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Laptop Buyer’s Guide

If you haven’t bought a laptop in the last few years (or ever) you may be in for a surprise at the range of price points, much-beloved options, and performance specifications in the laptops of today.

In year’s past, a laptop was primarily a tool for students or someone who needed to log on for work while travelling. Laptops were a secondary computing device for many who already had desktops. But in many applications, laptops didn’t stand a chance at competing with traditional desktops.

With the improvement of solid state drives, low-cost availability of Intel i-7 (and above) speed processors (or the equivalent from other manufacturers), and improved access to high speed wireless, even mid-tier laptops can run the latest games, processing-intensive design programs, or let you open tabs to your heart’s content.

On the other end of the pricing spectrum, the popularity of Chromebooks as low-cost basic computing tools has exploded. For many who use laptops for basic computing, browsing the web, communication, and entertainment, many Chromebooks offer surprisingly good specs on elements like cameras, screens, or speakers.

Special use cases such as design and media production have also seen the last several years bring out some very beloved laptops. From Apple’s latest iMac 5k, to mid-tier gaming laptops perfectly capable of editing firm, high quality design laptops can start at under $1,000.

Now that we’ve covered the range of 2019/2020’s laptops, and some of the most popular use cases, let’s jump into the nitty gritty of how to choose a dream machine for you.

Table of Contents

  • Minimum specs
  • Portability Vs. Performance
  • Screen Size
  • Laptop Performance Specs And Components
  • Operating Systems
  • Minimum Specs

    If you’re talking about minimum specs, you likely aren’t interested in high-performance gaming or media creation laptops. With that said, there are still a range of different use cases that require different levels of computing power.
    If you’re looking for the “bare bones” minimum performance specs — say, you just need to check your email and browse the web — then Chromebooks are the primary option. You can go lower, but around $200 can buy you a low to mid-tier Chromebook.

    Specs you should expect in a $200 Chromebook include:

    • 16 GB Solid State Storage
    • Up to a 15.6” screen
    • 4 GB of RAM
    • An Intel Celeron Processor up to 2.5Ghz
    • And one additional selling point (often a camera, rugged design, or a slightly upgraded sound or graphics card)

    Now there are some definite limitations to machines at this price point. And potential buyers should know that Chromebooks run the Chrome operating system, meaning you can only use Google approved apps.

    What Chromebooks at this price can, do, however, includes:

    • Basic browsing of the web
    • Video Chat
    • Editing documents in Google Drive
    • And Streaming Video

    If you haven’t shopped for a laptop in a few years, it may be amazing that a basic, no-frills laptop can be purchased so cheaply.

    For many applications, however, a Chromebook just won’t cut it. If you want to perform any gaming outside of Google store apps, have software you need to install on you’re laptop, need to customize your computer to any great extent, or need design tools, you’ll need a more full-featured laptop.

    Full-featured laptops can cost into the $1,000’s. But many decent budget laptops can perform a variety of tasks unthought of several years ago starting at around $600.

    As of late 2019, the following specs are common in around $600 laptops:

    • Intel i5 core processors
    • Up to 3.4 Ghz of processing power
    • 8GB of RAM
    • Up to 1 TB solid state hard drive
    • Up to a 15.6 inch screen
    • One upgraded feature including graphics card, sound, or touch screen

    All of this is to say that today’s “budget” laptops are a far cry from the budget picks of yesteryear. Budget laptops of today can accomplish most student, worker, or low-end gaming needs. For those looking for something “more,” don’t worry. We’ll cover some of the higher-end features found on other laptops further into our guide.

    Portability Vs. Performance

    Laptops are meant to be portable. And all-in-all, they are. But for individuals who travel a great deal, or end up carrying their laptop with great regularity, the size form factor may be the defining characteristic of a laptop that’s great, and one that isn’t.

    Typically speaking, laptops that are more portable and those with higher specs are more expensive. There are laptops that combine portability with high performance, but they tend to be the most expensive laptops of all.

    With that said, most laptops on the market are somewhere “in the middle” of both the portability and performance spectrums. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of favoring portability or performance in your laptop.

    Pros of a portable laptop

    • Often fit in small carry-on bags (for airline travel), or even purses
    • Can weigh as little as 2.1 pounds (current lightest laptop available)
    • Many have sleek designs
    • Can be affordable (many Chromebooks are highly portable)
    • 2-in-1 capabilities still available
    • Processing power much higher than even a few years ago
    • Can often handle browsing the web, basic school or work tasks, and low-end gaming

    Cons of a portable laptop

    • The most portable laptops can be expensive
    • Portable laptops often come with smaller screens
    • The most portable laptops often have lower performance specs than less portable laptops
    • Portable laptops can be fragile
    • Many smaller laptops have shorter battery life

    Pros of a High-Performance Laptop

    • Many gaming laptops can run the latest games on the highest settings
    • Many gaming laptops can run resource intensive media editing software
    • The highest-performance laptops have similar specs to top-tier desktops
    • Not as clunky as they once were
    • Often have larger screens
    • Can be found for under $1,000

    Cons of a High-Performance Laptop

    • Often larger and heavier than other laptops
    • Can be power “hogs”
    • To match top-tier desktops you’ll likely need to spend $1,500+
    • Many are gaming laptops (not suitable for all work environments)
    • Don’t match the specs of the most performant desktops

    Screen Size

    Unlike desktops — which can periodically upgrade or replace the monitors they’re connected to– laptops are typically stuck with the monitor that comes with them. Additionally, almost all laptop monitors are smaller than desktop monitors. Together, these facts mean that screens can be one of the most limiting factors on laptops. For that reason, it’s important to take stock of what you need in a screen before purchasing a laptop.

    Some of the most common use cases in which you may need to pay particular attention to screen quality or size include:

    • Using a laptop for gaming
    • Multitasking with multiple windows open
    • Seeking crystal clear video playback
    • Working with design software
    • Personal preference

    While screen size and quality do not matter for many tasks, for certain tasks a screen that is too small or low quality can turn an otherwise perfect laptop into on that just “doesn’t work.”

    You may have heard of 1080p. This refers to screen sizes that are 1920 x 1080 pixels in width and height. Pixels are small dots that create the image on your screen. The more pixels within the same area, the sharper your image and the more you can fit on a screen.

    We should note that screens do not have to be any particular physical size to have 1920 x 1080 (or above) screens. The pixel density of a screen is rather a measure of the quality of a screen.

    If you are using your laptop for any of the use cases that require a sharper screen listed above, you should in all likelihood seek out computer screens of this pixel density.

    Some additional measures of the quality of 1080p screens include:

    • The ability to display two windows side-by-side
    • The ability to show 10 additional lines of text on a web page
    • The ability to more clearly assess color and view images more sharply

    While 1080p is a standard measure of a quality screen, some applications require even more visual “horse power.” 3840 x 2160 pixel width and height screens are known as 4k screens. You’ve likely seen these on high-end home entertainment systems. While rare, 4k screens can display about three times more than 1080p screens.

    These screens are sharp enough such that many images online aren’t even optimized to be taken advantage of by 4k screens. One downside is that as of today 4k screens are very energy intensive, and can lead to poor battery performance in a laptop.

    Laptop Performance Specs And Components

    At the heart of the question of whether a laptop is right for you is the question of ‘can the laptop *do* what I want it to?’

    While there are a variety of factors that come into play in enabling a laptop to perform, laptop elements most integral to performance include:

      The CPU (central processing unit)
    • The GPU (graphics processing unit)
    • RAM (random access memory)
    • And the Hard Drive

    New laptop models upgrade these elements all the time. And there are an astounding range of choices for each of the above computing elements. With that said, very few use cases need the very best of any of the above elements. In many cases, a particular primary use of a laptop may need one element upgraded, and the rest to be “middle of the line.”

    So what do these elements do?

    The central processing unit is the “brain” of a computer. CPUs are good at mathematical calculations and following instructions set up by the software of the computer.

    When you type text into Microsoft Word, the text is saved in RAM (more on that in a second). But when you save your document an instruction that involves other parts of you system are initiated. Your CPU would in this case evaluate and implement an instruction along the lines of remove the text from your RAM, encode it in some way, and send it to your hard drive for long term storage.

    The power of CPUs are measured in gigahertz, which are the number (in thousands) of instructions a given CPU can handle in a second. This is commonly referred to a CPU’s “clock speed.” Common numbers you may see for CPU gigahertz in laptops may range between 1.8 and 3.6.

    This means that those CPUs can execute 1,800-3,600 “instructions” (or basic mathematical calculations) a second.

    While that may seem like a lot of instructions, one area in which CPUs are limited is that they typically execute one instruction at a time. With the complex programs of today, a single CPU “thread” could quickly become overwhelmed, no matter the clock speed.

    This is where CPU cores come into play. If you’ve shopped around for computers in the past, you’ve likely seen terms like “quad core,” “5-core,” or “7-core.” Individual “cores” within a CPU are essentially miniature versions of a CPU as a whole. They have their own clock speed and can execute instructions rapidly.

    When a CPU combines a series of cores, however, this allows each individual core to execute instructions on their own. So in the case of a quad core CPU, your computer may be able to execute four instructions at once, each at the pace of the clock speed of an individual core. This effectively multiplies the power of a CPU by the number of cores (after subtracting the time it takes for cores to talk with one another).

    If you’ve ever working graphic design, gotten into photo editing, or been a gamer, you’ve likely heard of the graphics processing unit (GPU). Unlike CPUs, GPUs are known for being able to execute many small instructions simultaneously. While GPUs aren’t as good at executing mathematical calculations as CPUs, they handle many of the small tasks that render what you see on your screen.
    For most purposes, there are only two categories of GPUs that matter: integrated and discrete.

    Integrated GPUs are typically found in more budget-friendly laptops. They are soldered to the motherboard, and share resources with your CPU. This tends to slow down their ability to process graphical elements. With this said, integrated CPUs are typically more than fast enough for some multitasking, low-level gaming, and basic tasks like browsing the web or watching videos.

    Discreet GPUs do not share resources with your CPU, and actually contain their own small CPU and RAM inside. This means that discreet GPUs can be working on complex imaging or graphics for a video game without affecting the performance of other elements of your computer. Discreet GPUs are most commonly found in high-end or gaming laptops, and can be upgraded over time. They’re pricier, but are essential if you’re going to be using your laptop for high-level multitasking, resource-intensive gaming, or design tasks.

    Random access memory (RAM) is like a persons short term or working memory. Unlike the hard drive, which saves information for long periods of time, RAM holds just the information needed for the task at hand in its memory. RAM responds quickly, and the more memory you have in your RAM, the more you can simultaneously do on your computer.

    Typically RAM is also much cheaper than other elements inside the computer, and looking for laptops that have a large amount of high quality RAM can be a way to boost performance without breaking the bank.

    When looking for RAM, you’ll want to look at two elements, the amount of memory (often measured in gigabytes), and the type of RAM. Common denominations of the amount of RAM in a laptop may range from 2GB to 8GB. 2GB is common on budget models, and by comparison can be matched by the amount of RAM on a smartphone. 8GB of RAM can be used for a range of multitasking and resource-intensive tasks.

    Finally, the hard drive is what stores your information in the long term. In recent years, hard drives have become less important for many tasks. In the case of Chromebook owners, almost everything the user does is actually stored online, and the hard drive is of minimal importance.

    For traditional laptops you’ll want to look at two elements: the type of hard drive and the amount of storage space.

    The two basic categories of consumer hard drives include SSD and HDD hard drives. HDD hard drives tend to be larger, and they are the traditional form of hard drive. They’re comprised of mechanical (moving) parts and provide storage of files on magnetic tape. SDD hard drives are not mechanical, are much faster at reading and writing, though do not provide as much memory.

    In recent years, SDD hard drives have gained popularity as they allow users to boot up their computers more quickly, and storage takes place almost instantly. With the advent of cloud storage for many large files, many users no longer need a large HDD hard drive.

    Operating Systems

    Today there are three primary operating systems to choose from in most consumer laptops: Windows, Mac OS, and Chrome OS. Between these three, an immediate distinction should be made between Chrome OS and the other options.

    Chrome OS is designed for Chromebooks, which allow users to install a list of approved apps similar to a smart phone app store. Additionally, Chrome OS does many tasks on the cloud, with many Chromebooks created to essentially only do work while connected to the internet. While none of this is problematic for many laptop uses, Chrome OS offers a substantially different experience than more “traditional” operating systems.

    The choice between Mac OS and Windows is primarily a choice between Apple brand hardware and software, and almost all other computer manufacturers. While Mac OS is built to primarily work with Apple products, Windows is usable on computers from a wide variety of brands.

    On one level, Mac OS and Windows provide the same basic set of services. And for many users the choice between operating systems will come down to the operating system they are already used to. Most major software suites are available on both. And both are used at the highest levels of a variety of professions.

    With that said, there are a few trade offs. The Mac OS vs. Windows debate has raged for almost two decades. Yet a few trends that have remained consisten include:
    Pros of Mac OS Operating System

    • Better out-of-the-box security measures
    • Wider choice of included hardware (including Garage Band and Full Productivity Suite)
    • If you’re a fan of Apple hardware, you must use Mac OS
    • Historically thought of as better for media creation

    Cons of Windows Operating System

    • Works on many more devices
    • Over 80% of computer users use Windows. Larger knowledge and support base.
    • More customizable.
    • Greater range of software availability.

    In the end, the choice between operating systems generally comes down to your answers to two questions:

    1. Do you want a Chrome OS or full OS experience?
    2. If you want a full OS experience, do you prefer Apple or other hardware?
    3. Recap: Tips For Buying a Laptop

      Perhaps the most important elements of buying a laptop include whether a laptop can do what you want it to, that it fits your price point, and that you like your laptop.

      Beyond that, you can fine tune your buying expectations by asking a series of questions. Some of the most important questions to answer when buying a laptop include:

      • What size screen does my laptop need?
      • Do I need my laptop to be portable, high performance, both, or neither?
      • Do I need certain laptop components to be upgraded?
      • And what operating system do I prefer?