Laptop buying guide
How will you use your new laptop computer?
Common factors to consider in buying a new laptop go far beyond performance, the size of the screen and the types of connections the computer has. A good place to start your laptop buying quest is to determine what you will be using the laptop computer for. This step will help clarify your needs in terms of performance, size, weight, storage capacity and battery life. Points to consider are:
Will you be using this system anywhere other than your home? If so then weight of the system and screen size will be a factor to consider.
Will you be running several different programs at the same time? Editing photos or videos? If so then having enough computing horsepower will be important or your computer may not deliver sufficient performance and seem to run slow.
Will you want to watch movies and videos on this system? If so then you may want a dedicated video processor and perhaps a larger screen.
Will you frequently be using the laptop while running only on battery power? If so then battery life and power consumption will be important considerations.
If you will be using the laptop in bright rooms or outdoors then consider a non-glare screen.
Do you have large number of documents, music and video files that you will want to store on your laptop? Then you will need to opt for a larger hard disk drive.
Taking a little time to think about these items can help focus the laptop buying process and ensure that you get the most bang-for-the-buck with your new laptop.
Buying a New Laptop Computer – What to look for:
1. Laptop weight and screen size
A key buying factor is laptop size and weight. The screen size and the weight of a portable computer are closely related. The larger the screen size, the larger (heavier) the computer, and the heavier the battery to power the larger screen.
Laptop computers come in a wide variety of screen sizes with the most common being 12.1″, 13.3″, 14.1″, 15.4", 16" and 17″. There can be many choices and the models and screen sizes available will vary depending on the manufacturer. The weight of laptop computers can range from a hefty 4.5 - Kg desktop replacement class laptop to small ultraportable lightweight laptops that may weigh only 1.3 Kg's.
Although weight tends to vary proportionately with the screen size, there are some exceptions including ultra lightweight laptops. This class of laptop computer may have a screen as large as 16" yet still weigh as little as only 1.8 Kg's. Large ultra lightweight laptops do have tradeoffs which include:
1. Ultra lightweight laptops tend to have somewhat lower processing power.
2. Many ultraportable's do not include an internal CD/DVD drive.
3. Cost – larger ultraportable's generally cost significantly more than a standard laptop.
If you will be transporting your laptop frequently you may want to avoid a laptop with a 16" or 17″ screen size as this size of portable computer won't feel quite so portable.
2. Computer Performance and CPUs
The latest offerings from Intel are its Core i3, i5, i7, and i9 series in 10th- and 11th-generation models. You can see the generation in the chip’s part number, shown immediately after the dash. For instance, the i5-9400H is a 9th-generation CPU. Meanwhile, AMD’s latest notebook chips are its third-generation mobile Ryzen 4000 Series CPUs, though they are a bit more difficult to find in laptop offerings.
When it comes to picking a laptop based on its CPU, newer is almost always better. Try to avoid buying a laptop with a CPU that’s a few generations old. Unless you’re doing something intensive like video editing, don’t worry about buying a chip outside of the midrange. The four cores available in the Core i5-1135G7, for example, offer enough performance for almost anyone.
3. System Memory or RAM
It is recommended that a new laptop computer have at least 4GB or more of RAM. The amount of RAM or system memory is an important factor in performance. The more installed RAM your laptop has, the more applications you can run at once, and the better your computer will perform.
The version of Windows installed on your new laptop will determine how much RAM your computer can effectively use. A 32-bit version of Microsoft Windows 7 can efficiently use a maximum of 4GB of RAM. A 64-bit version of Windows 7 can use up to 8 GB or more. Configuring your laptop with more RAM at the time you buy it is convenient and helps extend the laptop's useful life.
Mac, Windows, or something else?
While there are certainly comparable hardware and features offered with these platforms, there are differences between them that are important to consider.
Windows-based PCs are an incredibly diverse category. Dozens of manufacturers make them, and the quality and pricing can vary greatly depending on which model and brand you choose. The fastest models will surpass Macs in terms of performance, and many companies tailor their Windows PCs to a specific purpose, such as gaming or business.
Windows PCs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. A standard laptop with a clamshell design and a keyboard-mouse interface is easy to find. Touchscreen Windows laptops can be found even in the lower price brackets, which is not something you’ll see on any Apple MacBook — unless you count the Touch Bar.
More elaborate designs include fold-back screens or even detachable tablet-keyboard combos, such as Microsoft Surface Book range. Meanwhile, Apple reserves the 2-in-1 design for its iPad Pro family, as you won’t see a convertible or detachable MacBook.
On the software side, Windows is far more open-ended than MacOS. It’s the standard for game development and many business-related programs, empowering a larger software library. Windows enjoys major updates with new features more frequently too: Biannually versus annually with Apple’s MacOS.
Unlike Apple’s more limited lineup of hardware, there is plenty of choice in the Windows laptop space. Whether you opt for a major manufacturer like Lenovo, Dell, or one of Microsoft's own devices, you have a ton of options.
Apple has always been protective of its brand, releasing products in very deliberate iterations. Any Apple product will follow its standards, whereas any manufacturer can make a Windows or Chrome OS-based PC with unique specs. As a result, Macs are very user-friendly and stable. And because they come from the same ecosystem, Apple’s resourceful support network can easily help with any problems that arise.
Quality design is one of the hallmarks of a Mac. They are built to look and feel elegant, which translates to a much higher price tag than their Windows and Chrome OS counterparts, especially when configured with lots of storage. Apple computers aren’t known for being cheap.
Macs use fast hardware, but they don’t tend to sport the most powerful graphics chips as seen in Windows-based PCs. Still, those who want a solid computer but do not know a lot about hardware can rest easy knowing their Mac will perform well during everyday use.
Apple’s strict design standards extend to the operating system, MacOS, which is straightforward and intuitive. Unlike Windows, the platform includes a suite of proprietary office and media-editing software, and each application is well-suited for its targeted task.
In many ways, all of this translates to products that are easy for anyone to pick up and use, regardless of a person’s skill level or familiarity with computers. On the other hand, the rigid design of the Mac means less freedom to customize the device. The installed hardware is the hardware you get — there’s no swapping out the memory or storage.
Google’s Chrome OS is different than Windows and MacOS. Based on the Chrome browser, this platform initially focused on web-based apps and affordability. While the latter still holds true, Chrome OS has evolved over the years to support more traditional desktop software and mobile apps, similar to its rivals.
Chrome OS powers Chromebooks. These devices are typically more affordable than Windows-based PCs and MacBooks due to their lower hardware requirements. They’re ideal for schools and other institutions, and customers who just need a laptop to browse social media and make online purchases.
However, hardware choices are also much more varied today than in the past, with powerful offerings, like Google own Pixelbook, which perform and look very much like premium Windows and MacOS laptops. There are even 2-in-1 options like the Pixel Slate or HP Chromebook x2.
Overall, Chrome OS is quick and more versatile today than it’s ever been. Its foundation is still web-centric, but the platform now supports Google Play and Android apps, making it the ideal notebook companion if you have an Android phone. It even mimics Apple’s iMessages, allowing Chromebook owners to text from their laptops without picking up the phone.
Moreover, Chrome OS supports Linux, opening up the platform to traditional desktop software, like GIMP and Steam. The drawback is that the library isn’t as diverse as Windows or even MacOS, and Linux support is still in beta. Still, the maturity of Chrome OS has proven to be a strong contender in a market mostly dominated by Windows.
Overall, if Chrome OS fits the bill for what you need in a laptop, you can save a lot of money by going with a Chromebook.
The amount of storage space on a laptop’s internal drive(s) is how much data it can hold in total indefinitely. All data, from installed programs to downloaded music, reside on an internal storage device. These devices either rely on traditional platter-based hard drive technology or NAND Flash technology. Chromebooks tend to use the latter in small amounts.
In contrast to RAM, data in storage does not necessarily need to be in use. An installed program that is currently not active takes up storage space but not memory. Many modern laptops now use solid-state drives (SSDs) which are faster and more reliable than traditional hard drives, but more expensive when comparing identical capacities.
An SSD uses NAND Flash to store data, which doesn’t have moving parts. It offers a dramatic performance boost over a conventional hard drive – which does have moving parts — and can provide the most dramatic improvement in laptop usage when buying a new system.
Make sure your next purchase has an SSD as the primary drive. If you need more space, grab a big external drive too.
Ports can quickly become confusing on a laptop due to a complex labyrinth of terminology. Make sure to focus on the USB ports that you need.
Most laptops tend to offer USB-A ports to support legacy devices, like peripherals and external drives. They’re rectangular with squared corners and only works with a one-side-up connector. This interface supports USB 2.0 (480Mbps), USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps), or USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10 Gbps), depending on the laptop manufacturer.
Thinner laptops like Ultrabooks and MacBooks generally do not offer USB-A ports due to their size. Instead, you’ll see one or more USB-C ports. This interface is smaller, narrower, and more rounded than USB-A. It’s generally used with several technologies including Thunderbolt 3 (40Gbps), USB 3.2 Gen 1, USB 3.2 Gen 2, and DisplayPort, depending on the laptop manufacturer. USB-C requires a different, thinner either-side-up connecter.
If you plan to connect a second external monitor for more large-screen work, make sure that the laptop has the right connections for that monitor, such as USB-C, DisplayPort, or HDMI. You may find VGA on old models, and video output is possible through USB-A using DisplayLink drivers and the appropriate adapter.