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Laptop Buying Guide (2018)

Laptop Buying Guide

Introduction

There are of course many things to keep in mind when buying a laptop. This guide will attempt to offer some practical tips for those who don’t have in-depth technical knowledge regarding PC hardware. If you’re a person who understands how and why a mechanical hard-drive is different from a SSD or how the Intel Core line of micro-architectures are different from Celerons based on Atom cores then you will probably not find a lot of new information here. However, if the above sounded like mumbojumbo – read on, we’re here to try and clear it up! The focus of this guide is the technical choices and how they affect the experience and usefulness of the laptop you end up with. The choice of how much to spend is in the end up to you.

Executive Summary

This section is for the impatient, who just wants to get the gist of what to look for, and is, perhaps overly, trusting in our judgment!

FeatureAdvice
SSDBuy a laptop with an SSD for primary storage, at least 120 Gb. This is the most important choice today.
CPUDon’t worry about the CPU, two cores is plenty – but avoid Atom based Celeron N**** and Pentium N**** (and very old AMD CPUs or APUs).
USB 3At least one USB 3 port is very important to be able to connect fast external drives, and docks, etc.
ScreenLarger screens ought to be full HD, 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, beware of 15,6” screens with only 1366 x 768 pixels. This may be acceptable for small format screens (11-13 inches).
RAM4 Gb RAM, or main memory, is sufficient for everyday use, 8 Gb is plenty.
USB-C / ThunderboltA USB-C / Thunderbolt port can be useful as futureproofing but is non-essential for most users.
WarrantyA single year of warranty seems way too short for a laptop, but is quite common, beware.

Should I get one with a SSD?

Short version: Yes! For the end user experience of a modern computer no other component is more decisive! Storing the operating system and programs on an SSD should be a very high priority. This section could really be that short, but we’ll attempt to justify this a bit better. Starting with what ‘SSD’ means, it is short for Solid State Drive. This type of drive stores the information digitally in a type of persistent memory called flash, which is the same basic stuff that goes into USB sticks, except higher quality and more of it, usually. Since the data is stored digitally in these chips, access time is very low. This contrasts with a traditional hard drive, which is based on rotating disks covered in magnetic particles. Because of this rotation, the drive must wait until the data it needs comes around, as well as wait to move the reading heads that move over the platters, leading to a much higher access time. In particular for laptop hard drives which typically rotate slower than desktop drives.

So why does this matter? The thing is that launching a program might cause hundreds of tiny files to be accessed, leading to a lot of accumulated access time. During this time, your high-performance CPU is idle, your amazing graphics card has nothing to do, and you are likely starting to move the mouse cursor in circles (unless it’s frozen). In particular when multi-tasking and two programs are accessing the disk at once, a mechanical hard drive may grind (often audibly) to a complete stop.

Even a relatively low-end SSD offers an order-of-magnitude improvement in responsiveness, as well as typically higher transfer rate as well as lower power consumption and noise levels. This performance comes at a cost, of course, and you will have to pay much more attention to just how much storage you need. As a general rule, the SSD should be at least 120 GB to provide enough space for the operating system, a number of programs and user files. If you need plenty of storage, you may need to buy a laptop with an additional mechanical hard drive – although such systems are often considerably more expensive. A cheap and simple alternative is a portable hard drive, and in particular modern USB3-capable drives offer good performance.

Do I need a powerful CPU with lots of cores?

Short version: Probably not. Unlike in the past, when the CPU was the main factor in determining performance, today most CPUs offer sufficient performance for practically everything. There are some gotchas, so read on! The main factor that ordinary buyers need to watch out for is the class of low-powered CPUs that are often found in cheaper laptops. These processors are based on a different architecture to the main CPU lines from Intel and AMD, and are actually so much less powerful that it might pay to avoid them.

In the case of Intel these are the ‘Atom’ line of CPUs, and at times they are branded using this name. Unfortunately, they are also sold under the Pentium and Celeron brands. This is a shame, because a Celeron or Pentium may also be of the Core (main) CPU architecture – in which case they are an excellent budget choice. Confusing? So how can you tell? The giveaway in the case of both Pentiums and Celerons is whether the model number starts with the letter ‘N’ or ‘J’. For example “Intel® Pentium® Processor J4205” or “Intel® Celeron® Processor N3350” are examples of Atom-based processors, whereas “Intel® Celeron® Processor 3865U” is from the much more capable Core microarchitecture.

What about AMD? Their CPUs have for a long time been somewhat behind Intel in performance, but not sufficiently to make them a bad choice. However, AMD too have had their low-powered line of CPU microarchitecture – code named ‘Bobcat’ these are the rough equivalent to Intel Atom. These are easy to spot as they have model numbers starting with ‘E’. Happily, these are not in production any more for consumer laptops, so you are unlikely to find any. Of the ‘A’ series of APUs the early models were very underpowered, but starting with the A8-3XXX line at they provide punch enough for most tasks. The modern APUs as well as any of the AMD Ryzen line are very good processors. If you are planning to play games, it might pay to go for a quad-core device. However, you will also need to carefully consider whether you are going to spend the money needed for a discrete graphics card. Without a discrete GPU, you will quickly find that a powerful CPU is wasted money. So, avoiding the Atom class CPUs and ancient AMD CPUs, what do you really need? More than two CPU cores is typically not necessary, and provide little benefit. If the cost difference is small you might want to get a more powerful CPU, but it is not likely to make a big difference to your every-day experience.

Connectivity and Ports

At least one USB 3 port is a necessity for a new computer. These ports are vastly faster compared to the older USB 2 ports and enable using external hard-drives to expand your storage with a speed that comes close to an integrated hard drive.

USB type C is a new form of port which usually comes with support for USB 3.1 (but is not guaranteed to). USB 3.1 ports are high-speed enough (10 Gb/s) to support multiple external devices and also support transferring video (e.g., HDMI). Sometimes these same ports also support Intels proprietary Thunderbolt protocol. USB-C also enables charging the device from a docking station, over the single USB-C cable. With a USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt enabled USB-C port, a single cable to a good docking station can support several screens as well as external hard drives and charging the laptop. Thus, if you plan to often use the laptop as a workstation with extra screens, this can be very useful.

Screen

Do I need a super-high resolution screen like the ‘retina’ on Macs? Probably not, these are really more of a nice-to-have. For most users they are not enough to be worth the money. However, if you are going for a larger screen, more than 14” (i.e., not an ultra-portable), then you should aim for a full HD screen. In other words, 1920 x 1080 at a minimum. Beware the many laptops with 15,6” screens that only support 1366x768 (misleadingly marketed as HD). For ultraportable laptops and convertibles in the range 11-13” this is probably ok. The screens are based on a number of different technologies. However, most users will not really notice a great deal of difference. It can be said that IPS screens typically have better colour reproduction, which might matter if you work a lot with photos.

Memory

Last but not least, RAM or main memory. In ages past this was an important factor. Today, most computers will come in the range 4-8 GB, which is fine for most of everything. All else being equal it might be worth paying a little extra for 8 GB, but more than that is generally just overkill.

Summary

Hopefully this has helped point out some important things to consider, as well as clearing up some of the reasoning behind. To find the laptop to match your preferences, head over to the laptop category and start narrowing down the choices using our rich set of filters. It is easy to save your favourites and do comparisons. Also remember that you can show the features as columns and sort by them – this goes for almost any property.

References

  1. Wikipedia list of AMD CPU Microarchitectures
  2. Wikipedia USB-C