9 Things to Consider When Buying a Laptop – The Ultimate Guide – 2020

By | November 4, 2020

Almost everyone needs a laptop, where a student, a professional, a gamer or a stay at home mom.

In a world where computers and online platforms have become our primary workplaces and communication channels, it is critical that we purchase the best gadgets to fit our needs in a budget friendly way.

More than ever, students, professionals, and freelancers are all working on the go and they need the right laptop to accomplish their work well.

However, laptop come in great variety of specifications and differ hugely in terms of both performance and price.

In this buying guide, we shall try to explain the most important points that you need to consider when purchasing a new laptop, to ensure that you get the best one for your needs.

Some of these points are:

  • CPU - The Processor
  • RAM Memory -
  • Graphics Card
  • Storage Drive - HDD, SSD, M.2 NVME
  • Connectivity
  • Size and Portability
  • Display Size
  • Battery Life

1. CPU - Processor

No matter what programs you like to run, there will always be instances where you need to multitask – possibly opening 3-4 applications at the same time, be it for photo design, research, or even just listening to music in the background. To support this, you need a laptop with a capable CPU and RAM components.

The CPU, or central processing unit of a laptop, is responsible for making sure these programs start up smoothly and display information to your monitor accurately. At the same time, RAM, more commonly known as memory, stores data in the short-term while your laptop is running, allowing you to jump from one application to another, free of delay.

AMD vs Intel

Given a slow CPU with low clock speed, measured in hertz (Hz), your laptop will process your actions and clicks at a slow pace.

For processors, these are the ones you should consider if you want a responsive laptop to do everyday work and low-mid range gaming:

  • 10th Gen Intel Core i3 - Dual or Quad Core, 4-8 Threads, Clock speed up to 3.8GHz

For content creation and mid-level gaming:

  • 10th Generation Intel Core i5 Processors - Quad or Hexa Core, 8 to 12 Threads, Clock speed up to 4.8GHz
  • AMD Ryzen 5 Processors - Quad or Hexa Core, 8 to 12 Threads, Clock speed up to 4.4GHz

For professional creatives and high-end gaming:

  • 10th Generation Intel Core i7 Processors - Quad to Octa Core, 8 to 16 Threads, Clock speed up to 5.0GHz
  • AMD Ryzen 7 Processors - Octa Core, 16 Threads, Clock speed up to 4.7GHz

Users who always run memory-intensive applications such as video editors and high-end games should consider at least a quad-core or hexa-core.

Regardless, the benefits of a powerful CPU will be noticed even if you don't use heavy apps often. With a quad or hexa core, your CPU will be able to better handle multiple processes and streams of data simultaneously, meaning less system lag and overheating.

2. RAM

After CPU, the next important hardware component is the RAM memory which determines, how many applications your system can load at a time. Modern laptops have RAM sizes in the range 4GB, 8GB, 16GB, or 32GB, where 4 GB or less is considered lacking.

If your laptop is low in RAM, then your system will slow down due to low memory and will start using disk space to compensate for the shortfall. This will result in slower application launch time, sluggish and unresponsive system etc.

For users who have deadlines to meet and must multitask, this can be incredibly frustrating, making a high clock speed CPU and high gigabyte RAM a necessity for professionals, students, and gamers.

A minimum of 8GB RAM is recommended for these users.

RAM Speed

Aside from size, another consideration to be made with RAM is the speed measured in DDR or double data rate. This determines how quickly data is transferred to and from the RAM while opening or using applications.

Most modern laptops have DDR4 memory which is faster than DDR3 and the older DDR2 RAM memory which were used in older laptops and are not obsolete.

Upgradability

Also bear in mind that most laptops have provision to upgrade the RAM by installing additional RAM modules/sticks. For example if you purchase a laptop with 8GB ram you can later install another 8GB stick to increase the total size to 16GB.

However there are some laptops that do not have this feature and come with the maximum amount of RAM pre-installed. So while selecting a new laptop, you might want to check if the RAM can be upgraded later on when needed.

3. Graphics Card / GPU

Graphics cards, or GPUs, are an essential hardware component for many laptops, as they speed up the rendering of on-screen graphics and images. This is essential for gaming, 3D rendering, and video editing, which rely on 3d functions.

Without a great graphics card, rendering times for HD video and 3D objects are extremely long, and most games will have to be run on the lowest settings.

Fortunately for laptop users, the difficulty of choosing according to size, power supply usage, and connection type will not be an issue, as everything is assembled beforehand.

However, those who are users of graphics-intensive programs will have to see if these programs can be comfortably handled by the GPU they are about to purchase. The recommended and minimum specifications are often noted on the websites of the program or game.

Graphics Cards Comparison

Graphics Cards Comparison

Graphics cards in laptops are either integrated gpus, or dedicated gpus. Integrated gpus are on the lower side with limited performance and capabilities.
Integrated GPUs will share from the system RAM memory for graphics processing.

Dedicated Graphics / GPUs

Dedicated GPUs are more powerful with advanced functions used by 3D games and rendering softwares. They also have their dedicated memory called GDDR and come in sizes from 2GB to 8 GB.

If you need higher FPS in games with high quality graphics then you need a powerful dedicated gpu. They are also necessary for 3D modeling and rendering applications.

These are the higher end GPUs that you should be looking for if you want to run most games and render work with no problem:

  • AMD Radeon RX 560X - 1024 Stream Processors, 4GB GDDR5 Memory, 7 Gbps Memory Speed, Base Clock (MHz): 1175
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1060 - 1152 CUDA Cores, 3GB GDDR5 Memory, 8 Gbps Memory Speed, Base Clock (MHz): 1708
  • AMD Radeon RX Vega M GL - 1280 Stream Processors, 4GB HBM2 Memory , 1.6 Gbps Memory Speed, Base Clock (MHz): 931
  • NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1660 Ti - 1536 CUDA Cores, 6GB GDDR5 Memory, 8 Gbps Memory Speed, Base Clock (MHz): 1530
  • NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2070 - 2304 CUDA Cores, 8GB GDDR6 Memory, 14 Gbps Memory Speed, Base Clock (MHz): 1620

When you don't need much GPU power

There are several use cases where you don't need a lot of graphics processing power. Not having a powerful gpu also makes the laptop much cheaper. This means that you can spend the extra money on other features of the machine like display size and RAM.

If you need a laptop for just regular tasks like browsing web, reading mails, working with documents then you probably don't need a very powerful graphics card. Any integrated GPU would suffice.

4. Storage - SSD/HDD/NVME

Whether you need to store documents, videos, music, or install applications and games, it is very important to consider the storage type and capacity of your laptop.

Some of the common storage types and sizes are listed below:

Storage Types and Sizes

  • HDD (128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB, 2TB)
  • SSD (64GB, 128GB, 256GB)
  • M.2 NVME (128GB, 256GB, 512GB, 1TB)
  • Hybrid (HDD + SSD)

Older laptops often come with a hard disk drive or HDD. Hard disks are slower in terms of read and write speed and also heavier and make noise. They can transfer files at a speed between 100MB to 200MB per second. This results in slower application loading times, boot time and copy speed.

SSDs on the other hand are much faster, have no moving parts so make no noise and produce less heat. With SSDs applications load much faster, system boots much faster and files can be copied much faster. Conventional SSDs have data transfer speeds upto 600 MBps/6 Gbps which is much faster than hard disks.

SSDs further have variants. The older ones are the 2.5" SSDs are the most common, being the cheapest in terms of price per gigabyte, and being simpler for manufacturers to slot into laptops and other small devices.

The newer ones are the M.2 NVME SSDs are slightly more expensive but offer faster data transfer speeds, up to 3000 MBps which is at least 10 times faster than a typical HDD.

An NVMe (Non-Volatile Memory Express) PCIe communicates directly with the CPU, reducing command input and output time to 3 milliseconds.

So what's the best option

If you don't need to store a lot of data directly on the laptop then you should go for NVME SSD on laptop with an external HDD for additional storage. That way you get the highest speeds on the laptop and plenty of storage outside when needed. NVME ssd storage is available in sizes like 256GB, 512GB and 1TB.

M.2 NVME ssds are also very small in size take less space inside the laptop. This makes the laptops lightweight and compact in shape.

On the other side, if you need a lot of disk space on laptop for cheap then your best option is a hybrid SSD+HDD storage. These laptops typically have a 128GB SSD with a 1TB HDD. These laptops may be slightly heavier and bigger in size, due to the HDD.

5. Weight and Portability

Being able to carry a laptop around is one of it’s biggest perks, but there are alternatives to make it even more convenient. There are numerous factors that affect the portability and most important one is the weight and the size.

The size of the laptop depends on the screen size and the hardware that is installed inside.

Weight

Laptops typically weigh in the range 1Kg to 3Kg or more. The weight directly depends on the size and the hardware inside it.

13 inch Macbooks are known to be lightweight and thinnest laptops whereas gaming laptops from ASUS and MSI are heavier because of the high end hardware used in them.

If you plan to use the laptop while travelling then the overall weight can be a very important factor to consider and saving about 1-2 Kg on the weight of the laptop can make a huge difference.

Display Size

Laptop size is measured from corner to corner of the screen, standard laptops typically at 15.6 inches. A standard small laptop of 14 inches will be far easier to fit in any bag, comfortably set down on any surface, and even carried around by hand like a tablet. Recently, manufacturers have been trying to get even smaller, between 11-13 inches.

Larger laptops normally at 17.3 inches, however, can often accommodate more storage, higher processing power, or even a number pad and extra buttons on the keyboard.

Laptop Sizes

Laptop Sizes

Laptops with 15.6" display size are the most common as they have the optimum display size and adequate body size to fit on all necessary hardware. You can get the best of the hardware configurations in a 15.6" laptop.

Hardware Components

The hardware components installed inside the laptop also affect its portability. For example laptops with a optical drive like dvd writers will have a slightly thicker body compared to those that don't have any optical drive.

Gaming laptops with high end graphics cards might have additional cooling fans making the body thicker.

NVME ssds are very small in size compared to HDD, so laptops with only NVME ssds might have a more compact body.

So consider all the above factors and select the laptop that has the right portability with all the necessary hardware.

Finally

For a compact, portable yet powerful laptop look for something that has a display size of 15.6", with NVME SSD and a low/medium level GPU that does not require active cooling with fans, and does not have any optical drive. These features will make it lightweight and sleek.

Finally look at the weight of the laptop and look for one that is lighter.

6. Connectivity

To connect external devices you would need ports like USB, HDMI etc. The hdmi port is for connecting to an external monitor, whereas the usb ports are for connecting any device that supports usb. These include keyboard, mouse, external hard drives, optical drives, usb pen drives, smartphones etc.
Laptops typically have anywhere between 2-6 usb ports.

The USB ports have their own version numbers like USB 2.0, USB 3.1, USB 3.2 etc. The higher version numbers support faster data transfers compared to previous version numbers. Laptops will usually have usb ports with different versions.

For example 1x USB 3.1 Type-C Gen 1 port, 2x USB 3.1 Gen 1 Ports, 1x USB 2.0 Port.

If you want the best performing usb ports, then look for laptops with highest versions of usb ports.

Laptop Connectivity

Laptop Connectivity

Besides USB there is HDMI port for connecting the laptop to external displays which can be useful if you plan to use a desktop monitor for viewing your laptop screen. Some high end laptops like the ones from Dell also have Mini DisplayPort connectors for connecting external displays.

Some laptops may also include Thunderbolt port and Ethernet ports.

Aside from these essentials, there are headphone jacks for audiophiles, SD card holders for photography enthusiasts, and many other ports that can fit your specific needs.

7. Display Quality and Specs

Laptops usually have limited options when coming to the display screen specifications and features.

Display sizes are usually around 14"-15.6" or 17.3" in size and resolutions are around 1920x1080 FHD or 2560x1440. Though there are cheaper laptops with lower resolutions. We recommend 1920x1080 as the most optimum resolution for a portable device like a laptop.

Also note that smaller display at the same resolution has a higher pixel per inch density which makes images appear more sharp.

When it comes to display sharpness and pixel density, the unique laptops are Macbooks which have retina display which has unusually high pixel per inch density over 200.

The 15-16 inch MacBook Pro featured resolutions around 3072×1920, which has a pixel density of around 226 pixels-per-inch. The 13-inch MacBook Pro had resolutions about 2560×1600, which gives to a pixel density of about 227 PPI.

So if you are looking for the most stylish and sharp looking display screen then macbooks are the perfect choice.

Display panel technology on all modern laptops is usually IPS which offers the best color quality.

Refresh rates and response times

If you looking for a gaming laptop then you need to consider a few more things regarding the display quality. These include the refresh rates and response times.

Competitive gaming requires a refresh rate of 144Hz or more and a response time of 5ms or lower. Laptop displays have limited options when it comes to high refresh rate displays and they don't compete quite well with desktop monitors.

But still there are gaming laptops designed to meet these requirements. Gaming laptops from MSI, Acer, ASUS offer high refresh rates upto 144 Hz and response times as low as 3ms. There are few laptops with refresh rates as high as 240 Hz as well.

Higher refresh rates are important only for competitive gamers and most regular laptop users don't really need to think about this feature.

8. Keyboard

Keyboards on laptops are very different from desktop keyboards. The are lots of factors that can affect the usability of a laptop keyboard. Some of the key points are numeric pad, backlight and size of arrow keys.

Numeric Pad

Most small sized laptops usually do not have the num pad in their keyboard, to save space. However with the standard sizes like 15.6" some of the laptops have numpad while some dont.

The numpad makes it easier to type long numbers, so if you need to use the numpad, look for a laptop that has one.

Backlight

Most new laptops models have backlight, but there are a few cheaper ones that don't. If you are looking for a budget laptop and need to use it in low light conditions, then look for one with backlit keyboard.

Arrow Keys

Laptop keyboards are compact in size and to save space the arrow keys are often made very small. A lot of laptops have the up/down arrow keys half the size of the left/right arrow keys to make them fit in a row. The smaller up/down arrow keys can be inconvenient for some users.

Alternatively there are other laptops that feature arrow keys of the same size. If typing comfort is preferred then look for keyboards with bigger sized arrow keys.

9. Battery Life

Battery life is perhaps one of the most critical features of a portable device like laptop. If you are using your notebook while travelling then battery life is very important. The higher the battery life the better.

The battery life however is not a simple metric like disk space or cpu speed. It is a very complicated thing and the actual battery life will depend on numerous factors including the hardware, the software and the usage pattern of the laptop.

Most modern laptops have better and power efficient components that utilise battery power at optimally. Laptop battery life typically ranges from 5 hours to 12 hours. For some specific models it might be higher.

Laptops with more powerful hardware will often have lower average battery life because they have more power intensive hardware. For example gaming laptops with dedicated graphics card, rgb keyboards and powerful cooling fans.

Gaming laptops typically have battery life of 5-8 hours.

On that other hand, laptops designed for portability have medium level hardware specs within a compact size are able to deliver better battery life. Laptops like the 13 inch macbook can run for upto 12 hours on battery.

Also the battery life will depend on your usage pattern. If you are using the web (wifi) then the battery would be consumed faster. On the other hand if you are doing simple stuff like typing or reading documents, the battery will potentially last longer. So if your usage is not battery intensive you might go for a laptop with better hardware but lower battery life.

Top Brands

Some of the top laptop brands include Apple, Acer, Asus, HP, Dell, Lenovo, MSI.

1. Apple - MacBooks

Apple makes Macbooks which are are most premium looking laptops with their unique metal body and design. Macbooks come in sizes like 13.3", 15.6" and more. The hardware specs are high end with dedicated graphics card and high pixel density displays.

Macbooks run on macOS so you are tied to the Apple eco-system in terms of available applications. They are great for productivity users like coders, office users and web users. Macbooks also have the best battery life amongst all laptops going upto 12 hours.

2. Acer - Popular Series: Aspire, Predator, Nitro

Acer has many different series of laptops for different users. The Acer Aspire series are budget laptops at around $500 that are lightweight, sleek and portable. These are great for office and home users who want to do regular tasks like browsing web, watching videos and handling documents.

For gamers Acer has a separate line of laptops called Acer Predator and Acer Nitro gaming laptops. Both have dedicated gpus and the predator series features displays with 144hz refresh rates which is great for competitive gamers.

3. ASUS - Popular Series: Zenbook, Vivobook, ROG, TUF

ASUS is another popular laptop brand with offerings for both regular users and gaming users.

The Asus Zenbook series of laptops are lightweight, portable laptop with high end hardware configurations. They are great for travellers who use laptops on the go.

Another series is the Asus Vivobook which features medium budget laptops with decent hardware specs suitable for home, office and professional work.

The Asus ROG and Aus TUF are the gaming series laptops from ASUS with powerful hardware. The prices can go upto $2000 and higher depending on how much hardware power is packed into the machine.

The ROG series features dedicated gpus like GTX 1650, RTX 2070 and is available with screen sizes upto 17.3".

The TUF series features dedicated gpus like GTX 1650, AMD RX560X and is available with screen sizes upto 173.3".

If you are looking for powerful hardware with a large display screen, Asus ROG and TUF series are excellent candidates to consider.

ASUS has some of the finest collection of laptops for nearly all kind of users from students to gamers and office users to professionals.

4. HP - Popular Series: Pavilion, ENVY

HP is amongst the oldest names when it comes to laptops. Their Pavilion series of laptops are very popular as budget laptops for home and office users.
The pavilion laptops have mid level hardware configurations that can be used for gaming as well.

The HP Envy series has more powerful hardware for productivity users and competitive gamers.

Besides these HP also offers Chromebooks.

5. DELL - Popular Series: Inspiron, Vostro

Dell has 2 popular series of laptops named Inspiron and Vostro. Both have high end configuration models that can be used for both regular office use and gaming as well.

Dell Inspiron laptops feature display sizes 15.6", 14", 13". It has fold-able 2-in-1 models that can be used as both laptops and tablets.
Most of the models have integrated gpus like Intel UHD graphics. Great for routine tasks like web browsing, document editing, watching videos etc.

The Dell Vostro series has more powerful hardware like dedicated gpus include the Nvidia GTX 1050, MX130 etc. They can be used for gaming.

6. Razer - Popular Series: Blade

Razer exclusively makes laptops with high end hardware suited for gamers and content creators. The Blade series of laptops have dedicated gpus like Quadro RTX5000 16GB GDDR6 VRAM and GeForce RTX2080 SUPER MQ. Most laptops feature 8-core Intel processors with 16-32 GB of RAM and 1TB nvme storage.

Razer Blade laptops pack powerful hardware ideal for gaming, video editing, 3d modelling, and other hardware intensive applications.

7. MSI - Gaming Laptops

MSI offers a large collection of laptops targeting the gaming segment mainly.

Laptops have higher end hardware configurations with dedicated gpus, nvme ssds and high refresh rate displays (144 hz). There are various models in different price points.

Since the laptops have high end graphics hardware they are also suitable for content creation like video editing, 3d modelling etc.

8. Lenovo - Popular Series: Ideapad, ThinkPad, Flex

Lenovo makes budget friendly laptops that are great for office and home use. The hardware is medium level making it suitable for daily tasks like web browsing and document work.

The Flex series feature a 2-in-1 foldable laptops that can be used as a notebook and tablet.

Conclusion

Nowadays, laptops can serve all kinds of purposes, so you should be deciding based on budget, and any factors or hardware you consider more important. Some users may be looking for specific ports, a mechanical RGB backlit keyboard, or even just attractive design.

A student looking for a laptop with only essentials for simple academic work won’t need the best screen quality or resolution, whereas digital artists might need these.

There will never be a need for you to overspend on a laptop as long as you pick the right one, especially with the many flexible and great choices of laptops on the market.

About Silver Moon

A Tech Enthusiast, Blogger, Linux Fan and a Software Developer. Writes about Computer hardware, Linux and Open Source software and coding in Python, Php and Javascript. He can be reached at [email protected].

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