By February 15, 2011

What to Look For In a Laptop If You Are a Normal Person

A friend of mine recently suffered a laptop failure and was looking for advice when buying a replacement. This has come up enough times that I thought I’d post something up.

Please note that this advice assumes:

  • the person using the laptop is interested in a Windows-based machine
  • the person using the laptop will be using it for power-user-ish home use and/or a work machine for Web technology folks
  • the budget for the machine is between $400 – $800 before taxes and delivery
  • you are more interested in price-to-performance value than the latest technology and/or aesthetics.
  • you are not a brand loyalist.


Here are some preliminary questions to ask yourself before buying:

  1. What is your budget?
  2. Will this be used more as a mobile-ish desktop replacement, or a true road warrior machine where you travel with it and present on it all the time, etc?
  3. Do you prefer power over portability?
  4. Weight over price?
  5. Do you require certain things, like a larger screen (15″+) or a 10-key keypad, etc?
  6. Will you use the display on your laptop, or an external monitor?
  7. Do you need a docking station / port replicator? If so, you may need to gravitate towards Dell or similar.

Here are my recommendations on the core laptop components, and then we’ll talk about vendor choices.

Screen size and resolution:

If you are going to use the laptop screen as the primary / sole screen, I recommend getting the highest possible, or next to highest possible resolution. This is one of the first areas where you will have to make a price to performance decision. The display on my laptop is 15″ and 1366×768. This is common for lower-priced laptops like mine, but the price jump to 1600×900 was another $200 or so. Even cheaper laptops were 1280×720 and I didn’t want to go that size.

In general, I recommend widescreen vs “traditional” sized screens (16:9 aspect ratio for widescreen, 3:2 for traditional).

RAM:

This is the single most important thing for a laptop. I recommend no less than 4GB of RAM, and I would try to get 8GB of RAM if you can.

There are several reasons for this:

  1. Windows 7 and applications like Photoshop like RAM, and will reduce the need to use your hard drive as an overflow “scratch” disk during heavy usage. Your computer will feel MUCH faster regardless of processor if you can keep your OS and programs within your total onboard RAM.
  2. Laptops only have two memory slots. On the lower-end models, one of these slots may be permanently affixed, so make sure that on any unit you evaluate that you can replace BOTH modules. If you get a machine with 4GB now and want to expand to 8GB later you will need to toss both of your old modules, as most manufacturers will cheap out by
    installing two 2GB modules.
  3. To get the most performance out of your processor and memory, you should have an even and equal amount of RAM between the installed modules. This means you should NOT get 3GB of RAM on a laptop, as one will be 2GB and one will be 1GB. You will miss out on channel interleaving, which is important. Also, if you upgrade your RAM by yourself, make sure you get the same speeds.
  4. The more RAM you buy, the less you will need an SSD to make your computer seem fast. If you are price-to-performance oriented you may see more day-to-day value with more RAM than an SSD.

Lastly, I recommend comparing the price of buying the RAM yourself through a third party vendor like Amazon or NewEgg instead of upgrading via a manufacturer’s site. You can normally save a LOT of money this way. Upgrading the RAM on your laptop will not void your warranty.

VIDEO / VIDEO RAM:

There are two types of video subsystems on a laptop: onboard video and “dedicated” video. In general:
Onboard video chipsets are cheaper, have less performance, and share memory with your normal laptop memory (another reason to go big on RAM). Most onboard video will be inferior to dedicated video chips.

Dedicated video chips, almost exclusively manufactured by ATi or NVidia mean that the laptop has its own brain and RAM for processing video. They will be more expensive, and generally will perform better than onboard video.

I say generally, because the onboard video with ANY Intel i-processor (i3, i5, i7) chipset will be pretty good for a user’s needs if they don’t do a lot of 3D gaming or video processing. Watching HD video on your laptop via the optical drive, hulu.com or similar won’t cause an issue. I don’t have a dedicated video card on my laptop, because I didn’t want to spend extra for it. Your desires may vary, but this is one way to cut costs on a laptop.

HARD DRIVE VS SSD

I am going to be controversial and tell you that SSDs are way overhyped and overpriced. Unless you resume from hibernation often or need to launch multiple applications instantly at boot-up, I think that SSDs are not worth it AT ALL vs a regular hard drive.

Read my SSD vs hard drive write-up before continuing down the SSD road.

I strongly recommend that you consider your typical laptop usage — how many times do you power it on and off during a day, and how many times do you hibernate it. If those numbers are low, you are better off financially getting a traditional hard drive. The speed increase won’t be worth it to you, especially for the type of usage usually associated with home usage or most work-related purposes. Using an SSD won’t make open Photoshop appreciably faster, especially if you bought a lot of RAM.

If you decide to go SSD, I would recommend the Intel G2 X25M and installing it yourself. Manufacturers typically charge you an arm and a leg to do it at build time.

Installing it is super easy, and like RAM won’t void your warranty. However, you will have to reinstall Windows 7 and all the special drivers that go with your laptop.

PROCESSOR

You will probably not notice the difference between an i3, an i5, and an i7 processor on your laptop for what you will use it for. I recommend saving money on an i7 and buy an i5 — and take that money and buy more RAM with it. You’ll notice more RAM than you will a faster processor. There may be a perceived difference between the i3 and the i7, but probably not between the i3 – i5, or the i5 – i7.

KEYBOARDS

This shit is fucking important. There are two styles of laptop keyboards: more traditional raised keys, and flatter, wider “chicklet” keys. I have learned to love the flat keys on my Acer, but it took some time. However, you may love or hate one style or another. Another important thing to know is that Lenovo keyboards have the function key where the control key is. This will fucking kill you if you are not a mouse jockey. There were tons of times at my old job that I thought I
control-c copied something and didn’t do shit because I hit the function key instead.

When possible, test drive the keyboards. They vary from laptop to laptop, even when made by the same manufacturer.

VENDORS / MANUFACTURERS

I am going to be controversial again. The “shitty” Acer 5740 I bought at Costco has been an absolute work horse and I haven’t had a single problem with it (except, ironically, for the SSD, which has a bug in the controller and pauses my computer erratically). Everyone told me Acer was a crappy laptop brand (although a good netbook brand) but the price at Costco made it too hard to ignore. Furthermore, Costco has a pretty good electronics return policy, and if you need a laptop right
away they will be a better choice than Best Buy or similar.

Conversely, the Lenovo equivalent I had at my last job cost nearly twice the price of my “shitty” Acer but was underfeatured, less powerful, and had a ton of construction and quality issues. You have to pay a big price premium to get the “best” Lenovos, and in general I don’t recommend them due to price-performance. However, I did buy a closeout
laptop for Sedagive? from them for $380 delivered that was a good deal.

I would recommend looking at Dell’s business lines of laptops. I recommend the business lines because their tech support (for now) is still in the US, and are generally just as good as Lenovo, HP, Acer, or Sony. Expect Dells to be about $200 or so less than competing manufacturers.

HP has the edge for multimedia stuff, but it is up to you if having a BluRay player is important to you or not.

My advice on buying is:

  1. write a list of the requirements you must have in one column, and things you’d like to have in another column, ranked roughly in priority of want-ness.
  2. Go to Costco, Best Buy, wherever and see if they have a laptop that fits your needs and price range. Shop by features, not by brand.
  3. If you don’t find something you like, look online. Try Dell.com, Lenovo.com, etc and scour deals.woot.com, bradsdeals.com and fatwallet.com to look for deals / coupons. Dell is famous for having massive unadvertised sales, but you can catch Lenovo doing this, too. I got Sedagive’s? laptop for 60% off thanks to a sale + employee discount through my previous employer.
  4. Install any upgrades yourself if you can, including RAM, SSD, or conventional hard drive. Keep in mind that you will not be able to upgrade the video card or screen later, and any SSD/HD upgrade will require reinstalling Windows 7 and all of the required drivers. While most manufacturers do a good job at providing Windows 7 drivers now, most do NOT send the Windows installation disks any more and just offer “recovery” media. Double check.

Good luck!

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Posted in: technology

7 Comments on "What to Look For In a Laptop If You Are a Normal Person"

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  1. David in MS says:

    Great post.

    GotApex.com is another good place to find daily specials on laptops, especially Dells.

    I have a Walmart special Acer that’s been a good laptop. The memory, though, was Hynix crap that I had to replace twice. The first time during warranty (their tech support sucks as bad as the Hynix memory), the second time on my own nickle. The laptop now has good Crucial memory in it.

  2. Ed says:

    You might be a bit shortsighted in the SSD comments. See http://lifehacker.com/#!5740655/why-the-limitations-of-ssds-are-actually-good and http://lifehacker.com/#!5616023/are-solid+state-drives-worth-the-money on how you can turn the higher cost of an SSD to your benefit, and may get to use it in 2-3 laptops total before it dies.

    I have one in my work laptop and the thing absolutely smokes when reading data. Plus, I don’t have to worry about it being on the back of my motorcycle during the commute, no matter what the terrain. SSDs are generally more resistant to bad sectors and NEVER need to be defragmented (Shouldn’t in fact, despite claims from some defrager companies), so that is one less hassle to worry about. SSD’s have more than just speed going for them.

    On your comments about RAM, getting over 4GB is useless unless you ensure the machine comes with a 64bit OS. For 95% of the people that should be fine, but for some, there are still older printers, scanners, etc. that won’t have 64 bit drivers so a $600 64bit Windows 7 laptop may cost $1,000 by the time you replace a few peripherals. Personally, I highly recommend 64bit and just bite the bullet and ditch old tech, but be aware of the possible cost. A little Googling before buying could help, or use the MS sofware and hardware compatibility list to see if your stuff will work with Windows 7 64bit.

  3. Brice says:

    Whatever laptop you buy is going to have some much extra crap on it, it’s only half as fast as it could be. Consider wiping and installing a bare OS and then adding what you need instead of what Acer thinks you might need while you look at they very pretty flash animations.

  4. Ed says:

    Brice – that is one reason I prefer Dell. They send you an OS disk, not a system disk. So you load bare bones Windows, then the drivers after a wipe. It is the #1 reason I will not buy IBM and HP as they have “system restore disks” that restore the laptop to the original condition, crapware and all.

    I have an Acer netbook and was able to get most of it up and running with a Windows OS CD. Had issues tracking down some of the drivers but eventually I got everything working without using their system restore DVD process.

  5. DrFaulken says:

    Hey Ed,

    Interesting points, but your links are busted 🙁

    In regards to hard drive reliability in motorcycles: I commuted 16,000 miles with a laptop in my topcase protected only by a neoprene sleeve inside my Timbuk2 nylon (unpadded) bag. I guess if you are an adventure / offroad motorcyclist an SSD would be helpful, but even motorcyclist + laptop is an edge case user for this article.

    Secondly, SSDs need to be TRIMmed on a regular basis, something that casual users won’t understand. Windows 7 and my Intel SSD handle this automatically, but lesser grade SSD controllers don’t.

    Your point about the 32-bit OS is a good one. I had forgotten that some manufacturers were still selling low-grade systems with Windows 7 in 32-bit, and upgrading RAM from a base model would lead someone into the situation you described.

    Also, if you know a particular model of peripherals that can be used over USB and won’t function in a 64-bit OS let me know. I couldn’t think of one for the life of me. A SCSI- or parallel-port based scanner I could see, but I haven’t seen a laptop with a parallel port on it in some time. I would hate to recommend an upgrade path for one of my friends, only to push some of their devices into obsolescence.

    Brice — I run PC Decrapifier (http://www.pcdecrapifier.com/) on any new laptop I buy, whether it was from Dell, Acer, or Lenovo. It takes a bunch of the pre-installed shit off easily without requiring a fresh OS install.

  6. Ed says:

    The links are fine, but your parser choked on the # or ! symbol. 🙂 Here are some shortened links:

    http://lifehac.kr/f0IFgR
    http://lifehac.kr/fcwLFF

    Trimming is almost standard now. Only early SSD’s didn’t support it. In fact, I think you’ll be hard pressed to find an SSD in a WIndows 7 machine that doesn’t support TRIM. I think TRIM support is required to get the Windows 7 compatibility sticker that goes on Laptops.

    As for what won’t work with Windows 7 64bit, more than you might think:
    87 all-in-one scanner/printer/copiers – http://bit.ly/iczdgH – now, 79 of those don’t work with 32bit windows 7 either, but that means 8 models didn’t get the 64 but update.
    57 webcams – http://bit.ly/hzxUzl 5 of which do work with the 32bit version.
    5 external HD’s – http://bit.ly/hogIez 3 of which do work with 32bit Windows 7.

    You get my point. For MOST people – not a biggie, but there are some that never got a 64 bit driver. Perhaps a better point is, look at your hardware before moving to any Windows 7 system. If you still have XP, your stuff may not work, but 32bit offers slightly better compatibility.

    Might look at software too at that site. Some people with that favorite piece of software from 1998 won’t work on 64bit OS (no 16 bit support, period) or maybe not Windows 7 at all.

  7. Fito says:

    What? No AMD? Well, AMD based laptops are a step behind in performance… yet still are very affordable most of the time.

    Also, the intel onboard graphics are BAD even for 720p video playback, sometimes gets choppy. AMD onboard graphics can handle 720p and 1080p videos with ease and still run things in the background while playing. Any 3200, 4200, 4250, will make it ok on a budget.

    On the other side, with AMD you can’t rely on battery life most of the time. However, most vendors include a cheaper battery on AMD based laptops. Probably due to strategy and cost saving (Those who look for an AMD laptop may be interested only in casual use of battery, like me, I always use my laptop plugged. Also Batts don’t last for long, lets say, in 2 years or less they won’t hold a charge, so I don’t give a fuck anyway)

    More to take into consideration, AMD is going to release llano this quarter and it is supposed to improve vastly on performance and power consumption. We could see this improvement on the similar and more-little AMD E350 Zacate processor released recently, which eats Intel Atom processors for breakfast

    While llano is going to fight against the big processors up there, and should replace the not-so-bad-but-not-so-good-either Athlon/Turion/PhenomII series of processors on mobile platforms. I hope llano to be a good contender against core mobile i3/i5/i7. This way, it will push intel prices down.