Guide to Buying a Laptop
TIPS for Buying a Laptop
- Know what you need to buy – if a desktop will work, they tend to be more affordable and faster than laptops. What operating system do you want to run: Windows 8, Apple’s OSX, or Linux? (If you don’t know, then the answer is Windows). Do you know what screen size you want?
- Don’t worry about what you will do on your computer. Buying a ‘game machine’ means buying a more future-proof computer, beware people telling you that you don’t need a ‘game machine’. In general, a more expensive computer will be better at whatever you want to do on the computer. If you don’t need a super fast computer, just don’t spend $3000 on one. You SHOULD worry about how much battery life you want/need, as this will effect some decisions later.
- Know how much you want to spend – setting an upper-limit on the money you want to spend is an important first step.
- Pick a starting point – pick a website (like Newegg or Amazon) to get a baseline computer for comparison. Find something you like, and try to find something with good user reviews.
- Ignore brand names. Seriously, the best brands put out band computers and the worst brands can put out good computers. Trust the specifications and user reviews. Look up the battery life.
- Benchmark the computer you picked, specifically the CPU (central processing unit) and the GPU (graphics processing unit). If you don’t know what these are, see our terminology section below. You can probably benchmark the cpu here, and the gpu here. If not, you should find the model and google “modelname benchmark”. The GPU model can be hard to find for a lot of computers. If you have trouble, check out the GPU section below.
- Find other computers, and compare them. Look for better processors and graphics cards, ones that are higher on the benchmark lists (CPU, GPU). Look on major websites, like Newegg, Amazon, Walmart, TigerDirect, etc. Don’t forget to compare the battery life.
- Don’t be afraid of buying online – many online retailers have excellent customer service, such as Newegg and Amazon. If something breaks, they often are very easy to work with. It is much easier to compare prices, get benchmarks, and user reviews, online, and therefore much easier to be a smart buyer online.
- Don’t be afraid of buying used – just be sure you find a seller with very many very good ratings. If the price looks way too good to be true, it probably is.
- Buying computers can be very confusing, so stick to the numbers! You won’t get sold a bad computer if you make sure the computer you buy compares well on benchmarks, and has good reviews. If you don’t feel confident because of those two things, do NOT buy the computer (even if it is shiny, and the guy in the store says it is better than sliced bread).
- Not sure what you are doing? Ask for help! If you aren’t comfortable benchmarking a computer (or if you read this and don’t understand what it is), there are tons of people in forums online who would love to help you. If you have a tech-savvy relative, ask them too.
- Don’t put too much stock in the guy at the store, and don’t shop through a brand-name’s store online. They are trying to sell you a specific product. Newegg, Amazon, and even Bestbuy (online) are much more objective, and have good reviews. Listen to them.
These are major components of laptops or desktops, and every buyer should have a basic understanding of what they are. If you know what each component is, you will know better how that component will effect your end goal. If you don’t want to store a ton of media, you might not want a giant hard drive, for example.
CPU – Central Processing Unit – This is the computer’s ‘brain’, and represents how well the computer can focus on specific things.
GPU – Graphics Processing Unit – This is the computers ability to handle anything video related. Often underestimated.
RAM – Random Access Memory – This is the computers short term memory, and is used for running programs actively.
HDD – Hard Drive Disk – The traditional hard drive, this is the computers long term memory. Programs and files are stored here.
SSD – Solid State Drive – This is a newer type of hard drive, and is also long term memory. This competes with HDD’s, but is much faster and more mechanically reliable (no moving parts, hence ‘solid state’), but are typically much more expensive and smaller.
Resolution – This is in the format of one number multiplied by another number, e.g. 1440×900. The first number (1440 in this example) represents the number of horizontal pixels (dots) on your screen. The second number represents the number of vertical pixels on your screen. A higher resolution means a better image, though there are other things that make a monitor (like a TV) better (such as contrast, response time, brightness, etc…)
OS – Operating System. This is the software that runs everything on your computer. Microsoft makes Windows 8 (and 7, Vista, XP, etc…). Apple makes OSX, and Linux is an open-source project that has hundreds of versions. If you don’t know what you want, you want Windows 7 or 8.
A benchmark is a standardized method to compare different computer components. Benchmarks are objective numbers that sales people typically avoid. They are hard numbers, and evidence that one computer is better than another. Benchmarks are run in a number of ways, whether with a specific piece of consumer-software (like a video game, or Adobe Photoshop), or benchmarking software that runs arbitrary tests. Benchmarks are the biggest advantage a buyer can have (besides a lot of money, perhaps?) when looking for a computer. If you have a tech-savvy relative, this will be a large part of how they make their decision on which laptop to buy (go ahead, ask them).
The CPU is the most obvious component to associate numbers with. People hear “this one has two gigahertz, and that one has 1.5 gigahertz”, and they think the first one is automatically better. Not so. This is why benchmarks are important. A Pentium 4 from a decade ago could clock over 4 ghz with the right set up, but the 2.9 ghz core i7 in my laptop would be faster in the extreme. This is a list of recent processors, benchmarked using Passmark. Higher numbers mean that it is better, simple as that. Power consumption isn’t a huge deal with processors (if you are looking for something green, buy based on release date). If you can’t find your CPU on that list, it is probably a bit older (not that that is always a bad thing), and you should try to find it by searching Google.
GPU’s and GPU Benchmarks
The GPU is much less obvious than the CPU, and only enthusiasts pay much attention to them. This is a bit silly, however. A faster GPU typically uses more power than a slower GPU, all else held constant, which is an issue for laptops.
There are two distinct types of GPU’s, dedicated cards, and integraded/onboard graphics. Onboard graphics are your baseline. They don’t use much power, so you will get better battery life with these. They are very weak, however, and will make your computer feel sluggish. Almost everything you will ever do on your computer involves looking at the monitor, and that is video output. Integrated chips can struggle with HD playback, or even simple video games. And an integrated chip will not hold up well over time, as software gets more and more demanding. Getting a dedicated card will help ‘future-proof’ your computer, if you can stand less battery life.
With that in mind, you should consult the benchmark list to place the GPU in the laptop you are looking at.
RAM is typically very cheap to upgrade in a laptop, unlike the CPU or GPU, so don’t worry so much about this. More RAM is better, but this is less important than the CPU and GPU. Want to see how much it would cost to upgrade the RAM in your computer? Give Crucial a shot.
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