After its screen, a computer's keyboard and mouse and input ports are what you'll be using the most when you sit down to browse the Web or watch a movie or do some work. Here's everything you need to know when it comes to choosing the right laptop based on its keyboard and trackpad and the ports you'll be using day in, day out.
A laptop is not much good if you can't do very much with it. That means having a good keyboard that stands up to a lot of typing, a trackpad that's easy to use and input/output ports that keep up with the demands you make of them. For the most part, mainstream laptops are very similar and there are only small differences between them. When you're spending at least a couple of years with one of these devices though, you have to find the most appropriate peripherals possible.
There's no substitute for trying these things out yourself at the end of the day. That means heading out to a computer store or department store and getting as much hands-on time as possible with different machines within your price range and requirements. Other research like a PC's hardware can be done on the 'net, but for the final step of buying it pays to try stuff out yourself. Especially when you can compare two directly against each other, that'll allow you to make the best and most informed decision and be happy with your purchase afterwards.
Keyboards: Chiclets, Function Keys, Numpads And More
When you buy a new laptop, the keyboard is the thing you'll be using most on it apart from the screen itself. Think about it — you spend the majority of your time on a computer either tapping away at the trackpad or typing things — whether they're emails or Web addresses or little snippets of Facebook chat. For precisely that reason, it pays to get a laptop with a keyboard that feels good to you. And there's no one-size-fits-all solution either, so you'll just have to get out there and try as many as possible to see what feels right for your fingers and typing style and compare and contrast different laptops against each other.
The most common type of laptop keyboard by far is the chiclet key or some variant thereof. A chiclet or island-style keyboard combines a flat keyboard surface with a set of barely-raised keys that are usually only very slightly concave. These keyboards don't have a great deal of travel on the keys, so you'll be able to type very quickly. Have a search around and see what brand suits you best — I'm a big fan of Gigabyte's laptop keyboards, for example, but both Apple and Lenovo have an amazingly good reputation amongst hardcore typists and laptop-toting travellers.
It's also worth considering whether you'll want any special keys. Almost all laptops will have a function key that will activate a second, alternative series of keys when depressed — whether that's just on the F1-F12 keys on the keyboard, or across the entire set of numbers and letters as well. These will handle media controls — volume and playback — as well as changing your keyboard's backlighting if it's available and potentially running any predetermined apps. Similarly, if you're buying a larger laptop — 15 to 17 inches in screen size — you might be able to find a variant with a dedicated numpad to make number input a little easier.
Trackpads: Clicky, Tappy, Bigger Isn't Always Better
Here at Gizmodo, I haven't found anything yet that works quite as perfectly as an Apple trackpad. (As long as you turn off natural scrolling in Mac OS X, that is.) Apple's new Force Touch trackpad, as used on the new MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, is even more powerful than the original multi-touch pad, because it'll respond differently when you press down on it harder. I'd strongly recommend — and I know this might be a controversial opinion — that you try out a new MacBook at some point and get a feel for just how refined its keyboard and trackpad are.
For the Windows world, though, you'll find excellent trackpads from manufacturers like Synaptics and Elan used by brands like Lenovo, Asus, Dell and others. When you're looking for a trackpad, consider how large it is, whether it's a standard shape or especially wide or square, and whether it has one or two physical right- and left-click buttons above or below the pad itself. Almost all pads these days will physically depress when you push on them to simulate a click, and most can be adjusted in software to change their responsiveness and the area in which tapping will simulate a secondary right-click rather than a primary left one.
Of course, if a trackpad isn't for you, then look for a laptop with a touchscreen — once you get used to it, you won't need to use a mouse for 99 per cent of regular computing tasks. Windows 10 will further ease the use of using a touchscreen for everyday work, too. Or buy a Bluetooth mouse as an accessory and keep it in your laptop bag when you're travelling, for those times you have to do some serious work and a trackpad or touchscreen just won't cut it. Other less common input methods include Lenovo's TrackPoint nub, nestled between the G and H keys.
Input/Output Ports: HDMI, Networking, And The Future Of USB
Buying a laptop, it's crucially important to consider what input and output ports you'll be using on a daily basis. What happens if you want to output video or audio to a TV or larger secondary monitor? Will you be using it in a place where you don't have easy access to the Internet via Wi-Fi? Do you need super-fast external storage to transfer files from PC to PC on a regular basis? Before you look at any laptop, it makes sense to drill down exactly what you need so you don't end up with a laptop that doesn't suit your requirements in a crucial and inconvenient moment.
By far the most regularly used port on my laptop is its multiple USB 3.0 I/Os. You can use them for external mice or keyboards, for short- or long-term external storage, to charge a smartphone, among a multitude of other uses. For this reason, it makes sense to try and get as many USB ports as possible; two is a minimum unless you're buying an ultraportable and three or more is better. For video, you'll almost certainly want a HDMI port, and a full-size HDMI port is most convenient for frequent travellers — you'll have to carry a micro- or mini-HDMI cable or adapter with you if you buy an ultraportable.