laptop buyers guide
A young man chooses a laptop in an electronics store. A man looks at laptops in the computer department at the technology store. Buy a laptop.

Worldwide laptop sales were up more than 25 percent in the second quarter of 2020.

A lot of that growth was due to the demand for portable computers with so many people working remotely due to the COVID pandemic.

There’s no sign of laptop sales slowing down heading into 2021, either.

If you’re in the market for a new laptop but aren’t sure where to start, we’re here to help. This laptop buyers guide will help you decipher the different options available and give you some tips for buying a laptop so you can avoid these mistakes.

1. Buying an Older-Generation CPU

Intel makes the most popular series of processors in the laptop market. They have four models in their Core series of CPUs, including the i3, i5, i7, and i9.

Intel has been making the Core chips for over 10 years without changing the names. That doesn’t mean the chips themselves haven’t changed though. There have actually been 10 different generations of CPU chips over the last decade.

This can make it a little confusing when you compare laptops since you might not be comparing the same version of the processor. Each new generation improves the performance and often the battery life so it makes a significant difference.

The most up-to-date generation is Intels tenth generation, called Cannon Lake or Ice Lake. Make sure that’s what you’re buying, not the ninth generation (Coffee Lake).

2. Not Getting Enough RAM

Laptops aren’t as upgradeable as desktop computers. In some cases, you can upgrade certain components but most brands aren’t upgradeable at all internally.

That means you need to get enough memory to last for several years when you’re buying a laptop.

RAM is where the computer stores the operating system, applications you’re running, files you’re working on, and anything else that’s currently active. As new versions of the OS and applications like MS Office get released, they tend to use more and more RAM.

The minimum amount of RAM to consider on a new laptop is 8GB but 16GB or even 32GB will help “future-proof” your computer for those inevitable upgrades. More RAM will also improve its performance with today’s apps.

3. Buying HDD Storage Instead of SSD

There are two types of storage drives in laptop computers — hard disk drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SSD).

HDD storage uses a spinning platter that’s not much different than a CD or LP record. The disk spins while a read/write head scans across it to read and write data to it.

SSD storage has no moving parts. It uses similar technology to the RAM on your computer. This results in much faster performance since it’s not limited by the speed of the spinning disk or how quickly the read/write head can move.

HDD storage is less expensive than SSD and is available in larger capacities at the high-end. But the speed improvements you’ll get from an SSD are well worth the extra cost. Your laptop will boot up faster, your apps will launch faster, and you’ll notice a big improvement in the overall speed.

Not having any moving parts also means SSD storage uses less power so it can help extend the battery life.

4. Overlooking the Manufacturer’s Service and Support

Service and support are important for any computer but even more so for a laptop. They tend to get moved around a lot, which can lead to bumps and bruises. They also have more components built-in, such as the display, keyboard, and trackpad.

This all adds up to more potential for hardware problems. Combine that with the higher cost of replacement parts compared to desktop PCs and you can see why it’s important to have good warranty coverage.

Once you find the best deals, do some research on the brands you’re considering to see what other people’s experiences have been.

  • Are they easy to reach for support?
  • What options do they offer to contact them? (Telephone, live chat, email, etc.)
  • How quickly are repairs handled?
  • Do people have to jump through hoops to get service?
  • Is there a local repair center near you?

In most cases, you’re better off spending a little more money on a laptop from a reliable manufacturer than going straight to the lowest-priced option.

5. Getting Too Few External Ports

The limited expandability of most laptops means you need to add any new components externally. You can connect things like an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, and graphics card to most laptops but only if they have the right types of ports — and enough of them.

Most external peripherals connect through the USB port. USB has been around for many years but similar to processors, there have been several generations of these ports.

There are two current versions of USB — USB 3.0 and USB Type-C.

USB 3.0 uses the same type of connection that USB has had since day one. If you’ve ever connected anything to your computer with a cable, you’re probably familiar with the rectangular connection.

USB-C uses a smaller reversible connector that’s easier to connect since there’s no way to have it upside down. The USB-C connector also offers much higher transfer speeds so you can connect external monitors, external graphics cards, and other high-bandwidth devices to it.

6. Not Considering Battery Life

There are a couple of reasons most laptop buyers choose to go that route:

  1. They have limited space for a computer
  2. They need it to be portable

If you have limited space but can usually have your laptop plugged into a power outlet, battery life isn’t critical. This might be the case if you’re looking at a gaming laptop, for example.

But if you need to use your laptop on the go, battery life is an important consideration.

Keep in mind that higher performance processors and graphics cards generally use more power, reducing the time you’ll get from a battery charge. This trade-off can mean you’ll be happier with a slightly less powerful laptop that runs longer on a single charge.

7. Ignoring Other Platforms

There are 3 major platforms to choose from when buying a new laptop:

  1. Windows 10
  2. macOS
  3. Chrome OS

Windows and macOS are both fully-featured operating systems that have support for most major software applications including things like MS Office and Adobe Creative Suite. More specialized software, especially in-house applications, usually only support Windows.

Chrome OS is the operating system that powers Chromebook laptops. These devices are some of the least expensive laptops on the market but they only run web-based applications like Google Apps.

If you’ve always used a particular platform, don’t let that stop you from considering one of the others. With so much of our lives spent online, it doesn’t matter which OS you’re running in many cases.

8. Buying the Wrong Size of Display

The built-in screens on most laptops range from 11 inches to 17 inches, with 13-inch and 15-inch being the two most popular. The size of the screen will affect the overall size of the laptop so make sure you’re comfortable with that before settling on a screen size.

The extra space you get on a 15-inch or 17-inch display might sound nice but those laptops can be pretty bulky. You might not want to lug a machine that large around with you all day.

The screen’s size isn’t the only factor to consider either. There’s also the resolution and refresh rate.

Most laptop displays are at least 1080p (1920×1080 pixels) but you can get higher resolution options as well such as 2560×1440 pixels or even 4K (3840×2160 pixels). A higher-resolution screen lets you see more information at once and will look better for things like gaming and watching or editing videos.

The refresh rate of most laptop displays is 60Hz but some are available with 144Hz or even 240Hz displays. This is mostly applicable to gaming laptops, where the faster refresh rate helps the game graphics look smoother.

9. Getting a Poor Quality Webcam

If you’re buying a laptop so you can work remotely, there’s a good chance you’ll be using it for videoconferencing through Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or something similar.

Most laptops have a built-in webcam but some of them are quite low resolution. Make sure the laptop you choose has a good webcam that doesn’t make you look muddy and washed out.

This doesn’t affect how you use your laptop but the people on the other end of those Zoom calls will thank you for it.

Which of These Laptop Buyers Guide Tips Are Most Valuable for You?

Some of the tips in this laptop buyers guide may not be relevant for the way you use your computer. Don’t worry if something doesn’t seem important — pick the items that are and use those when making your decision.

With a bit of time spent planning and researching your purchase, you’ll have a laptop that should last you for several years before you face another upgrade.

Check out the Computing category on our blog for more helpful advice about getting the most out of your computers and other tech gear.

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