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Dymin Blog

Laptop Buying Guide 2012

Posted by Mike Hurt on Aug 8, 2012 12:00:00 AM
Dymin Systems

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With so many different models and features in the portable computer world today, it's easy to get lost in the marketing jargon. It's important to know how you're going to use the computer, this will help ensure you get what you need, and you don't pay for features you won't use.

Types of Laptop Users

Broad, generalized classifications are always difficult, but most users will find themselves square in the middle of one of these categories. If you're finding it tough to place yourself into one of these types of users, consider what you do most of the time on your computer, say... 75% of the time.

    • Everyday Users
    • Gamer/Power Users
    • On-the-Go Users
    • Business Professionals
    • Specialized-Application Users

Everyday Users

A good majority of people are going to fall into this category. The simple fact of computing life is that while processors and internals have improved in recent years, the basic needs of most computer users hasn’t really changed all that much. What that means is that almost any system you’d care to name can handle the the basic tasks of the everyday user. Instead of worrying about specs and performance numbers, look for a laptop that has the style and feel that fits you.

What you use your computer for: Internet browsing, email, Facebook, word processing (typing documents and spreadsheets), taking and storing photos.
Expect to pay: $400-$700
Key Criteria: Cost, ergonomics, looks
Processor: Intel Core i3 or AMD A4
RAM: 2GB minimum. 4GB if you can afford it. Make sure you're getting a 64-bit version of the operating system if it's available and compatible with your current software programs.
Graphics: The standard Intel or AMD onboard graphics will suit you just fine.
Hard Drive: Even the most basic of laptop computers nowadays come with at least 160GB of hard drive storage. This is more than enough for most users. A 160GB or larger hard drive will ensure you can install all of the programs you regularly use as well as thousands of pictures from your camera.

Gamer/Power Users

This is the category for those users who want the best "performance for the buck" or who like to play video games on a portable computer system. Processor, memory, and graphics performance are going to be key factors for you. You may want to look for a laptop with a 17" or larger screen to give you ample display "real estate". The down side to a high-performance laptop is that the they are generally larger and heavier than their mainstream counterparts.

What you use your computer for: Video games, mainstream applications, Adobe Photoshop (or similar) picture editing
Expect to pay: $1000-$2000 or more
Key Criteria: CPU and graphics performance, screen size/resolution
Processor: Intel Core i7 or AMD A8
RAM: 4GB minimum. 8GB or 16GB if you can afford it. Most laptops do not come with more than 4GB "stock", but they are generally easily upgradable. Our techs can advise you as to the maximum memory capacity of the laptop you're interested in. The more RAM you have, the more multi-tasking capable your laptop will be.
Graphics: Look for a "discrete video card" such as the Nvidia GeForce or AMD Radeon "Mobile graphics". Such graphics cards will dramatically increase the video capabilities of your laptop and are an absolute must if you plan on playing video games on your laptop.
Hard Drive: As with the everyday users, you can generally get away with the standard hard drive. If you like to keep your entire video game collection installed at once, or plan on keeping thousands of "high-resolution" pictures on your computer, you should look for a laptop with at least 500GB of hard drive storage space.

On-the-Go Users

Most laptop users prefer the mobility of a laptop to that of a desktop, but to some, mobility is absolutely critical. These users generally keep their laptop with them at all times, whether they're in their car, a plane, or moving from room to room at the office. Anything above 5 lbs. is going to be a burden on the shoulder, so weight and size are going to be primary factors. You should also consider the new "ultrabook" computers that many manufacturers are offering. Ultrabooks generally are much thinner and lighter than the typical laptop, while maintaining mainstream performance, however, they do cost a bit more than the typical laptop. "Netbooks are also a possibility, however, they are generally very small in size, tough to type on, and limited in performance. Netbooks area great for those needing just basic computer features along with high portability. Be careful before deciding to purchase a netbook. They're great for extremely basic mobile computing needs, but make sure you test one out at a store before buying, as the keyboards tend to be very small and they generally do not include as many features as a standard laptop.

What you use your computer for: When you need to keep your laptop with you all the time, students, "road warriors" (Netbooks: basic internet, email, and word processing)
Expect to pay: $800-$1500 (Netbooks: $300-$400)
Key Criteria: Screen size, weight, battery life
Processor: Intel Core i5 (Netbooks: Intel Atom or AMD Fusion)
RAM: 2GB minimum. 4GB or 8GB if you can afford it. (1GB minimum for netbooks with Windows XP, otherwise, 2GB)
Graphics: Standard, onboard Intel or AMD graphics.
Hard Drive: 160GB or more. Many "Ultrabooks" or "Netbooks" come with the option of an SSD (Solid State Hard Drive). SSDs generally cost twice as much as a typical hard drive and have half or less of the storage space (in GB), but they are a LOT faster and are generally more reliable for mobile computer users. Definitely give SSDs a consideration if you can afford it.

Business Professionals

Most business professionals have very similar needs to the everyday user, but there are a few distinct extras that you need to make sure your laptop has. Most business professionals will, at some point or another, need to connect their laptop to their business's computer network. To do so requires a special Professional version of the Microsoft Windows operating system. You will also want to make sure you purchase a copy of Microsoft Office for your laptop, which comes in  several different versions, depending on the specific programs you need—such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher, OneNote, and Access. Warranty and support services are also a factor as "downtime" can cost a business money by the minute.

What you use your computer for: Remote connection to your PC at work, email, Microsoft Office and standard business applications
Expect to pay: $600-$1200 (Plus an extra $150 to $500 for Microsoft Office)
Key Criteria: Operating system, data backup and security, warranty service, security features, productivity software
Processor: Intel Core i3 or AMD A4
RAM: 2GB. 4GB is highly recommended. More than 4GB is generally "overkill" for most business laptop users unless you are a heavy "multi-tasker", keeping 10 to 15 or more windows open at a time.
Graphics: The standard Intel or AMD onboard graphics will suit you just fine.
Hard Drive: 80GB or more. Most business laptops are connected to a corporate network that takes care of the data backup needs. Data on most corporate networks is kept on the servers and so hard drive requirements on the user's computer is very minimal.

Specialized-Application Users

There are some specialized applications that have very specific hardware or software requirements. You'll generally know these requirements from the software program's manufacturer, but the Dymin techs are always here to advise and let you know when you may need extra, specialized equipment. Certain software may run better on a desktop. Hardware capabilities are always better on a desktop, and some programs really do need that much processing or graphics power. We can usually let you know how to get the best performance for your specialized software with a custom workstation build.

What you use your computer for: Specialized applications such as AutoCAD, Maya, or specialized hardware such as Nvidia CUDA or Tesla
Expect to pay: $1500-$2500 or more
Key Criteria: CPU and graphics performance, screen size/resolution
Processor: Intel Core i7
RAM: 8GB minimum, 16GB or more recommended
Graphics: Intel Quadro or AMD FirePro discrete graphics (The graphics card model needed is highly dependent upon the specific software program. Be sure to check with your software vendor as well as the Dymin techs)
Hard Drive: Again, hard drive space is generally not a concern. The files for certain software programs can be very large, so if you do a lot of specialized work on your laptop, you may need 500GB or more of storage space. You may also want to consider SSD (Solid State Drive) storage for maximum performance, but it comes at a premium price.

Laptop Features

Let's go over some of the main features that you may want to consider for your next laptop purchase. Whether these features are important or not is really dependent upon your specific needs and usage. Some of them are just "bells and whistles", so read on!

Screen Size

A laptop's screen size is directly related to it's overall portability, usability, and even performance. Laptop screen sizes range from 10" up to a massive 19", with the average being 15". The smaller the screen size, the lighter and more portable the laptop, but you also get a smaller keyboard, and generally less-capable performance. The "sweet spot" seems to be around 14" or 15", which nets you the best compromise between portability, usability, and performance. The larger 16"-19" screens usually come on the high-performance laptops. A bigger screen scores you lots more room to work, but they can really become a burden to carry around.

Weight

Weight is usually the direct opposite of size and performance. The higher your laptops performance specifications, the more it will weigh, while the lower the weight, the less capable the laptop tends to be. The lightest laptops tend to be Netbooks, which are usually 10", or Ultrabooks, which are usually 13". Both types weigh in at about 2.5 to 3.5 lbs, but the Ultrabooks have both premium performance and a premium price tag. Your average laptop sizes in at 14" to 15" and weighs around 4.5 to 5.5 lbs. 16" to 19" laptops bring in the muscle with the best performance and feature options, but also weigh in the heaviest at 5 up to 9 lbs.

Processor

Honestly, most computer users don't even really need to pay attention to the processor specifications nowadays. Even the basic, entry-level processors are capable enough to perform all your internet, email, and word processing needs. The only people who really need to concern themselves with the multitudes of different processor model numbers are the gamers, the specialized software users, and the highly impatient! Any laptop other than a Netbook is going to come with a dual-core processor, letting you do multitasking (who has just one window open at a time anymore?) with ease. Those who are multi-tasking masters should consider a quad-core processor such as the Intel Core i5.

Memory

Unlike the processor, memory really does matter. Today, you can get twice the memory for half what it would have cost you even just a year ago. For any new computer running Windows 7, 2GB is your absolute bare minimum. 4GB or 8GB is ideal. 16GB or more is really overkill unless you run specialized applications that really require it.

Storage

This used to matter a lot, but with hard drive sizes soaring and the advent of streaming media services (such as Netflix, Dropbox, and Microsoft's SkyDrive), hard drive storage is becoming less of a concern. 160GB is really as small as you'll find in a new laptop, and this is generally more than enough for most computer users. There is the new SSD (Solid State Drive) technology to consider nowadays, which really only became viable this year. SSDs currently have much smaller storage space, such as 128GB or 256GB, but offer tremendous performance increases over your typical hard drives. Definitely figure out how much storage space you actually use, and if you can afford the extra $100 - $200, give SSDs some serious consideration. Imagine booting up your computer and being at the desktop in 15 seconds rather than 60!

Graphics Processor (Video Card)

The Graphics Processor (GPU) is really only a consideration for gamers/power users and those who run specialized applications. Gamers and power users should make sure to look for a laptop with a discrete nVidia GeForce or AMD Radeon graphics card. You really can't play video games without one, and they'll really help out for the power user wanting to take full advantage of Adobe Photoshop or similar software. Business professionals who use AutoCAD, Maya, or similar specialized software programs need to check their software manufacturer's requirements to find out what graphics card they need. Business "workstation" graphics cards can cost you an extra couple hundred up to thousands of dollars, so make sure you check what your software needs to make sure you're not over- or under-spending.

Wireless

All laptops nowadays come with wireless capability. This means they can connect to your home wireless network for internet as long as you have a wireless router. Some laptops have an optional cellular technology to connect to 3G or 4G networks. This means you can get wireless internet literally anywhere that there is cell phone signal. These 3G or 4G wireless internet services are provided through your cell phone company though, so you'll have to pay them a monthly fee for the service, just like your regular cell phone. Though for On-the-Go users, it can really be worth it!

Optical Drive

Optical drives—CD/DVD readers and burners—have historically always been a standard feature of a laptop. You used to have to pay attention to whether they could just read CDs, read CDs and DVDs, or could burn either or both. Nowadays, all optical drives can do it all—reading and burning both CDs and DVDs—however, now you have to make sure that your laptop even comes with an optical drive. Many of the smaller laptops, 10" to 13", are skipping the optical drives altogether to make room for more robust processors and other features or to cut down on weight and size. While this is not a big setback for all, you'll want to consider how much you really need an optical drive all the time. If the laptop you like doesn't have an optical drive, you can always buy an external optical drive that plugs in through USB to use only when you need it.

Blu-Ray drives are also a nifty new option, letting you watch high-def movies on the go. It's really tough to tell the difference in DVD and Blu-Ray video quality on the relatively smallish screens of laptops, though, so whether it's worth it is up to you.

Operating System

Any new laptop you buy is generally going to come with the latest version of the Microsoft Windows operating system, which today would be Windows 7. There have always been Home and Professional versions of the operating system and you need to make sure you buy a laptop that includes the version that you need. For most users, the Home version of Windows 7 will suit you just fine. For many business users, you'll need to spend the extra $80 or so on the Professional version of Windows. You can always consult the Dymin techs if you need to know for sure which version to get. Also, make sure you're buying the 64-bit version of Windows as long as all your software supports it (which it certainly will as long as the software supplier doesn't specifically state that it will not).

Warranty

Any computer you buy is going to come with a manufacturer's limited warranty. This limited warranty will cover parts and labor costs to repair the laptop if it malfunctions. The manufacturer is also your tech support provider, usually for the same period of time as the warranty. Most laptop warranties are only 1-year, but Dell's business lines (Vostro and Latitude) include a standard 3-year onsite warranty.

Then you have the extended warranties. These are one of those things that to some, they mean nothing, and to others, they are a must. Extended warranties vary—A LOT—so make sure you read them carefully. That being said, some of them are actually useful, so definitely give them some consideration. I've seen extended warranties ranging in length from an extra year up to an extra 5 years and prices ranging from 10% up to 50% or more of the laptops original cost. I recommend paying no more than 15-20% of the cost of the equipment for a  3-year extension on the limited warranty.

Many manufacturers and retailers also offer Accidental Damage Protection plans. These are going to cover your laptop's repair bill if you happen to drop your laptop or spill a drink on your keyboard. Either of these accidents generally mean your laptop's a goner, so if you're "accident prone" or have kids, give them some consideration. I recommend paying no more than 35-40% of the cost of the equipment for a 3-year accidental damage warranty.

We're always here for you

Whether you just need a basic laptop for browsing the internet and checking email, or you need a specialized mobile workstation for all your computing needs, you have the Dymin techs on your side. We would love to hear from you if you have any comments or questions. Leave us a reply below or schedule an appointment.

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Topics: buying guides