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What laptop should I buy?

simon gray - 2018-06-15, 13:52:04

Roughly once a month or so I see requests from friends asking the world for general advice on buying laptops. Since it's quite burdensome to type out the advice I always give on my phone, here's a handy guide on the internet.

First of all, for most people's uses, pretty much any Windows, Linux, or Mac laptop you can buy these days will be sufficiently powerful for your needs. The only areas which will need extra power will be computationally-heavy tasks such as real-time audio (for example if you're making music with your computer), video editing and rendering (to be fair, a less-powered computer will still be able to do it, it'll just take a lot longer), or gaming. If you're doing any of these tasks, you'll need to go for the fastest computer you can afford; if you're doing real-time audio a Windows laptop will be OK, but if you've got the budget for a Mac then go for one of those instead, because Macs' audio handling tends to be much more efficient than Windows'. 

If literally all you're wanting to do is a bit of Word, a bit of web and email, and a bit of streaming video from Netflix, then indeed the cheapest new computer you can get will see you right.

So on that basis, how do you choose?

First of all, you'll need to balance hard drive size, processor speed, and RAM.

If it's going to be your only computer, then you'll almost certainly need at least 500GB of hard drive space on which to store everything; this probably (although not necessarily certainly) means you'll be needing one of the bulkier laptops rather than one of the modern ultra light ultra slim laptops. Yeah, you can use cloud storage, but the last thing you want is when you actually need it the file you need now to be in the cloud needing you to download it rather than right there on your computer. Alternatively, if you've got another computer as your main computer and you're looking for a laptop for handy out-and-about use then that increases your options, as you can get ultra-thin laptops with smaller hard drives for reasonably cheap, though I wouldn't recommend getting anything smaller than 128GB if your budget can stretch to it, and definitely don't get anything smaller than 64GB (I don't know if there are any ultrabooks smaller than 64GB, though).

You of course want the fastest processor and largest RAM your budget can stretch to - but if the selection you see in front of you all have the same processor speeds, go for the ones with more RAM, ideally at least 8GB, definitely not less than 4GB. In fact, for the most part if you see two computers for the same price, one with 8GB RAM and a slower processor, the other with 4GB RAM and a faster processor, then go for the 8GB/slow option, because your experience of using the computer will almost certainly be faster with more RAM than with faster processing - faster processors are better for single computationally heavy tasks (such as rendering video that you've been editing), whereas more RAM is better for allowing the computer to do multiple tasks at once. OK, you might be only doing one task at once, but your computer is always doing many things simultaneously!

We have not yet covered the most important things to bear in mind when choosing a laptop, though - and for that reason, you're best not choosing a laptop by looking at specifications on the internet, your best bet for choosing a laptop is to go into an actual real shop.

Having decided on your budget, go to the laptop shop and go to the section of the shop which has them in your budget range. Look at them. Pick them up. If they're not too tightly tethered to the counter, try resting them on your lap. Type a bit on them.

Because for the most part most cheap consumer laptops are pretty much evenly matched in terms of power, and as discussed above, for most consumer applications the least powerful laptop you can buy will serve most people's needs anyway, the differentiators between laptops isn't the power, but the product design and build quality.

Is it a nice weight to carry in your bag? Indeed, is it big enough to be able to use, and small and light enough to fit in your handbag rather than needing to be carried in a rucksack or laptop bag? Does it balance nicely on your lap? Is it easy and comfortable to type on (and rest your hands on when you pause to think)? Does it feel nice to hold? Is the screen sharp and easy to read, and reflection and glare free? (Though note that sharper screens tend to be more prone to reflection and glare, so consider what kind of environment you're most likely to be using it in) Is the pointing device - either a nipple in the middle of the keyboard or a trackpad below it - easy to use, accurate, and not prone to accidental clicking when your palm shifts? Does the actual whole thing look good on the desk?

These are the things which are most important to think about when choosing a cheaper end laptop - does it look and feel like a nice, comfortable, quality product?

One last thing - don't, under any circumstances, get a Chromebook.


Brought to you by simon gray.

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