Table of Contents
1.1 The Current Laptop Market
Laptops have walked a winding road since our 2011 laptop buying guide. The flooding in Thailand didn’t seem to excessively impact pricing, but it did appear to limit hard drive choices in some models. Numerous companies have introduced ultrabooks, but the verdict is still out on their success. Intel has released an updated CPU architecture, code-named Ivy Bridge, and Nvidia has released a brand new GPU architecture called Kepler.
These advancements have further moved the market towards lighter, thinner laptops. Competition from tablets also seems to have had some impact. Laptop manufacturers are beginning to embrace instant-on features for Windows laptops and are offering highresolution display options on more laptops. Battery life continues to improve, as well.
This 2012 update is debuting half-way through the year, but there’s reason for that. We’ve timed this release to coordinate with Intel’s Ivy Bridge release. Though it is not a complete re-design, it will change what you can expect from a new laptop.
1.2 Ultrabooks Hit The Spotlight
Intel started to talk seriously about ultrabooks in mid-2011, but there were no models available for purchase until later that year and a number of products weren’t unveiled until the Consumer Electronics Expo (which is held in January).
You can now buy a number of ultrabooks from Acer, ASUS, Toshiba, Dell, Lenovo, HP and others. Most companies are only offering one or two models at this time, but selection is likely to improve over time.
They’re not for everyone, but their existence seems to be having an effect on other laptops as well, forcing them to adopt thinner designs and offer better battery life.
1.3 Buy The Whole Laptop
Laptops are a complete product. Unlike a desktop, which allows you to pick-and-choose the monitor, the keyboard, the mouse and the sound system, a laptop comes with all of these components included. Most components are not userserviceable. What you see is what you’ll be using until the laptop kicks the bucket or you sell it on Craigslist and buy a new one.
It’s easy to focus on one or two features of a laptop, such as the processor or the display, and make a decision based on it alone. This can lead to dissatisfaction as sub-par components become apparent during extended use. Understanding all the components of a laptop will help you avoid this, but can take some work.
In this guide we’ll be taking a comprehensive look at not only the hardware but also the keyboard, the touchpad, the display and more. We hope that you’ll feel more informed by the time you’re done.
2.1 Performance: What Do You Really Need?
When I was growing up in the 1990s, performance was a need for nearly everyone. A web browser or Office suite could easily trouble the fastest computers on the market. The idea of browser “tabs” did not catch on until the middle of the last decade because, up to that point, many computers struggled to handle more than a few pages at once.
Today’s reality is different. Even your most basic $349 clearance laptop will have no trouble with Firefox. It will even handle multiple tabs well while simultaneously broadcasting Internet radio and displaying a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. Many users don’t need an expensive laptop to accomplish daily tasks.
This does not mean that fast hardware is useless, however. Some programs have found ways to exploit the incredible performance of today’s laptops. A netbook equipped with an Intel Atom processor may be able to save a home movie to 1080p like any other laptop, but it will take at least five times longer than a laptop with a powerful dual-core, such as Intel’s Core i5. This is the difference between waiting 10 minutes for your video to be finished – or waiting nearly an hour.
Here are some common tasks that will benefit greatly from more powerful hardware.
• Audio/Video de/encoding and editing
• Photo editing
• Editing large spreadsheets, documents and PDFs
Some people don’t frequently perform any of these tasks, and if that sounds like you, a basic laptop should suffice. Users who want a computer that can handle several of these workloads at least several times a week, on the other hand, should start thinking about the benefits of an Intel Core i5 or i7.
2.2 Portability And Battery Life: Still Exaggerated, Still Good
Battery life is a commonly quoted statistic that holds just as much weight as a computer’s performance. Manufacturers love to talk about battery life because it’s easy to understand. Five hours is better than four hours. Simple, right?
The problem is that battery life claims are not subject to any independent verification. As a result, they tend to be optimistic. My general rule of thumb is to assume that a laptop will only achieve 75% of its claimed endurance. Heavy workloads can bring that figure down to 50% of the claimed number, or even less. Ultrabooks, which sometimes claim up to 8 or 9 hours of life, are no more honest than any other laptop.
Exaggerations aside, the good news is that laptops now offer more life than the average user will ever need. A typical mainstream laptop can usually last for four to five hours on its own. Some ultraportables and ultrabooks can last six hours or more.
Think carefully about how you use your laptop before buying one based off battery life. Consumers tend to be a bit unrealistic about their use, as was evident during the netbook fad. One study found that 60% of them never left home after they were purchased. On-the-go computing has undeniable appeal, but it’s not necessary for many buyers.
2.3 Screen Size Showdown
Walking into a store to look at laptops will put you face-to-face with a wide variety of products with different displays. The smallest laptops, netbooks, have 10.1” displays – while the largest laptops offer monsters around 18.4”.
Strangely, deciding on the display size you need may require that you forget about display size entirely. This is because the size of the display naturally determines the size of the rest of the laptop, which in turn determines what that laptop can do.
Let’s break down laptops into categories based on their display:
• 10.1” – Netbook. Extremely portable, but difficult for people with large hands to use. The small size of the chassis limits hardware to CPUs with poor performance.
• 11-12.9” – Small ultraportable. Still easy to carry, and easier to use for people with large appendages. Faster hardware can fit, but there are still limitations on performance.
• 13-14.1” – Large ultraportable. Easily fits in all but the smallest bags, but difficult to use on an airplane and most forms of public transport. CPU performance can be excellent, but GPU performance is often lacking.
• 14.2-16.5” – Mainstream laptop. Somewhat portable, but won’t fit in some bags. Performance is solid and some models offer excellent GPUs. A good all-rounder.
• 16.6” or more – Desktop replacement. Won’t fit in all but the largest backpacks. The best mobile hardware will fit, including high-performance GPUs. Most gaming laptops and high-end multimedia laptops are in this category.
As you can see, there is a correlation between display size, portability and performance. This doesn’t mean that all larger laptops are faster than all small laptops, of course, but the fastest desktop replacements are faster than the quickest ultraportables. Large laptops can be used on the go, as well, but you’ll need a larger bag to carry them.
2.4 Thick or Thin? Think About It
Display size is one of the physical characteristics that people notice when buying a laptop. The other is thickness.
Everyone wants the latest gadget to be thin and trim. Products with a thick profile are considered outdated or unattractive, and sometimes ignored entirely. Ultrabooks are the ultimate example of this: a thin profile is their primary benefit.
Attractive as sleek, slim products may be, thick laptops have a number of benefits. They tend to offer better performance at a similar price because it’s not as difficult to fit powerful hardware. Operating temperatures and noise levels are lower because there’s more room for adequate cooling. Keyboard quality is often superior, as well.
Take the Lenovo T-Series as an example. This made-for-business laptop is beefy – but it’s also quiet, powerful for its price and offers an excellent keyboard.
Thin laptops do have their benefits. They tend to weigh less, which makes them more portable. Just remember that size is always a compromise.
The hardware inside a laptop can be thought of as a team. Every component is important, and when they’re coordinated, they create a great experience. But if one member lets the team down, everything becomes a bit weird.
On the other hand, having one member of the team that performs well beyond the rest usually doesn’t offer much benefit. Falling into the “more is more” trap is easy, but once you understand more about hardware, you’ll come to see why buying eight gigabytes of RAM instead of four is often a waste of money.
Let’s dive into hardware by discussing the component most people consider the brain of any system – the central processing unit, or CPU.
3.1 Central Processing Unit (CPU)
The CPU is responsible for performing most of the calculations required for programs to function. Most of the tasks you perform on a daily basis are simple, so they can be handled within millionths of a second. More complex tasks take more time. Changing the resolution of a photo may require a second or two. Compressing a large file might take ten minutes. Encoding an hour-long video to 1080p will take an hour or more.
Buying a faster processor can significantly decrease the time these tasks take. For example, a dual-core Core i5 can batch process photos three to five times quicker than an Atom processor. This means a batch that could be handled in two minutes on a Core i5 could take up to ten minutes on the Atom.
For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to rank currently available processors.
3.2 Basic – Will get the job done. Slowly.
• AMD Fusion C-Series
• AMD Turion
• Intel Atom
• Intel Celeron
• AMD Fusion E-Series
Entry – Quick enough for most tasks
• Intel Pentium
• AMD A-Series
• Intel Core i3
Performance – Can quickly handle almost any task
• Intel Core i5
• Intel Core i7 (dual-core)
High-End – The fastest currently available
• Intel Core i7 (quad-core)
• Intel Extreme Edition
If you truly only use the web and basic productivity applications, like Word, a basic processor will suffice. Everyone else will at least want an entry-level or performance CPU. Users who expect an experience similar to some desktops will need to buy a high-end CPU.
Intel has just released an updated line of processor. Their code name is Ivy Bridge, but on store shelves they’re branded as the 3000 series. The new processors offer a modest but noticeable improvement in performance and battery life. They also have a far better integrated graphics processor, known as Intel HD 4000, which can play many 3D games at medium detail.
This does not mean you shouldn’t buy a processor from the older 2000 series, but if you do, make sure you’re getting a deal. The old models are slower than the new ones in both processor and integrated graphics performance.
3.3 Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)
The CPU does its job well, but there are some tasks that it isn’t suited for. One of these is rendering graphics. Creating complex visuals quickly enough to provide a smooth experience requires massive parallelization. This is why a laptop CPU has one to four cores and a laptop GPU has between 2 and several hundred.
Most of today’s CPUs come with a GPU built-in. This is called an integrated graphics processor (or IGP). It’s the responsibility of this IGP to provide a basic level of performance. Traditionally these have been hated by enthusiasts because of poor performance, but today’s IGPs aren’t bad. AMD ships its Fusion products with a built-in Radeon IGP. Intel ships its new 3000 series processors with built-in Intel HD 4000 graphics. Both solutions can handle many 3D games and 1080p video.
If you’re like to play 3D games at high detail settings you’ll need a discrete GPU. This is a separate component placed in the laptop to boost performance in games. Both Nvidia and AMD make these parts, and their offers are far too numerous to list in this guide. Instead, I will refer you to Notebook Check’s GPU guide. This is a generally up-to-date, performance ranked list of current laptop GPUs.
Buying a laptop with a discrete GPU used to require sacrifice. The part consumed power, which reduced battery life. It was also difficult to cool and increased the thickness of a laptop. Today, these old clichés are (mostly) untrue. Switchable graphics has eliminated the battery life issue and manufacturing improvements have made GPUs cooler and smaller than ever before. Playing games will still result in extra heat, but most laptops handle it well.
Gaming laptops are monsters, but low-end GPUs like the Nvidia GT 630M and Radeon HD 7650M can be found in a wide variety of systems and will boost overall gaming performance slightly when compared to Intel HD 4000. If you want to be able to play any game on the market you’ll need to look for a mid-range GPU such as the GT 640M or Radeon HD 7690M. You can expect to pay $100 to $150 for such an upgrade on systems that offer it.
3.4 Random Access Memory (RAM)
Random access memory, commonly known by the acronym RAM, has always been considered important by enthusiasts. The purpose of RAM is similar to the purpose of your own short-term memory. It provides the computer with a space to load information useful for a current task. The more RAM you have, the more information you can store.
This means that RAM becomes a piece of hardware that lures consumers into the “more is more” trap. Some RAM is good – so more must be better, right? But like your own short term memory, there’s usually a limit to the amount of information you need to store. Being blessed with an excellent memory isn’t going to make you better at doing the dishes.
During every-day tasks, and even some demanding tasks, you don’t need more than four gigabytes of RAM. Adding more is only useful in certain situations. For example, people who edit HD video frequently might need more memory.
Still, such scenarios are rare. My suggestion is this – if you don’t already use an application that you know requires gobs of RAM, don’t buy more. Even if you make a mistake you can usually correct it later. RAM is one of the few components that most laptops allow a user to upgrade.
3.5 Hard Drives
You probably think of hard drives in terms of capacity rather than performance. More capacity is certainly better, for obvious reasons. But the speed of a hard drive can also have a surprising impact on your experience.
Mechanical hard drives for laptops essentially come in two varieties – 5400RPM and 7200RPM. That’s the maximum spindle speed the drive can achieve. Higher speeds tend to offer better file transfer speeds, which is helpful when you’re moving big files around your computer.
To improve application load times you’ll need a solid state hard drive. These drives have no moving parts, so there is no mechanical read/ write head that must move to the proper part of the disc before it can read any data at all. In addition, the maximum throughput of a solid state drive is much higher than that of a mechanical drive. The result is excellent file transfer times and excellent application load times.
There’s a catch, of course. Solid state drives are expensive per gigabyte of storage, so while you’ll receive awesome load times from such a drive, you’ll end up with far less capacity. Most laptops only offer a single hard drive bay, as well, so you usually can’t have the best of both worlds.
I suggest you purchase a solid state drive you can afford one with a capacity of 128GB or higher. You can add extra storage through external hard drives, but you can’t improve performance without replacing the internal drive.
3.6 The Display
When you buy a laptop you are also buying a monitor. The display is built in and you can’t replace it.
Judging the quality of a display in a store is almost impossible. The bright lights and distracting environment will inevitably skew your opinion. Your best resource for display information when researching a laptop will be reviews by professional journalists.
Laptops come with either a glossy or a matte finish. A gloss finish usually improves perceived contrast. That means images, movies and games will look brighter and more colorful. Matte displays don’t have this benefit, but they reduce or eliminate distracting reflections. This makes document editing and web browsing more pleasurable. There’s no easy answer here. You’ll need to think about how you use your laptop and decide for yourself.
The last important point is display resolution. Most laptops have a resolution of 1366×768, which isn’t high. Increasing the display resolution provides you with more usable display space because windows are rendered in pixels rather than inches. It also improves image quality.
While most people will prefer a high display resolution, it’s not always preferable. Increasing resolution without increasing display size makes everything on a display appear smaller, unless software compensates. Tablets do this well, but laptops – not so much. People with poor eyesight may have trouble using a high-resolution display.
Laptops are self-contained computers, but they can be used with peripherals. Many people enjoy using a mouse instead of a laptop touchpad. External hard drives, headphones and smartphones also find themselves frequently tethered to the laptop mothership.
You can’t use these peripherals without the right ports, however – and as laptops become thinner they’re also losing connectivity. The average modern computer has substantially fewer components than one built five years ago.
I recommend that you write down all of the peripherals you currently own before buying any new laptop. Be careful about buying any laptop that offers fewer ports than needed to connect your current hardware. Adapters and splitters can be used to expand connectivity, but they’re bulky and annoying.
Once you’ve covered those basics, look for a laptop that offers at least two USB 3.0 ports and HDMI. Bluetooth is a nice feature to have since some products can use it to connect, reducing clutter. If you’re buying a laptop for work you may also find VGA and DisplayPort handy, as many projectors and older video devices can use one of these ports.
Doing your research will help you purchase the right laptop, but the ownership experience is about more than the laptop itself. A study by SquareTrade suggests that there is at least a 1-in-5 chance that your laptop will suffer some sort of failure, minor or major, during the first three years of its life.
The service you receive if you do run into a problem is also important. Some manufacturers have poorly constructed websites that seem to have trouble functioning properly while others offer easy to use databases packed full of common solutions. Phone support is similarly diverse – some companies are known for excellent, quick service while others have a long tradition of long hold times and poor resolutions.
Thankfully, you don’t have to strike blindly into the dark or rely on my-friend-said arguments posted in web forums. Let’s examine reliability and service using the best sources currently available.
4.1 Are Laptops Reliable?
For most people the answer to this question is likely to be a simple “no.” According to SquareTrade’s 2010 survey, 20% of all laptops suffer a hardware failure within their first 3 years. Throw in accidental damage and the rate of failure jumps to 31%. PC World’s survey offers similar results, finding that 22.6% of owners had experienced a “significant” issue with their laptop.
Not all the news is bad, however. The PC World survey also shows that laptops have become more reliable over the last five years. In 2007, 31.8% of owners were reporting serious issues. It appears as if the industry has made notable gains in the last half-decade.
Don’t let the prevalence of problems stop you from buying a laptop, but you should be aware of the potential issues before making a purchase. By being informed, you’re in a position to do something about it – like buying a laptop from a brand with high marks in reliability.
4.2 The Best And Worst – A Big Difference
The SquareTrade survey conducted in 2010 showed that the gap between the most and least reliable products was nothing to laugh at. According to that survey a laptop made by ASUS or Toshiba (the most reliable companies) was 40% less likely to suffer a failure than a laptop made by HP, which scored the worst.
PC World’s survey does not list the failure rates for individual manufactures, but does provide an overall ranking that shows each manufacturer as above or below average. The results of that study are similar to those from SquareTrade, which indicates that the two studies are finding a pattern. HP’s products offer significantly worse reliability than leaders like ASUS, Toshiba and Apple.
Going over all the results here would be unwieldy and redundant, so instead I’m going to point you to the studies themselves. The SquareTrade study provides overall failure rates and individual failure rates, but for a limited number of manufacturers. The PC World survey provides less specific information but covers every major company in the laptop business.
4.3 Customer Service Remains An Issue
CC image, credit Phil Dowsing Creative
As with any product, there’s no guarantee that you won’t have an issue even if you purchase from the most reliable brand. If you do have an issue, you will no doubt want it to be resolved as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Unfortunately, customer service can seem to exist in name only. Some companies have earned a reputation for using their service departments as sales departments, hocking extended warranties and accessories rather than resolving issues. Other companies simply seem to have trouble providing clear support. Their website may be a mess or their phone support may be hosted in another country and staffed mostly by people for whom your language is a secondary language.
As with reliability, the brand you buy has a big impact on the service you will receive if you have a problem. There are numerous sources for customer service data including PC World, Consumer Reports, Vocal Labs and Laptop Magazine.
Once again, the results from different reports are fairly consistent. Apple remains the king of tech support, but companies like Samsung, Sony and even Dell actually do quite well. On the other hand, high-volume brands like Acer and HP tend to rank in the middle of the pack or lower. Once again the results are too numerous to completely summarize here, so it’s a good idea to read at least the summary of the reports I linked to.
5.1 Manufacturer Warranties Aren’t Equal
Most laptops come with a one-year manufacturer warranty against defects. This means that if your computer breaks within that year, it will be fixed by the manufacturer. It won’t be replaced – at least, not right away. It will be repaired.
This is so common that most people assume it’s true for all computers, but there are some important differences between manufacturer warranties. Many companies–including Dell, Toshiba and Lenovo– offer three-year warranties on some products, particularly those oriented towards business. The inclusion of a three-year warranty is a significant benefit and is something that you should watch out for when buying. It may explain a small price gap between otherwise identical computers.
ASUS is becoming known for its inclusion of a 2-year warranty on some consumer laptops (primarily high-end models). The company has consistently scored well in reliability surveys and it seems the 2-year warranty is meant to capitalize on that fact. Some ASUS products also include accidental damage protection (for up to 1 year) and a Zero Bright Dot guarantee that warranties against dead pixels on a new laptop. You may not know this, but some companies consider a laptop with only a single dead pixel to be non-defective and won’t replace a laptop for that reason.
If you want to nit-pick you can find further differences between warranties. Different companies guarantee different repair methods. Some allow for more attempts to repair a problem before the laptop must be replaced entirely. There are also different warranties on the repairs themselves.
You can find warranty information on the website of the manufacturer whose laptop you’re interested in. Reading it carefully can be time consuming, but it will save you from any nasty surprises if a repair is needed.
5.2 Are Extended Warranties Worthwhile?
Standard one year warranties are not very useful. The chance of your laptop failing within its first year is slim but grows with each passing year. You’re several times more likely to have your laptop fail in its third year than its first.
Some laptops are available with an extended warranty straight from the manufacturer. This extension can be offered in varying increments but is most commonly offered as a three-year warranty or a five-year warranty.
Buying an extended warranty direct from the manufacturer can be worthwhile, but it depends on the cost, the quality of service and the price of the laptop you’re buying. Buying a three-year extended warranty on a $500 computer is not a good idea if it is priced at $120. I don’t recommend buying a five-year warranty because of the rapid pace of the computer industry. You may decide to replace your laptop before the warranty is up.
5.3 Third-Party Warranties
If you buy from a retail store you will inevitably be hassled about the purchase of a service plan and/or warranty. These packages often include additional protection not normally covered by manufacturers, such as accidental damage or theft protection.
We all have heard horror stories of a person dropping their laptop two hours after leaving the store, but such accidents are rare. Third-party warranties also have their value reduced by poor customer service and numerous “gotchas.” You may be surprised to find that many accidental damage warranties only cover certain types of accidents. Drop the laptop? Okay! Drop it in a pool? You may be in trouble.
These warranties are also somewhat redundant for anyone with renter’s or home owner’s insurance. Such plans usually cover the value of your dwelling and its contents (up to a certain maximum, as determined by your contract) and will pay out if you experience any disaster or theft that destroys your personal property.
If you do want a warranty from a third party you should purchase it from an insurance company. SquareTrade is one example, but most insurance companies that offer renter’s or home owner’s insurance also offer single-item insurance and can protect your laptop for a small fee.
This laptop buying guide has thrown out a lot of information. To try and sum it up, here’s the steps I recommend you go through when buying a new laptop.
• Determine your budget
• Decide the performance you need – or would like to have
• Decide the other traits you need or prefer, such as screen resolution and connectivity
• Create a list of your top five performance and feature requirements. Write them down
• Shop online for models that meet your requirements
• Visit local retailers (if possible) to try out your top picks first-hand
• Check out the warranties available on your top picks
• Make your final selection
Buying a new laptop can seem a bit daunting when you look at the steps above, but as I said earlier in this guide, putting in the effort to properly research a laptop really pays off. The only consumer electronics device you’re likely to use more often than your laptop is your television.
Be particularly mindful of the chapters two and three of this guide. Buying a laptop that is not fast enough for your needs or lacking the features you need is the quickest path to frustration. It’s easy to fall in love with one particular model when it’s under the bright lights of a retail store, but don’t let that distract you.
Take the list of your top five requirements that you created in step four and make sure it’s with you every time you shop – offline or online. This will help keep your requirements separate from your desires.
Finally, consider the articles in the additional reading section below. These are other, shorter pieces on MakeUseOf which cover various topics relating to laptops. Some talk about displays, others about shopping and still others about connectivity. You don’t need to read them all, but you should check out a few that are relevant to the type of laptop you’ve decided to shop for.