When one is looking to purchase a new laptop, many different factors come into play when trying to make the best choice based on price, performance, and resale value. Laptops can be broken down into two categories:
- Traditional laptops that have a hard drive along with an SSD for storage and an operating system installed.
- Convertibles such as the Surface Pro and similar devices that use a detachable keyboard and touchscreen instead of a traditional laptop-style unit.
This article will be focusing on traditional laptops, explaining the factors one should take into consideration when purchasing a new laptop for school or work, along with highlighting how these elements affect performance and longevity. Please note that this focuses more on Windows laptops — we have a different article if you’re looking to buy a MacBook.
The processor is the brain of any computer, dictating how well it will perform when executing tasks. Laptops are typically categorized into two categories based on their processors: budget/value models that are more likely to have weaker or older models with lower processor speeds, and high-end units which often offer the newest generation processors with much higher performance. High-end units are often the best choice, as they will have a better resale value and allow for future software upgrades without needing to purchase a completely new laptop.
The processor determines how many tasks can be performed at once, how quickly the system responds to certain commands, how well it will run multiple programs or applications simultaneously, and even factors into how long a laptop will last before it is no longer able to receive operating system upgrades. The faster the processor, the better. Also, the higher the number of cores a processor has, the better.
It does not matter what brand the processor is, the real deciding factor is the speed and number of cores. For example:
- Intel i5 Dual-Core = one core (two threads) and 2.8 GHz
- Intel i7 Quad-Core = four cores (eight threads) and 3.4 GHz
It’s quite obvious that the Intel i7 quad-core processor with 3.4GHz will be a lot faster than the Intel i5 dual-core processor. When looking at potential new laptops, be sure to check for the processor model, the speed, as well as the number of cores. This takes us to the next question.
Intel or AMD?
This one is a bit more of an arcane piece of knowledge and would require some background information before deciding on which to opt for. If you are buying a laptop with an Intel processor, then it will most likely have an Intel chipset, but if you are purchasing one with an AMD processor, then it will most likely have an AMD chipset.
While they function in the same manner and provide the same product, Intel chipsets are generally believed to have higher performance than their AMD counterparts. However, this is slowly starting to change with some mobile-class Ryzen CPUs outpacing some mobile-class i7 processors with ease. This also depends on the chipset. For example, AMD’s new Ryzen chipsets are much more powerful than their Intel counterparts with similar specifications.
Keep in mind that this is not always true as there are exceptions to every rule and it will come down to which one offers better performance for the specific task you need it for at a price you can afford.
Random Access Memory is used by any computer as a temporary storage unit for information that is being transferred from the hard drive to the memory during operations. In addition, RAM allows tasks to be executed simultaneously as it serves as a go-between for the data and programs located within the RAM as well as those located within the processor. The RAM is an important factor as it usually directly correlates to how much multitasking can be done by a computer before it needs to transfer data to the hard drive.
The more RAM a laptop has, the better. It will allow for faster performance and better handling of higher-end software and applications. Unless you plan to use your laptop for the most simple tasks, it is not advisable to purchase one with less than 4 GB of RAM. Some high-end models will offer up to 32 GB, allowing for a much better and faster experience.
8GB is plenty for browsing on multiple tabs, watching videos, and streaming. If you are the type of person who does a lot of multitasking or plans on having many programs open at once, then this would be a good option to go with. This will ensure that everything runs smoothly and there is little lag time when switching between tasks.
However, if you are simply looking for a laptop to browse the internet casually and only have 1-3 tabs open at once, then 4GB should be enough. Games can also take up a pretty large amount of memory so it is important to keep this in mind when deciding on how much RAM you need.
Storage type and capacity
An HDD or SSD storage is used to store all of a computer’s data, including the operating system and any installed programs or applications that it may have. The storage capacity of drives can vary greatly, but typically mid-range laptops will be equipped with a hard drive between 500GB and 1TB. While SSDs are becoming more and more prolific and affordable, HDDs remain adequate options for most users.
An SSD is a newer technology that uses Solid State Storage instead of the typical moving mechanical parts used in HDDs to store data. The primary benefit is faster access time and better performance, similar to having an extremely fast RAM unit inside your laptop. While they are not common for mid-range laptops, it is probably a good idea to opt for an SSD if possible as they tend to have much better longevity and performance. Again, keep in mind that laptops with SSDs are usually a lot more expensive than those with hard disk drives.
In some cases, you might find laptops with soldered-on SSDs which are not upgradeable. This means you may be stuck with the storage option you chose at purchase.
The display is probably the most important part of choosing a laptop because it’s where everything will appear and this can impact how comfortable you are while typing and viewing media.
Many laptops come with either HD displays and this is fine for most users. However, if you plan on doing a lot of graphic design work or watching movies in high definition, then an FHD display is probably the better option as it will provide more clarity and color gradient than those that are just HD.
Bigger is better, right? The general rule of thumb for screen size is that the larger it is, the more expensive it will be. However, factors such as battery life and portability make this not always true.
This one is a bit subjective and really comes down to personal preference and use case. If you need or plan on doing a lot of work, typing, writing, etc. with the laptop and you don’t wish to rely on an external keyboard or mouse, then it would be better to opt for one that’s 15+ inches in size. If portability is important to you, then 13 inches should do just fine. Keep in mind that laptops with larger screens tend to have shorter battery life and can also be slightly bulkier.
As mentioned earlier, this is a decision that should be made strictly based on your needs and personal preference.
While many laptops come with integrated graphics cards, if gaming is your thing or you plan on using the laptop for anything that takes major graphical processing (Photoshop, video rendering), then get one with a discrete graphics card instead.
An integrated graphics card is built in the motherboard, thus creating one combined part rather than having a separate graphics processing unit. Although this allows for less power consumption and cost savings, it also severely limits performance and rendering power when it comes to high-end applications or games.
A discrete graphics card is usually much better at handling these sorts of tasks as well as providing a more visually appealing and immersive experience. However, having a dedicated graphics card will cause the laptop to increase in weight and often times come with higher power consumption, which leads to shorter battery life.
Many laptops even now are coming equipped with hybrid graphics that have an integrated chipset for less intensive programs or activities, but then switch over to a discrete GPU when the laptop detects the need for more processing power.
If you plan on using your laptop for browsing the internet, casual gaming, or just simply prefer a touchscreen, then this is a great feature to have as it can make navigating much easier.
However, if you are mainly going to be typing and doing anything that requires precision such as graphic design or coding, having a touchscreen might not be the best option. Because when you hover your finger over a certain area on the screen, it will often place a cursor in that exact location, which can get annoying or even potentially cause mistakes if it’s not what you intended.
If all you need is a laptop for browsing and typing, then this should be fine to have, but if you are wanting to do anything else, it might be best to avoid this. As a matter of fact, a high percentage of users who opt for touchscreen laptops often end up not using the touch feature.
Most laptop speakers are of poor quality because they need to make space for other internal components like the battery, cooling system, motherboard, and others. If you plan on using your laptop for casual YouTube videos, streaming music, and light gaming, then you might need an external speaker for better sound quality.
However, if you are someone who wants really high sound quality or is looking for a laptop for audio production without the need to use external speakers, getting one with great internal speakers might actually be the better choice. This allows for larger speakers that can put out more bass and fuller sound rather than relying on external speakers. However, a better speaker on your laptop is most likely going to increase the bulkiness. High-quality speakers are usually found on laptops with 15-inch and higher displays.
One of the most important factors in choosing a new laptop is the battery life. Many manufacturers will claim that their units can last up to 8 hours under normal conditions, but this is rarely the case.
If you are looking for a laptop to use solely at home, then you can go with one with short battery life. However, if you want something that will last while out on the go or on long flights, then get one that has an extended battery life of at least 6 hours. Oftentimes, since these are larger batteries, they are also what adds to the weight of the laptop.
Another factor to look out for is the input ports on the laptop. Today’s ultrabooks are being made thinner and lighter, so they have limited space for connectivity. This means that many laptops only have one or two USB ports, an HDMI port, headphone jack, and maybe a few other smaller ones if you’re lucky.
However, if you are someone who will be using multiple devices at once or just need more ports, then it would be best to get a laptop with more input ports. These can include USB 3.0 and HDMI along with others like Ethernet.
The design of the laptop is also something to look out for because some models come with sleek and minimalistic exteriors which increases portability. However, this often means that there is no option for a CD drive or they might not even have any input/output ports at all.
If you still deal with DVDs and CDs, then getting a laptop with an optical drive might be a necessity for you as it will allow for playback of your media.
This section is a bit more specific and might not be something you may know off the top of your head. Mainly, it’s important to consider who will actually be using this laptop because each person has their own idea of what makes a laptop great.
Before buying a laptop, you need to determine if you’re using it strictly for business, study, gaming, or everything.
For example, if you are looking for a good gaming laptop, you would want something with a big screen, lots of RAM, huge processing power, and a discreet GPU even if the battery life isn’t that great. You probably won’t even mind if you get all these features in a hefty design.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a laptop that won’t take up much space in your bag when traveling for business, then maybe choosing something 14-inch or smaller is the best option.
Although laptops are getting more compact, they still can’t be compared to how small a smartphone or tablet is. So if all you need it for is reading books, surfing the internet, and watching YouTube videos, then it may even be okay for you to get one without a keyboard.
No matter what type of laptop you are looking for, the most important thing is to be aware of what it can and cannot do before choosing one. With so many different features out there, it’s best to know which ones will ultimately benefit you rather than just getting something because it has an attractive price tag.
With all that said, hopefully, you now have a better idea of the things you should look out for when buying a new laptop. You should now be able to make an informed decision based on personal needs and preferences.