Extra Features: Bragging Rights vs Utility

This is a continuation of my Computer Buying Guide series of posts, starting with my recommendations for a good, reliable computer.  When you try to build a computer on a manufacturer’s site, like Dell or Lenovo, you’re presented with a whole bunch of other options.  So here’s what I think of some of the most common features on the laptop market today.

Also, I wrote a long post on Saturday about my budget trip to Hawaii, so check that one out if you haven’t already!

Purely Gimmicks

Thin computers
Lately there’s been this huge push to cram high-performance parts (like the Intel i7 CPU) into super thin computers like the HP Spectre, Thinkpad X series, Dell XPS, or MacBook Pro. While they look absolutely amazing, in practice it’s a terrible idea. You see, higher performance parts heat up more, it’s just physics. If a CPU gets too hot, it can’t work as fast anymore, also due to physics. Thin computers simply can’t move the heat from a high-performance CPU fast enough, so either 1) the performance is dialed waaay down to get the temperatures more reasonable or 2) the performance is dialed only a little down and the CPU runs at a risky temperature. Ultimately, you pay much more for a slick looking computer whose performance just can’t live up to expectations.

Touch Screens
Unless you can flip the screen around and write on it using a stylus, touch screens are worthless. “But oh,” the manufacturer says, “you can scroll and zoom using the screen! How cool is ThAaAaAt???” You can do that with your touchpad too. Save the smudged-up screen and the couple hundred bucks and ditch the gimmick.

4k Screens on a Laptop
Super high-resolution screens look amazing, there’s no getting around that.  The pixels are so small that you can’t see them individually unless you stick your face right into your screen!

Ugh, who cares.  Unless you’re a photographer, the only thing that high resolution does is make scaling a nightmare.  Windows has gotten better at it, but you’ll still come across programs that are expecting that your 4k screen is the size of a TV and make all the text super itty bitty and unreadable on your 13″ display.  My VAIO has a 1600 x 900 resolution for it’s 13.3″ display and I can barely see the pixels when I use it on a desk and never has scaling issues.  The Dell XPS’s 3,200×1,800 resolution on the same size screen will not get you any extra utility over my screen, but will frustrate you in some programs.

Worthwhile features

Backlit Keyboard
It sounds like a hoax but oh boy is it nice when working in the dark. If you’re a functioning adult who actually goes to bed at a decent time, then this feature will probably be wasted on you. But to you students, especially if you share a room: get it if you can! I had at least one late night every week in undergrad where I had to work in the dark while my my roommate (who actually managed his time effectively) slept.  Even today with my own room, I prefer to work in the dark when it’s late at night.  The backlit keyboard lets me do that.

Good keyboard
Most consumer-grade laptops skimp on the keyboard to save space or money. The low-travel keys found on cheaper laptops will cause your fingers to hurt after typing for a while.  Source: I typed the good no-nonsense laptop post on my laptop instead of my desktop and my fingers are starting to cramp up. While my 6 year old VAIO is mostly a professional machine, Sony really did skimp on the keyboard :/ Luckily, most professional laptops have much better keyboards than their consumer-oriented cousins, so another reason to go pro!

Matte (or at least anti-glare) display
Another feature typically reserved for professional products. Shiny displays reflect all the lights in the room straight into your eyes, making it a real pain to see what’s actually on your screen. If you work anywhere with lights (so, anywhere), try to get a matte screen, even if reviews claim the image is less sharp.

802.11 a/ac compatible wireless card
This one’s based on some technical stuff I haven’t covered yet. There’s a bunch of different WiFi standards in the 802.11 specification.  Cards that support B, G, and N use the 2.4 GHz band, which is common, but crowded and prone to noise, making it difficult to have a solid connection in high-traffic areas like apartment buildings, libraries, and schools.  Cards that support the A and AC specifications operate on the 5.0 GHz band, which is far more open1Strictly speaking, N also operates on the 5.0 GHz band … sometimes. Look for A or AC to definitely get 5.0 GHz compatibility.  My friend’s 2.4 GHz only card picked up a very spotty signal in undergrad, so his internet connection frequently dropped.  Once I upgraded his computer to a 2.4/5.0 GHz card, he didn’t have a problem for the rest his time there.  If you’re going to school or you live in an apartment with a compatible router, this is worth getting.

Nice to Haves

Fingerprint Reader
Eh, this one could go either way. If it’s a cheap option, it’s really nice to log into your computer with the swipe of a finger instead of typing your password.  The more convenient it is to log in, the less of an excuse you have to leave your computer unlocked unattended.  It’s important to lock your computer any time you leave it unattended in a public space because it’s really easy to exploit an unlocked computer.  Granted, it won’t help if someone steals your laptop, but it will reduce your risk of an opportunity attack.

Touchscreen with a stylus
If you use your computer to take notes, having a stylus is amazing for handwritten notes.  Having a way to write down equations is absolutely vital to taking notes in any STEM field.  Sure, you can type equations, but it takes too long, especially once the professor starts throwing greek characters, subscripts, and hats in a complicated derivation.  I used my non-touchscreen VAIO with a really cheap drawing tablet for all my undergraduate engineering classes, which worked acceptably.

When I started my Graduate degree, I got my notes laptop with a stylus and a screen that folds around.  It is amazing for taking notes, annotating presentations, and doodling up figures for this blog.  In short, if you’re planning on taking notes, having a stylus is great.

tl;dr:

Buy only what you need.  Don’t try to buy the flashiest, fanciest laptop you can because it’ll be outdated in a month.  Go for long-term utility.

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