So it’s time to choose your next laptop—your trusty companion for the next few years, the hardware that will keep you connected and handle everything from essay writing to Netflix binging. But how do you narrow down the wealth of options out there? With our short and simple guide, that’s how.
Choose your OS
Pick the OS for your laptop and you can very quickly whittle down the number of options you have to pick from. It’s a good rule of thumb to stick to what you know for the sake of convenience, but sometimes a change can work wonders, so it’s worth making yourself aware of the options.
Buy a Windows 8.x laptop now and you’ll get a free upgrade to Windows 10 when the time comes. Windows 10 features a mixture of the old and new (see the live tile-enhanced Start menu for example) and it has a few clever tricks up its sleeve (such as biometric security support and Microsoft Cortana).
Windows is essential if you’re a serious gamer and often gets updates (Chrome, Spotify and so on) before Mac OS X does. On the downside, its ubiquity means it’s a popular target for peddlers of malware and spyware—but if you install a competent security suite and keep Windows patched there’s no need to lose sleep over it.
Then there’s Mac OS X. It has a reputation for being more stable and more secure than Microsoft’s OS, although that doesn’t mean you won’t run into problems. As with Windows, if you buy a laptop running Yosemite now you can have a free upgrade to El Capitan in the fall.
Apple’s desktop software is reliable, slick and easy on the eye (especially on Retina screens). Perhaps the only downsides are it takes some getting used to if you’re a seasoned Windows loyalist, and it’s very much geared up to work with other Apple products rather than anything else.
Google’s Chrome OS is continuing to attract users and has its pros and cons. If you live your laptop life in a browser, it has everything you want, and you don’t need to worry about security software, bloatware or backups. It boots up quickly and is less liable to slow down over time.
On the downside, it is just a browser. You’ll need a good Wi-Fi signal most of the time (apps like Gmail and Google Drive do have some limited offline functionality) and if you want access to your movie and music collections you’ll need them stored in the cloud somewhere.
Every laptop is a compromise between screen size, power and portability so the question of how much traveling you’ll be doing with your new bit of kit is a major factor in choosing a screen size. The 11-13” models are preferable for use on the go—anything above that is a little unwieldy for carrying around on the train or the bus, though of course it can still be done.
If your laptop is spending most of its time sitting on a desk then you might consider a 15-inch or even 17-inch laptop to be worth the extra expense and bulk: It’ll certainly give you more room for movies, games and video editing panels. Resolution is important too: More pixels gives you a sharper screen and more flexibility.
Ultimately it comes down to personal preference and how you’re going to be using your computer: Larger screens mean less squinting and more space, whereas smaller screens equal more compact and lighter laptops. Smaller screens are also easier on battery life, of which more later.
Processor, RAM and storage
Internal specs aren’t as important as they used to be but, as the new MacBook shows, they’re still worth considering. It’s difficult to compare one set of specs against another (reviews can be helpful in gauging performance) but there are some broad pointers you can follow.
As far as the processor (CPU) goes, the number of cores and their GHz clock speed is the primary (though not the only) driver of performance: It’s essentially how fast your laptop can think and make calculations, and more cores and more GHz is always better.
RAM (Random Access Memory) is how much room your laptop has to think—how many video game frames or large movie clips or open browser tabs it can hold in its memory at once. When that memory gets full you run into performance problems. As far as laptop power goes it’s secondary to the CPU but it still plays a big role.
Then there’s storage, obviously the amount of data you can store on your laptop. All of the various cloud and backup services are helping reduce our reliance on local storage, but you should always keep copies. If you don’t have much in the way of movies, music and photos then you can save yourself some cash by opting for less space on board.
Most laptops also have some form of graphics card chip installed, though it’s combined with the CPU on cheaper models. These chips are most important if you’re a gamer or doing tasks that are very graphically intensive—video or photo editing, for example—but for everyday use you don’t need a massively powerful GPU inside your laptop.
Battery life can be a deal-breaker or irrelevant depending on how you’re planning to use your laptop, so shop accordingly—we would recommend checking out a review or two rather than trusting manufacturers to provide an accurate estimate of how long your battery is going to last.
The thinnest and lightest laptops usually offer best battery performance due to their low-powered components, but there is a performance trade-off to consider. How you use your laptop can make a substantial difference too, so take this into consideration as well.
If you have a lot of accessories or an external monitor to connect up then you should be thinking about port provision too. Wireless transfer (of files, music and so on) is becoming more ubiquitous thanks to its convenience, but wired connections still offer better speeds and reliability overall.
And then of course: Price. We’ve avoided mentioning it much so far but for many of you this will be a huge factor—if that’s the case then the other considerations listed above aren’t so important. You usually get what you pay for though, so if you can, dig a little deeper.
There are many different laptops on the market (with more arriving every month) and many different approaches to take to buying one, but hopefully those nuggets of advice can help you on the way to picking the right laptop. Have you made a great or terrible purchase recently? Sound off in the discussion below.