Posts Tagged ‘laptop’

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

 

How to Buy a New PC, Part 1

Summary

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This article is for non-technical folks who want to buy an affordable new computer that will perform well for around three to five years.  How do you figure out which is the right new computer for you with all the confusing options available today?   While I can’t tell you exactly what to buy, I can show you how to greatly simplify your search.

=> In the next article (Part 2), I’ll go over guidelines for the minimum component configurations, including how much RAM to get, how big a hard drive, and so on.

So you need a new computer…

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Very exciting, isn’t it?  But today’s computer technology is mind-boggling for the average person.

Which multi-core, hyper-threaded, obscurely-named processor to get with the new system?   The Core 2 Duo T6600 or the dual-core Pentium T4400?   The i5-650, the i7-860, or the i7-920?    Do you need a graphics card with a 512 MB GDDR3 and a 128-bit data path, or the one with 1024 MB GDDR5 and a 256-bit data path?   You might need an advanced degree in physics just to figure it all out.

But by applying a few basic concepts – and perhaps doing a little research — you can simplify the choices to two or three potential systems.

=> I’m assuming you have a reasonable budget to play with. If you feel that you must buy a true budget PC at the current time, then just go to your local trusted retailer or online computer vendor and pick a system!  Any modern computer will likely run circles around your old one.

Divide and conquer

Yes, it’s easy to be overwhelmed when you look at today’s computer technology, even for me – and I have thirty years’ of experience in technology!  But you can cut through a lot of the confusion by taking a divide-and-conquer approach.

Simply look at the purpose, budget, and desired lifespan for your new computer.   You’ll need a general idea of how you want to use it, how much you want to spend on it, and how long you want to have it.

Then follow a few simple rules. Chances are decent that you’ll end up with a system that will perform well for years to come.

Rule #1: Treat it as an investment

image34Your computer is what a business would call capital equipment: a physical item that delivers certain value to the business, has an associated cost, and has an expected lifespan.   If you just look at the computer as a big, expensive purchase today, then you may scrimp & cut corners – and the system you get may not live up to your expectations in three years.

To get the proper perspective, amortize the cost of the computer over its intended lifespan.  This may be a rather ugly, Latinate word with roots in death (a + mortire, meaning “to die”), but that’s exactly the point.  If you want the computer to last five years, for example, then divide the cost of new system (or any extra options or upgrades) by the lifespan to get the cost per time.

This big-picture view will make it easier to make the right choices and justify your investment.  You’ll see that an extra $100 on a faster processor, more RAM, or a bigger monitor amounts to barely pocket change every month.

Don’t handicap yourself from the start by being penny-wise and pound-foolish.  Take a strategic viewpoint if you want your new system to last.

Example 1:  You’re considering spending $1,000 on a new system.  For most people, that’s a lot of money.  But over a five-year lifespan, that’s $200 per year, $17 per month, or about fifty cents a day.   There are a lot of things you could do to save $17 a month, if you had to…  but how cool will you feel every day with an awesome new laptop?

Example 2: You’ve narrowed it down to an affordable desktop computer for $600. But you’d really like to future-proof it; Dell offers an upgrade to the “i7-860” processor for $149.  You’ve done your research and consulted your local tech guru, but this still seems like a large premium for a $600 system.    If you’re hoping for a five-year lifespan, then this extra $149 is only $30 per year, a $2.50 per month, or around a dime a day.  Choosing meditation over your Starbucks no-foam caramel soy latte for just one day will buy you about two months of the the premium processor.

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Choose wisely in life

Rule #2: Set out your goals

What do you want to do with the system?   This is the first question you should ask, and it’s the one that can save you the most time and effort.   Knowing what you want to get out of a system immediately narrows down the field.

When you’re thinking about what you want the computer to do, remember to fast forward a few years and imagine what you might be doing in three to five years.  Streaming high-definition video content comes to mind, for instance.

Here are a few general examples, along with the category or class of computer you’ll need, in ascending cost order.   When you go to select a specific computer, you’ll start in the category that fits you (e.g. Multimedia PC).

  • Surf the web, read e-mail, do light document work: Budget PC. Browsing the web or editing documents are not demanding tasks for modern computers.  Almost any PC will do this with ease, from a budget PC to a netbook on up.
    Price range: $350 to $500    Examples: netbooks / budget desktopslaptops
  • Surf, docs, plus… watch video programming:  Multimedia PC. In case you haven’t heard, video is on the rise.  Within 3-5 years, we’ll surely see much more HD content available from providers like YouTube.  As more and more internet-connected personal computers are capable of displaying high-definition video, TV programming will make rapid moves online.  ;  see Hulu, etc.  “Multimedia PCs”  are equipped with better graphics cards and better audio, and generally be hooked up to a home theater setup.  Which is very cool.
    Price range: $500 to $1000   Example: Dell Inspiron 560
  • Surf, docs, plus…  high performance: Workstation PC. If you don’t really care about home theater and you do want a more powerful computer,  look at the workstation category.  These computers will be able to do more computationally intensive tasks, and typically have more memory, a faster processor, and often more expandability.  Workstation PCs are a very good future-proofed choice:  they do everything well and are more likely to perform well for quite a while.
    Price range: $650 to $1000
  • I want it all!  Performance PC. If you want a computer that can do it all, then you’re in the performance PC category…  bless your heart.
    Price range: $800 to $1500
    image54The other question you should be asking is: laptop or desktop?
    A laptop is a quintessentially modern choice. It has clear advantages: It’s wonderful to not be chained to a desk:  with a laptop, you can compute anywhere.   Think kitchen, couch, bed,coffee shop, library, hotel room.  But it also has distinct disadvantages:  you’ll pay a premium for a laptop, and lifespan in general is not as good as a desktop’s.
    The netbook is just a smaller, less powerful and less expandable laptop. It’s a great example of why you need to pin down your goals:  if all you need to do is surf the web, check your mail, and do light document work, consider a netbook.  But don’t expect it to be too fast, or to have as long a lifetime.

image60A regular desktop computer on the other hand – also variously known as a studio, mini-tower, or tower computer, depending on the size of its case –  will give you more performance for your dollar, as well as increased expandability and upgradability.   This is why desktops generally last longer than laptops, too.

=> The section at the end titled “Laptops vs. Desktops” compares the major pros and cons of each.   Generally, you will know in your heart whether you want a laptop or a desktop.  Go on…  look in your heart.

=> Laptop advice.  I personally would avoid laptops with HUGE screen sizes like 17” or 18”.   I’ve seen a few folks with these, and they just look too bulky.   Unless you feel compelled by a special need, stick to a standard 14” or 15” screen.

Rule #3: Expand your horizons

Invest in computers and learn to use them well. Technology is awesome and we’re lucky to be living in this age.  An investment in technology is an investment in yourself – and indirectly your family, friends, co-workers, and so on.   Get a good system that won’t be frustratingly slow in two years!

Conclusion

That’s the basic formula. A little forethought will make selecting a new computer much easier, and increase the chances that it will serve you well for a good number of years.

A quick recap:

  • Understand that buying a computer is a strategic investment. This will enable you to see the big picture.  Realize that an extra $100 or $200 for the right option is not really a lot over five years.
  • Know what you want to use it for. Among all the choices you’ll face, this will enable you to narrow down the field quickly and focus on a few select systems.   It will also help you get the proper advice from more technical folks.
  • Expand your horizons. An investment in a computer is far different from an investment in almost every other thing you’ll buy; get a good computer and explore!

image If you need a place to start, here’s your homework:

  1. Figure out purpose, budget, and desired lifespan. You should come out of this knowing the category of PC you want, e.g.. budget, multimedia, performance, etc.
  2. Narrow down the choices to a couple that are within your budget. Browse your favorite online vendor or local store; start your search in the PC category you’ve identified.  If you have questions about technology choices (you will), then do at least some light research on them: read any help pages offered by your online vendor of choice, and Google the technologies you have questions about.  You’re looking to triangulate a handful of strong, consistent opinions from folks who seem to know what they’re talking about.  If there’s no consensus, or few results, then either you’re asking the wrong question (rephrase it?) or it doesn’t matter.
  3. Optional but recommended:  bounce the final choices you’re considering off your favorite tech buddy. Do your homework first and pick a few decent finalists before asking, and typically people are happy to help and pleased that you thought of them.   DON’T ask silly, open-ended questions like “I’m looking for a new computer, are there any you can recommend?”  This is like saying “I’m looking for a car, are there any you can recommend?”     And if you get good advice from your tech, remember to follow up with a choice six-pack of handcrafted brew or a pound of premium coffee.

=> As one of those “techs” myself, I love it when people take the time to put their thoughts and candidate systems in an e-mail.  It makes it so much easier to come up with a good answer.  Recap your fundamentals, e.g. “my budget is $800, I want a multimedia PC, and I want it to last five years.”  E-mail your tech as complete as possible a description of your systems;  many online vendors these days will allow you to e-mail a wish list or shopping cart (Dell certainly offers this  option).  At the very least provide links to the web pages with the computers on them.

Have fun selecting your new computer and I hope this guide has been of help to you. If you have your own advice or there’s something you think I’ve missed, I’d love to hear it in the comments.


Laptops/notebooks/netbooks vs. desktops

This mini-guide should give you a decent idea of the major pros & cons of the two types of computer.

Laptop Desktop Comments
Portable Fixed location  
More expensive Less expensive Miniaturization has its costs
Runs on batteries No battery needed Lithium notebook batteries are good for around 2-3 years, tops.  It’ll cost you ~$100 to $150 for a new one.
Uses less power Uses more power A desktop might be around $50 more per year in energy costs.
Generally slower processors Generally faster processors Laptop CPUs are designed to save power but give up performance in return
Generally smaller and slower hard drives Excellent hard drive capacities Unless you take a lot of video, hard drive sizes are large enough today for most apps
Minimally expandable Can add expansion cards, memory, and additional hard drives more easily The expandability of desktop systems is typically related to the physical size of its case:  more room to put stuff.
Monitor is built-in Needs a separate monitor You may have a monitor that will work;  but consider a bright, large new monitor (at least 19”) as part of the investment.

imageReferences and more reading

Choosing a laptop vs. a desktop:

General system help:

  • Dell Computer Selector Dell.com
    A very nice wizard-style approach.  Enables you to select system type (laptop or desktop), budget, and intended use.  Sounds familiar…