the SlimGare LED 15.6″ but at a reduced 1366×768 max resolution which on a 15.6″ screen is not good but the fact the it’s a high quality LED panel somewhat makes up for this disadvantage (again, sensible combination of components). Furthermore, while you will not have Full HD with this screen, you will be able to make the most of the graphic power but it not having to work as hard but knowing that it is capable of Full HD when plugging your laptop to a Desktop monitor or even a TV to what the latest movies.

4: Why it doesn’t sell so much

Marketing departments rarely care for this mid-point between low-end massive sales and the remaining high-end sales but they know that it’s a product they must have in order to fill in the gap and compete against the other companies. Because of this most people will go one way or another but don’t normally go this way. Even the people intending to go towards the middle end up falling in to the trap exposed by the second example in this article so you could even argue the companies would rather you did not buy this laptop and bought the cheaper one instead. For the record, this specific model is around 600€/540Pounds/660USD at the time of writing.

Conclusion: As you can see this is a Laptop that has a coherent combination of components and not a single flashy one. The irony in this is that this Laptop will outperform laptops around the same price range or less that have a “flashy” component that’s being used for marketing purposes.

So, hopefully now you are ready to go Laptop shopping and tell the sales rep. YOU! NOT THIS TIME! (though to be honest they don’t care as long as you actually buy a laptop).

Fix it yourselfHardware TuesdayLaptops

5 Ways to Cool Down Your Laptop

1st September 2015 — by That IT Guy0

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It’s no secret that a lot of people prefer a Laptop over a Desktop if they have to choose (many have both). In my experience with clients, 95% of the time, the answer to why is mobility or space (or both). As for the specifics, well it could be as simple as “I need my laptop for work due to the fact that I move around constantly” or “I don’t really have room for a desktop PC, not even one of those all-in-one solutions” which is specially the case for university students living in stupidly small apartments. The fact is that a Laptop is simply more comfortable.

Personally I don’t have one but I have had several over the years. All types as well, going from the traditional laptop to ultrabooks to netbooks (those 7-10″ underpowered laptops that abused the “it’s just for internet” excuse) but most importantly, I sure do fix a lot of them and the two main reasons for that are hard drive failure (due to knocking the laptop with something) and overheating.

You see, if Laptops where people, they’d have a serious inferiority complex and a constant need to “try to be better” or in this specific case, try to be more like Desktops and the main problem with that is power. You may not know this but an i7-xxxx is not the same as that very i7 model cpu on a Desktop computer. Why? Because a Laptop has power limitations (and I mean power in the electricity way, not performance) due to the fact that their battery has to last, at the absolute least, an hour and a half (when new) which means components are only allowed to use so much power and in the hardware world, more power tends to me more performance.

Today, however, as components get better, they require less power to put out all they can, specially with many power saving features such as cpu power management or having an integrated graphics card for doing menial tasks and using the discrete graphics card for stuff like gaming. Unfortunately, because these components are more powerful (performance), they put out more heat, specially under stress. A perfect example is, an average Desktop will measure a max temperature of 50-75c (depending on location and components of course) under heavy use while a Laptop can easily reach 90c. As time goes by, components get older and hotter so while a Desktop has plenty of room to get hotter and not have any symptoms other than heat, a Laptop does not and will soon start to fail.

So, here’s 9 ways to cool down your Laptop.

1: Find a hard, flat surface.

One of the most common mistake people do when using a laptop is thinking it’s ok to use it in bed to, for example, watch a movie or the latest episode from your favourite tv show. If the laptop is on a soft surface like your bed or nested in between you and a pillow you’re doing it wrong. Have in mind that laptops breathe in through either underneath or the sides depending on models and thickness. Finding and using a hard surface will allow your laptop to maintain good air flow. The floor isn’t ideal either for the same reason it’s not ideal to have your Desktop’s tower on the floor, it tends to be covered in a thin layer of dust which while you may not see, both types of computers pick it up through their air intake which in turn ends up blocking it causing less fresh air to go in and therefore rising the temperature.

9 Ways to Cool Down Your Laptop

Ironically and contrary to what its name implies, your lap isn’t the best place either. Furthermore while it may be obvious it needs to be said, do not cover the air intakes with decorative stickers or other paraphernalia and most importantly, whatever you do, do not place your laptop in direct sunlight. That said, this is not a “NEVER DO THIS” list of places for your laptop to be on, it is simply a list of places that not only do not help your laptop’s cooling but rather, make it considerably worse.

2: Clean out the fluff.

One of the main causes of an excessively hot laptop is dust. There’s several ways to solve this but the simplest is to purchase a can of compressed air and spray it into the vents in quick and short bursts, be sure, however, that your laptop is off, unplugged from the mains and with the battery removed before you do this. Also, don’t just blow in to the vents, that’s being cheap and it may actually cause damage as by blowing you can blow spit and/or humidity in to the sensitive electronics that are within the laptop and as we all know, being cheap rarely pays off, specially on electronics.

9 Ways to Cool Down Your Laptop

You can also use a cotton swab to clean out any visible dust within the vents but do not use a vacuum cleaner unless it’s a specific one for computers due to the fact that these generate electrostatic current which is incredibly bad for exposed electronics. The ultimate procedure is to open up the laptop and clean it through out, but this is nowhere near as easy or quick as doing it on a Desktop so do not attempt this unless you know exactly what you’re doing as you may find yourself with broken clips or not knowing how it all goes together again so if you want to do this, be sure to take it to your local specialist as 50 dollars/pounds/euros spent today may considerably increase the life of your laptop due to it not being exposed to overheating.

3: Buy a cooling stand.

In the last few years there’s been an increase in the need for this devices (and for good reason). They are essentially bases for your laptop (which, again the recommendations on step 1, will allow you to use it pretty much anywhere as it does provide a hard surface for your laptop that also cools it) with an integrated fan that is usually connected via USB to your laptop for power (obviously have in mind this will draw power from your laptop and therefore drain your battery slightly faster). One that I quite like and have gotten better results than other (which turn to be plastic or have poor fans) is the “Cooler Master Notepal U2 Plus” on which you can adjust the fans to cool the hottest areas on your laptop. You can get one in the following links if you decide to go for this model.

Cooler Master U2 Plus
Amazon US
Amazon UK

4: Update your drivers.

Most people will never touch the drivers because it comes ready from the factory with everything installed. Even when new however, that very laptop could have been sitting in a warehouse for months so new drivers could easily have come out since then. Drivers (specially chipset and graphics drivers) don’t just fix issues, they also optimize the performance and cooling so while it may not be a drastic change in temperatures, in most cases it will help a bit (and you may even notice a performance increase!).

Update your Drivers!

Unfortunately, most (if not all) Laptop manufacturer websites do not upload new drivers to their website from the manufacturer unless it fixes a very common and complained about issue so you may have to do some hunting. Fortunately for you, your main concern will chipset and graphics drivers which, incidentally, are also the easiest to find. The first thing you’ll need to know is what Chipset and Graphics card you have, you can find out what you have using a little program called HWiNFO which you can find in the downloads section. Once you install and open it, you’ll see your chipset and graphics card information.

What Chipset and GPU do I have?

Now that we have the information we need, we just need to go to their websites. So, if you have an Intel Chipset, you can install an auto-updater from Intel here. If you have an AMD Chipset you can do the very same here which, incidentally will also update your Graphics card if you have an AMD or ATI graphics card as it’s part of the same company. If you have an NVIDIA Graphics card you can do the same here. See, that wasn’t so scary was it?

5: If none of these helps enough.

The sad fact is that your laptop may be beyond the previous tips being enough. At this point what it needs is to be opened up, cleaned properly and for its thermal paste to be changed. Thermal paste (or grease) is the substance used in between your CPU and GPU and their respective heat sinks which in turn are connected to your fan.

Disgracefully (in my opinion anyway), laptop manufacturers use a really low quality thermal paste on their laptops which completely dries up over time and eventually leads to serious overheating issues, specially with laptops that higher end specs. On a normal Desktop PC it would take us no more than 10 minutes to change the paste, on a laptop however, it’s a time consuming procedure to laptops not having a universal chassis mounting design and therefore every laptop being different when it comes to opening it up.

For this you’ll really need to take it to your local specialist but, for all we know they may use cheap thermal paste too so a good thumb of rule is asking them to call you when the laptop is ready to have its thermal paste replaced and watching them do it on the spot by providing your own. I will always recommend Arctic’s MX4 Thermal Compound, it’s absolutely amazing how this stuff will cool down your laptop (we’re talking 25c less for an overheating laptop). Below you’ll find links to it.

Artic Cooling MX-4
Amazon US
Amazon UK

That’s it! Let me know in the comments how these tips worked for you and of course I’ll be happy to reply to any questions.