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THDP27 2nd Annual Laptop Buyer’s Guide

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laptop buyers guideTo hear this entire interview click here.

2014 Laptop Buying Guide Links

THDP27 Show Notes

2014 Top 5 Laptops

2014 Top 5 Budget Laptops

Check out this list for the things you should take into account when you buy a laptop.

Price

While costs are always on a student’s mind (say nothing of the parent’s concerns), sometimes spending a little extra up front will ensure that the laptop lasts the four years until graduation. Remember that this is a device that will be used every single day, so it better hold up or you’ll be shelling out money again before they graduate. That said, there are plenty of affordable options out there, and many brands offer student discounts.  Please keep in mind though that individual schools may (probably) have programs already set up offering sometimes massive discounts. Check them out here:

Battery Life

Do you use your laptop away from a plug-in or do you travel?  If so you should be looking for a battery with as long a life as you can afford.  The purchase of a laptop is going to take into account many give and take situations.  This one is longer battery life….higher price.

If you don’t stray too far from an electrical source however, you may be able to save significant money by purchasing a laptop with a shorter battery life.  Another thing to remember is that touchscreens will need more power and so will drain your battery quicker.

Especially take into account these components

Display

For most people only the screen size and resolution are all that will really matter. The graphics processor really only tends to make a difference for those looking to possibly do some mobile gaming or high definition video. Pretty much all laptops use some form of backlit active matrix display to allow for bright fast displays capable of video playback.

Touchscreens

Touchscreens basically replaces the touchpad and mouse.  Please remember a couple of things though when considering a touchscreen: first never buy a Windows laptop with a touchscreen and any operating system older than Windows 8.  Windows 8 optimizes the touchscreen and makes it a viable tool.  Second, remember that touchscreens use quite a bit more power so it will affect the battery life.

When it comes to display screens you should pay attention to the following:

Screen size

Laptop screens have a wide range of sizes depending upon the type of laptop system that you are looking at. Ultra-portables (13.3” or less) tend to have smaller screens allowing for a smaller, lighter, more portable laptop. The next size up is the 14” to 16” range.  Larger screens provide an easier to view screen such as those for desktop replacements. These range in size from 17” to 19”.

Resolution

Screen resolution measures the number of pixels on the display.  The first number measures the pixels going across the screen and the second number measures the pixels vertically.  (ie:  1380 x 768).

Another term you will hear is native resolution.  This is the same as the optimal screen resolution for that laptop.  Higher screen resolutions will give you more detail or a clearer, cleaner display.  The drawback to this is the higher the resolution, the smaller the image and the display may be harder to read.

One Last Thought about Displays: Glossy coatings or matte coatings

Most consumer laptops come with the glossy type coatings on the panel.  This will give the screen a more vivid color and greater brightness.  Another note is many (if not most) touchscreen panels come with a glossy coating.  This is because they are easier to clean fingerprints and smudges off.

The thing about the glossy coating is though, if you are outdoors or anywhere with bright light there is increased glare off the screen.  A matte coating (also can be called anti-glare) though will reduce that reflection of light thus limiting glare.  These laptops are better suited in an office and/or business setting.

Graphic Processor

The graphics card will mean the least to you unless you want to edit video, you are a gamer, or otherwise use 3D graphics of any type.  This requirement will need a minimum of 1 GB graphics dedicated memory (GPU).  In this arena ATI and NVIDIA are locked in a death duel.  In my mind, a choice one way or the other only indicates your preference.  At any given time there is not enough of a difference to …..well….make a difference.

RAM

Random Access Memory (RAM) is a fairly straight forward concept.  Currently nearly all laptops will need something called DDR3 (speeds vary) or PC3 (speeds vary).  DDR3 stands for “double data rate type 3”.  It first appeared in the marketplace in 2005 so if you are buying a laptop with DDR2 it is probably used and slower than what you will want today so avoid it.

RAM is cheap!!!  RAM is simple to install.  Buy extra and have your seller install it for you.  Just make absolutely sure it matches the RAM already inside your laptop. The more RAM you have, the more efficiently your computer will work.  It is fairly well known that the quickest, cheapest upgrade you can give any computer, is to increase the RAM.  The amount you can install into a laptop will be defined by whether it is a 32-bit or 64-bit processor.  If your laptop has 32-bit architecture, you can only use 3.2 GB of RAM.  If you have 64-bit architecture, you can stuff as much RAM into your computer as it will hold.

Anecdotally, it seems most laptops come with 4GB of RAM.  All laptops will have a maximum amount of RAM it will recognize and use.  Look for laptops with a maximum of 8GB, 12GB or 16GB. Manufacturers usually only include half the RAM that you can possibly put in.  I find 4 GBs is “ok” but I always feel more comfortable with 8 GBs. Better laptops are coming with 12 to 16 GBs of RAM these days.

Processor

I am going to say this right from the get-go:  I have changed my mind about the usefulness of Intel Celeron processors.  There may be instances where you may want to buy a Celeron chip.  First, Chromebooks often use Celeron chips.  Chromebook manufacturers are compensating by installing a better graphics card.  Another reason may be because you need a laptop and you just don’t have the money for a Macbook and the Celeron laptop you want is only $299.  That’s the thing with Celeron computers….they are not expensive.  But they are fast!  It is not uncommon to see Celeron processors in the range of 2.5 to 3.8 to 4 GHz.  So if you are just going online, not doing much with complex graphics (both software on websites), just browsing, doing email, Microsoft Office then maybe Celeron is for you.

AMD and Intel

There are loads of people that only use Intel chips or AMD chips.  As it stands right now, there is not much of a difference between the two.  You may have 2 very similar laptops.  One AMD and the other Intel.  The AMD will be at least $100 less in price just because they are not as expensive.  You are not giving anything up going with AMD.  As a matter of fact I have had an AMD 6-core processor for the last 2 years.  I’m pretty sure I only paid around $289 for it.  Intel?  Thay do offer a 6-core chip but it is in the top of the line Extreme Editions and that can be very rare indeed.

Current Intel processors are 4th generation Intel Core i3, i5, and i7.  So what’s the difference?  First off, the Core i3 is more of a budget laptop.  With each generation you will get better performance so buy a processor with the highest number you can afford.  Core i5 laptops tend to be (but not exclusively) dual core while many Core i7’s are quad-core (but again, not exclusively).  Core i7 will be better for multitasking, multimedia tasks, high-end gaming, and scientific work.

If you take a look at very similar laptops, one Core i5 and the other Core i7, you will find the Core i5 will be about $170 cheaper.

Hard Drive

5” Laptop Hard Drives

This is the overwhelming choice of laptop hard drives currently. The SATA III’s are very fast, very efficient and much less expensive. The quickest 2.5” drives run at a speed of 7200 RPM (disc revolutions per minute), 5400 RPM and 4200 RPM.  These numbers reflect the speed the hard drive can read your data.  The faster the RPM’s , the more expensive and the more power they use.

Hybrid Solid State Drives (SSHD)

Hybrid drives have internal moving parts and are enhanced by an 8GB NAND flash.  Yep it’s a small SSD. Why all this?  You get a much quicker hard drive (its speed can be further enhanced by software) and much, much cheaper.  Look at the prices:

  •      500GB $62.99    Toshiba (2.5-inch SATA III SSHD)
  •      1TB $99.00    Seagate (ST1000LM014)
  •      2TB $163.84  IPC (STLC2000400)

Solid State Hard Drives

The SSD is a technology that is now becoming mainstream in laptops.  The major advantages come from the fact that there are no moving parts.  Because of that they have an ability to withstand jostling, dropping and other like forms of laptop abuse.  They also are much, much faster, tend to run cooler, and could conceivably last longer.  All of this is good because laptops are after all, mobile, we move them, we carry them and this ability to withstand day to day abuse should save you money in the long run.  The disadvantage is the cost.  SSD’s can be very expensive.  Although prices have been coming down you should still expect to see the following prices (at Amazon):

  •      64GB  $44.99 (Dell C585T made by Samsung)
  •      120GB $74.99 (Crucial M500)
  •      240GB $119.99 (Crucial M500)
  •      500GB $229.99 (Samsung 840 EVO Series)
  •      1TB     $441.87 (Samsung 840 EVO Series)

Connectivity (what ports are on the laptop)

What sort of ports do you need on your new laptop?  Here’s what you can expect:

      • USB – Ok, first off you need as many USB ports as you can get.  It would be super if at least one of them were USB 3.0 (they are blue instead of the white as with the USB 2.0’s that we are all familiar with).
      • HDMI – If you don’t find an HDMI port then you are probably looking at an old model.  This is taking the place of the VGA port.
      • Micro HDMI – Allows you to hook up multiple monitors.
      • Mini Display Port – You stand a good chance of finding this on a laptop.  Allows you to hook up multiple monitors.
      • Ethernet port (RJ-45)–  This will allow you to hook up to a network with an Ethernet cable
      • VGA – The VGA is an old technology but it will linger as long as we have older VGA monitors.
      • e-SATA – This looks something like a USB port.  This allows you to externally hook up a SATA harddrive to your laptop.

 Dual Band Wireless Card: Wi-Fi on college campuses is notoriously bad, especially at peak usage hours. A dual band wireless card will connect to the fastest Wi-Fi speeds, giving you the fastest connection possible. When shopping for wireless cards, look out for keywords such as “5GHz” and supports 802.11n, or wireless N, or b/g/n/ac.

Don’t Buy Software

I read a little article online that really struck home the other day and reminded me of something very important here.  It advised that you should not buy any software for your student’s laptop.  When they get to school they will have an opportunity to purchase software at discounts that you can’t imagine.  Microsoft, VMWare (at least they did 2 years ago) and others have programs offering free use of their software (some limitations apply).

Here are some links for huge discounts available to students:

Warranty

How long is the term of the warranty?  Is it one year?  Is it three years?  This is the manufacturer’s warranty.  You will need this after the first 30 days (if you buy from Amazon).  Do you know what problems your laptop will be covered against? The majority of laptop warranties will cover hardware problems that were not caused by the owner, such as defective keyboards, monitor problems, modem or other issues with internal components. The laptop warranty generally covers the parts and labor for repairs.

A laptop warranty will also indicate what actions (or lack of action) on your part can void the warranty. Something as simple as opening the case and breaking a seal can be enough to void a warranty.

Finally, the reason I buy so much from Amazon.com is because of their no hassle warranties.  It has been my experience that most things that will go wrong will do so within the first 30 days and believe me, I am not shy laying claim to any warranty benefits I may have coming.

Weight and size

Whichever model you purchase, remember that your student will have to haul it across campus and try to execute an open the lid maneuver while on a small desk bunched to closely together. Despite what you think you know about future usage patterns size and weight will determine how often the laptop will be taken outside of the dorm room.  Don’t purchase a laptop that weighs more than 6.5 pounds (my former 13.3” Pavilion dv”whatever” came in at a hefty 6 pounds).  In fact, it’s best to aim between 3 and 4 pounds and stick to small screen sizes when possible.

Testimonial – Bobby

IT solutions-MI was able to help me out of a laptop jam and now I would recommend them to anyone! They acted quickly and professionally. Thank you very, very much.
- Bobby

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