Looking to invest in a new laptop? There are so many options out there that trying to find the right one can get confusing fast. With a little planning and consideration of your needs, you can quickly eliminate the vast majority of laptops from your search and focus on finding the one that suits your habits and budget perfectly.
Determining Your Needs
Think about your main uses for a laptop. The main purpose of your laptop will be the biggest influence on the type of laptop you get. People use computers for countless reasons, but general use falls into one of the following categories. Keep these in mind when you are looking at laptops: Office/Schoolwork – Mostly use the computer for word processing, research, spreadsheets, and other professional and academic tasks.
Games – Playing the latest and greatest games, but still using the computer for other tasks as well.
Web use – Primarily using the computer to access websites, email, streaming video, and social media.
Media production – Use the computer as a workstation to record music, edit video, or manipulate images.
Understand the pros of a laptop. There are a lot of reasons you might want to pick a laptop over a desktop computer. As laptops become more powerful, the reasons for owning a desktop will continue to shrink.
A laptop is portable. This is the primary reason for purchasing a laptop. Laptops can go almost anywhere you can, and they’re only getting lighter and thinner.
Laptops can perform more and more tasks that desktops can. There are very few programs these days that a desktop can run that a laptop cannot. While you’re generally sacrificing some performance for portability, you still have the ability to perform most computing tasks.
Laptops can save a lot of space. A desktop computer, with a tower, monitor, keyboard, and mouse, can take up a lot of space in your home office or bedroom. A laptop just needs a little desk space.
Understand the cons of a laptop. While laptops are becoming more powerful and lighter, there are still some drawbacks that you should consider if deciding between a laptop and a desktop.
A laptop is limited by the battery. You can only roam so much with a laptop. Eventually, it will need to be plugged in.
Can be lost or stolen much easier. Because of their portable nature, laptops can be stolen or lost much easier than a desktop. If you’re setting up an office, you’ll probably want to stock it with desktops instead of laptops.
Laptops cannot be upgraded like a desktop can. This means that they become obsolete quicker than a desktop computer. While you can usually upgrade the storage or the memory, you cannot upgrade the processor or video card, which will eventually leave your laptop lagging behind.
Laptops are hard to build yourself. One of the benefits of a desktop PC is that you can build it yourself, potentially saving money. While you may be able to find a few kits, nearly all laptops are sold complete by the manufacturer, which means the costs may be a little higher than a comparable desktop.
Set a budget. It will be helpful to have a budget in mind as you start looking at laptop models. The different types of laptops will be explained in-depth later, but generally you’re looking at around $300-$400 for a netbook or Chromebook, $500-$1200 dollars for a standard laptop, and $900-$2500 for a desktop replacement.
If you are considering a Mac, be aware that Macs are generally priced higher than a comparable Windows or Linux laptop.
Choosing an Operating System
Understand your options. The operating system is the interface and structure of your laptop. Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and ChromeOS are all operating systems. When choosing a laptop, the operating system is usually installed already, though you can change operating systems later. You cannot install Mac OS X on a non-Mac laptop, but you can install Linux onto either a Mac or a Windows laptop, or Windows onto a Mac laptop.
Windows – The most common operating system available, and compatible with the most software.
Mac OS X – Designed for use with Mac hardware. OS X is only available on MacBooks.
Linux – This is a free operating system that comes in a variety of flavors, or “distributions”. These include Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora, and more.
ChromeOS – This is Google’s Chromium-based operating system. It is designed for laptops that are consistently connected to the internet, and can only run special web apps. ChromeOS is only available on specific Chromebooks, though you can get Chromium for any system.
Consider the programs you use. The programs you use on a day-to-day basis will have a large impact on the operating system you choose. Many programs are only available for a single operating system. Do some research as to what operating system your favorite programs require, if you’ll have to pay again if you switch operating systems, and whether or not there are alternatives available.
If your business uses operating system-specific programs, that may limit your options if you intend to use the laptop for work.
Look at the pros and cons of Windows. Windows is the most widely-used operating system, which is great for compatibility, but it’s not without its faults. Keep the pros and cons in mind when thinking about your new laptop. Windows is the most common and compatible operating system around. Office is the de facto standard in word processing and spreadsheets.
Windows will work on virtually any computer, from the cheapest laptops in the store to the most expensive.
Windows is much more susceptible to viruses than other operating systems. This isn’t to say that it’s not secure, it just means that you will need to practice good habits while online.
Windows has the largest game library of any operating system.
Look at the pros and cons of Mac OS X. Apple’s OS X is Window’s main competitor. These days, you can find much of the same software on a Mac OS that you will on Windows.
If you are a heavy Apple user, a Mac computer will integrate seamlessly with your iOS devices. Managing your apps and media is all handled natively.
They are less prone to viruses. Mac operating systems are more secure than Windows, due both to architectural and population differences between the two operating systems. There are still threats if you use a Mac, just not as many.
While there are more and more software options on Mac, there is still a lack of compatibility for a lot of key programs. The biggest drawback is OS X’s lack of game selection compared to Windows, though more and more Windows games are being ported over.
Macs are regarded as the best place to do media editing. The video and image editing software on a Mac is unrivaled, and most musicians use Macs for recording and production.
Mac hardware will cost you a pretty penny. Since getting OS X requires Mac hardware, you’ll be forced to buy a MacBook from Apple or an Apple-authorized retailer. This means you’ll be paying a premium price, but many Apple users are major supporters of the construction quality of their MacBooks. The actual price of the operating system is much cheaper than Windows.
Look at the pros and cons of Linux. Linux is a free, open-source operating system that has been modified and expanded by a large number of groups and individuals. These modified versions are called “distributions”, and there are quite a few to choose from. There’s a good chance that you won’t see many, or any, Linux laptops at your local computer retailer. Linux is a free operating system, and many of the programs available for it are open-source and free. You are free to try out any Linux distribution before installing it.
Linux is notorious for being difficult to learn. Advances to the graphical front-end have been made by most distributions, making it easier to transition from Windows or Mac. That being said, Linux does require a bit more time invested getting used to navigating and manipulating files.
Linux is one of the most secure operating systems, as everything requires express consent of the user. There are very few viruses that target Linux machines.
Linux scales very well and can work on virtually any laptop.
You will experience compatibility problems. The biggest drawback to Linux is the lack of compatibility between it and other operating systems. You will likely find times when you need to jump through several hoops to open a file that was simple in Windows or OS X. The gaming library on Linux is also quite limited compared to Windows, though more and more games are releasing Linux versions.
Linux is not installed on most laptops available in stores. It will need to be installed later alongside or replacing your default operating system.
Look at the pros and cons of ChromeOS. ChromeOS is Google’s operating system, and is only available on a handful of laptops. ChromeOS is designed for laptops that are always connected to the internet.
ChromeOS is lightweight and fast. This is because ChromeOS is essentially just a web browser. All the apps are installed inside the web browser. Because of this, most of ChromeOS’s functionality requires an internet connection (you can do some work offline, such as working with Google Docs).
Most Chromebooks are very inexpensive, ranging from $200-$250 USD. The exception to this is Google’s Chromebook Pixel, which starts at $1,300 USD.
Because Chromebooks rely on Google Drive for file storage, most have very limited onboard storage.
You can only use apps that have been designed for ChromeOS on the Chromebook. This means that your software options will be very limited. Google Drive provides a decent Office alternative, but you can forget installing games or programs like Photoshop.
ChromeOS is best for heavy Google users. If the majority of your computer work takes place inside the Google ecosystem, then a Chromebook may be your most affordable and attractive option.
Deciding on a Model
Think about what size would suit your needs best. There are four main types of laptops: Netbook, Standard, Hybrid Laptop/Tablet, and Desktop Replacement/Ultrabook. Note that if you are choosing a Mac, your choices will likely not match much of this section.
Netbook – This is the smallest laptop available, and is best suited for heavy travelers.
Standard – This is your standard laptop. Suitable for a wide range of situations, and available in a wide range of configurations.
Hybrid Laptop/Tablet – These are the newest style of laptops to the scene. They have touch screens and some have detachable keyboards.
Desktop Replacement/Ultrabook – These are the largest laptops, and therefore the most powerful (and most expensive).
Consider the pros and cons of a netbook. Netbooks are the smallest laptops available, and are perfect for packing in your carry-on or sticking in your purse.
Netbooks are super lightweight, usually only weighing a couple pounds.
Netbooks don’t have very powerful components, meaning they can only run basic programs such as Office and other productivity software. Because of this, however, they have much longer battery life than other laptops (up to 12 hours in some models).
Netbooks have the smallest screens and keyboards. This means that typing on a netbook will take some getting used to, and you may have to sit pretty close to it.
Consider the pros and cons of a standard laptop. The standard laptop is the most common, and the most varied.
Standard laptops come in a variety of screen sizes. The size of the screen is what determines the overall size of the laptop. The most common size for standard laptops is 14″-15″.
Standard laptops have limited battery life, and the more powerful the laptop, the quicker the battery will drain. Batteries will also wear out over time.
Standard laptops are heavier than a netbook, which makes them harder to fit in small bags. They have more comfortable keyboards and larger trackpads.
Consider the pros and cons of a hybrid. Hybrid laptops are a relatively new addition to the laptop market. Most run Windows 8, which is designed for the touch interface.
The biggest draw of the hybrid is the touch screen. If you prefer this method of input, you may want to consider the hybrid.
Hybrid laptops are typically smaller than a standard laptop, and may be able to fold over to become a tablet. Some hybrid laptops allow you to remove the keyboard and work solely as a tablet.
Because of their smaller size, hybrids are generally less powerful than a standard laptop.
Consider the pros and cons of a desktop replacement. Desktop replacements are the largest and most powerful laptops available. They can run the latest games and have large, easy-to-see displays.
Desktop replacement laptops provide the most power you can get in a portable form. They can often run most of the same programs at the same levels of efficiency as a desktop computer.
Because of the increased power, desktop replacements have the worst battery life. This usually isn’t an issue if it’s always plugged in at your desk, however.
The large screen on a desktop replacement means that you don’t have to sit as close or squint, and also means that the keyboard will be full-sized.
Some desktop replacement laptops have limited upgradability, such as the ability to install a new video card.
Desktop replacements are the most unwieldy laptops, and do not travel as well. They are also the most expensive.
Think about durability. If your job or lifestyle puts your laptop at risk of getting damaged, you may want to look at the most durable options. This includes steel construction and laptops specifically designed to withstand punishment.
Toughbooks are a type of laptop that is very expensive but much more resilient than a standard laptop.
Keep style in mind. Laptops are public devices, and will be seen by a lot of people as you use it. Make sure you like the way it looks. Many laptops come in various colors or with other aesthetic features. You can also add skins to your laptop later to give it a personal touch.
Examine the specs for each laptop you consider. Every laptop is different; even two models that cost the same will have different hardware inside. Make sure to take a look at the specifications of each laptop you consider purchasing.
Understand what the CPU does. The CPU, or Processor, is the piece of hardware that performs the bulk of the work in your laptop. CPU speed doesn’t mean as much as it used to, thanks to multi-core CPUs that can handle much more than processors from a decade ago.
Avoid older processors like Celeron, Atom, Pentium, C-, or E-Series processors.
See how much RAM comes installed, and how much RAM the laptop can support. RAM, or Memory, allows your computer to store data for multiple programs at once. In general, the more RAM you have, the better your computer will be able to multitask. 4 to 8 GB of RAM is standard for regular laptops. Netbooks will likely have less, while desktop replacements might have significantly more.
Retailers often disguise an otherwise mediocre laptop by stuffing it with RAM. Most users will not need more than 8 GB.
Check the graphics. Most laptops use integrated graphics cards, which are fine for simple games, but typically can’t handle the new big releases. A dedicated card will provide more power for a higher cost and less battery life.
Check the storage space. Listed storage space does not take the operating system and bundled programs into consideration. For example, a laptop with 250 GB of storage may only have 210 GB of storage free when you purchase it. Most laptops allow you to upgrade the hard drive later, though you will need to reinstall the operating system when you do so.
SSD is becoming standard and is preferable due to increased access speed and extended battery life. As a result SSDs are more expensive than standard hard drives for less storage. SSDs are often smaller than standard drives, meaning you may need an external drive to store all of your media files.
Check out the ports. Does the laptop have enough USB ports for all of your devices? Does it have an HDMI or VGA port in case you want to connect it to your TV or a projector? If you use a lot of external devices, ports will be very important.
Look for optical drives. Many laptops will leave the optical drive out in order to save space. While this will help the battery life and cut down on the size, it means you will need an external drive in order to install software or burn discs.
Some laptops now come with Blu-ray drives, which can read and write standard DVDs as well as read Blu-ray discs, which can contain much more information or HD movies.
Look at the screen resolution. 1600 x 900 or 1920 x 1080 is preferable for the clearest picture, though smaller laptops may not be able to attain this. A higher resolution will result in a clearer picture, especially if you plan to watch movies or play games. A higher resolution also means that the screen can display more, which means your viewable area will be larger. Determine how the laptop looks in direct sunlight. Cheap screens are often very difficult to see in direct sunlight.
Buying the Laptop
Do your research. Don’t let a sales rep talk you into something you don’t need. Do your research ahead of time and stay firm on your needs. Make sure to read reviews online for the laptops that you are considering, as salespeople will rarely tell you the downsides of a product.
Test before you buy. Try to find a way to test your desired laptop before you buy. If you intend to buy online, see if a local retailer has a demo model to try before you buy. Ask your friends if they have the same laptop you are considering.
Check the warranty. Computer parts fail, and do so fairly often. Having a solid warranty is very important for laptops, especially the more expensive ones. Make sure the warranty is a manufacturer warranty, and that they do a good job with their warranty work.
Craigslist laptops rarely have warranties.
Understand the risk of buying used or refurbished. Buying used can save you a lot of money, but you may end up with a very subpar product. AS laptops get older, they start to experience significant performance decreases. Used laptops often no longer quality for manufacturer warranties, and may people sell their laptops because they’re fed up with how they’re performing. If you are buying a refurbished model, ensure that the refurbishment comes with a very strong warranty.
How to Choose a Gaming Laptop
Sources and Citations
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