Buying a new computer is a big and expensive decision. There’s a lot of research to do and many factors and specifications to consider. I recently bought a new laptop that I’m quite happy with, but it was quite the job to choose the right one. In this article I’ll discuss the details that affected my decision and the important things to keep in mind when selecting a new computer.
Most of use end up doing a lot of computing on the go these days. We need to be able to do our work at home, at school, or anywhere else we go to get things done. If extreme portability is a big deal to you, you may want to consider a small laptop with an 11- or 13-inch display, or even a tablet. These days even small laptops and tablets are available with some powerful specifications. Just keep in mind that choosing high portability might mean compromising on things like screen size and durability. If you’re looking for a powerful laptop that can handle CPU-intensive software, you may have to sacrifice some portability.
Depending on where you find yourself using your laptop, durability might be crucial. If you teach young kids or have some of your own, you might need a fairly rugged laptop, or else a good protective case or sleeve for it. Keep in mind that the most durable laptops are not generally the most sleek or portable.
Battery life can be a tricky and fickle thing to manage. Thankfully we usually have plenty of places to plug in, but some of us need a device that will last all day, so we don’t have to carry a charger around everywhere. If you are in the latter camp, you may have to compromise on other specifications like screen resolution, size, and processing power or else adjust settings to minimize battery usage. Some people also like to purchase an extra battery or two in case they run out of juice with nowhere to recharge.
There are two things to keep in mind when it comes to the hard drive. First you need an idea of how much memory you need on your device. If you need to store a lot of files and data directly on your device, you may need a few hundred gigabytes or more. If you can keep most of your files in cloud storage and only keep what you currently need on your device’s hard drive, then you can likely get by with a small hard drive and save yourself a sizable sum.
The second thing to keep in mind with the hard drive is the type of hard drive you want. Computers used to use hard disk drives (HDDs), but now the computing world is moving toward solid-state drives (SSDs), which are much faster but also more expensive. There are also hybrid drives (SSHDs) that try to combine the two to offer quick access to frequently used files on a small portion of SSD memory while also providing plenty of storage capacity with a large portion of HDD memory at a lower price than an SSD of the same size. An SSHD can be a good compromise to save some money if you only use a few of the same applications most of the time, but to really future-proof your laptop and get the best performance out of it for years to come, an SSD is the best choice.
RAM (random-access memory) is where your computer temporarily stores the information for apps and programs you are currently using or will likely use in the near future. The more RAM, the more things your computer can handle at once. For a good all-around experience, 8GBs of RAM should be plenty. If you only do basic tasks like browsing the web and using common office applications, you could even save some money and do just fine with 4GBs of RAM. However, 8GBs of RAM is probably a preferable minimum if you want to future-proof your device and multi-task more effectively. Keep in mind that having more RAM than you will actually use does not boost your computer’s performance. Unused RAM is wasted money. Unless you’re getting into gaming and other RAM-heavy operations, you probably won’t need more than 8GBs of RAM.
The processor is the brain of your computer and has a lot to do with your computer’s speed and power. For most average computer users, an affordable processor like an Intel Core i3 is plenty. Unless you’re into gaming, editing videos, 3D animation, or some other kind of CPU-intensive work, you really don’t need to spend a lot of money on a more powerful processor. If you do need a little more processing power than a Core i3 offers, then moving up to a Core i5 might be worth considering. The two big companies in the realm of processors are Intel and AMD. For basic computing needs, you can’t really go wrong with an Intel Core or comparable AMD Ryzen processor.
It’s important to consider all the things you might need to plug in to your computer before you buy one. You’ll of course need to be able to plug in some USB peripherals and memory devices, so it’s best to have at least one USB 3.0 port. There is also a trend moving toward the use of USB-C. To future-proof your laptop and ensure you are able to connect to the latest USB-C devices and peripherals without having to buy additional dongles and adapters, it is wise to make sure your device has at least one USB-C port. With the USB-C trend, many manufacturers are starting to leave out other ports like the standard headphone jack on their devices as well.
If you often connect to another screen or projector for presenting slides and videos, it’s also a good idea to have a full-size HDMI port. Be aware that there are several sizes of HDMI cables and ports. Unless you have specific reasons or devices in mind for wanting a smaller HDMI port, make sure you’re looking for a full-size (type A) HDMI port.
If you take a lot of pictures or videos on a camera, you might also consider looking for an SD card port. With most other media and software available for download from websites and app stores these days, you likely won’t need a CD/DVD drive anymore. If you really need one, you may have to sacrifice some other ports and portability. Otherwise, you could always consider getting an external CD/DVD drive.
Depending on what you need, you might not be able to find the perfect computer with every single port you would like. Carefully consider the ports you need the most and remember you can always find an adapter or two for the rest.
For the most part, you’ll probably be using Wi-Fi to connect to the internet. However, if you travel frequently to places without Wi-Fi, you may want to look for a device with a SIM card slot so you can stay connected even without Wi-Fi. It’s also good to have a device with Bluetooth connectivity. Bluetooth allows you to connect many devices like mouses, keyboards, and speakers wirelessly. You can also use Bluetooth to tether your device to your phone or tablet to borrow its network connection when Wi-Fi is unavailable.
The smaller the device you are looking for, the more limited the keyboard is likely to be. Small devices will not have room for things like a separate number pad. Some small devices may even have cramped keyboards that are not as comfortable to type on. If you do much typing, you should at least get a laptop with a normal keyboard size and layout. The look, feel, and sound of a keyboard are things you can adjust to, but a cramped keyboard is plain uncomfortable and could also be bad for your hands.
Like the keyboard, the look and feel of the trackpad is largely a matter of personal preference. Most standard trackpads will get the job done fine, but if you’re picky about your track pad experience, you might have to spend more money for a laptop with a glass trackpad. If a fancy trackpad isn’t a big deal to you or you plan on using a mouse most of the time anyway, you can save some time and money by not worrying about the trackpad too much.
The display is one of the most important things to consider when buying a laptop because it’s what you’ll be looking at most of the time. For basic computing tasks, you shouldn’t need a ridiculously expensive display. Most laptop computers come with practical displays that will suit your basic needs. Unless you plan on editing photos and videos, watching lots of movies, or playing video games, you shouldn’t need a high-end display. Higher-resolution displays drain your battery faster, so unless you have a real need for such a power-hungry screen, you’re better off saving your money or at least turning down the resolution settings until you have a real use for it.
The size of the display is also very important to consider. If portability is a top priority, then you might want a smaller screen, which could also help with battery life. If you like having multiple apps and windows open for multitasking, you may prefer to have a larger screen. Large 15- or 17-inch laptops can be a bit bulky and precarious, so you might consider compromising with a more reasonable 14-inch screen. Some people also find it useful to invest in a second portable monitor.
The final thing to consider regarding the display is whether or not you want a touchscreen. Touchscreens might be a bit more expensive, but they open up a variety of possibilities and allow you to rely less on a trackpad or mouse. Before deciding on a touchscreen, you should also consider what kind of peripherals you might want to use with it. If you like to use styluses or pens, be sure that they are compatible with your device.
Laptops are no longer limited to the standard clamshell configuration. Screens can now be flipped, folded, and rotated in all directions on certain laptops and 2-in-1 devices. For basic tasks, such flexibility might not be necessary, and you can save some money by getting a standard laptop. If you want the power of a full-sized laptop and the flexibility and interactivity of a tablet, you might consider getting a foldable 2-in-1 or a detachable.
As I’ve already hinted at, for basic computing needs, you shouldn’t have to spend a ton of money for a decent laptop. Understand what you really need and decide what things you are willing to compromise on. Also remember that in seeking to save money, there are some levels you still might not want to stoop to. There are plenty of great and competitive manufacturers out there who make practical laptops at affordable prices. However, it’s still important to do your research and stay away from brands and companies you’ve never heard of or who offer deals that seem too good to be true.
Many people buy overpowered computers with specs they don’t use because they don’t understand how little computing power they actually need for the simple tasks they do. Others buy a fancy computer for the “wow factor” or a brand name they like without understanding what they are actually paying for. This problem seems particularly true of Mac users for some reason. Many people spend around $1,000 dollars on a basic MacBook Air when they could get a better-suited and more flexible PC for much less. While others overpay for more computer than they need, Apple fans seem uniquely eager overspend in return for less than they could be getting. That’s not to say that Apple doesn’t make some great computers. They definitely do, but it’s important to be aware of what you’re getting and consider how important looks and brand names are to you.
Operating System / Ecosystem
If you are a diehard Apple fan and/or have more money than you know what to do with, then the Apple ecosystem is a fantastic option. Many people love the seamless connection between all their Apple devices. Another benefit of Apple is that, since they make their own devices and their own operating system, their devices are extremely well optimized to make the best and most efficient use of their hardware possible.
The Apple ecosystem has a lot to offer, but it can also be very restrictive. Apple doesn’t play nicely with others, so many Apple products are only compatible with other Apple products. Those who invest in Apple devices often become trapped in the Apple ecosystem because they don’t want to buy another device that wouldn’t be compatible with their other Apple devices or lose money by switching to a different operating system that would render all their Apple peripherals useless paperweights.
In addition to the risk of being trapped in the expensive and restrictive Apple ecosystem, it’s also important to remember that customer service and repair options are limited. Apple is very picky about who can repair their devices and order the necessary parts to do so. Any attempt to repair or modify an Apple device on your own or through an unauthorized technician voids your warranty. There are also many horror stories about Apple repair technicians declaring devices unrepairable or too expensive to be worth repairing, leaving customers out hundreds or thousands of dollars, when in fact the issue could have been fixed. These problems are actually how businesses like iFixit and Rossman Repair Group make quite a bit of their income. Apple offers some impressive tech, but you really have to be willing to pay for it and play by their rules.
Another thing to keep in mind if you’re considering Apple is that you will need a lot of adapters and dongles. Apple is famous for their minimalist approach to things, which makes their devices look sleek and futuristic but also severely limits your port options, forcing you to buy adapters and dongles for anything that doesn’t have a USB-C plug.
Google’s Chrome OS is a good option for basic computing needs. Chromebooks are some of the cheapest and most portable devices available. There are also higher-end models such as the Pixelbook available if you’re willing to pay. A benefit of Chrome OS is that, like the Apple ecosystem, it connects your other Google devices smoothly within the Google ecosystem, while allowing you some flexibility regarding what kind of device you want. Plenty of manufacturers besides Google make Chromebooks with a variety of specifications to choose from.
The downside to Google is that, also like Apple, it is still restrictive. Chrome OS is not as fully featured as other operating systems and limits you to what is available on the Google Play Store. For basic office and browsing tasks, the Play Store should have all you need, but if you’re looking for more freedom and flexibility, then the Google ecosystem might not be for you.
Windows is a solid operating system. It’s available on all kinds of different devices by lots of different manufacturers. It’s also very popular, well-maintained, and well-documented, which makes help and support easy to come by. Since it’s so popular, there are nearly infinite applications available for just about anything you want to do.
One big reason many people preferred Apple over Windows was that Apple devices could connect so seamlessly for applications like iMessages, but now the same functionality and more is available on Windows as well through the Your Phone app and apps by other manufacturers for their Windows devices such as the Dell Mobile Connect app.
While Microsoft offers plenty of its own paid apps and features, there are plenty of other free alternatives. Choosing a Windows device does not entrap you in a Microsoft ecosystem. Windows is a great choice for a combination of stability and standardization combined with the freedom to customize and explore without overpaying or being trapped within one company’s restrictive ecosystem.
If you are familiar with Linux, then you are probably tech-savvy enough that I don’t need to explain it to you. For those of you who haven’t used it before, Linux might present a challenge and come with a steep learning curve.
Technically, Linux is not an operating system but a kernel upon which many operating systems are based. All of these free and open source operating systems are referred to as Linux operating systems because they are all based on the Linux kernel. Even Chrome OS and Android are Linux-based operating systems.
One of the greatest things about Linux is that it is free. There are tons of Linux operating systems—called distributions or “distros” for short—to choose from. You can choose one and install it for free, or you can even make your own if you really know what you’re doing. Because it is open source, it is always growing and improving and has plenty of support and documentation available from a worldwide community of users and developers. Linux is extremely powerful and presents nearly limitless possibilities, but it is also difficult to get into and master.
Because Linux is so technical and not as mainstream as other operating systems, fewer popular apps and games are available for Linux, although many developers are already beginning to address these limitations. There are plenty of free alternative apps available for Linux though, and you can still do most of the same things you would on other operating systems if you know what you’re doing. However, as mentioned before, there is quite a learning curve, and you might have to give up some of the popular apps you’re used to using on Apple or Windows devices until more mainstream users and developers embrace Linux.
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