We are replacing an old laptop. We use it, almost exclusively, to watch online TV via an HDMI cable. What would be the best machine to purchase going forward, or would we be better off buying a PC? Jamie
There’s a plethora of ways to watch online videos nowadays, and a laptop would not be top of my list. Unfortunately, the “best machine” will depend on your personal needs and preferences. In fact, many people use more than one machine, and your best option might be a laptop plus a cheap streaming device.
The options include Roku and Amazon Fire set-top boxes and Google Chromecast streamers, Kodi and similar media servers, and games consoles like the Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One. I’m not going to have room to cover them all, so you will need to explore the likely ones yourself.
But there are two questions that only you can answer: how much do you need a PC, and which online services do you need?
You may need a PC to run Microsoft Office or an accounting program, specialised software such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, Apple iTunes, or games that only run on PCs. You can shift some of those tasks to online services, but most still need a screen and keyboard.
Also, you’re already using a laptop, so buying a new one is the line of least resistance. It avoids having to tackle the second question, which is …
Which online services do you need? Not all services are available on all devices. Draw a matrix of the services you need – Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, YouTube and so on – and the various devices, putting crosses in the appropriate boxes. Most if not all services are available via a web browser, which is where the PC becomes most useful.
Check the specification of your old laptop, and buy something as good or better. Most newer processors have better built-in support for video decoding than older chips, so almost anything you can buy today should outperform your old machine.
Nonetheless, I recommend steering away from entry-level laptops and 2-in-1s that have only 2GB of memory and 32GB of eMMC chip storage. These chips are similar to SD cards in performance; they are not solid-state drives (SSDs).
Almost any entry-level laptop will do the job, but modern browsers can consume vast amounts of memory, and upgrading Windows 10 will eventually need more free space than you have on board. If the laptop is your main machine, the cost savings may not be worth it in the long run.
Also, you may want to save videos for offline viewing. If so, it would be better to go for a traditional hard drive with a large storage capacity, from 500GB to 2TB.
Consider, for example, the 15.6in Lenovo IdeaPad 110 with a dual-core Intel Celeron N3060 processor, 4GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive for £269.99. The main drawback is the slow processor, which is also used in the 14in 500GB HP 14-bs043na (£279.99). Use the list of processors at Comparison of Mobile Processors (CPU Benchmarks) and/or PassMark to see how the N3060 compares with your old laptop’s processor.
Lenovo ships the IdeaPad 110 with various other processors. The quad-core Intel Pentium N3710 is better and the Pentium N4200 is much better, if you can afford it. However, at this price level you should move up to the IdeaPad 320, which you can get with an N4200, 4GB of memory and a 1TB hard drive for £349. Lenovo also sells this machine on its website, with up to Core i7 processors. Shop around for a good deal.
If you search Amazon for “mini PC” you will find there are lots of small PCs that will happily sit next to a TV set. Indeed, many of them will attach to the back of a TV if it has a standard VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) mount.
In an earlier answer, I suggested the Minix NEO Z83-4 (£179.90) with wireless keyboard and mouse. Unlike many of this ilk, it has 4GB of memory and runs 64-bit Windows 10. Unfortunately, it only has 32GB of storage, but it supports SD cards up to 256GB.
Of course, there are more powerful mini PCs if you are willing to spend the extra cash.
A mini PC will work like your laptop in putting online videos on to your TV set. What it won’t do is provide laptop convenience. Most PC software is designed to be used with your eyes quite close to the screen, but TV sets are usually viewed from much further away.
If you don’t do a lot of computing, you can probably manage by sitting close to the TV, but this might not be comfortable for sustained work.
Today, a lot of online video is watched via tiny dedicated computers such as the Roku and Amazon Fire devices.
Roku now offers a very cheap video streamer, the Roku Express (£29.99), and a more expensive Streaming Stick + (£79.99), which supports 4K video. Roku offers hundreds of channels including Netflix and Amazon Video, and its streamers do screen mirroring with Windows and Android devices. You won’t have to plug in your laptop.
Amazon offers a cheap Fire TV stick (£39.99) and a new dangly 4K Fire TV (£69.99), with one advantage being their Alexa voice control. These streamers are targeted at Amazon Prime Video subscribers, but support Netflix, Spotify and many other free and paid-for services. They also run Android-style apps and games from the Amazon store.
Finally, for online video consumers who are also into gaming, there’s the Nvidia Shield TV (£189.99). This is an Android TV/Google Cast device so you can install Kodi or Plex if required. The remote control now includes a microphone for use with Google Assistant, if you are into that sort of thing.
Either way, I suggest you buy a streamer first and see how well it meets your online TV requirements. After that, you can decide whether you need a new laptop … which does, after all, have the big advantage of providing a second screen.
Have you got a question? Email it to Ask.Jack@theguardian.com