Laptops are the tools of many trades these days. Whether used as semi-portable equivalents of desktop computers or carried on daily commutes or business trips, laptops have become the basic computers many people favor. Unfortunately, laptops are not designed to be long-term investments. On the contrary, a machine only several years old might already be fighting obsolescence. Like it or not, for people who use laptops, buying new ones can become almost a way of life.
But what should a buyer look for in a laptop? What characteristics make the difference between a happy working relationship and some expensive regret? To make things a little clearer and more straightforward, this guide discusses a list of ten things to look for when buying a new laptop, including cost, the buyer's needs, upgradability, security, durability, ports, battery, screen, ports, and memory.
Shopping for a Laptop
Shopping for a laptop is a little different than shopping for most other items. There is no one best laptop for everybody. Which laptop is the right one depends almost entirely on what the user wants it to be able to do, and at what price. Choosing a laptop is less about learning how to spot quality and more about learning how to think clearly about what one wants in a laptop. The specifications to look for today, such as certain features that a good laptop should have or minimum capabilities necessary for certain uses, could all be different next year.
Questions to Consider
The key is to learn to ask the right questions, and these questions will lead the user to good laptops. There are many things to look for when shopping for one, and all play a role in determining the best laptop for a particular user.
How much money a buyer can spend will structure many other decisions, including how and where to look for a laptop. Beginning by creating a budget will free the buyer from having to research the capabilities of laptops that are out of the price range anyway. Settling on a budget before shopping will also protect a shopper from expensive impulse buys.
If a great computer is just a little outside the budget, though, do not ignore it. It is often possible to find great deals simply by asking around. There are sales, of course, plus a number of companies will run unadvertised sales, meaning that a computer's listed price may be much higher than the actual price, and there is no way to know without asking.
Conversely, be careful not to snap up an unusually low-priced laptop because it is a great deal without finding out why it is so low-priced. Some laptops really are not worth even a small amount of money.
2. What the Buyer Needs
This one consideration is key to all of the others. Is this laptop going to be used just for surfing the web and maybe a little word processing, or is it going to have to play movies and graphics-heavy games? Or maybe serious number-crunching? The right laptop for one person could wrong for someone else. For example, many technology writers recommend that buyers look for excellent graphics capabilities, and will provide particular electronic features to look for in order to get great graphics. It is true that many people really like graphics, and use their laptops to stream TV shows and similar visually intensive tasks. Yet for a novelist working against a deadline, graphics may be irrelevant while long battery life is critical.
Even if money were no object, it would be impossible to just get one perfect laptop for everybody, in part because some features, such as large screen and light weight, are more or less incompatible. The buyer must identify which features a laptop really must have, plus whatever other features would be nice to have as extras.
A laptop several years old may still function perfectly, but newer software may not be compatible with it. Upgrading a computer is one way to add years to its useful life, but some computers are much easier to open up and modify than others. Whether it is important to be able to upgrade a computer depends on the buyer's needs. For someone who plans to use a laptop more or less as an electronic typewriter, without attaching it to other devices or to the Internet, upgrading may not be necessary. For someone who is not prepared to upgrade as a do-it-yourself project, it might be easier to just buy a new computer. For other people, whether a computer can be upgraded can be very important.
Some features to look for include a battery that can be replaced, a casing that the user can actually open (be aware, however, that some warranties prohibit opening up the laptop), and memory modules that can be switched out. It is important that both modules can be switched, rather than just one, and that the modules have equal storage capacity.
Making the decision whether to upgrade or replace can be put off as long as possible by buying a computer that is as new as possible. Find out how often the manufacturer introduces new models, and if possible avoid buying a laptop right before a new release. Buying newly-released laptops can add a year or more to the period when the laptop counts as new and is fully supported and fully compatible with all the latest programs and accessories. If being up-to-date is less important, or for users who know how to upgrade their own computers, an older laptop, or even a used laptop, can be fine.
Security includes protection from malware; some computer brands are dramatically more vulnerable than others, and some come with better anti-virus software than others. But security also has to mean protection from theft. Laptops are not just portable for their users, but they are also easy for thieves to walk off with. Protection against theft can run from the user simply being careful, all the way to using locking cables and fingerprint recognition capability. Price varies accordingly.
Most laptops are fairly delicate instruments, but some are designed to survive being dropped on concrete. Part of the difference is in the overall construction of the computer; there is no absolute rule about which laptops will be sturdier, both metal casings tend to be stronger than plastic ones. Another major difference between laptops is in the hard drive; traditional hard drives can be damaged if jostled around too much. Solid state drives have no moving parts, and are therefore less likely to break. They are also faster than hard drives are, but the drawback is that solid state drives have less storage capacity and cost more. Spending more money for a more durable machine (for a more extensive warranty) can be worth it if the machine is high-end already, or if the user is maybe a bit clumsy.
Laptops vary in terms of which components they come with, and in how many and what kinds of ports they come with. Unlike memory or software, the ports a laptop has cannot be upgraded, so it is important to think ahead about which ports are likely to be needed throughout the life of the machine. For example, some laptops have USB 3.0 ports, which are faster than traditional USB ports. Getting a computer with both types of ports is a good way to prepare for the increasing popularity of USB 3.0 hardware in the future.
Laptops vary in their battery life, and they vary, too, in how easily the battery can be replaced. A long battery life is not going to be important for a computer that will spend most of its time plugged in, but it is critical for a machine that has to be able to function anywhere. Be aware that battery life varies according to how the computer is being used and how old the battery is. The listed battery life will be near the top, not the middle, of the battery's possible range. Also, batteries are mortal, and will die after a certain number of charges. Some computers have integrated batteries that cannot be changed; these computers will become small desktops, eventually.
Screen size and quality both vary, with larger screens belonging to heavier computers and higher quality screens belonging to more expensive computers. A large, high quality screen will be worth the weight and expense for a user who is really into movies, games, or editing professional presentations or visual art. Otherwise, it might not matter so much.
Laptop screens are generally measured diagonally, either in inches or in centimeters. Fifteen inches (38 centimeters) is usually large enough to enjoy watching TV on, though both bigger and smaller screens are available. The other measure of a laptop screen (or any digital screen) is resolution, meaning the total number of pixels the screen has. The more pixels, the more detail the screen can display. The typical range is anywhere from 1366 by 768 to 1920 by 1080. For good color quality, look for RGB LED backlighting.
Remember that the quality of a laptop's display depends on more than just the screen, though. Computers vary in their ability to process graphics, and the best screen in the world will not look very good if it is attached to a computer with a bad graphics card. If graphics are important, look for a laptop with a dedicated graphics chip, but integrated graphics, which most laptops have, are adequate for most people, and use less energy.
9. Keyboard Layout
Keyboards vary slightly in both their layout and their construction. Some keyboards have flat keys with no space between or beneath them to collect dirt. Some people love flat keys, but others prefer more traditional keyboards. Keyboard type is a relatively minor consideration most of the time, but some people have definite preferences. Switching to a keyboard with a slightly different layout could cause a lot of typing mistakes during the adjustment period, a drawback that may or may not be worth it.
Random access memory is very important in order for a laptop to function smoothly and efficiently, and the more memory, the better. Laptops store data in RAM to function, but also have to use the hard drive in cases where RAM is insufficient, slowing down processing. Check that the laptop's memory can be easily upgraded.