Laptop Buyers Guide

Published on 19-Jan-2019

Introduction

Choosing a laptop may seem like a daunting task these days. There are a lot of options available out there, from standard office laptops to powerful gaming machines. There is also a fairly wide price range to suit everyone's budget. So how do you go about choosing the best laptop for your needs? In this this buyer's guide we will attempt to answer that question and offer a few tips along the way.

How do you intend to use your laptop?

Every choice involves making some trade-offs, even if you have a big budget. You might want something very powerful, very light, and with amazing battery performance. But a powerful laptop with top-of-the-line specs will generally be heavier, and all that power will also drain the battery faster. In short, there is no such thing as "the best laptop". For this reason, it might be helpful to break things down based on criteria that are important to you. That's exactly what we will try to do to next.

Portability: size matters, but so does weight

How often are you going to carry your laptop around town? Or is it going to be sitting on your desk most of the time? That's a pretty important factor because that extra weight can make a huge difference, especially if you travel a lot.

Another factor that determines a laptop's portability is the display size. Laptops with bigger displays will generally be heavier than their small-screen counterparts. They also occupy more room in your bag.

Display size can vary anywhere from approximately 11 inches to 17 inches, with 15-inch screens being the most common size. For example, the GT75 Titan 4K laptop with a 17.3" screen weighs in at a whopping 10 lb. It's an absolute behemoth compared to the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook with a 14" screen which weighs only 4.65 lb.

Deciding what weight range and display size are acceptable to you can significantly narrow down the choices and make your search for a laptop much more focused.

Display: things to consider

When shopping for a laptop, it's easy to get bogged down in specs about the CPU, RAM, graphics card, and so on, and completely overlook the display. But since you will be looking at your laptop's screen quite a lot, it's worth spending some time to think about what type of display would be a good choice for you. Besides the obvious one (the size), there are actually a few other criteria that fall under the "Display" category that may or may not be important to you. We will look into the most important ones next.

Display finish: matte vs glossy

This is a very subjective category that simply boils down to personal preference. Some people have a strong preference for either one or the other. Others simply don't care. Whatever the case might be, it's worth considering the pros and cons of each option.

Glossy screens offer better contrast and more vivid colors. They provide better image quality than their matte counterparts. The downside of glossy displays is that they are more reflective and harder to see in sunlight or bright conditions. This might become a major annoyance if you're going to use your laptop outdoors or near a window. And it's best not to touch them with greasy fingers... or at all.

Matte screens, are not as reflective and are easier to use in bright environments. As a result, you can reduce the brightness when working with a matte screen, which might be easier on the eyes. If you tend to spend extended periods of time working with your laptop, matte display might be a better option. The downside of matte displays is reduced sharpness and inferior color contrast.

Refresh rate: what are the advantages?

The refresh rate measures the frequency at which a monitor is capable of updating the image displayed on-screen.

A higher refresh rate results in smoother motion, for example when playing video games. Measured in hertz (Hz) it indicates how many times per second the image on the screen is refreshed. For instance, a 60Hz screen will refresh itself 60 times per second.

Most laptop displays available today have refresh rates between 60Hz and 144Hz. HP recently announced that its new Omen 15 model to be released in summer 2019 will have a 240Hz display. The first of its kind for a gaming laptop, and surely not the last. But what difference does it make in day-to-day use? For everyday tasks it doesn't make that much difference. Unless you're an avid gamer, the refresh rate shouldn't matter too much.

Display panel: what difference does it make?

IPS, TN, and VA are the three dominant display panel technologies available on the market today. Going into detail about IPS-vs-TN or VA-vs-IPS would be a whole article in itself. Having said that, it's worth providing at least a high-level summary.

  • TN (twisted nematic) is the most common display technology. It is capable of the highest refresh rates and has the lowest response times. If you're into computer gaming, then that's something you might want to take into account. One of the main disadvantages of TN screens is the viewing angle . The colors seem more washed out and the screen appears darker when viewed from the side. The wider the angle, the harder it is to see the screen's content.
  • IPS (in-plane switching) displays offer superior image quality. A laptop with an IPS display panel will have better color reproduction and contrast ratios. Another advantage of IPS-vs-TN are better viewing angles. However these benefits don't come for free. IPS screens do cost more than TN, especially if you're looking for faster refresh rates, such as 144Hz. In addition the response time of IPS displays is not as fast as TN displays, although advancements in technology will probably bridge the gap eventually.
  • VA (vertical alignment) panels provide a compromise between IPS and TN panels. Laptops with VA displays have better viewing angles as well as improved color reproduction and brightness when compared to TN displays (although not as good as IPS screens). In addition, VA panels are more prone to ghosting, which makes them no ideal for gaming.

If you are considering purchasing a laptop and the panel type is not specified in the description, most likely it has a TN panel.

Touchscreen capability

A lot of laptops these days have touchscreen capability. This can be very convenient as you can use it as a tablet. Just be aware of two downsides of touchscreen laptops.

  • Other things being equal, laptops with touchscreens cost a little bit more. Not a big deal, but worth mentioning.
  • More importantly though, touchscreen laptops tend to have poorer battery life compared to non-touchscreen ones. This is because of the touch digitizer, the component responsible for detecting and tracking movement of user's fingertips. The digitizer must be always-on, and in order to operate, it requires a certain amount of power.

If you never had a touchscreen laptop before, it might be worth going into a brick and mortar store and playing around with one for a while.

Operating system

Probably the most straightforward category on our list. Whether it's Windows, Mac OS, Chrome OS, or Linux, we all have our preference.

Most of us are already invested into a particular eco-system in terms of software and hardware, so unless you are want to switch, the choice is easy.

CPU: your laptop's brain

How fast a laptop performs is determined by its central processing unit, or more commonly referred to as the CPU. As with other parameters, there are a few things to consider about the CPU when shopping for laptops: clock speed and the number of cores.

The type of tasks you intend to accomplish with your laptop can help decide on the type of CPU to look for. This will help you save money; money that can be spent on other specs such as fast storage to boost overall performance of your laptop.

Clock Speed

CPU clock speed is measured in Hz, or for modern processors in GHz (gigahertz). In theory, the higher the number, the faster the processor. In practice, when it comes to clock speed, it's important to keep in mind that it's not an apples-to-apples comparison if you are comparing CPUs from different manufacturers. In other words, we can't assume that a 2Ghz AMD processor has the same performance as a 2Ghz Intel processor.

Number of Cores

Modern CPUs are typically comprised of multiple cores, where each core is a processor capable of executing tasks. A laptop with a multi-core CPU can run several tasks in parallel. The higher the number of cores, the more efficient the laptop would be at multi-tasking, other things being equal.

Cores vs Clock Speed: What's more important?

So what's more important: clock speed or the number of cores? The answer depends on the intended usage of your laptop. More cores would be better for multi-tasking and running tasks that can take advantage of parallel execution, such as video editing, 3D rendering, batch processing, and so on. Higher clock speed would generally be better for gaming and normal every usage. Increased speed results in a snappier performance and responsiveness, as well as improved application start-up times.

RAM

What's the benefit of having more vs less RAM? Is extra RAM worth the extra cost? RAM (or Random Access Memory) is short-term storage that is only used when a laptop is powered on. This is the memory where applications are loaded into after launch. Therefore the size of RAM determines how many applications the computer can run simultaneously. The more RAM you have, the more applications and browser tabs you can have open without your laptop coming to a crawl.

RAM Size

Most laptops nowadays will have 4GB to 8GB of RAM. That's enough for most everyday tasks like web browsing and office applications. However if you're considering keeping your laptop for at least 3-4 years into the future, it's worth considering 8GB of RAM, or preferably even more. Applications are becoming more memory-intensive. Google Chrome for example is notorious for eating up a lot of memory. Just consider that some smartphones these days come with 4GB and even 8GB of RAM.

If you are going to go with less than 8GB at least consider whether the RAM in the laptop is upgradable. Some laptops have capacity for additional RAM, others don't.

What about RAM frequency?

Since RAM frequency is measured in MHz (just like CPU frequency) it's easy to assume that RAM frequency is an indication of how fast it is. That may not always be the case. Higher frequency does not necessarily mean faster RAM. There are a lot of factors that determine true RAM speed. For this reason frequency alone should not be a major factor when shopping for a laptop.

Storage: speed over size

The type of storage device makes a huge difference to a laptop's performance. Not too long ago, rotational hard drives (HDDs) were the most common type of storage. Fortunately, with the introduction of solid-state drives (SSDs) hard-drives are becoming less common. So when purchasing a laptop, the choice of HDD vs SDD should be a no-brainer. Go with an SDD. It's true that SSDs are more expensive per gigabyte compared to rotational drives. If you need a lot of storage but can't afford a 1TB+ SSD, the most economical option would be to purchase a separate external hard-drive.

SSD Types

If you're looking to get the most performance out of your laptop, then it's worth looking into the different types of SSDs available on the market. SATA (Serial ATA) is the oldest interface and also the most common. However in terms of performance, SATA SSDs are not the fastest. PCIe drives (Peripheral Component Interconnect Express) are claimed to be at least twice as fast than SATA SSDs. However they are also more costly per GB of storage. While the extra speed will boost OS and application startup times, the difference will be most evident during file transfers. If that's something you need, it might be worth the extra cost.

Conclusion

We've covered several key aspects to guide you in your quest to finding the perfect laptop for your needs. To make this guide more practical, the focus mainly has been things that are quantifiable. Hopefully this should be a good starting point for you start your search. You can check our laptops page to find find and compare laptops of various models.