Lots of folks are shopping for new laptop computers right now (me included), so I thought I would put down a few words on what I consider to be the key elements separating a great buy from a mistake. This is only my own opinion, of course, and my Apple- and storage-geek status might taint the results. But what can you do? It’s my blog after all!
You might also want to read my post, The Best Black Friday Deals For Nerds Like Me (2010 Edition)
The Junk Laptop Landscape
Laptop computers are rapidly eliminating the desktop market. Who doesn’t want portability? Even folks who don’t spend as much time on a plane as I do want to be able to move their computer from the office to the kitchen, living room, or even bed!
But the vast majority of laptops sold these days are total junk. The world of Windows PCs is a cutthroat race to the bottom, and this fierce competition means that just about every “great deal” you’ll find at retail is a nightmare in disguise. It makes me crazy to watch someone throw away their money on a flimsy, down-spec, outdated computer when a little extra money could get something much better.
But how could a “regular person” possibly decode the array of choices out there? With yesterday’s must-have brands now seriously degraded, a buyer simply cannot depend on their instincts when shopping: “Pentium” used to be a sign of performance but now signifies a slow, outdated machine. The same goes for “Turion”, “Celeron”, “Vista”, and “High-Speed USB”!
Apple and Windows
The advent of cut-rate laptops and netbooks is one reason so many buyers flock to Apple’s admittedly-expensive products. Although one can argue with their choice of CPUs, Apple doesn’t sell “mistake” machines. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any current MacBook, MacBook Pro, or MacBook Air. Every one is solidly-built and has decent specs, longevity, and resale value. The only real caution is the prospect of switching to Mac OS X!
This is not to say there aren’t great Windows machines, though. Many familiar manufacturers (HP, Dell, Toshiba, and Sony, for example) make great machines; they’re just hidden in a thicket of junk! Others, though not household names, are also worth considering. The problem is that most brick-and-mortar stores compete on price, stocking the cheapest-possible machines with the skimpiest specs.
What To Look For
A high-spec CPU is often a better sign of a good PC than the brand name on the box, though I wouldn’t advise buying a no-name computer. Look for Intel’s latest-generation Core i3 (or better yet, Core i5) CPU and you’re likely to find a halfway decent machine at a good price. Anything with a Core i7 is going to be great but pricey, and anyone needing that kind of performance doesn’t need my advice! Conversely, anything till sporting an AMD Turion, Intel Pentium, or Celeron CPU isn’t worth your money.
It’s always wise, as the old saying goes, to watch out for deals that are too good to be true. It’s very hard to find a decent laptop below $500, and this eliminates just about everything advertised in Sunday newspaper ads or sold by general merchandise stores like Walmart. But not every higher-priced machine is worth the money, either!
Here are my steps to finding a decent PC. Look for the best price without sacrificing these “must-haves” and you’ll have found a solid buy.
- Reject anything without an Intel Core i3 or Core i5 CPU unless you know what you’re doing.
- Make sure it has 4 GB of RAM. Geeks will buy less and immediately upgrade to save $50 or so, but regular folks should get more from the start.
- Look for a 500 GB or larger hard disk drive. This isn’t just about capacity: Anything this large will perform better thanks to a modern design, 2 platters, and decent cache.
- FireWire ports, ExpressCard, and slot-loading optical drives suggest a better machine with quality components inside. These would be the first to go when a manufacturer tries to cut corners.
- Cases that don’t flex and hinges that don’t wiggle suggest better build quality and reliability. Look for good keyboard feel and a larger trackpad, too.
Consider the warranty and manufacturer’s support offerings as well, but don’t spend too much on an extended warranty. Your credit card probably offers some protection, and you might not want to keep the computer more than a few years anyway.
At this point, I should point out that this advice doesn’t apply to everyone. Lots of people don’t need much of anything in terms of computing power, and there are better options for them than a $600-$1200 laptop. Inexpensive and super-portable netbooks and tablets are worth consideration, but these are a topic for a different day!
One more thing: Most PCs come loaded with “crapware” that ruins performance and battery life. The first thing I do when buying a computer is remove all the software I don’t plan on using!