Thursday, August 15, 2013

Buying a laptop: Asking yourself all the right questions

If you don't know what you want, how can anyone help you

We're not living in the “post-PC” era. Not by a long shot. As more of us work from home, or the plane, or the coffee shop, laptops might be more important than they’ve ever been. They’ve also become harder and harder to buy, as hardware specs have hit stratospheric heights while simultaneously somehow becoming even more difficult to explain or differentiate.

It’s hard to buy a truly terrible laptop these days; good components are inexpensive enough that as long as you avoid anything still called a “netbook,” you’ll probably get something that works. But you can do better than “works” as long as you know what you’re looking for. Picking the right laptop means finding exactly the things you want, and knowing what you’re willing (and unwilling) to sacrifice to get there. Laptops are all about trade-offs, and making the right ones is key.

That’s what this guide is here for. This guide is not designed to steer you toward a particular laptop — things change too quickly for that anyway, and what’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another. I'm here to help you make the right decision for you. Which specs matter, and which don’t? What can you do in 10 minutes inside a Best Buy to figure out whether the laptop you’re looking at is the right one for you? What the hell is a GeForce and when should you care? I will help answer those questions, and help you decide which notebook is perfect for you.

Before you even walk into the store, though, you have to get just a little existential. Your whole decision starts with a single question: what kind of laptop user are you really?


You might only drive Toyota and swear by Serta in your bedroom, but you should never just pick one laptop brand and stick to it. Quality varies from product to product no matter whose name is on the label, so you won’t see us recommending brands — and you shouldn’t blindly follow them. Also, our money says you’re not a $500 laptop buyer: quality decreases sharply below a certain price point, so I'm not going to tell you to buy something you’re going to regret.

Instead, I've divided the world of laptop users into groups that more or less stack on top of one another, from users who just want the basics (like web and email) all the way up to gamers who want epic power at all costs. Instead of skipping down to a particular section of this guide, try reading it in order. Even power users need the basics to work right, and there’s more to your computer than your graphics card.

While most of what I'll talk about has to do with hardware, you’ll obviously have to pick an operating system for your new laptop as well. Unless you’re already a Linux user, your choice probably comes down to Windows 8 and Mac OS X (Apple laptop). Really, you can’t choose wrong — Windows is a little more customizable, OS X better-looking, and Windows 8 remains a fairly polarizing operating system. But both have huge app ecosystems and all the hardware support they’ll need. There are MacBooks that fit the bill for almost every user below, and there are Windows PCs for everyone. Picking an OS is a good place to start, but it’s a win-win.

I want to surf the web at home

Even if you’ll only ever surf the web, write emails, and cobble together the occasional Excel spreadsheet, setting a minimum quality standard for your computer ensures it will do those things reliably and painlessly for years to come. You don’t need much, but there are a few essential things you shouldn’t skip or skimp on.

The key here is finding a computer that’s inexpensive without being cheap. Determining one from the other is easy, too: just reach out and pick up the computer. Does it feel like a quality piece of hardware, or a cheap heap of junk? Could you see yourself hauling around this chassis, and using this keyboard and this touchpad for several years? The materials and parts are less important than the assembly and design — and they hint at the quality of the components and circuitry inside the machine. Generally, when laptop manufacturers cut corners, they do it everywhere simultaneously.

The Samsung Chromebook is a great example of an inexpensive computer that's not at all cheap. It doesn't do much, nor does any Chromebook — Google's Chrome OS is little more than an expanded browser window. But Chromebooks are well-made, offer solid battery life, and for at-home browsers and emailers may be everything you need. The trade-offs here are raw power, and raw power may not be what you need.

Of course, internals do matter, especially if you're investing in a computer rather than buying the cheapest thing you can find. Things change quickly: if you want your laptop to stay snappy for a few years, don’t buy an outdated Intel Celeron, Pentium, or Atom chip when you could get a Core i3 or Core i5. Don’t get an AMD C-series or E-series processor, or even an AMD A4, when you could have an A6 or A8 inside. You don’t need the highest clock speed or model number, but you should have the latest version — "Haswell" is your friend right now.

While you used to have to look for Wi-Fi, USB ports, a webcam, and a video chip capable of HD video playback, you can pretty much take those for granted. Other possibly important features aren’t always included: if you’ll ever need a DVD drive, an SD card slot to import photos from a camera, a VGA port to connect to old projectors, or a removable battery, you’d better triple-check they’re included in your new laptop.

Don’t even look at a computer with less than 4GB of RAM, and it’s a really good idea to spend a few dollars to upgrade to 6GB or 8GB — it’ll keep your computer running running better, longer. So is shelling out for a big hard drive. Some laptops still ship with 320GB hard drives, but filling even 500GB with 1080p movies and games is easier than you think, so shoot for 750GB or 1TB for some breathing room.

Even if the perfect configuration’s sitting there on the shelf, spend a minute seeing how long it takes for the machine to open files, open programs, and wake up from sleep. If anything seems sluggish now, with a fresh machine right off the shelf, just wait until it’s full of apps, files, and games.

Getting the right laptop for your home office or living room is easy, and shouldn’t cost you more than about $800, but once you’re ready to pack it up and hit the road, finding the right device gets a little harder.

I want to travel or be very mobile

There’s power, and there’s portability, but whether you’re a globe-trotting executive or just a commuter there’s plenty more to consider as you shop for the perfect get-up-and-go laptop. Look beyond size and weight, because many of the usual comforts are often sacrificed in order to create an ultra-portable computer. Keyboards can be painfully shallow on thin computers, so spend some time typing; maybe even take an online test to see if you can keep up your normal pace. If possible, sit down and type with the notebook in your lap, checking if the palm rests are big enough to comfortably keep the notebook from tipping.

Perform a few pinch-to-zooms, two-finger scrolls, and swipes in from the side to test the trackpad’s comfort and accuracy for navigation and gestures — small computers like the Asus Taichi often mean small trackpads, and you don’t want that. Poke at the screen, too: thin and light notebooks will often forgo a touchscreen, and if you’re buying a Windows 8 laptop you probably want a touchscreen.

The Intel Atom line of processors are ultra-low voltage, which helps reduce power consumption and lengthen battery life on devices like the HP Envy X2. But even though they come from Intel, Atom chips are far less powerful than you’ll likely want – if you’re going to sacrifice all the power of a full Core processor, you might as well get a tablet.

In the more powerful Intel Core lineup, look for a Y or U at the end of the chip’s model number. Y-series chips are low-voltage and designed to support short bursts of high performance without giving off too much heat, which is perfect for notebooks that are too thin for an internal fan. Likewise, U-series processors were designed for ultra-portable notebooks, so they operate with very low voltage. These all come with power tradeoffs, but we might soon be able to have it all: the first Intel Haswell-powered laptops tested offer fantastic battery life.

Manufacturers will usually list a notebook’s expected battery life, but you should assume that a notebook will only last around 70 percent of the manufacturer’s claim. This isn’t always the case — the newest MacBook Air does even better than its advertised 12 hours — but it’s a good rule of thumb.

Many thin and light notebooks like the Toshiba Kirabook trade a traditional hard drive for a solid state drive (SSD), which is much faster and lighter, and has no moving parts. You’ll have to sacrifice some storage space, but you’ll see a dramatic improvement in the amount of time it takes for your notebook to boot and wake from sleep and the cost of more money. Some notebooks will offer a combo drive — traditional hard drive for storage plus a small solid-state "cache" drive — but going full SSD makes your computer both better and more portable. If you know you’re going to need a lot of storage, it might be better to buy an external drive as a permanent home for your photos, music, and movie collection.

A backlit keyboard isn’t always a guarantee with new notebooks, but will come in handy when you’re working on a dimly lit plane or hammering away in a dark alley — world traveling is a dangerous game. And since you’re not likely to want to travel with a 17-inch laptop, some sort of standard video-out port will come in handy if you need a second monitor or bigger screen. HDMI is the video port of choice for Windows notebooks, while Apple notebooks generally include a Mini DisplayPort or Thunderbolt connection. Avoid any laptops that use a proprietary display port (or really any proprietary port in general), as the cables are often more expensive and much harder to replace.

If you can’t stand not being connected, some notebooks have embedded mobile broadband — but these are both rare and expensive, and tethering to your phone works just as well. LTE laptops are essentially million-miler purchases only.

At this point, you’re still just doing the basics — Word documents, Gmail, iPhoto, maybe a little Netflix. All that’s changed is how often you’re near an outlet. What happens next, when you need your laptop to become your stereo, your TV, and your cable box too?

I want to watch movies

Sometimes a laptop is more than just a laptop. It can also serve as the center of your digital entertainment life, melding your TV, stereo, and media players into one machine. Here, a high-resolution widescreen display is a must — but not all 1080p screens are created equal. Bright and vivid are good, but take a moment to view the screen from multiple angles; check for image distortion or inverted colors.

Make sure it gets bright enough to avoid the glare from your lamps, dim enough to not destroy your eyes in the dark, and that blacks and whites don’t look a little more like yellow and gray. (You’d be surprised how hard it is to find a laptop that shows honest-to-goodness black, and no movie looks as cool without it.) Choosing a glossy or a matte screen is largely personal preference — glossy tends to look brighter and more vibrant, matte works outdoors — but having a laptop you can see? That’s pretty universal.

Frankly, the best laptops won’t beat even a decent set of external speakers, but some notebooks definitely sound better than others. The best way to get a sense of audio quality is to turn the volume up to its highest setting, and play a movie trailer followed by a couple songs from different genres. Higher pitches will often sound mechanical or tinny at higher volumes, and weak bass will make an action scene in a movie sound flat. Built-in subwoofers are generally a good thing, but don’t be distracted by meaningless branding: a Bang and Olufsen or Beats Audio sticker does not guarantee good audio performance. Generally, the best quality speakers run along the sides or the top of the notebook and will face slightly toward you.

Movie and music collections aren’t getting any smaller, so look for a laptop that will support a few more years of downloads and purchases. A 1TB drive should be plenty of room to get started, but anything smaller may start to feel cramped as your collection grows — 500GB is barely enough space for 10 Blu-ray rips.

Unlike the frequent traveler, epic battery life doesn’t need to be high on your priority list, but you’ll want to make sure that the notebook isn’t going to die in the middle of a couch-bound Netflix session. A notebook that claims to get five hours of battery life may only get closer to three during normal use — and with high-res screens and booming speakers, it’s rare to find a media-friendly laptop with great battery life like the Sony VAIO Pro — so don’t expect a movie marathon.

I’ve talked about a lot of things so far, but the basic internal requirements haven’t really changed. When you want to switch from watching and listening to creating and editing, though, they do change. Quickly.

I want to make movies and music

If you’re committing serious time to things like video editing and music creation, pay serious attention to processor speed and RAM. Look for a notebook with at least a quad-core processor — say an Intel Core processor whose name ends in QM (for quad-core) instead of U (for ultra-low voltage) or M (for mobile). You’ll want to have at least 8GB of RAM, and 16GB or even 32GB will improve rendering speeds and help with multitasking when you’re running Photoshop, Premiere, and GarageBand all at once.

Apple notebooks like the MacBook Pro with Retina display are a favorite among content creators, just for the software that comes preinstalled. The iLife app suite includes everything you need to get started editing photos, video, and music using iPhoto, iMovie, and GarageBand. Final Cut Pro X, one of the most popular professional video-editing apps, is only available for OS X, but Adobe’s Premiere suite and others give you the option to edit on Windows as well.

You should look for a notebook with a combination hard drive and SSD, which will allow for a large storage capacity along with the speed bump of flash memory. Storage space is crucial here, as even short movie scenes can be comprised of several shots, takes, and edits — a few minutes of home video will fill up your drive faster than you think. A notebook with 1TB of storage will be a good start, but you’ll probably soon need an external storage drive for even more space. Look for a notebook with USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt ports, which support high-speed file transfer rates between your laptop and external drives. Don’t expect amazing battery life with a notebook this powerful; don’t forget your charger if you need to be editing on the go, or really doing much of anything.

At this point, we're well beyond what most people need from their laptop. But if you’re not most people — if you’re battling through the airborne terrors of Bioshock Infinite but not on your Xbox 360 — you’re going to need a bigger boat.

I want to play games

"Can it play games?" is the wrong question. Every laptop can play games. The question is how well, and the answer relies on balancing four different components: the graphics chip, the processor, the screen, and the amount of power and cooling in the laptop.

The higher the resolution of your screen, the more detail you can see in a game. That’s why you’ll almost certainly want to look for a 1080p screen like on the Toshiba Qosmio X870. But filling a 1080p screen with Borderlands 2 is a lot more challenging than on a 1366 x 768 display, and only a powerful graphics card can keep up. Here, higher numbers generally mean better products, like picking a GeForce GTX 765M instead of a GeForce GT 750M. (See our chart on the right for how mobile GeForce chips actually stack up — if you think a 720M is more powerful than a 640M, you'd be wrong.) But it gets more complicated: the more powerful the graphics chip you buy, the more powerful the processor you’ll want. Of course, once you stick a powerful processor and a powerful graphics chip into a computer, the laptop will need plenty of cooling and plenty of power to actually run those components at full tilt. You need all four parts right, or you’re going to have an even rougher time getting through Dark Souls than you would anyway — the only way to know for sure is to actually play games, so whatever you buy make sure you use your return window wisely. ALMOST EVERY LAPTOP CAN PLAY GAMES — THE QUESTION IS "HOW WELL?"

The highest-profile game titles can take up tremendous amounts of storage space (Max Payne 3 alone consumes 30GB), so you’ll want a 1TB drive or larger inside your laptop. Make sure you have 8GB of RAM at a minimum, but don’t worry about the RAM’s speed. Also don’t pay attention to video memory: manufacturers try to make an extra buck by advertising more video memory than the GPU actually needs. Games include a lot of fast motion and dark environments, so ensure the screen displays relatively deep blacks even when the brightness is turned up, and that even if you quickly move things on screen there’s no ghosting (where you can see afterimages because the screen hasn’t caught up) or tearing, where the on-screen images appear to rip apart.

For online gaming, you’ll want high-quality Wi-Fi, or better yet a wired Ethernet port (which is more rare than you might think). For Wi-Fi, look for 802.11 a/b/g/n (not b/g/n) or 802.11ac. Both are sure signs that the laptop can use the faster, typically more reliable 5GHz wireless band. If you do get the chance to test in person, make sure the laptop stays cool and comfortable under its load, particularly around the WASD keys and near where you’ll place your mouse hand.

While good gaming graphics are making their way into an increasing number of thin and light computers, you’ll pay a pretty penny for an actual powerhouse like the hefty Alienware 14. But if you’re after world domination, insane scientific calculation, or a second career in Bitcoin, there’s one more step to take.

I want to mine Bitcoins

Let’s be clear again: almost no one needs a computer this powerful. But if you’re willing to push the definition of "laptop" to its very breaking point and spend thousands upon thousands of dollars, you can get a system with performance rivaling a high-end desktop PC.

These bonkers, superpowered laptops are usually made by Clevo or Sager. There are a number of resellers online, and most will carry at least one machine that supports desktop processors, multiple graphics cards, and gobs of memory. Try a hexacore Core i7-3970X Extreme Edition processor, a workstation class Nvidia Quadro K5000M graphics chip, and 32GB of RAM. Throw in three enterprise-grade solid state drives and a fancy paint job, and you’re in for just over $13,000.

Just don’t forget to justify your purchase to friends and family by explaining how you’ll make a mint mining Bitcoins, and prepare a clever distraction for when they ask about your blossoming electricity bill. (Blame your refrigerator.)

Surviving the sales floor

You walk into your favorite computer store, and you’ll encounter two problems: most notebooks look vaguely similar to the untrained eye, and who knows if the salesperson actually knows what you need or if they’re just trying to upsell you. If you want to make sure you’re getting the right laptop and not leaving the store with any extraneous purchases, you’ll need to know how to safely navigate a retail store.


Whether you buy a laptop in a brick-and-mortar store or from an online retailer, you’ll want to put it through its paces before committing for the long haul. In 10 minutes, by asking the right questions, you can leave confident that you’ve found a winner — or avoided a lemon.

Does it feel like it’s made of cheap plastic? Do its metal surfaces feel more like a soda can than strong, quality aluminum? How much glossy translucent plastic covers the laptop, and can you scratch it with your fingernail? Are there particularly obnoxious seams in the frame, and does it feel like the laptop would crack open if you ever dropped it a few feet? When you open and close the hinge, does it feel like you’re going to break off the lid, and does the screen stay in place? Do the colors on that screen go funky when you angle it slightly? Does it get as bright and as dim as you’d like, and does it do so without washing out?

When you press down on the keyboard, firmly, does the whole surface give beneath your fingers? Do the keys feel mushy, or so firm they make your joints ache? Could you imagine yourself spending full work days typing out a college thesis using those keys? Can you type without the mouse cursor jerking around, and can you comfortably and quickly make that cursor move where you’d like? Does the computer boot quickly, and does it wake quickly from sleep? Do programs open immediately, or is there an annoying delay? Do the hardware buttons for volume, brightness, and so on work as soon as you press? If there’s a touchscreen, does it perform to your satisfaction?


Most salespeople want to see you leave the store with the right notebook for you, but that doesn’t mean there’s no sales fluff — and when in doubt, ignore the fluff. External monitors and storage drives are frequently suggested as a complimentary sale, but it’s probably best to wait and see if you actually need either before making the purchase. An HDMI cable may be a smart add-on if you plan to connect your notebook to your television or another external monitor, but don’t purchase the one they offer; there’s no resolution difference between a $5 cable from Amazon and an $80 cable. From cables to software to the external mouse you probably don’t need, most things are probably cheaper somewhere other than at the register of your local Best Buy.


Before accepting a store’s extended insurance plan, check and see if you have a credit card that automatically offers buyer’s protection. Select cards from all four major credit companies will offer purchase protection or extended warranties on purchased items without charging any additional fees. If not, be sure to read the details about what’s covered and what’s not before you shell out the extra money for the manufacturer’s policy. Apple’s support is the easiest to use, with a growing number of Apple Stores and up to two years of service and support with the AppleCare Protection plan. Best Buy also offers in-person support with Geek Squad protection, but this is in addition to any manufacturer’s warranty on a notebook.

It’s easy to categorize buying a laptop as coming upon a fork in the road: this way lies power, this way portability. The actual process is more complicated, and much more rewarding — you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other if you look in the right places. And even if you buy a powerful, portable computer, you’re going to hate it if it has a terrible keyboard and trackpad, or if you can hardly see the display, or if you’ll need to charge it more often than you need a coffee refill. Since you’re going to be spending most of your days in front of your laptop, it’s worth getting right.

The key to choosing is to pick what’s right for you, and to be realistic. If you don’t play games, don’t buy a gaming PC; if you play too many games but wish you played fewer, you should probably still get a gaming PC just in case. Make sure you’re hitting a few baselines on the spec sheet, but only splurge for more power in the places you’ll need it.

There’s no one-size-fits-all laptop out there. That’s the best part. With a little tailoring and attention, you can get the perfect laptop for you.

And seriously: avoid anything called a "netbook."

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