A lot of people have asked me on recommendations on buying computers and other gadgets and I love researching cool new stuff and giving my recommendations. Unfortunately, laptops are hard to recommend for a couple of reasons. First, for Windows based laptops, manufacturers like making laptops very diverse. What this means is that for 1 manufacturer it’s common to see 10 different laptops that don’t look any different from each other and with specifications that hardly differ either. Second, a particular laptop I may see in my local store usually isn’t available anywhere else because the same laptop has a different name in another country.
Instead of recommending particular laptops, I think it’s much better to explain what you should look for in purchasing a laptop. So let’s go that route!
- Purpose: What will you use it for
- Parts: How powerful do I need it to be
- Other parts to consider
- Apple Mac – What’s the difference
- Some Laptops
Just looking for examples? Scroll down to the bottom to check out example laptops for your needs.
How do I find what’s best for me?
Simple. Let’s go through these steps. First, we need to determine what you want to use your laptop for. Then, let’s take a look at the budget ranges. After that, I’ll explain the different parts and how powerful do you need it to be. The next tasks is up to you! Take a look at your local store (online or not) and check the laptops available. You now know all you need to get your perfect laptop. Think of it as knowing what car to buy knowing there are hundreds available.
What will you use it for?
Purpose and Budget: Home and Basic Office, Multimedia, Gaming or Special Cases
This is the single most important factor to consider before purchasing a laptop. Your answer here will determine all the budget to expect to spend and the specifications that would fit you best. What we want to avoid is buying something powerful and not using your machine to it’s potential. It’s like buying a sports car and just using it for grocery shopping.
So, what’s the different with the choices above?
To convert dollars to your currency of choice, simply google. Ex: 400 US dollars to Philippine peso.
Home and Basic Office: If you only want to do basic tasks, this is what’s for you. Basic tasks include light web-surfing, emails, chat and video calls and light Microsoft Office (Word, Excel and Power point). You won’t need top-of-the-line hardware if you only intend to do these tasks. You can get buy a budget laptop and still get a good experience. Normal Price Range: $350-500
Multimedia: You’re basically doing the same tasks as above but at the same time. If you are surfing the web and have 20+ or so websites open while listening to music and chatting with a few of your friends. In terms of hardware, you’re basically want something slightly more powerful then a laptop for home and basic office. This can be great for basic school machines. Normal Price Range: $600-750
Gaming: If you play games like Call of Duty, NBA 2k, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and other so called “hardcore” games, you are going to need much more powerful hardware. Games like the ones mentioned above usually make your machine cry. It’s being pushed to it’s limit. Normal Price Range: $900-1,200
Special Cases: Some types of jobs use software that are very intensive to hardware. Some examples of the software include Adobe Photoshop for graphic designers, AutoCad for autocadding people, 3D rendering software for 3d artists, movie making software like Adobe Premiere and finally a suite of software development/programming software. Usually a higher-end multimedia machine can pass as a portable laptop for these cases.
Portability: Where will you use it?
Portability is the second factor to consider. Laptops are meant to be portable you say. They are but some laptops are easier to carry-around everyday. If you’re using your machine for school for example, you don’t want to carry around 10 pounds all day. So the bigger the screen, the heavier it normally is (except for 1 rule, see below). Laptops around the 11-13″ display sizes are usually light enough to lug around everywhere. Those laptops are sometimes not too powerful though. The 14″ are supposed to be a balance of portability with enough power for greater tasks. Most 15-17″ on the other hand will probably give you back problems if you bring it everyday. They are better suited for desktop replacements at home.
Exception to the rule: Ultrabooks: Before I explain what that is, let’s explain quick laptop form-factor terminology. Netbooks refer to the lightest and least powerful machines. Notebooks refer to your standard more powerful but bulky laptop. The term “Ultrabook” sadly does not come from Ultraman but rather refers to laptops that are powerful, thin and light. If you’ve seen a Macbook Air, then that is what the “Ultrabook” term means. Ultrabooks though are relatively pricier than regular notebooks for those reasons.
The Parts: How much power do you need?
I’m not going to go in-depth on the parts because there are already tons of resources elsewhere.
Processor: The processor or CPU is what handles all the tasks you throw at your computer. Right now there are 2 brands to choose from, Intel and AMD.
Intel is probably the brand you’re already aware of. They have 4 “classes” which are Atom, Pentium, Core i3, i5 and i7. The least powerful is Atom and the most is Core i7. I would recommend going with the “Core” series at least. For multimedia laptops, go with either Core i3 or i5 depending on your budget. For gaming, the minimum should be an Intel Core i5. For “special cases” which normally push the CPU to it’s max, a core i7 should be considered (Core i5 if you are on a really tight budget).
What about AMD? I actually don’t know much about the line-up AMD has so I can’t be as specific. For laptops in the lower budget ranges though, they are king. We have a lower-end laptop at home with an AMD C60 and it’s perfectly fine for home and office tasks. Pretty great for the price. If you can’t get a Core i3, check out the AMD based CPUs. They’re products have a the “C”, “E” or “A” in front that signifies the class. As far as I know, C is the budget line, E is slightly more powerful and A is what can be compared to Intel’s “Core” products.
RAM: To put it simply, the more RAM you have the more programs you can run at the same time. You can have more sites open in your browser and you can do that while running other programs (ex music player) as well. A general rule would be get as much as you can afford. RAM normally comes in 2, 4, 6, 8 gigabytes or more. For home and basic office, the bare minimum should be 4 GB while multimedia users and gamers should consider at least 6 GB. For special cases, it really depends on the software you’re running. If you can get more than 8, it can really help you out.
Storage (HDD & SSD): More storage is better but it shouldn’t be the only factor. What the heck do I mean? When you think of storage you normally think of hard drives which come in 500 gb, 1 tb, etc. With the recent trend in storing your media online (Facebook for photos, etc) you don’t really need to have a crazy large hard drive. What ever comes with a laptop is usually good enough (1 tb or below). A better suggestion would be to buy a portable/external hard drive and save most of your files there for easy backup and transfer.
Now, another factor is speed. The speed of your storage device determines the speed of your bootup (time it takes to press the power button to get to your desktop). I’m sure you noticed how fast smartphones and tablets bootup. One of the reasons it does so is that it is using a new type of storage device called Solid State Drive (SSD). SSD you say? It’s actually similar to USB Flash drives. Anyway, without going into too much detail, you’ll be able to use your computer in 45 seconds instead of 1 minute and 30 because of the different hard drive. If you can get a laptop with SSD, take it. It’s worth it.
Graphics Card: A video-card handles displaying everything to you. It’s the part where it converts the data into what you’re looking at right now. There are 2 types namely integrated (built-in) and dedicated (separate). Most processors today have an integrated graphics card. If you are only using your machine for home and multimedia and play facebook or flash games, integrated graphics card are okay.
How do I spot an integrated card? For Intel based processors, they are named “HD”. You’ll spot things like HD2000, HD3000, HD4000 or sometimes “Intel Graphics Media Accelerator”. For AMD products, it’s a little harder to spot. Most of the time I think it says “G” (read further below). Something to note is that AMD based integrated cards are generally better than Intel ones.
But I want to play “hardcore” games!!!! For people who enjoy non-casual games, a dedicated card is a must. There are again 2 brands. AMD and Nvidia. For Nvidia cards, the cards usually have 3 numbers with an M (IE 640m, 650M). The first number signifies the series while the second signifies how powerful it is. Don’t worry about the 3rd number. Cards such as 620M are obviously less powerful than a 640M. If you don’t care about fancy graphics, somewhere near a 630M could pass. I would recommend to get a 640M as the minimum. If you can afford it, go with a higher one (650,600, etc). Check out the link provided below for a much better comparison of graphics cards.
AMD Cards are a bit different in terms of names. (Feel free to correct me if I get this wrong). AMD cards have 4 numbers to them (ie 7650) with a letter at the end. The letter (G or M) means if it’s integrated or not. G refers to integrated and M is dedicated. Similar to Nvidia the first number signifies the series. I think the 2nd and 3rd number refers to how powerful it is.
Check out this handy site for a list of budget, mid-range and high-end cards for laptops.
Other parts to consider
CD/DVD/Blu-ray Drive: Why do I mention this? Nowadays, some laptops don’t come with one. Manufacturers skip this to make laptops thinner. If you have stable and fast internet, you can skip the drive but if you don’t I would recommend getting a laptop with a cd drive.
Display: If you compare most laptops screen to an Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy S3, you’ll notice the screen sucks on the laptop. The primary reason for this is something called the “panel”. The iPad and S3 use higher-end displays compared to most laptops (also a reason why those devices cost a lot). Those devices use IPS LCD panels. Laptops with IPS panels normally come it at around $850 and above. It’s quite worth it if you can afford it. Think of it as buying a better TV. You’ll enjoy watching on it because it looks good. For people who are serious about photo-editing and graphics design and who don’t happen to want a Mac, an IPS is a must.
Everything else: A lot of the other things like card readers, number of USB ports, wifi, bluetooth are mostly the same from laptop to laptop. Some manufacturers put “great audio” as part of the feature set but if want good music it’s much better to buy a decent pair headphones.
In terms of laptops, brands are a bit of a factor. Different manufacturers specialize on a few different things. The things I’ll mention are more general and may or may not be true for a specific laptop under a particular brand.
Acer is a brand known to have the cheapest laptops. You’ll usually get a powerful hardware for you money. On the downside, they ship with a terrible display and they are not known to have the highest quality build (how sturdy the laptop is). Personally, I’ve had 2 Acer laptops (TimeLine series and Netbook), I have a 50/50 success ratio. The timeline laptop has been great but the other has had some problems.
Asus is one of the bigger manufacturers around. They produce tablets, laptops and computer parts themselves. Asus is known to have good to great build quality and the hardware for the price is good. I haven’t personally bought an Asus laptop (although I have their tablet) but I would look into an Asus laptop if I was in the market for a laptop. They are a great mix of quality and affordability. (On a side note, their Ultrabooks called Asus Zenbook, looks fantastic)
HP or Hewlett-Packard is one of the leading producers of laptops. That doesn’t mean they are superb at it. They are usually priced higher than Acer laptops but still relatively cheap. For quality, I’ve heard mixed opinions. One of the things I saw was that they do charge a whole lot for repairs.
Dell. Almost the same as HP.
Lenovo. They bought out IBM’s manufacturing a couple of years back. If you’ve seen the famous “Thinkpad” laptops, they are from Lenovo. They are known for good build quality and slightly more expensive compared to the others.
Sony. Sony has their “VAIO” branding on laptops. They are marketing their products as “higher class” than the others. Think Apple price for a Windows laptops. Not too bad of a choice if you don’t mind the high price tag.
MSI. MSI is another computer part manufacturer like Asus. Generally, they have powerful hardware for the price. The build quality looks better than most Acers.
Samsung, Toshiba and Fujitsu. I don’t know much their brand perception and quality of their machines. They are very famous IT companies though.
Apple Mac, Macbook Pro, Air, etc – What’s the difference?
This is a common question as well. Apple as a company controls both software and hardware. It does not use Microsoft Windows (although you can) but rather their operating system is called OS X. Apple’s laptop lines are called “Macs” (not related to McDonald’s). It’s a different machine. Programs you run on Windows may not work (or have a version) for Mac. It’s the same way as the program you run on your desktop/laptop can’t be used on your smartphone. If you play “hardcore” games, do note that a lot of games are not compatible/don’t have a version for Mac.
For the hardware, Apple is of course known for absolutely high price but pretty good quality. The Macbook Air is the super light laptops while the Macbook Pro is a common laptop for graphic designers, photographers, etc. The higher end Macbooks have a high quality screen that’s essential for people who work in digital arts fields.
Is it for you? Well, consider the things I mentioned above. If price is not a factor and you don’t have software that you use everyday that only works for Windows, it’s not a bad choice.
Some Laptops as Examples
Like I said before, it’s hard to recommend specific laptops because it’s different country to country. Below are some laptops I browsed at my local retailer which are great examples of what you’ll probably find in yours.
Prices are in Canadian Dollars. Use this to convert to your currency of choice. Do note that price here does not include tax. In other countries tax is included so it makes it seem much pricier.
Home and Basic Office
Asus X55U ($390). CPU: AMD C60, RAM: 4GB, HDD: 320 GB, Display 15.6″, Weight 6 pounds. A good example of a laptop for Home and Office. You get a processor that can handle simple web browsing and the display is big enough for a better web experience but not too portable.
Asus X202E ($550): CPU: Inten Core i3, RAM: 4 GB, HDD: 500GB, Display 11.6, Weight 3 pounds. Although much more expensive than the one above, the X202E is a lot more portable. It’s only 12″ display means you can stuff it in most bags plus the 3 pound weight won’t break your back. It’s also touchscreen (whether that’s a good/bad thing is preference).
HP Pavilion G6-2240NR ($500) CPU: AMD A6-4400M, RAM: 4GB, HDD: 750GB, Display 15.6″. A budget HP multimedia laptop. You get a more powerful processor but almost the same specs as a home and basic office computer.
Samsung NP535U4C ($700) CPU: AMD A8 4555M, RAM: 6GB, HDD 1TB, Graphics (dedicated): AMD 7550M, Display 14″, Weight 4 pounds. This Samsung laptop is a great example of a multimedia that can also serve as a lower-end gaming machine. The processor is a higher end quad-core chip. It’s got 6GB ram which is decent for running tons of apps as well. The weight and bulk is okay enough to carry a couple of times a week.
Acer V5-571-6677 ($650): CPU: Core i5 RAM: 8GB, HDD: 500GB, Display 15.6″, Weight 5 pounds. Cheap and powerful. This acer laptop has a powerful processor and enough RAM to handle all your multimedia needs all at once. The HDD is a bit low but for the price and the powerful hardware you get it’s not too much of a big deal.
Fujitsu Lifebook UH572 Ultrabook ($700) CPU: Core i5 RAM: 4GB, HDD 500GB SSD 32 GB, Display 13.3″ Weight 3.5 pounds. A cheap ultrabook, this one is portable and powerful. You also get an SSD which as I’ve mentioned before makes your computer bootup/load much much faster (almost x2 from a normal laptop).
Again, check out this handy list to see which graphics card are low, mid and high end.
Lenovo Ideapad y500 ($950): CPU: Core i5, RAM: 6GB, HDD 1TB, Graphics: Nvidia GT650M, Display 15.6″. The specs are similar to a higher end multimedia laptop but you get a high-end mobile graphics card. This should be able to handle most games you throw at it. The laptop also looks pretty cool.
MSI GE60 ($1,200) CPU: Core i7, RAM: 8GB, HDD: 750 GB, Graphics: Nvidia 660M. This is around the spec sheet of a powerful gaming laptop (not the most powerful). You get one of the fastest processors, tons of ram and a graphics card that allows you to crank the settings to mid-high on modern games.
Check out the slightly similar Asus G46VW-DS51 which is slighlt less powerful but looks sleeker. Or the Sony VAIO S which is has a mid-range graphics card but still capable and doesn’t look “flashy” which is a plus for me.
Special Cases: Computing
Samsung NP700Z5C ($1,200): CPU: Core i7 RAM: 8GB HDD: 750GB, Graphics (dedicated): Nvidia Geforce GT640M Display 15.6″. This Samsung laptop has powerful CPU that can handle heavier workloads. It has a high-end graphics card (can play most modern games) and decent amounts of RAM.
Asus K55VD-DH71 ($850) Almost the same specs as the Samsung one above. The main difference is the graphics card. You won’t be able to use this one as a gaming machine too.
Acer Aspire AS5755G ($900) Also roughly similar to the Samsung one but this one has 1TB HDD and a mid-range graphics card.
Special Cases: Graphic Design and Photography
Asus Zenbook UX31A-DB71 Ultrabook ($1,500) CPU: Core i7, RAM 4GB, SSD: 256 SSD, Display 13″ IPS , 2.8 pounds. This is a crazy machine. Super powerful, great display, razor thin, speedy and light. The downside is it’s pretty expensive for someone who doesn’t “need” that display.
Edit: The lower end of the Asus Zenbook with an IPS display goes for (1,100). Check out this Lenovo Thinkpad IPS laptop for $960.