Higher specs, higher price
I despair when I see a customer returning a $400 laptop to the store, complaining that it doesn't work well. Or when an organization struggles with its slow-moving laptop that it just purchased. There was a time I was buying a laptop a year for my kids in high school.
The low-priced ones just aren't worth it.
For a laptop to run well, and to last for years, you need to spend $$$, typically over $1,000. That's a lot of money in an area of life where we had been conditioned to expect ever lower prices with ever higher specs. That that trend made its U-turn years ago.
My son-in-law wants exactly that: a laptop that runs well and lasts years. The good news is that a well-made laptop runs well for years because computer hardware specs stalled out nearly a decade ago. Other than Apple's untested ARM-based CPUs, nothing Intel or AMD can do will give our computers a 3x speed boost.
The drawback to 3x speedboosts, of course, is that software developers will suck up all that power for themselves. As Bill Gates apparently told his programmers in some earlier decade, assume infinite hardware. That didn't turn out so well.
So, here is how to narrow down the choices among laptops you may want to buy. Begin by expecting to pay $1,000 - $1,500 for it. (My current laptop turns five years old this month. See figure at the end of this article. It is an HP Spectre X360 that cost me $1,400.)
- First step is to decide on the screen size. This determines all other factors. I prefer small laptops with 13" or 14" screens. The most common size is 15" and there are some with 17" screens, but they are monsters and tend to be rare.
- Pick a CPU type. I recommend at least an Intel i5 for the extra processing oomph (or the equivalent in an AMD CPU). Look for the highest CPU speed in your budget, assuming it's an option.
I tend to go with integrated graphics. The drawback with discrete graphics, like a nVidia board, is that they consume more power and don't give any speed boast to the kinds of software I use -- office productivity, CAD, and Web stuff.
- Next, pick the memory. I recommend at least 8GB.
- Choose the hard drive type and size. I recommend you pick one that is all SSD -- solid state drive. There are some hybrid ones, which pair a small SSD with a large HDD, but I want the all-SDD model for speed and for fall resistance.
I suggest a capacity of at least 512GB, because Windows consumes so much disk space for itself, so that smaller drives will just frustrate you. When I got my HP Spectre X360, I picked the smallest drive (256GB), and then waited for SSD prices to fall, then replaced it with a 1TB one. (Not all laptops allow you to replace the hard drive; in any case, swapping out drives is not a trivial exercise.) I like the high-end Samsung SSD drives (EVO or PRO), because they come with caching software that speeds up the drive even further.
- Now you can get into the miscellaneous parts:
- Screen resolution: HD (1920 x 1080) is good enough; higher resolutions just make the text too tiny
- I prefer 4:3 aspect ration over 16:9 to get more height, as most software has all their UI elements at the top and bottom
- Touch screen is a must
- Backlit keyboard is a must
- If you can, try out the keyboards in a store. Some laptops have keyboards that are truly awful; most are mediocre
- Touchpens are useless, I find
- You want at least an HDMI out (for a second monitor); some laptops also have a DisplayPort port for a third monitor
- At least three USB ports
- SD card slot
- While USB-C ports give you access to every kind of peripheral, it is annoying to lug along the external port replicator.
- Battery life is voodoo. You can't rely on the vendors' claims, as they are completely hypothetical. As a rough guide, divide their battery duration number by 2. Or 3.
- Spin or Flip or 360. I like laptops whose lids flip all the way around.
As for brand names, I like Acer and ASUS, because they make laptops for other companies, along with their own brands, and they are located in Taiwan, not China.
TIP: The #1 consumer of battery power is screen brightness. If you need longevity away from a power outlet, turn down the brightness as far as bearable.
My only peeve with the HP Spectre that I use is that the keys on the keyboard are silver, instead of black. This makes it hard to read the letters on the keys, whether backlighting is on or off. So make sure the keys are dark colored. Silver keys look pretty but aren't practical.Silver keys look pretty but aren't practical.