How to buy a good laptop

I’ve had a number of people ask me recently which laptop they should buy.  While I don’t typically have specific brand and models recommendation – if that’s even possible – there are a few considerations that will make it a lot easier to pick the right laptop from the vast number of options out there.

This article is a follow-up to “How to buy a New PC” which has some basic thoughts about investing in a new computer. 

There are a couple things to think about when buying a new laptop (or PC): what you want to do with it (your intended purpose), how much you want to spend (your budget), and how long you want it to last.  You’d want to get a completely different class of machine for digital video editing than for surfing the internet. 

Most people want a good, general-purpose laptop, and have a budget of $600 to $1,000 (U.S.). If I could sum it up, they generally will say:  

I want a laptop that’s good all-around for my home, surfing the ‘net, watching videos, checking mail, and maybe occasionally working from home; and I would like it to last about five years.

For those with busy days – or who are just plain impatient — here are my general recommendations, with more detail on each in the rest of the article below. 

  • Brand: stick with major manufacturers like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – or Apple
  • Model: almost never buy the cheapest model; it’ll be limping along in a few years.
  • Operating system: Windows 7 Home 64-bit
  • Processor: dual-core, Intel “2nd Gen” mobile processor: Core i3 is great, e.g. i3-2310M and up.  Core i5 fine, too; but may be overkill.
  • RAM: 4 GB is more than enough for most
  • Hard drive: 250 GB is more than adequate; consider a solid-state drive (SSD)
  • Wireless: get 802.11 “n” not “g”
  • Screen: if you value picture quality and ability to play HD video, consider any options for better screens
  • Battery: get the highest capacity battery (e.g. 9-cell) and consider extended-life battery options if battery life/mobility are important

Brand and operating system

I don’t have a specific brand recommendation, although I have experience mostly with the Dell Latitudes (business) and Studio (home) lines.  Stick with a major manufacturer like Dell, HP, ASUS, Lenovo, Toshiba – and let’s not forget Apple — and you should be fine. 

If you’re going with a Windows PC, then definitely get the 64-bit version of Windows 7 – and not the older 32-bit version.  The 64-bit version makes better use of your memory, and has become the standard offering; 32-bit versions of Windows are being phased out (please correct me if I’m wrong).  I have been running Windows 7 64-bit for about a year and a half with no problems – besides it being its old creaky Windows self, that is.  (It is, however, the best desktop/home version of Windows to-date, by far.)

The major options

Let’s look at the things that dramatically affect the usability, cost, and lifespan of a laptop.

1. Processor (CPU).  The CPU (processor) is the heart of your laptop.  You won’t be able to replace or upgrade this, so your choice is important. I was going to say that the sweet spot in price+performance is a quad-core processor; but the truth is that a dual-core processor is enough horsepower for most tasks.  (Your real bottleneck is that good old spinning hard drive; see below on using solid-state drives if performance matters to you.) 

If you’re looking at laptops with Intel-based CPUs, you should most definitely get an Intel “2nd generation processor.”  These new CPUs, code-named “Sandy Bridge” in development, are significantly more power-efficient than earlier CPUs and will extend your battery life.  2nd gen CPUs are mostly the standard for most laptops these days; but I’ve seen a few models offered with older-generation processors.  So be on the lookout for that…

In this department (Intel mobile processors), I do have a specific recommendation: the Intel Core i3 series is just fine for laptops, e.g. Core i3-2310M or any Core i3-2xxxM model. When I was choosing options for my Dell Studio 15 last year, it was tough for me not to want the Core i5 instead of the Core i3: certainly the “i5” is at least 50% better than the “i3,” right?  Well, when you compare the specs for the two processors on Intel’s site – e.g. a Core i5-2540M — you’ll find that the only difference is “turbo mode,” which can take the machine over 3 GHz when called for. My take: more speed means you’ll eat your battery much faster and throw off more heat.  Again: the performance bottleneck is not typically the processor: it’s the hard drive. 

Try this: when any machine you’re using is being slow, watch the hard drive light.  If it’s flashing quickly – or is pegged “on” – then it’s your hard drive that’s slowing you down.  Consider initiating yourself into the wonderful world of solid-state drives (SSDs). 

2. Screen and graphics card. If one of your primary uses for the laptop is to watch hi-def movies – or if you’re an amateur photographer and you want your pictures to be stunningly clear — then you might want to consider any screen upgrade options, if available.  When I purchased a Dell Studio 15 laptop last year, I opted for the “True HD” screen (+$100).  Like the CPU, you’ll never be able to upgrade your screen, so this choice is important.  And if you’re planning on looking at the screen for five years or so, an extra $100 works out to $20 per year: peanuts.  But you also might be the kind of person who doesn’t care about fancy screens, too. 

Likewise, there may be options to upgrade to a dedicated graphics card (also called a “video card”) such as AGP or Matrox.  If you’re going to just be surfing the web and watching movies, most likely the built-in or base graphics option will be just fine; it certainly is for the built-in Intel Graphics on my Dell.  A graphics card upgrade is most likely advisable for things like video editing or extreme gaming.

3. Battery life. I don’t know about you, but battery life on a laptop is pretty important to me.  It greatly diminishes the spirit of having a laptop to always have to be plugged in.  In addition, laptop batteries lose their punch as they get older, typically after about a year of use.  So I recommend any offered upgrades, for instance from a 6-cell to 9-cell enhanced battery.  Consider any “extended life” batteries, too: even the 9-cell battery on my Dell Studio 15 can now only really get about an hour and a half of light usage.  

Your choice of processor will greatly affect your battery life, since the CPU is the prime consumer of energy onboard a laptop. 

The simple options

With the more difficult choices out of the way, some of the remaining choices can be pretty straightforward. For example:

  • Hard drive. You DON’T typically need a huge hard drive: 500 GB is way more than enough for most people, and 250 GB is more than adequate. If it’s not already, most of your photos/videos/music will be online “in the cloud.” I’m thinking Spotify, Pandora, Dropbox, iCloud, iDrive, and all the other services that will be powered by cloud-storage providers like Amazon S3, Windows Azure, and some company that Dell bought. So you don’t need all those gigabytes; and if you decide that you do, you can always hook up a fast external drive (USB or FireWire). But if you’re performance-minded you may want to make sure you get a 7200 RPM hard drive instead of the slower 5400 RPM drives, or – like many people, like me – opt for an extremely, life-changingly awesome upgrade to solid-state drive (SSD).
  • Memory (RAM). 4 GB of RAM is more than enough for most people, and it’s the current sweet spot pricewise. 2 GB might not be enough, and the nanosecond you run out of RAM, your computer will run slower than maple syrup on a cold Vermont day.
  • Wireless connectivity (wi-fi). Your wireless connection should be “n” and not “g” – as in, you would like it to be compatible with the 802.11n wifi networking standard, not the older 802.11g. With that said, “g” is not bad – it is just a little slower and has less range.

My personal “likes”… 

That’s about it… there may be other things that affect your choice, such as sound system (I think it’s nice to have decent built-in speakers), aesthetics, ruggedness, keyboard layout, and so on.

I chose these options and features for my current laptop, and would choose them again for the next one.

  1. Backlit keyboard. Having a backlit keyboard has been fantastic, and I hope I never have a laptop without one.  Strangely enough, it seems to still be a relatively rare option on laptops. 
  2. Solid-state drive (SSD).  Personally, though it’s an expensive upgrade (~$200-$250), I always use solid-state drives (SSDs) in my machines – it’s a hard drive which uses memory chips instead of a spinning platter – because the machine overal feels soooo much quicker.  (See my article “SSDs: Are You Experienced?”)  In this space, hard drive capacity is expensive – I only use 128GB drives, which is more than enough.  256 GB is overkill and will set you back $400 to $500. My current drive of choice: Kingston SSD V+ Series 128GB (~$225). 

    This will be important for future-proofing: there are all kinds of background processes running on a typical computer, and each of them steals a little bit of processor power from what you’re doing. These include virus checkers, hard drive indexers, application helpers, and so on. (I have 83 processes running on my Windows 7 laptop as I type.)

  3. Full HD screen.  Since I want my laptop to last for five years (another four from the current date), I chose a true high-definition screen. More and more content is in HD, from Blu-Ray to YouTube, and I expect this trend will only continue. Last thing I want to be stuck with is a dull screen that can’t play video content well.

But once you’ve figured out the primary options that we’ve looked at in this article, it should be easier for you to pick the one that’s right for you.

Good luck — share your own experiences in the comments below. 

   — Keith

 

More reading

 

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Marla Winters on August 12, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    You are a terrific writer; very clear and informative; I wish this had been available before we purchased our laptop but alas from the assistance you provided to me, which was invaluable, I believe we made an informed decision and I think that Zach is happy with the choice he made. Again, thanks for all of your help.

    Reply

  2. Hi Keith, great post. I am glad you added Apple in the list 😉 Love my mac. I look forward to seeing you soon.
    Wanda

    Reply

  3. For cheap laptops my reccomendation would be Asus. Asus started by making motherboards. so they know how a computer works than any other company.

    Reply

  4. The Windows 7 recommendation is a dead giveaway that you haven’t been updating this…

    Reply

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