When you buy a desktop computer, you can customize everything to fit your exact needs—from choosing the perfect mouse and keyboard to making the most of your case to selecting even the guts that keep your computer running. Laptop users aren’t quite so lucky. Since laptops are rarely upgradable, you need to buy a machine that has everything you need off the bat. If you’re in the market for a new laptop, here are all the things you’ll want to look for—and stay away from.
We’ll be focusing mostly on non-Mac hardware today, since laptop shopping is much more difficult when you’re choosing between hundreds of models rather than four. However, if you’re looking for a Mac, many of these considerations do still apply—just not all of them. However, even you Windows users should consider a Mac in your buying decisions, since you can easily run Windows on a Mac’s killer hardware and get the best of both worlds. If you’re looking for a bit more choice, though, you’ll need to do a bit more research.
A Two-Pronged Approach
As you shop, you’ll want to make sure you do two things: 1) Read plenty user reviews (on sites like Newegg or Amazon) and 2) Try the laptop out for yourself. Lots of people skip one of these steps, and they’re both equally important. Trying out the model you’re interested in is the only way you’re really going to know what it’s like to type on its keyboard or use its trackpad, or know how well it’s built. Similarly, reading reviews is the only way you can really learn things like how hot it gets, or how long the battery actually lasts. If you do your due diligence with both of these, you should have no problem finding your soulmate of a laptop. Below, we’ve listed the things you’ll want to consider as you search in order of importance. So, the first thing you should think about is form factor, and then narrow down the available models by build quality. Technical specs, battery life, and other things should come later.
Laptops come in all shapes and sizes, but you can usually narrow it down to about four form factors:
- Large laptops (17″ and above): These laptops only really have one thing in common: they’re big and usually heavy. They aren’t super portable, are easier to carry around than a desktop computer, and they range in price from $500 or $600 to over $2000. The cheaper ones are usually low-powered and useful for people that just want to watch movies on a bigger screen but don’t plan on carrying it around. The more expensive ones are more geared toward gamers and professional photo or video editors and come with all the power you’d need to perform more complicated tasks.
- Midsize laptops (13″-16″): These laptops are your all-around, affordable laptops for the average user. They have a pretty big range in price and power, so you can almost always find what you’re looking for. You’ll find most of them lie within the $500 to $1400 price range, and they’re great for people that want a simple laptop but want a lot of USB ports, a CD drive, and other perks without paying a lot of money. They’re more portable than large laptops, but still will carry a noticeable heft in your backpack at around 4-6 pounds.
- Ultrabooks (Usually 14″ and smaller): If you’re willing to spend a bit more money for extra portability, you can get an ultrabook, which is a super slim, super light, moderately powerful machine built for the average user. We’ve talked about them at length before, but these are great if you’re willing to sacrifice a few USB ports and a DVD drive in the name of portability. They weigh about 2-4 pounds, cost closer to $1000, and carry enough power for all your basic activities and maybe a bit of light video editing.
- Small laptops and netbooks (Usually 12″ and below): These are ultra cheap, ultra portable, and ultra low power. They’re really only good if you’re looking for extreme portability, and are willing to sacrifice quite a bit of power to do so. Don’t expect to do more than simple web browsing and email on these machines, and even then, you can expect it to have a bit of lag to it. Still, at about a $300 price point, it’ll get the job done without breaking the bank.
Most people right now are making the decision between a midsize laptop and an ultrabook, and it’s a tough decision. Midsize laptops are going to offer you a ton of choices, so you may be able to find the perfect laptop there, and for quite a bit cheaper than a comparable ultrabook. That said, we’re pretty stoked about ultrabooks around here, as they’re virtually weightless and more than powerful enough for most people. If you’re willing to plop down the extra cash and ditch the DVD drive (which you could always replace with an external one), they’re worth a look.
Build Quality and Durability
Some laptops are built very well: they’re strong, durable, easy to open and close, and so on. Others are made out of cheap plastic, feel flimsy, and look like they’d shatter from a 6 inch drop. You obviously want the former. Sure you can read reviews, but heading into the store to look at models to find one that fits your standard of build quality is paramount. Don’t forget to check out the laptop hinges to see if it opens and closes smoothly, and read reviews to find out how quickly they degrade over time.
Pay special attention to the trackpad and keyboard, since those are the things you’ll need to use the most. How does the trackpad feel? Do your fingers glide over it easily, or is the mouse hard to move? Does it have a dedicated scroll bar, or is it multitouch-capable? Is the keyboard big enough to comfortably type on? Are there any keys in non-standard places that would make typing awkward for your (think of the backspace, shift, enter, and control keys here). Again, try it for yourself and read reviews to see how they hold up over time. You want a computer that will last you for years into the future, not one that you’ll have to hold together with duct tape as soon as the warranty runs out.
Many of you may be tempted to look at the tech specs first, but at the end of the day, the computer’s internal specs are the thing you’ll probably notice the least—your keyboard, trackpad, and build quality are going to be a lot more noticeable. Processors don’t matter a ton anymore (except in terms of battery life), and most people can easily get by on 4GB of RAM. If you have specialized needs—like a super fast processor for encoding video, or a dedicated video card for gaming, you’ll want to keep an eye out for those, but other than that, you don’t need to obsess over specs. And, while you can’t upgrade much in a laptop, you can usually upgrade RAM, so you can always add more later if you need it. Check out our guide to picking out PC components for all the information you could need about deciding on tech specs.
Whether you have specialized needs or not, though, pay close attention to the hard drive (which, again, should be upgradable in many laptops—read reviews to find out). Make sure you get one big enough to hold all your data, or, if you’re gunning for speed, make sure the laptop has a solid state drive. It’ll cost you a bit more, but as we’ve said many times before, it’s one of the best speed upgrades you can possibly make to a machine.
The more life you can squeeze out of your battery, the better, but unfortunately, battery life can be a bit hard to measure. The best you can do is look at the manufacturer’s battery life estimations and read reviews to see whether their claims match up with real world experience. Some components—like newer generation processors and solid state drives—are particularly friendly to your battery life, too. You can do a little extra work to keep that battery working as long as possible, but the best way to get good battery life is to buy a laptop that already has it. You should also make sure to treat that battery right to keep its lifespan high.
USB and Other Ports
When it comes to the ports in your laptop, you’re going to be much more limited than on a desktop, so it’s important you know what you’re getting. How many USB ports do you want? Does the model you’re looking at have the much-improved USB 3.0? Does it have an SD card slot for your camera’s photos? What about Ethernet for when your Wi-Fi goes down, or a VGA, DVI, or HDMI port for connecting an external monitor? This kind of stuff can fluctuate a lot from laptop to laptop, and the smaller your laptop, the fewer ports it’s going to have (ultrabooks are particularly low on ports, since they’re so thin). You can always get a USB hub if you need more ports at home, or a USB SD card reader for your photos, but just know that the more ports you actually have on the computer, the more convenient it’s going to be.
Here are a few of the other less involved but equally important things you might want to look for:
Screen Quality: Check both the screen’s resolution (higher is better) and its quality; it should be easy to see the difference when compared with the screen on a cheap laptop. Colors should be vibrant, and the monitor should have a wide variety of brightness settings that you can tweak from the keyboard.
Heat Production: Laptops can get very hot, especially if you’re using them (improperly) on your lap. This is going to be something you can only really read in reviews, but keep an eye out for laptops that overheat even when they’re used properly on a desk. Make sure that the laptop has rubber feet on the bottom that gives heat room to escape when set on a flat surface, and that it has good fan placement and airflow to keep everything running at a safe temperature.
A Webcam: If you plan on video chatting with friends and family, make sure your laptop comes with a built-in webcam. Most should, but not all will, and this is an easy component to forget.
A Lock: If you plan on locking your laptop to your desk (say, if you’re going to college, where such things are likely to be stolen), check and make sure your laptop has a hole for a desk lock.
Upgradability: Most laptops aren’t going to be very upgradable. You can usually replace the RAM and maybe the hard drive, but other than that, don’t plan on changing any of the hardware. Double check how upgradable a given computer is, though, and whether you void the warranty by doing so. Also check how easy it is to open for things like cleaning the fan, which can often be a herculean task on laptops.
Warranty: Lastly, check out the manufacturer’s warranty. Make sure it’s at least a year long (90 days really isn’t enough), and know exactly what it covers. If you’re particularly accident prone and the extended warranty covers accidental breakage, you might want to get it, but generally, we’re not in favor of extended warranties. However, you should still check if the manufacturer has one—the better warranty a product has, the more confident they are in its quality, which is good for you.
That’s a lot to think about at once, but even you veterans have probably forgotten one or two of the above considerations when buying a laptop because there’s just so much to remember. So, whether you’re a laptop expert or you’re completely technology challenged, take this list with you on your next shopping trip to make sure you get everything you want. With enough research, you should easily be able to find the perfect laptop for you. Got any other laptop shopping tips? Share them with us in the comments.