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How to buy a laptop

Working in IT I tend to get asked one question a lot: “What laptop should I buy?”

Over the years I’ve helped many people buy their first laptop, or a laptop for a friend or relation for college / University / work use. I’ve even spec’d-out a few gaming laptops for Minecraft and Fortnite players.

Choosing a laptop that meets your needs shouldn’t be that hard, so I’m writing this article to outline the process I use for identifying the right laptop for someone, in the hope that it might also help others.

Note that by ‘laptop’ I mean a portable computer that runs Windows or Linux (not a Mac) and that is designed to run applications locally rather than online (i.e. a Chromebook or netbook).

Step One: Identify the reasons you need a laptop

Before you start looking online or going to a computer store ask yourself this one question:

Why do I need a laptop?

  • Is it to run a specific application or applications?
  • Is it for work or study?
  • Do you need a portable computer for use when traveling?
  • Is it for client presentations?
  • Is it to watch video on the move or in your garden?
  • Something else?

Your answers will help define your requirements.

If you need a laptop to run a particular application (or more than one), start by searching online for the name of the application followed by the words “recommended requirements”.

search for recommended requirements

You could search for the minimum requirements and that would run your application, but it may run slowly and your laptop will probably be outdated within a year or two so I always recommend aiming for the recommended requirements at a minimum.

Don’t forget to consider the size of the screen. This particular specification will affect the overall size of your laptop. The smaller the screen the smaller (and usually lighter) the laptop. However, if like me you use your laptop screen a lot, I’d recommend aiming for a 15” screen at a minimum.

If you are planning on using your laptop on the move then consider battery life. As a general rule of thumb, battery power lasts longer if your laptop contains no moving parts. So avoid optical drives and hard drives with spinning disks. Also avoid integrated batteries as experience has shown me that laptop batteries start to suffer from ‘memory effect’ after a few years so you want to be able to change or upgrade your battery if this happens.

Step Two: Assess your budget

Armed with a rough idea of your laptop needs, next we consider budget. What you can afford to spend. Start looking around at laptops with a similar or slightly better spec to that of your requirements and soon you will get an idea of price. Can you afford what you want new or will you have to save a little more or maybe look at the second-hand and refurbished market?

Laptop prices tend to span four cost brackets:

  • Budget – Around the same price band as a games console or 55” HDTV
  • Mid-range – Can cost anywhere up to double that of a budget laptop
  • Top-End – As much as you can afford really above that of a mid-range
  • Gaming – Four figures and up

As a rough benchmark on price I tend to use DELL's online store to gauge the home laptop market. Inspiron is their budget to mid-range models, XPS is their top-range and Alienware their gaming range.

Step Three: Playing with and understanding the specification

The specification of a laptop will generally consist of the following:

  • Processors and clock speed
  • Memory size
  • Hard drive storage capacity and type
  • Screen size
  • Graphics device
  • Sound device
  • Number of and type of ports (for device connections)

I’ll briefly cover each below.

Processor

The brains of the operation. Usually a single computer chip known as a microprocessor with one or more processors on it called ‘cores’. A dual-core processor is therefore a microprocessor with two cores. They tend to increase in even numbers doubling each time. Quad-core, Octo-core, and so on. They come with a lot of specifications but for simplicity focus on the clock speed given in GHz. The most popular processor manufacturers are Intel and AMD.

Memory

The more computer memory your laptop has the more applications it can run at the same time and the more data it can load and process quickly. Memory is given in GB.

Hard drive

Where you install your applications and save your data. The more applications and data that you want to use, the bigger the hard drive capacity you will need. Hard drive capacity is usually given in Gigabytes (GB) or Terabytes (TB). 1,000GB = 1TB. I highly recommend an SSD. That way speed is not an issue and your battery will last longer.

Screen size

Given as a the visible diagonal width of the screen in inches. Read the reviews as some screens feature better technology than others.

Graphics

If you are going to be working with graphical applications then a dedicated graphics device is recommended. Graphics devices can improve the quality of the image and reduce motion blur but greatly increase the build cost. The best known manufacturer is Radeon.

Sound

The sound device tends to be integrated onto the main board these days. Decide on how important sound quality is to you. Are you happy with tinny mono or stereo speakers? Do you want name-brand integrated speakers? Do you want one or more headphone jacks and a microphone jack or are you happy with using a USB port or bluetooth for your headphones or external speaker?

Ports

Ports are the connectors located on the sides of a laptop. They allow you to connect external devices via a wired connection. In order to reduce the thickness of some laptops most (large) ports have been removed in favour of using wireless devices. Laptops will generally have a HDMI port and one or more USB ports. You can buy adapters that convert USB to just about any other port type these days. I have a range of adapters that I carry with me.

Step Four: Choosing a laptop

So hopefully you now have a better understanding of what you need. The next step is to shop around and to get the best laptop for your budget.

Picture the specifications for the laptop you need as a set of sliders all set to the left position, your minimum set of requirements for processor, memory, hard drive, screen size etc. Now work out how much that will cost you. Still within your budget? Increase the processor and memory and other sliders until you get as high a spec machine as you can afford. The more powerful it is the more future-proofed it will be, meaning that it won’t suddenly be too slow to run the latest software in a year or twos time. I tend to get 6-years out of my laptops running Windows after which they become Linux machines. My oldest laptop is 12-years old and still going. It may be on it’s second hard drive and battery but it still works!

Final words..

I hope you found this article useful. If you have any suggestions for improvement or would just like to say thanks then drop me an email.

Dave

Last updated: 4th June 2020

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