Posted on : Thursday 19th March 2020 11:59 AM
"I plan to get a new computer for home use, no games. I would rather have a desktop/tower, if it was possible to get a more sensitive keyboard, but I have Parkinson’s and find that the keys are way too hard to use because they require a deeper push than laptop keyboards. Your earlier suggestion of getting an external monitor for a laptop sounds like a winner. How is the connection made? Richard
The short answer is that you should buy a desktop PC. With a laptop, you are more or less stuck with the keyboard fitted by the manufacturer, and the quality varies from average to mediocre. With a desktop PC, you can take your pick from dozens of USB and Bluetooth keyboards. These range from keyboards with flat, island-style isolated keys to full mechanical keyboards aimed at professionals and gamers.
Some USB keyboards have extra-large keys with big letters for children and for grown-ups with vision and other problems. There’s also a programmable membrane keyboard, Helpikeys, that doesn’t have keys at all. Helpikeys works with a variety of keyboard overlays, and people can create custom keyboards with its Layout Builder software.
There are lots of flat keyboards that might suit you. The wireless Bluetooth options include the Microsoft Modern (£85.76 on Amazon.co.uk) and Microsoft Surface (£71.99) keyboards, plus similar models from Fenifox (£36.99) and Jelly Comb (£29.99). Personally, I’d go for the silver Cherry KC 6000 Slim wired USB keyboard (£28.66), though there are cheaper wired options.
Either way, consider contacting AbilityNet, a charity that provides specialist advice on technology to “people of any age, living with any disability or impairment”. AbilityNet may also be able to offer you free IT support at home through its network of volunteers. It’s a wonderful resource for older people and those with disabilities.
Desktop or laptop?
The ergonomics of using a laptop for prolonged use are normally much worse than a desktop with separate keyboard, mouse and monitor. Photograph: izusek/Getty Images
There are some good reasons for buying a laptop. The main ones are, first, that you need to use your PC while out and about, or at least in different rooms; and second, that you don’t have room for a desktop monitor and external keyboard.
Size is no longer a disqualification because you can get tiny mini PCs that will attach to the back of a monitor. However, it’s pretty hard to use a desktop without some sort of desk or table and a chair, and those take up valuable floor space.
If you have room for a desktop, there are lots of reasons to buy one. Desktops generally run faster than laptops because they can use faster processors that run hotter. Desktops do not limit your screen size or keyboard quality, so you can optimise the system to your needs. Desktops are easier to expand, update and repair – you can usually add extra memory, bigger drives and faster graphics cards – so they should last longer. And if your system is set up correctly, desktops have better ergonomics than laptops, so they are better for your health.
Laptop as desktop
Laptops can connect to external displays, but if you’re only ever going to use it in one place a desktop PC might be a better option. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
Most laptops let you plug in an external monitor or screen display, a USB or Bluetooth keyboard, a mouse, headphones, ethernet adapter, and external USB hard drives for backups and extra storage. Microsoft Windows supports multiple displays as standard, so the main problem is picking a cable to connect the second screen to your laptop.
For most purposes, we’ve already left behind VGA and DVI connections. Modern TV sets and monitors have HDMI ports, and sometimes others such as DisplayPort. Modern laptops typically have HDMI, DisplayPort or Mini DisplayPort connections, and sometimes USB Type C ports.
If both devices have HDMI ports, an HDMI cable will do the job. Sometimes you might need an adapter cable such as HDMI-to-DisplayPort, or vice versa. Otherwise, there are cables with VGA, DVI, Mini DisplayPort, DisplayPort or USB-C plugs at one end and HDMI at the other end.
There are three problems with this approach. First, your laptop may not have enough ports to plug everything in. Second, it’s tedious to have to unplug all the accessories when you want to take your laptop somewhere, then plug them back in later. Third, you have all the disadvantages of a desktop PC without the advantages.
In the early days of business laptops, docking stations alleviated these problems. Accessories – keyboard, screen, mouse etc – plugged into the docking station and the laptop docked with that. Dedicated docking stations are still available, but the general-purpose solution is a mini-tower like the Plugable USB 3.0 Universal Laptop Docking Station. Everything plugs into the Plugable, or similar device, so there is only one USB 2 or preferably USB 3 cable to the laptop. There are also USB-C versions that can provide power to the laptop as well as all the various connections.
You could take this route if you need a laptop, but it will cost more and not perform as well.
Desktop PC options
Desktop PCs come in so many varieties, from tiny office machines, to giant gaming towers or high-end computers built straight into monitors that can transform such as the Microsoft Surface Studio 2. Photograph: Microsoft
The desktop PC is far from being an endangered species, but it has speciated a long way from the “one size fits all” models popular a few decades ago. There are tiny Windows 10 PCs for serving media, SFF (small form factor) models for office use, all-in-ones built straight into a screen, high-powered towers for music and video editing, and even more high-powered machines with sci-fi styling and multicoloured lights for gamers. For your purposes, almost any of them would do.
If you are on a budget, an acceptable minimum would be something like a Lenovo IdeaCentre 310s with an Intel Pentium J5005 processor, 4GB of memory, DVD and a 1TB hard drive. Currys PC World is selling this PC for £249, and Lenovo offers it online with 8GB for £329.99. One reason for buying direct is that you can buy three years of on-site support for £48.96.
However, memory is so cheap, I don’t see the point of buying a PC with 4GB of memory, unless you plan to add more. Last year I bought another 8GB (£36) to take my desktop PC up to 16GB.
You would also get a much more responsive PC by buying a system with a faster processor, such as an Intel Core i3 or better (ie i5/i7/i9), or the equivalent AMD Ryzen processor and a 128GB or larger SSD instead of a traditional hard drive.
If you can afford it, go for something like the HP Pavilion (search for 590-p0057na) with a Ryzen 5 2400G, 8GB of memory, 128GB SSD and 1TB hard drive for £449.99 at Argos. It’s overkill for your likely needs, but it’s good value. The Lenovo IdeaCentre 510R-15ARR with exactly the same spec costs £529 at PC World. The Xenta (who?) version at eBuyer has a 240GB SSD but lacks the 1TB hard drive for £449.99. This kind of spec should easily last more than five years.
Refurbished business PCs might be boring, but they get the job done and after often better than consumer computers costing more. Photograph: Caiaimage/Tom Merton/Getty Images/Caiaimage
Large businesses still buy desktop PCs in large volumes. They generally want something small, reliable and repairable. These machines are written off after a few years, refurbished, and sold to consumers and some small businesses. One of today’s classic buys is the Dell OptiPlex 7010 SFF (PDF), with the HP 8100 Elite SFF among the alternatives.
One drawback is that their old Intel Core chips aren’t as good as today’s versions. However, with 8GB of memory and, ideally, an SSD, they should be speedy enough for your purposes.
There are dozens of sources of refurbished OptiPlex PCs including eBuyer, Tier1Online, Morgan and numerous Amazon and eBay sellers, though not the Dell Outlet.
Tier1Online will add memory and storage, and extend the warranty, for a price, but it’s cheaper to buy a low-end machine and upgrade it yourself. If you can.
At the moment, Amazon Renewed has some deals worth exploring. You could get a refurbished OptiPlex 7010 SFF with a Core i5-3470, 8GB, a 250GB hard drive, DVD and Windows 10 Professional for £135, or with a 128GB SSD instead of the hard drive, £149.95. And the Core i5-3470 is far superior to the IdeaCentre 310’s Pentium J5005, despite being five years older.
Thursday, 2nd April 2020