What should you look for when buying a laptop? Part 2: technical specs
This is Part 2 of our two-part series on buying a laptop. Part 1 covered some of the basics: operating system, size, form factor, and user types.
Everyone gets a little overwhelmed when looking at the “technical specifications” section of a product listing. Even when you have a pretty solid grip on interpreting things, it can be hard to keep everything comprehensible in your mind. To finish our laptop buying guide, we’re going to show you which features to hone in on and how to interpret them.
A quick disclaimer: not all things matter to everyone. Your priorities and how you will use your laptop will affect the way you perceive a particular machine. If you don’t need a graphics card, for instance, then you probably won’t stress about the lack of one. A gamer, on the other hand, will be worried about that. We will give you the tools to figure out what will matter to you.
Processors are perhaps the most overrated part of the computer for the average user, but also the least upgradeable. In pure performance terms, it is true that the so-called “average” computer user often won’t benefit a great deal from slight upgrades in processors.
However, processor generations have been getting better and better when it comes to power management. The late-2013 and later Haswell processors from Intel, for instance, improved battery life as much as 50% as the previous year’s processors. If battery life will matter a lot to you, it may be worth it to pay extra for the new stuff. If you are just going to be using your laptop around the house and don’t mind being plugged into a charger more frequently, you can save some money by buying an older model.
As for how good of a processor you need, this depends on how you will use your computer. If you will be using multiple active programs (as opposed to programs, like Word, that can sit idly) at the same time, you may consider going into the mid- or high-range category, meaning you will want an Intel i5 or i7 processor.
If you are more of a web browser and word processor, you can get by with the more recent i3 or perhaps Pentium from Intel. You may look into AMD’s processors as well, as they come more cheaply.
People that want to do photo and video editing or intense gaming will not want to skimp on the processor. The higher end of the Intel i7 line will be your target.
We have done a full post on this topic and it is worth looking over if you are unsure. The way computers are pre-built often means you will probably be getting an adequate processor if you insist upon getting other specs up to snuff, though.
A quick note on mobile processors, found in tablets and hybrids: Intel’s Atom processor line, once found in much-maligned netbooks, recently received a very substantial upgrade. The so-called “Bay Trail” line introduced in September 2013 took Intel’s mobile processors from barely usable to worthy contender with laptop and desktop processors. These are usually designated with a Z3xx nomenclature, as opposed to last year’s Z2xx.
RAM stands for random access memory and is the part of the computer that determines how many things you can have open at one time. The computer keeps the information that it knows it may need to access in a hurry (like, all of the information for the programs you’re running) in the RAM, because information stored there can be loaded many thousand times faster than if it were being loaded from the hard drive.
If you have too little RAM, you will have noticeably slower performance as you switch from one program to another or your current program starts to access new information. This might mean that your browser cannot handle a new tab or clicking from one Word document to the next might cause considerable lag.
On tablet hybrids where you will be running just one app at a time, 2GB should serve you well. On a fully functional device, 2GB will almost certainly prove too little. 4GB is a common mark from the low-end to the upper part of mid-range and should work for a good deal of users, at least if you are conscious of memory usage.
If you really like to have several programs open at once, you might consider bumping up to 6GB or 8GB. If you are a person who uses Chrome with several extensions, double-digit tabs in a couple of windows, likes to have an office program open, with some music playing on top of that, that upgrade will probably be worth it. There is no need going higher than 8GB unless you are using unbelievably memory-intensive programs like resource-hungry games or intense video editing.
A final thing to consider: RAM is the most easily upgraded part of your laptop. Even on ultrabooks, it is usually possible to crack them open and install some new RAM. On tablet hybrids, this won’t be the case, though. Do some research before buying on how easy it might be to upgrade later if you realize you need it.
The graphics card, also know as the GPU (graphics processing unit), is at this point essentially optional on consumer laptops. These work a bit like the central processor (CPU), but exclusively handle commands related to visuals. We can thank gamers and video editors for this innovation as well, as the CPU just cannot handle intensive graphics. GPUs often come with some dedicated RAM that handles only graphics as well.
Back when GPUs were a worthy addition to the average home computer, doing something like watching HD video was borderline unthinkable without a good GPU. Today, streaming Netflix in HD or even some light video editing is possible without a separate GPU. Why? Intel wised up and integrated some actually useful graphics processing into their CPUs.
If you want to save some money or just don’t think you need special graphics hardware for you YouTubing activities, you will get all the performance you need from the last couple generations of central processors. The Ivy Bridge or Haswell processor lines will do just fine for most; if you see the graphics card listed as “Intel HD Graphics” followed by 4000 or higher, you should be good to go.
If you want to do some gaming or video editing, you will want to make this your top priority. We will not take a side on the NVIDIA vs ATI debate, but we will share that NVIDIA tends to dominate the video/graphics editing market while the gaming market is more split between the two brands. Bear in mind, as we mentioned in Part 1, laptops really are not the place for serious gaming or video work; we will not do an extensive overview of graphics options since the high-end graphics cards are much, much too large for a laptop. You are essentially choosing between a mid-range dedicated graphics card or one that is integrated into your CPU.
It used to be that this part of the computer buying process was all about the size. For some people, that might still be the biggest factor. However, the industry has gotten very good at storage and the vast majority of consumers will really struggle to fill up a terabyte hard drive without a whole heck of a lot of (probably illegal) movie downloading.
If you take a lot of pictures or videos, you will want to prioritize storage space. Certain other vocations may require large storage, but by and large you’re looking at having your needs met with 250GB of storage, at most. Look into your current machine’s storage and how much you are using to see how much you will want to use on your next one. Also, bear in mind the abundance of cloud storage solutions that can take the pressure off of your hard drive for mere file storage.
Today, there is a new and very important choice for hard drive. We have the HDD and the SSD, which stand for hard drive disk and solid state drive, respectively. Hard drive disk refers to the kind of hard drive (that’s why we call it a hard drive!) that we have been familiar with for well over a decade. An HDD stores data on a very thin physical disk and accesses that data by moving a needle to the location on that disk where the data is stored. Does that sound slow, inefficient, and prone to failure? It is! Veteran computer owners may not have noticed the slowness, but almost everyone has dealt with a drive failure at some point.
Solid state drives, on the other hand, have no physical moving parts. Since they don’t rely on the efficiency of a needle moving on a disk, they are quite literally hundreds of times faster at accessing data than their HDD counterparts. Likewise, they have a much lower failure rate. The main downside is that they are also much more expensive, meaning you will be paying more for a 120GB SSD than you would a 1TB HDD.
Given the sophistication of the other components of a computer, choosing a SSD instead of a HDD is one of the best ways to make a computer work faster. Laptops with SSDs will now boot in less than 10 seconds in some cases, since the bulk of the time spent on that process was due to how long it took to load the entire operating system from a HDD. The lag you experience when loading a program is also something that will practically vanish with a SSD. The trick here is to balance cost and benefit while making sure you have enough storage.
Two final thoughts on hard drive: hard drives are also upgradeable, but this can be difficult to do on laptops both due to the fact that they are hard to crack open and that there is usually just one slot for a hard drive, making the transfer of your operating system and data from one to the other a difficult thing to do. You can also reap some of the benefits of an SSD with a hybrid drive that uses a small SSD component as a cache; boot times will be quick and commonly used programs should load more quickly.
There are a few hard and fast rules when it comes to display, once we have disregarded size. They boil down to this: more pixels are better. While I will not dispute this, you should go to a retail store (if you can find one, nowadays) and look at laptops with high and low resolutions. If the highest resolutions make everything hard to see, it may not worth be the extra investment only to adjust the screen to a lower resolution to stop yourself from squinting.
You will also have to decide whether you want a touchscreen. Windows 8 is certainly optimized for touching and it can be a valuable part of the experience. Some people just don’t care, though, and that’s okay. If you don’t want a touchscreen, it will be worthwhile to try to track down a matte (non-glare) screen.
Other features to check out
In the recent past, a new type of USB port was released quietly into the wild: USB 3.0. You will want to know how many USB 3.0 ports the laptops you are looking for have. USB 3.0 allows for much, much faster file transfers than their predecessors. If you think you will ever want to use a flash drive or external HDD, you will thank yourself for having an available USB 3.0 for it.
If you are interested in projecting your laptop to your television, there are two different things that can help you do that. First is an HDMI out port, which allows pretty simple plug and play functionality with an HDMI cord. There is also the newer Wireless Display (WiDi), that allows basically the same function without the cord if you have a compatible television. Reviews are pretty mixed on WiDi, but it is worth thinking about.
While we have made several recommendations based on their effect on battery life, don’t forget to check out how the battery actually grades out on tests. You should note what the manufacturer says the battery life will be, but look for the results of reviewers’ tests to make sure you know how things will play out in practice.
Even after all of this, you might be confused. It is best to take things slowly and jot down notes on what you want and what different prospective laptops have to offer. Read reviews, but do not get psyched out by them; professional reviewers often apply very high standards to laptops that are not realistic for typical users.
It is absolutely okay if you have priorities that are not related to the technical specs. If the computer being lightweight and thin is what means most to you, make sure you get one that is lightweight and thin: no amount of quick boot times or speedy program loading will make you feel better about a laptop that does not suit your needs.
As always, feel free to share experiences, questions, or suggestions in the comments.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Quasic.
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