A computer buyer’s guide: The form factor

Keeping up with all the new products that periodically flood the IT market can be a daunting task and, if you’re not prepared, you may not be able to make an informed decision when you need or want to purchase a new computer. But fear not, for Tech 4 Freelancers is here to help you, whether you’re purchasing a pre-built machine or going the do-it-yourself route!

This is going to be a series of articles about the various aspects and components to take into account when replacing your computer. This one focuses on the various form factors computer come in these days and will be followed by others about operating systems, CPUs, motherboards, hard and optical drives, graphics cards, connectivity, and one about power supplies. We’re not going to discuss about other kind of expansion cards because most people are going to be happy with what their motherboard comes with out-of-the-box, and we’re also not going to discuss about microphones, webcams, and loudspeakers because they’re not essential.

When you want to buy a new computer or any other electronic device, you’ve got to ask yourself “how is this device going to fit in my work and digital life?” and “how am I going to use this?” The answer to these questions will dictate what to get in order to go about with your daily computing needs.

Laptops, tablets, convertibles and ultraportables

If you’re an on-the-go person or simply don’t have the space or don’t want to devote a desk to your computer, you may want to invest your money into something you can take with you whenever you’re working outside of your office.

Laptops come in all sizes, ranging from 11 inches for the smallest ultraportables to 17 inch beasts, sometimes known as desktop replacements. It goes without saying that with bigger screens comes a bulkier machine which, as a consequence, is also heavier to carry. Always take the weight into account, for carrying 3 kg worth of laptop is no small feat, especially in a messenger bag. The good news is that manufacturers almost always list the product’s weight on their websites. The bad news, however, is that stores usually lock laptops with a Kensington lock to the promenades, in addition to removing their batteries, if possible, thus making harder to gauge exactly how heavy they are when you try to lift them in a store.

Inversely, a bigger laptop usually means that more ports, devices and upgrade options are available to you. When shopping for a laptop, it is vital to strike a balance between the portability you want to attain with the expansion capabilities you need.

With the saturation of the tablet market, the distinction between them and old-fashioned laptops is growing thinner by the day. We’re seeing some manufacturers even touting tablets, once considered mere content consumption devices, create models with 12-inch screens with detachable keyboards, blurring the line between them and laptops further and further.

For your reference, here is a small description of all the types of devices in this category:

  • Tablets are devices with screens that range from 7 to 12 inches in sizes. There were a couple experiments with tablet/all-in-one hybrids, but these saw very limited distribution because of how unwieldy they were. They always use touchscreen as their primary input method, although most will allow you to pair them with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse for an improved user experience. There are some models that come with a detachable keyboard stand. Due to their minuscule size, no tablet model is user-upgradeable and often come with sub-par specifications, compared to other types of computer. The only upgrade that can be performed is the addition of a SD or micro SD card to improve their storage capability.
  • Convertibles are standard laptops whose screens can be rotated 360 degrees, allowing them to be used as tablets if the user wants or needs to. They’re heavier and bulkier than tablets, but can be upgraded, albeit with some difficulty. The upgrade process usually entails taking the whole machine apart and should be performed by a skilled individual. I used to have a convertible and in my opinion it was a good laptop (once I upgraded its storage, at least) but a terrible tablet.
  • Ultraportables, formerly known as Ultrabooks, are devices with screen sizes ranging from 11 to 13 inches whose screens are not pivotable, unlike convertibles, and put an emphasis on light weight and snappy performance thanks to low-power, low-voltage processors (like Core U processors) and SSD storage. Them being so compact entails that they’re usually not user-upgradeable in any way. Their RAM may be soldered to the motherboard and storage device replacements may be hard to come by. They’re usually very expensive, meaning that you’re paying a premium for portability instead of raw performance. This doesn’t mean, however, that they’re slackers when it comes to office workloads, because they aren’t.
  • Laptop is an umbrella term used to refer to any portable computer where all the components are housed in a clamshell unit. This definition also encloses ultraportables and convertibles, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to use the term laptop to refer to non-convertible devices with a screen size ranging from 14 to 16 inches. Many products in this category feature an optical disk drive and they should be probably your go-to machine if you necessarily need one.
  • Desktop replacements are big, heavy, bulky machines with displays ranging from 15 to 17 inches. Very often, they feature desktop-grade components. More than portable computers, they should be considered transportable, due to their heavy weights and abysmal battery lives. They should be considered more like something you can occasionally take to, for example, the bedroom or the living room once in a while, or as a desktop computer with an impromptu uninterruptible power supply, rather than something you can carry day to day.

All-in-one desktops

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The attractiveness of all-in-one desktops is that they’re tidy. I mean, very tidy.  Instead of having a hulking tower next to your monitor (or, god forbid, on the floor) all you have is a neat unit that encloses both your components and your screen. Paired with a wireless keyboard and mouse combo, all-in-one look fantastic on your desk. The problem with them is… That they’re tidy. What I mean by that is that they’re very hard to upgrade.

Usually, you’re only allowed to replace your RAM and hard drive. The processor, in some cases, may be soldered to the motherboard, preventing you from replacing it entirely. Also, you cannot simply RMA the component that failed (and some component will fail over time): you’re forced to send the manufacturer your entire computer. If you don’t want to, say, switch to a USB webcam to replace your dead integrated one, you’re going to have a hard time.

But they do look pretty and won’t make your desk messy. And yes, you can guess there’s a part of me who likes all-in-ones. It’s a part of me I hate, though.

Desktop towers

Some (or rather, most) enthusiasts will tell you that desktop computers are the way to go if you need a computer. I think that most enthusiasts are narrow-minded, for they fail to realise that what works for them may not be the best option for someone else. But to desktop towers credits, they actually are the type of computer that are easiest to work with in case of upgrades and repairs. Especially if you’re building your own or having a boutique system builder assemble one for you, you can easily replace most components.

Thankfully, nowadays you aren’t forced to get a huge case: there are actually three common motherboard (and, by extension) case sizes. We will cover motherboards in a separate article, but for now, suffice it to say that there are cases that can accommodate three different kinds of motherboards.

Here are them:

  • ATX: They’re the biggest cases available in the market, at least for standard motherboards. As the name suggests, they’re compatible with ATX motherboards, although they’re also compatible with smaller boards, albeit wasting space if you install a small board in a big case. Usually, they feature 9 rear expansion slots for add-in cards, at least one optical drive slot, a decent number of hard drives. It’s hard to tell how many, because this number varies from model to model.
  • Micro ATX: Sometimes referred to mATX or, less commonly, µATX, they’re smaller than ATX cases and, as such, feature less rear expansion slots (usually 4), optical and hard drives. They’re very attractive thanks to their smaller footprint.
  • Mini ITX: The smallest of all, Mini ITX motherboards only measure 17×17 cm, meaning they’re freakin’ tiny. Mini ITX cases range from cubic to classic tower styles. Many mini ITX cases don’t have room for an optical drive, yet this shouldn’t be a problem.

While the most common of all is the old-fashioned tower, there are also cubic cases, usually geared towards enthusiasts, and horizontal cases which, while kind of an oddity today, can still be found if you shop around.

Desktop towers differ in regard to how many rear expansion slots are available (usually from 2 to 9), how many hard drives you can have in your system, what kind and how many optical drives you can have, and so on.

Other form factors

Believe it or not, some firms actually manufacture desktop PCs that are even smaller than ITX, sometimes even comparable in size to a USB thumb drive, like the Intel Compute Stick. It’s clear that these computers are meant for very specific use cases and should not be considered a replacement for a more powerful machine, but still they look very cool. I am personally particularly excited about the UDOO X86 board and I hope to get hold of one as soon as they’re available to review them.

There’s also the Intel NUC, or Next Unit of Computing, a tiny computer that comes with a case, a motherboard, and a low-power processor. You’re supposed to install your RAM and hard drive and you’re ready to go. They look very neat, but again, they’re not meantto be considered a replacement for something with a bit more punch to it.

Join the discussion in the comments. What computer do you think suits you best for the use you intend to do? Let us know!

About Andrea Luciano Damico 137 Articles

Andrea Luciano Damico is a freelance translator from Italy. Among his interests are linguistics, technology, video games, and generally being a chill guy.
He runs Let’s Translate.it and Tech4Freelancers.net.