New Laptop Computer Buying Tips

by Mike McEvoy on July 22, 2010

new-laptop-computer-buying-tips

Buying a new laptop computer can be challenging given the numerous choices and options available. Frequently the new laptop buying process can be a bit overwhelming. A good method for simplifying the buying process is to start with narrowing down some of the key options and choices.

Identifying and focusing on the most important requirements and features will help ensure that you get the best laptop computer for your money and for your needs. While it is not difficult to spend $1,500 on a laptop computer, there are also many very good laptops that fall in the $600 – $900 range.

How Will You Use Your New Laptop Computer?

Common factors to consider in buying a new laptop go far beyond performance, the size of the screen and the types of connections the computer has. A good place to start your laptop buying quest is to determine what you will be using the laptop computer for. This step will help clarify your needs in terms of performance, size, weight, storage capacity and battery life. Points to consider are:

  • Will you be using this system anywhere other than your home?  If so then weight of the system and screen size will be a factor to consider.
  • Will you be running several different programs at the same time? Editing photos or videos?  If so then having enough computing horsepower will be important or your computer may not deliver sufficient performance and seem to run slow.
  • Will you want to watch movies and videos on this system? If so then you may want a dedicated video processor and perhaps a larger screen.
  • Will you frequently be using the laptop while running only on battery power? If so then battery life and power consumption will be important considerations.
  • If you will be using the laptop in bright rooms or outdoors then consider a non-glare screen.
  • Do you have large number of documents, music and video files that you will want to store on your laptop?  Then opt for a larger hard disk drive of 320 gigabytes (GB) or more.

Taking a little time to think about these items can help focus the laptop buying process and ensure that you get the most bang-for-the-buck with your new laptop. If you are interested in a smaller lighter portable netbook computer be sure to check out the Netbook Computer Primer.

Buying a New Laptop Computer – What to look For

After getting a better idea on how you will use your new laptop and which features are most important to you it’s time to dig into the specifics. Some features are standard on most laptops such as a CD/DVD-RW drive. Other components can vary significantly from laptop to laptop.

1.  Laptop Weight and Screen Size
A key buying factor is laptop size and weight. The screen size and the weight of a portable computer are closely related. The larger the screen size, the larger (heavier) the computer, and the heavier the battery to power the larger screen.

Laptop computers come in a wide variety of screen sizes with the most common being 12.1″, 13.3″, 14.1″, 15.4”, 16” and 17″. There can be many choices and the models and screen sizes available will vary depending on the manufacturer. The weight of laptop computers can range from a hefty 10-pound desktop replacement class laptop to small ultraportable lightweight laptops that may weigh only 3 pounds.

Although weight tends to vary proportionately with the screen size, there are some exceptions including ultra lightweight laptops. This class of laptop computer may have a screen as large as 16” yet still weigh as little as only 4 pounds. Large ultra lightweight laptops do have tradeoffs which include:

  1. Ultra lightweight laptops tend to have somewhat lower processing power.
  2. Many ultraportables do not include an internal CD/DVD drive.
  3. Cost – larger ultraportables generally cost significantly more than a standard laptop.

If you will be transporting your laptop frequently you may want to avoid a laptop with a 16” or 17″ screen size as this size of portable computer won’t feel quite so portable. An exception would be a laptop like the Dell Latitude Z which has a 16” screen and yet weighs only 4.3 lbs. The base price on the Latitude Z starts around $1,850.

For questions on the comparison of laptop and netbook computers, be sure to see my earlier post “Laptop Computers – Netbook Computers – 8 Key Differences.”

2.  Computer Performance and CPUs

There was a time when laptops could not match the performance of a desktop computer. That is no longer the case and there is a class of laptops actually known as desktop replacements. A key component in laptop performance is the CPU or central processing unit also known as the “brains” of the computer. The two CPU manufacturers for laptop computers are Intel and AMD.

Intel’s current line of laptop CPUs includes the Core i7 (fastest), i5, i3, and Core 2 Duo. Intel also has several Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) CPU variations that provide extended battery life although with somewhat reduced processing power. The Core i3, i5 and i7 CPUs also feature advanced power management capabilities which can significantly extend battery life.

AMD’s current family of laptop CPUs includes the Phenom II, Athlon II and Turion II. There are earlier, lower performance versions of the Phenom, Athlon and Turion CPUs included in some laptop computers. One benefit of the CPUs from AMD is that they are generally lower cost than Intel’s.

Along with all these different models there are also variations on the actual speed of the CPU itself. CPU speed is measured in GHz or gigahertz.

A good rule of thumb is to buy at least a dual-core CPU which provides improved performance when multi-tasking and running multiple application programs. Some CPUs offer three or four processing cores which can provide additional performance benefits when running demanding applications. There are also still some laptops in the retail channel with older Intel Core D and Celeron CPUs. Laptops with these CPUs provide lower performance levels that many people find undesirable.

Important performance fact to remember: the CPU is only one component in the overall performance of the laptop. The amount of system memory (RAM), the availability of a graphics processor and the size and speed of the hard disk drive also figure into overall computer performance. For instance, if you get a laptop with a fast CPU with too little RAM the overall laptop performance will suffer.

3.  System Memory or RAM

Most new laptops include at least 2GB of system memory (RAM) and many come with 3GB of RAM or more. It is recommended that a new laptop computer have at least 3GB and preferable 4GB or more of RAM. The amount of RAM or system memory is an important factor in performance. The more installed RAM your laptop has, the more applications you can run at once, and the better your computer will perform.

The version of Windows installed on your new laptop will determine how much RAM your computer can effectively use. A 32-bit version of Microsoft Windows 7 can efficiently use a maximum of 4GB of RAM. A 64-bit version of Windows 7 can use up to 8 GB or more. Configuring your laptop with more RAM at the time you buy it is convenient and helps extend the laptop’s useful life.

4.  PC Operating System

All new PC laptops ship with Microsoft Windows 7. Most computers have the Home Premium version of Windows 7 while many business class laptops will have Windows 7 Professional pre-installed. Some will have the 32-bit version and some will have the 64-bit version. The 64-bit version will allow the computer to process data in larger chunks. Business laptops generally ship with Windows 7 Professional which provides management and networking benefits in an enterprise environment

This difference of 32-bits vs. 64-bits does not result in a significant performance difference today, however it may make more of a difference in the future as more software packages takes advantage of the newer 64-bit technology.

5.  Cost

Laptops costs can range from $400 to $4,000 or more depending on configuration. As mentioned earlier it is not difficult to spend $1,500 on a laptop computer, however there are also many very good laptops that fall in the $600 – $900 range. For a laptop being used in business I would not recommend anything below ~$800 unless you do not plan on using it for more than a couple years. I generally recommend not buying the very top end (unless cost is of no concern) but I also recommend not buying at the very low end as this can result in unsatisfactory performance over time.

6.  Battery Life

Laptop battery technology continues to improve. Average battery life with current laptops is roughly 3.5 – 4.5 hours on one battery charge. Some manufacturers also offer extended life batteries that can provides of extra computing on a single charge. Some extended life batteries can last up to twice as long as a standard battery and will typically add $50 – $150 to the cost of a laptop.

One thing to be aware of with extended life batteries is that they can add to both the weight and the size of the laptop computer. These differences can vary by manufacturer and model. Also remember that, in general, lighter laptops tend to have a longer battery life than larger, heavier laptops do.

7.   Hard Disk Drive Capacity

Most laptops will come with drives that range from 160GB to 500GB or more. A minimum storage capacity of 250GB or 320GB is recommended as this will provide adequate performance and room for your data to grow without running out of storage space.

Another relatively recent option with some laptops is the Solid-State-Drive or SSD. These are similar in function to a hard disk drive but are faster and use less power. SSDs are made up a special type of memory chip and contain no moving parts so the disaster of a crashed hard disk drive cannot occur. They are commonly available in capacities up to 256GB.

The downsides of SSDs are that they cannot store as much data as conventional hard disk drives and they are expensive. An SSD can add anywhere from $400 to over $1,000 to the cost of a laptop computer. If cost is not a significant issue SSDs do provide some real benefits. Costs of SSDs have been decreasing and should continue to drop further by the end of 2010.

8.  Graphics & Video Display Hardware

On laptops computers graphics and video are displayed in one of two ways: through what is known as an integrated graphics controller that is part of the standard computer chipset or through a dedicated video chipset from a third party vendor such as nVidia or ATI.

Integrated graphics lack their own dedicated memory but are often adequate for most common computing tasks including basic video playback. Dedicated video chipsets are like having a second processor with its own dedicated memory. They are essential for playing most computer games and frequently can speed up the display of web pages and videos and even other nongraphical tasks. Dedicated video can boost the overall performance of a computer; however they can also use a bit more battery power.

9.  CD/DVD Optical Drive
Most laptop computers come with rewritable DVD drives, also known as CD/DVD-RW, which allows doe reading and writing CD and DVDs. These drives provide the most flexibility. With the growth in the acceptance of Blu-ray movie disks some manufacturers are including drives the will also play Blu-ray disks in addition to CD & DVD reading and writing. However the Blu-ray drives still add a premium to the cost of the laptop.

10.  Ports and Connectors
Most laptops have at least two or three USB 2.0 ports; many offer four, and some offer up to six. These are useful for connecting printers, mouse, backup drive, smartphone, iPod, scanner and other peripherals devices.

Some laptops now offer an HDMI output. This stands for High Definition Multimedia Interface and can be connected directly to some newer monitors and televisions.  Another connector that is included with some laptops is the eSATA port. SATA is a hard disk drive interface (connection type) that is normally used as an internal connection within a computer to a hard disk drive. An eSATA port allows a high speed connection to an external hard disk drive that has an eSATA connector.

Some laptops also include a multiformat flash card reader. This allows the computer to read flash cards such as Secure Digital (SD), MultiMediaCard, Compact Flash, Memory Stick and xD formats.

11.  Brands and Models
Laptop computer models evolve rapidly so making any distinctions on specific models would make this article outdated in a month or two. HP and Dell are the two largest manufacturers. Toshiba, Lenovo, ASUS, and Acer are also well known large laptop manufacturers.

Another option to buying a laptop computer at a retail store is such as Best Buy, Costco or Wal-Mart is to buy a business laptop directly from a manufacturer or from a corporate reseller such as Computer Discount Warehouse (CDW).

Three benefits of buying a business laptop:

  1. business computers do not come loaded up with a lot of potentially unwanted software, demo packages, and useless utilities;
  2. Business systems tend to be built better since they are designed for more demanding activities;
  3. Business computers generally have additional components that are not available on consumer systems such as docking stations and multi-year, next business day onsite warranties.

Manufacturers that offer business computers include Dell, Lenovo and HP. Business models are generally not carried in retail stores.

Other Laptop Accessories to Consider

In addition to the standard components of a laptop computer there are several other items to consider with your purchase. These include:

  1. Internet security software such as Norton Internet Security.
  2. Portable wireless mouse.
  3. Data Backup solution – Do yourself a favor and purchase a backup device if you don’t already have one. See my previous posts on data backup:
  1. Microsoft Office Basic or Office Home and Student.
  2. Docking stations and port replicator to add more ports such as USB.
  3. Extended warranty, preferably with on-site coverage.
  4. Accidental damage coverage for things like a cracked screen or a dropped computer.

Laptop Computer Buying Wrap Up
A good rule of thumb with computers is to not buy at the very top end (unless cost is of no concern) but also don’t buy at the very low end as this can result in laptop performance below what you’d like. The tips in this article are for average users performing common tasks. Needs and requirements for demanding business users or hard core gamers or media producers will be different.

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{ 3 comments }

Frank Jovine July 28, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Mike,

This is very informative article and anyone who is thinking about buying a new laptop, should have a read right here. I am sharing this one for sure!

Mike McEvoy July 28, 2010 at 6:12 pm

@Frank — Thanks for stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the article. Hope it wasn’t too long. I wanted to make sure that I covered all the bases but didn’t want to have it be a tedious read. There is more to a new laptop than one realizes, until it’s time to buy a new one.
–Mike

tim March 18, 2011 at 2:21 am

as you mention, i think knowing what u want to do with the computer is the most important thing. I’ve picked up 600$ laptops that have great cpu and ram, just what I need. (don’t need graphics for my use, and seems to be one of the key parts to make it expensive)

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