Laptop buyer’s guide
When buying a laptop the budget can dictate so many key factors, such as technical specifications, size, and brand. With our guidance you could get the same specifications for a fraction of the price.
Most people who are in the market for a new laptop will go to the big branded stores, but when buying a laptop it’s best to get it custom built.
You could buy a custom laptop with more power for the same price as a normal manufactured laptop, which is useful due to computer applications becoming more and more powerful. It could end up saving you money in the future as you shouldn’t need to buy a new laptop to cope with the application demands.
What kind of specifications to look for?
1. Size Matters
You need to choose the right size laptop depending on what you want to use it for.
Laptop sizes range from 11.6 inches to 17.3 inches.
If portability is a priority, you’ll be looking for a smaller-sized laptop, such as 12.5 inches or 13.3 inches. These will be thinner and lighter than larger ones weighing between 1kg and 1.5kgs.
Smaller laptops will not have the same level of high-end CPUs or graphics cards compared to larger laptops. The selection of ports will also be limited.
In addition to size, there are different classes of laptops to consider, such as:
- Ultrabooks – slim and lightweight but may not have high-end performance;
- Notebooks – provide good power and portability;
- Convertibles – these are 2-in-1 laptops with keyboards that can be removed or folded away, like a tablet. Examples include Microsoft Surface Pro 7 and Acer Chromebooks;
- Traditional clamshell and gaming laptops – these are bulkier machines and have higher specs.
When looking for a laptop, things to consider is what you need the laptop to do. One size never fits all. Sometimes weight and portability are important. For gamers or those doing video editing, a high spec graphics card is important. If an optical drive or long battery life is important, you will require a larger laptop.
2. Screen quality
As you’ll be looking at your laptop screen for long periods of time, you will need to ensure the screen is comfortable to look at.
One aspect to consider is if you want a touchscreen laptop. Modern touchscreens can add a glossiness to the display, which may mean more glare on your screen. Not ideal if you’re a gamer, watching content or editing images or videos.
Screen resolution is important. The minimum resolution you would want is 1920×1080 pixels (Full HD). Some modern laptops offer 4K resolution, but these come at a price. Is this something you really need?
Gamers will want to check the refresh rate of the display. Fast refresh rates will be important for competitive gamers because of the smooth and responsive playing experience.
It may be worth going into a shop to see and experience the different types of screens available, to see which works best for you, and don’t forget to read reviews about any laptop you are interested in.
You need to have a laptop that has a keyboard with a comfortable layout and full-sized keys. The keys should be responsive and gaming laptops should be backlit, so it is easier to see in dim light.
The most famous CPU brand is Intel and its Core i3, i5 and i7 processors.
Core i3 processors are found in notebooks and entry-level systems, whereas i5 and i7 processors are found in mainstream computers. However, i7 systems are for those who are looking to get optimum performance from their laptop.
Intel have released a powerful Core i9 processor. These are found in large laptops and can rival any desktop, but this comes with a hefty price tag.
Another processor is the AMD Ryzen Mobile CPU. This is great for gamers. These CPUs are often paired up with the AMD Radeon graphics chipset.
AMD processors are worth considering as although they are often cheaper than Intel Core processors, they can offer better value for money.
You need to think about how much RAM is suitable for what you need your laptop to do. Previously 4GB of RAM was sufficient for most tasks. But now you would look for 8GB of RAM as a minimum. A power-user will require 16GB, but gamers will want 32GB to get the best experience.
Having more RAM means that more applications can be run at the same time and the system can access more data quickly. This makes tasks like photo and video editing a better experience.
In addition to the brand and capacity you may see the letters DDR and a number. DDR stands for Double Data Rate and the number is the generation of the chip for example, DDR4 RAM. Here higher numbers are better. The number after DDR relates to the transfer speed, this measures the default theoretical maximum transfer speed. Higher numbers equate to things happening faster.
The last thing to consider is if the RAM in your laptop is single or dual-channel. For most, this may not make much of a difference, but a laptop with dual-channel is what you will be better because of the greater transfer speed in one go.
Having more RAM is better than having less. However, many will not notice the difference unless running applications that are RAM-heavy, in which case 16GB or a secondary channel makes a difference. The good thing about RAM is that it can be upgraded cheaply afterwards. Buy a laptop for what your current needs are rather than what you might need.
Most laptops used to come with hard disc drives (HDD), but because of their slow speed, weight and bulk, as well as the heat and noise they produced, these have mostly fallen out of favour.
Solid State Drives (SSDs) have taken over from HDDs as they are faster, quieter and are less bulky. They are also very quick to boot up. The downside to SSDs is that they don’t have much raw capacity (128GB, 256GB or 512GB) and can be more expensive than HDDs with 1TB or 2TB hard drives.
To overcome this some laptops are available with a smaller SSD and a larger hard drive, allowing users the benefit of speed but also with adequate storage for their data.
Getting an SSD with a dual-drive will require a minimum of 256GB storage and a secondary 1TB drive. If the laptop has a single SSD drive, then you will want a minimum of 512GB storage.
The latest laptops have NVMe SSDs that are faster but more expensive than their traditional counterparts. There is no need to spend more just to get the latest model.
7. Battery life
There are many variables that can affect the life of a battery, despite what the manufacturers say.
These variables include screen brightness, screen resolution, the number of applications running at any one time and if you are constantly connected to Wi Fi or Bluetooth devices. Other factors that can affect battery life is the operating system. Ultrabooks and convertibles that run on Chrome OS have a better battery life than ones running on Windows 10.
Some programs require a lot of processing as well as streaming content, playing graphics-intensive games or transferring files wirelessly. These will all drain the battery faster than what the manufacturer has quoted.
Watch out for the battery rating in Watt-hours (Wh) or milliamp-hours (mAh). The higher these figures, the longer the battery will last. For example, a 13.3 Ultrabook with a battery rating of 50Wh to 60Wh will give you great results.
Many laptops now support fast charging, this is also a good feature to look for.
8. USB Type-C
If you see a laptop with only one USB Type-C port, look for another one. The laptop you want should have at least two of these ports, as they are the most common type of connector ports for products and other devices. USB Type-C ports are faster than USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports.
A lot of modern peripherals will only function on a USB Type-C to function.
The best option among Type-C ports is Thunderbolt 4 ports. They have a data transfer speed of 40 gigabits per-second as well as faster charging. They also allow multiple 4K displays to connect to your laptop at one time or one 8K display.
9. Biometric security
Fingerprint readers keep your laptop and other mobile devices secure and are now commonplace. Passwords can be guessed but fingerprints can’t be copied.
Many laptops have an integrated fingerprint sensor in the keyboard instead of a bolt-on package.
Some brands have introduced facial recognition technology that allows you to unlock your laptop with a glance.
The level of security is personal choice. For many, standard fingerprint readers are enough to provide the peace of mind they need.
10. Build quality
You can be as careful as you like with your laptop, but it will get knocked around through everyday use. It is therefore worth checking out how well a laptop has been tested before buying.
Newer laptops are built to withstand rain and dust, and some are built for the special environments they are to be used in.
If you will be using your laptop in an out of the ordinary environment, it is worth finding out what claims the manufacturer makes regarding its ruggedness and durability. Look at the laptop design and any claims about durability. The more a manufacturer talks up about drop-tests or spill resistance, the better and see what certification they provide for these tests.
11. LTE, Wi-Fi, or Ethernet?
LTE stands for Long Term Evolution and refers to 4th generation broadband standards. Laptops with LTE can connect to any mobile data signals regardless of where you are. Meaning you are not restricted to connecting to your home or office Wi-Fi network or a Wi-Fi hotspot. You can connect to the internet using your mobile ISP from almost anywhere.
However, there are some points to consider. Laptops with this technology are at the higher end of the spectrum, so they are expensive. You will also need a data plan or buy prepaid data in order to connect. The type and speed of connection will depend on your laptop’s network connection and the type of data plan you have.
If this isn’t important to you, or you don’t want ongoing data fees then look for a Wi-Fi only laptop. Most laptops have built-in network cards, so you don’t need to worry about using dongles. Another way of connecting to Wi-Fi when you’re on the go is to use mobile Wi-Fi tethering.
The final consideration is if you need an Ethernet port. With Wi-Fi being so widespread, many people do not need an Ethernet port. However, if you are in an area with a weak signal or no Wi-Fi at all, then a LTE may be a consideration. If not, you don’t need it.
When it comes to Wi-Fi speed, you need to consider the following factors – signal strength, the amount of interference from laptop to router and the Wi-Fi speed of the network card in the laptop.
How this works is, your laptop transfers data from the internet router to your laptop and back. The speed at which this is done is called link speed and this is measured in bits per second (bps). You may have a fast internet connection but if your link speed is slow then your Wi-Fi speed will struggle.
The majority of laptops come with network cards that connect to wireless hotspots. To check the Wi-Fi speed of a laptop you will need to look at the product specifications as these are not usually listed in the product descriptions. Ideally you should look for a network card that supports the latest Wi-Fi generation.
A Final Word
There is a lot to think about when buying a laptop. It is a matter of getting the balance right between features, needs and budget. Somewhere along the way compromises, will have to be made.