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Laptop Buying Guide

By: Carl Laron on August 02, 2017

What the best laptops have

  • At least 2 GB of RAM. More RAM means you can open more applications at once. Most cheap laptops start with 4 GB, but you'll need at least 2 GB to run Windows. Google Chrome-based Chromebooks also have at least 2 GB of RAM.
  • A minimum screen resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels. Anything less results in blurry, pixelated images, especially when watching movies.
  • A comfortable keyboard and touchpad. Even the best performance and nicest screen can't save a laptop if its ergonomics are poor. Keys should be well spaced and responsive, and the keyboard itself should be free of unreasonable flex. The touchpad should be suitably sensitive with no annoying lag.
  • The right level of computing power. Be realistic about your needs. A Chromebook will be fine for light-duty, web-centric computing, but it will be a disappointment if, for example, you need Microsoft Office for work-related tasks. On the other hand, if all you want to do is surf the web and read emails, a more powerful laptop could be overkill.

Know before you go

Do you want a Mac or PC? Reviewers and pundits hotly debate the relative value of a Macintosh versus a PC. Keep in mind that all Macs can run Windows because they use Intel chips, although you'll need to buy a copy of the Windows operating system (OS) (Est. $100 and up, depending on version and whether or not you qualify for student pricing) that you want since Windows software is not included in a Mac computer. Reviews report that Windows can run just as fast on a Mac as on a comparable PC.

Two programs, Apple's free Boot Camp (Free) and Parallels Desktop for Mac (Est. $70), allow Mac users to run Mac OS X and Windows on the same Apple computer. Boot Camp comes with the Mac OS, but users must reboot to use Windows. As the name implies, Parallels allows the use of both operating systems at the same time. Reviewers say it's faster than Boot Camp, too.

The Mac operating system (currently macOS) will run only on a Macintosh computer, which makes the product line unique. Mac computers have been shown to be less vulnerable to virus attacks, although hackers have paid more attention to Apple's systems over the last few years.

Apple also has the industry's best tech support and reliability record. The downside of just 90 days of free telephone support is offset by access to Apple's free in-store Genius Bars, assuming the nearest Apple retail store isn't too far away.

Mac laptops used to cost more than Windows models, but that price difference largely vanishes when comparing systems that are identically configured. However, upgrades can be easier on some Windows laptops. Apple upgrades can also be very expensive compared to similar upgrades on PC laptops, but Mac computers tend to hold their resale value well.

Touch screen or no touch screen? Some laptops have touch-screen displays available either standard or as an option to make the most of Windows touch features, but they cost more than non-touch models. This was a bigger issue before the release of Windows 10, which restores essentially all of the keyboard and mouse functionality that was lost in Windows 8. If you are interested in a Chromebook with an eye toward using Android apps (which now can run on some models) a touch screen is more essential. Apple laptops don't have touch functionality at all.

How big of a hard drive should you get? The short answer is to get the biggest hard drive you can afford; photo, music and video files take up a lot of space. Adding a larger hard drive when you configure a system is a worthwhile upgrade if you collect media files. You can't put an additional internal hard drive into most laptops, so allowing room for growth can be a good investment.

Many laptops now ship with solid-state drives (SSDs). SSDs open applications and boot up Windows much faster than mechanical hard drives, but they cost more than traditional drives and often provide less storage capacity. Some laptops offer an SSD for fast boot-up and access to most-used files and programs, plus a high-capacity mechanical hard drive for holding larger files and deep storage. Big SSDs are available on some laptops, but on those with only a small SSD, options to store files "to the cloud" can be valuable. If you are interested in a laptop that's lightweight and easily transportable -- such as an Ultrabook or a Chromebook -- SSD storage will be your only option.

What about network connectivity? Just about all laptops come with integrated Wi-Fi. Some also provide built-in or optional access to cell phone carrier wireless networks, but a separate data plan is required. Bluetooth is another common feature. If you need wired connectivity (Ethernet), many laptops require the use of an adapter.

What should you expect in terms of service, support and warranty policies? Laptop warranties range from one to three years. All manufacturers offer warranty upgrades and prices can vary by model. Tech support is generally free during the warranty period, but not thereafter. Some manufacturers such as Dell and HP add extras like theft insurance to warranty upgrades to make them more attractive. However, some brands are easier to deal with than others if problems arise.

What is bloatware, and how can you deal with it? Consumer laptops are bundled with software that's often not what you want or need. For example, you typically won't get Microsoft Office -- including Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint -- without paying extra for it (although it, or at least a one year subscription, is bundled with some systems). Instead, you'll get limited-time trial versions of programs, adware and crippled software with limited functionality (unless you pay to unlock the full version). Many find this so-called bloatware to be a minor nuisance, but sometimes it slows down boot-up times and performance until the offending programs are uninstalled. Laptops that ship with a minimum of bloatware often earn extra points in user and expert reviews.

If you end up with a laptop that has a lot of bloatware, PC Decrapifier can help you clean it up quickly and with minimum hassle. Just don't accidentally delete any critical programs! The tool is free for personal users.

Which processor? Users are faced with a sometimes bewildering array of choices when it comes to processors. Older-generation Intel Core processors can still fit the bill for basic and even business use. However, 7th-generation Core processors with Kaby Lake technology raise the stakes by providing better battery life and improved performance. Older systems with 6th generation Broadwell technology are still around, and may be a consideration if price is an issue. However, make sure you know what the maker has put under the hood -- more critical than ever as many makers are reusing model names from generation to generation, and resellers aren't always as clear as they could be as to what generation processor a given laptop is running.

Regardless of the technology generation, most users will do just fine with an Intel Core i3 processor. It provides sufficient power for everyday computing, web browsing and more, and it won't falter when multitasking, although gaming will be limited to less-demanding titles. If you have the budget and the need, laptops with Core i5 or i7 processors provide a performance boost along with notably better integrated graphics capabilities, particularly in the case of Core i7 processors.

Some ultraportable laptops use Intel's Core M processor. These low-power CPUs generate relatively little heat, allowing for impossibly thin systems such as the 12-inch Apple MacBook (Est. $1,300 and up). Battery life has been an issue with Core M systems, though not with the MacBook. However, performance, while more than acceptable for most uses, is a step behind current generation full-power Core i processors.

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