You probably think that buying a computer is hard. And you know what? You’re absolutely right.1Source: this is a 1500+ word post, and that’s after I cut 800+ words for later posts.
There’s so many different manufacturers, so many different hardware configurations, and so many different form factors. But armed with the knowledge of what the different hardware does in your computer, we can narrow the field a bit. Throw in some experience in laptop repair, and I’ll help you narrow it down further.
This guide is for what I consider the best general-purpose, reliable, yet portable laptop. This kind of laptop is ideal for people who:
depend on their laptop to do their work, ie downtime is not an just inconvenience but prevents them from doing what they need to do
frequently take their laptop with them (3x or more times per week)
plan to keep the computer for at least 6 years
For these requirements, I’m looking at a budget of about $800 – $1200, depending on weight and additional features.
Here is what I recommend in a laptop, ranked in order of importance.
1) Professional laptop model
Wait, what? Shouldn’t performance things be more important?
In short, no.
This ties into my philosophy on tools. Spending more on something that lasts longer is better than buying two cheap things.
This is a picture of a laptop motherboard with all it’s components attached. You might recognize it from my summary post from last week!
You can see the big stuff, the CPU, the RAM, etc. But click the picture. It should send you to the full-resolution version. Zoom in. Look very carefully at just how intricate everything is. There are thousands of tiny resistors and capacitors, hundreds of helper Integrated Circuits, and dozens of power regulators. If so much as one component craps out because it was low quality or a single solder joint breaks due to board flex, the whole computer breaks. Back at the repair center, we used to tell people that anything more than 2 years was borrowed time on their “great deal” of a $300 – $500 consumer laptop. And honestly, that’s because we were seeing so many computers only 2-3 years old that were coming in for all sorts of major repair work. They simply don’t hold up to being being bumped in bags. So sure, a sub $400 computer sounds like a great deal now, but after a $150 screen repair after 2 years and a $300 motherboard replacement at 3 years, is it really a good deal in the long run?2These are roughly the prices I quoted in the Repair Center. Obviously every computer is different, but it’s roughly average price for a shop repair with labor.
Quality laptops have higher-quality components making up the motherboard and a stronger chassis to reduce board bending. Equally important to making sure something doesn’t break is making it easy to fix when it does break. Professional computers are meant to be repaired by a company’s internal IT department with the least amount of downtime. This means parts are usually easier to find and easier to replace. The result is usually a thicker laptop held together by screws instead of a super thin laptop held together by glue.
Lenovo’s Thinkpad line is usually known as the best professional line. While I think they’re still well above average, I saw their build quality and reparability decrease during my time in a computer repair center.3There’s actually quite a bit to this story. If you’re interested, I’ll can elaborate more in a future post. I’m actually quite a fan of Dell’s Latitude line. I repaired a few in my undergrad days and was impressed with how easy they were to work on. Plus, their 3 year warranty is flippin’ amazing. Since we’re not popular enough to get review units from manufacturers,4Shocker, I know online research suggests that the Latitude 7000 and 5000 series and the Thinkpad E and T series are what I would be looking at if I were in the market. For what it’s worth, I found a Dell Latitude 7000 series for $800 for my sister last year, and so far it’s met my very high expectations.
2) 13-14” screen
Laptop size is measured in diagonal screen size. Everything else from keyboard to internals are sized accordingly. Why is this 2nd most important? Because usability is just as important as longevity. After all, if you’re not using your laptop, then why’d you get it in the first place?
I personally find the 13-14 inch screens the sweet spot between working and portability. Smaller screens can be difficult to read and the smaller footprint occasionally means partially shrunk keyboards that make typing difficult or uncomfortable. Larger footprints are tough to fit into bags and are usually pretty heavy.
3) 128 – 256 GB SSD
Good Lord have I stressed this enough yet? Don’t waste your time with an HDD this day and age. Do not buy a new computer without an SSD.
That leaves us with size options. For general computing, 128 GB is probably more than enough room. Windows takes up ~25-30 GB (which is absurd but that’s a rant for another time), so that should leave plenty of room for programs like MS Office and your files.
I’d recommend going for the larger option so you have room to grow later on. Given the opportunity to install Adobe Creative Cloud to try? Well, that’s another 2 GB for Illustrator, 4 GB for Photoshop, and a whopping 8 GB for Premiere. If I remember correctly, the whole suite took up nearly 30 GB. My copy of MATLAB takes up 9.8 GB. SolidWorks is another 10.9 GB. They all add up pretty quick.
So, make an informed decision. Just doing the basics like word processing and web browsing? Save the money and use an external hard drive to store things like pictures etc. Doing work or a hobby that needs specialized software like video editing or CAD? Maybe the bigger internal SSD is worth the premium.
4) 8 GB of RAM
Oy finally a traditional Tech-Spec!
Remember that RAM is your desk space; it determines how many things you can do at once. Web Browsers have proven to be enormously resource heavy lately. Don’t believe me? Here’s what it looked like closing all my (admittedly way too many) Firefox tabs the other day:
Ok, so it was like 3-4 windows with like 20 tabs each. I have a problem, I know. But still, this is web browsing we’re talking about. The thing that everyone does and also the thing that most people say even a terrible computer can handle. I mean, come on, I’ve never even gotten MATLAB, a professional math program I use for physics-based robot simulations, even close to that much RAM usage before.5ok that’s not entirely true. One time I made a typo and ended up asking MATLAB to do a Matrix Division operation on two 20,000 x 20,000 matrices. That used up all my RAM reaaaaal quick.
4GB of RAM is … usable, but not really enough for multi-tasking anymore. More than 8GB is unnecessary unless your specific application is a RAM-hog. Or you open too many Firefox tabs.
5) Intel i5 Processor, latest or previous generation, lowest speed offered
Once you’ve gotten to this point, you probably have only a few CPU choices. Look for the cheapest i5 option.
Intel’s i5 is a great middle-ground CPU. If you want to get technical, the i5 consistently offers some of Intel’s useful technologies like hyperthreading6ie better multi-core performance and Turbo Boost7ie automatic speed boost as long as the temperature is low enough that are sometimes left out of the cheaper i3 line. And since you won’t notice a difference in CPU frequency for most tasks, don’t bother spending the extra money on more GHz.
Now here’s a new development. Previously, I’d have said that AMD makes nothing worthwhile in the laptop market. But they’ve really stepped up their game with their Ryzen line, and I’m really impressed with their benchmarks. While I haven’t gotten the chance to test the line myself, the good press and impressive benchmarks make me think you won’t be disappointed if you go with AMD’s Ryzen.8Interestingly, MATLAB’s benchmarks run much slower on Ryzen than it’s Intel counterparts. I saw a Reddit post that suggested this was due to Ryzen missing one of the instructions that Intel has that apparently MATLAB uses extensively. So it seems that if you’re doing MATLAB work, it might be best to spring for the Intel part.9
It’s arguable that an Intel i3 is all you need for a basic computer. But if you’re looking keep a computer for a number of years, the extra performance from i5 is worth the premium for futureproofing. My 6 year old i5-based laptop is still perfectly usable while my 8 year old i3-based laptop has a tough time keeping up with the latest versions of WIndows, even with an SSD and RAM upgrade and a full Windows reinstall. And while the i7 is faster, it’s tough to justify the extra cost when you’ll really only notice the difference in compute-heavy tasks and it’s doubtful the extra performance will make a meaningful difference in longevity.
Professional model, like the Dell Latitude 7000 and 5000 series, or Lenovo Thinkpad E and T series
256 GB SSD
8 GB RAM
Intel i5 Processor, don’t worry about the number