I know nothing about laptops and I want to buy one
November 22, 2021 4:40 PM   Subscribe

This question isn't about what laptop I should buy, as I've done my research and know what features I want. But I don't know anything else about laptops.

I've never used one. I currently have a desktop with internet access through an Actiontec Gateway modem/router supplied by Windstream. Can I use that with a new laptop? I've heard of "docking stations," but I don't know if I need to buy one. I'm planning to head out soon to go shopping and need help. Talk to me like I'm a laptop dummy, which I am.
posted by Dolley to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
You say you've done your research and know what features you want. It would be helpful to know some of that so that we don't give you a bunch of advice for things that you've either already figured out, or don't pertain to you.

Starting point would be: are you getting an Mac, Windows-based or Chomebook-based laptop?

If your Actiontec router has wifi, then all modern laptops will work with it. If it only has wired connections (ethernet), then you'll either want to buy a wireless accesspoint, make sure your laptop has an ethernet port, or buy an USB-ethernet adapter.

Docking stations are useful if you are frequently plugging and unplugging your laptop and you have multiple accessories. They can either be a literal station that you plug your whole laptop into, or as simple as a single USB-C plug that lets you plug in other accessories into it. What accessories do you plan on using? Examples could be: external keyboard or mouse, extra monitor, wired printer, speakers/headphone/microphone, etc
posted by Diddly at 4:50 PM on November 22

Is your computer plugged into the gateway with a cable or is it wireless? Does your gateway support wireless? (most do now, it's practically a default). Most laptops connect wireless. You might have to go in from the desktop that works and set up some gateway things if the desktop is wired and the gateway has wireless turned off.

A docking station is like a something that you can plug your laptop into on a desk or somewhere and do things like multiple monitors and big keyboard, some more ports, stuff like that. Basically to turn your laptop into just the brains of a desktop style computer. You probably don't need one until you decide you do.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:52 PM on November 22

Oh, the model number of your Actiontec Gateway might help, a brief look turned up ADSL wireless stuff. I guess there could be a model that doesn't even support wireless but I'd be rather surprised.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:55 PM on November 22

Docking station is a time-saving device where you plug one thing in and it connects to all the accessories you have on the desk with it. One plug does it all sort of thing. If you don't have a lot of accessories (monitor, mouse, keyboard, etc.) then it's not necessary, but "nice to have".

It'd be helpful to know what features you actually want and what is your budget.
posted by kschang at 4:57 PM on November 22

At its simplest, the laptop is self-contained and will come with everything you need (laptop, power cord) to use it.

You can add a full-size keyboard and/or the mouse of your choice if you like, these will generally plug into USB ports on the laptop (or for wireless they generally share a single USB receiver plugged into one of those ports).

Your laptop will likely have one video out port (depending on brand this might be just regular HDMI or some somewhat proprietary port; you can get a cable with HDMI on one end (to plug into an external monitor) and whatever fits your laptop on the other, or you can get a cable that is HDMI on both ends and an adapter if you need one for your display out port.

It's really only when you want more than one external monitor that you might be in actual need of a docking station. The docking station on my current work laptop supports I think three external monitors, I only have two. I do not use a docking station with any of my other personal laptops as I am fine without it.

Your new laptop will have a wifi receiver and may not have an ethernet port, as in there may be no way to plug a network cable into it. If your router does not deliver wifi you may have to get a different router.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:02 PM on November 22

Response by poster: Thanks to all who have so kindly responded!

To answer the questions:
I will get Windows based. The router (T3200) has WiFi. I would probably want an external keyboard, mouse for sure. I don't think I would need an external monitor, but again, I'm a dummy about this and really don't know why I would or wouldn't want one. I have speakers, not wireless, for the desktop. Will they work with a laptop?

I will be looking for a laptop with the following:

Windows 10 or 11 OpSys
8 gig RAM
SSD hard drive with at least 256 gig memory
USB-A and USB-C ports
Mic jack
posted by Dolley at 6:15 PM on November 22

If you are in a position to do so, you might want to check out laptops in person. Even laptops with similar features can feel/look very different... particularly the track pad, keyboard, and screen. And unlike a desktop computer, those 3 aforementioned components can't easily be swapped out.

If you already have a desktop, you can probably poach the keyboard, mouse, and monitor for use with the laptop. Just note that if you wish to plug in both a mouse and a keyboard to your laptop, you probably want to have at least 2 USB- A ports. Monitors vary more on which types of cables they support. (HDMI, Displayport, Thunderbolt, USB-C are the more common options today). There are dongles/ connectors / adapters/ exceptions out there, but holding all else equal it's easiest for the computer and the monitor to have the same connection type. (For example HDMI). Many people like using an external monitor because the screen is bigger. However, using an external monitor with a laptop isn't necessary.

Your wired speakers may or may not be compatible with your new laptop... it depends on what the specific connection type is.
posted by oceano at 6:44 PM on November 22

If you'll mostly use it in one location don't worry about weight, the biggest are not that heavy for an occasional move. But if it'll be on your shoulder every day, it does matter.

If you have a specific speaker, double check connections, some leave out jacks. But one with several usb will probably be fine.

If you don't have multiple monitors now you may not need one for the laptop.

A usb or bluetooth mouse is a quick buy separately, laptops don't come with one. Possible will not need but I like one.

Get to a store, or multiple stores and touch different machines. Type on the keyboard before you buy. Many of us swear by thinkpads partly for the keyboard, but different fingers love different keys. Probably the most important choice. I can't imagine using an external keyboard.
posted by sammyo at 6:55 PM on November 22

One thing I would consider is a stand. If you use an external keyboard and use the laptop screen as your display, you often want the laptop screen lifted up more into your eye level. Stands are not laptop specific, just a lifted tray you sit your open laptop on, and are often very cheap. Expect to try a couple before you settle on the one that works for you, in my experience. (This is one area where the mumble-spelled Chinese resellers on Amazon have a ton of choice, but if you go that way expect to return one or two as not quite right and/or outright shoddy.)

For a keyboard and mouse, if you use an external USB hub you can save yourself a very slight bit of plugging cables in when you put your laptop back on your desk. Again, they don't have to be laptop specific - your laptop manufacturer may sell nicer hubs that work more smoothly with your laptop, but they're often quite expensive for the minimal benefit and targeted more at corporate buyers who aren't as worried about price. I would probably not run out and buy one until you decide how much it annoys you.

When moving the laptop around (as in, carrying it to other locations), I recommend a bag with a bit of padding for protection. Consider whether you want a messenger bag style or a backpack - I use a backpack because putting the weight on just one shoulder upsets my neck. If you have friends in IT, check to see if they have a spare they don't want; they're often corporate or conference gifts.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 7:32 PM on November 22 [1 favorite]

If you're planning on using an external keyboard and mouse, I recommend looking at laptops which flip around to be "tablet style", like the Lenovo Yoga. I have a similar laptop for my home office, and I have it sitting on its keyboard so that I can have the monitor at the proper distance on its stand (aka an old paper box).

In terms of makes: Lenovo is solid and I've never met anyone who regretted getting one (same with the older ThinkPads). I thought I liked Dell for the service, but they have recently really downgraded their service. Next time, I'm getting a Lenovo.
posted by jb at 7:42 PM on November 22

As others, have pointed out, there are quite a few design choice differences between a laptop which will mainly be used on the road and one which will mainly be used in a desktop situation. The former will need long battery life, a decent keyboard and an acceptable screen, it will also be rugged and not too heavy. The latter option is less onerous on specifications: we can use one or more external monitors - an external keyboard.

Bear in mind that laptop components normally cost more than desktop equivalents because they have to be smaller, have lower power consumption and be more rugged. In some cases a small form factor PC could actually be a better bet (I'm writing this on a ThinkStation P340 which can connect to everything it needs to in an office, but which is easily portable if necessary).
posted by rongorongo at 2:48 AM on November 23

Response by poster: Laptop is purchased. Patient, knowledgeable, gentleman in the smallish store that is part of a national chain, listened carefully to me and helped me locate one that ticks off all the boxes and was not wildly expensive. He also answered my questions, some of which I had asked here, and there were no contradictions.

Thanks again to all.
posted by Dolley at 9:30 AM on November 23 [2 favorites]

Great! Inquiring minds want to know--what did you end up getting?
posted by Ahmad Khani at 9:48 AM on November 23 [1 favorite]

I don't think I would need an external monitor, but again, I'm a dummy about this and really don't know why I would or wouldn't want one.

Your laptop screen is pretty small, and maybe you want a bigger one. Or you want to work from multiple monitors (your laptop screen can serve as a monitor in conjunction with other external monitors).

I use a dock to swap between laptops (work and personal) to connect to my external monitors, mouse, and keyboard.

Overall I would encourage you to use your new laptop a bit and see what additional things you feel like you need.
posted by jeoc at 10:07 AM on November 23

Response by poster: I bought an ASUS F512JA.
posted by Dolley at 5:29 PM on November 23 [2 favorites]

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