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What to Look for When Buying a Laptop Computer – Specs Explained

By Jason Steele

man holding laptop computerLaptop computers used to come with a prohibitive price tag compared to the cost of mainstream desktop computers. Over the past few years, however, the desktop’s cost advantage has vanished, making a laptop the overwhelming favorite if you have limited desk space or just think you have the slightest chance you might use your computer outside of your home.

At the same time, technological advances have brought about laptops that are smaller, faster, lighter, and easier to use. The only downside to these developments is that now you have a lot of options, and choosing the right laptop is increasingly difficult. Here are the factors that you need to consider:

Basic Components

Hard Drives

Laptop hard drives are smaller and more expensive than their desktop counterparts. While a desktop computer often comes with a hard drive with between 500 gigabytes and 2 terabytes of capacity, most laptops get by with a standard-issue drive with only 100 to 500 gigabytes. That’s still enough for thousands of songs and pictures or dozens of movies. Only if you’re maintaining a large collection of large, uncompressed media files – if you’re a professional photographer, for example – will you find this space inadequate. Most laptop users who need extra memory just pick up a light, portable external hard drive with plenty of capacity.

Further, there’s a newer, faster kind of hard drive. The solid state drive (SSD) replaces the spinning disk with memory chips similar to the ones in your camera or USB storage stick. Solid state drives are noticeably faster than traditional hard drives. They can greatly reduce the time it takes to boot up your computer or to open a program. They also consume less power, helping your battery last longer in the short and long run. Finally, with no moving parts, solid state drives are less likely to crash. For all those benefits, however, they cost much more than standard drives of the same capacity. If you can afford a solid state drive, or you can manage to live with a smaller capacity hard drive, you will really be amazed by its performance. If you don’t want to shell out the cash right now but change your mind later, you can switch out your hard drive as part of a performance enhancing computer hardware upgrade.

laptop external hard drive

Memory

There is an old saying in the computer industry that you can never be too rich or have too much memory. It’s true. When a computer loads a program, it takes the information from the comparatively slow hard drive and temporarily stores it in its much faster Random Access Memory (RAM) drive. Having more RAM will allow you to open up more programs simultaneously without slowing down the computer.

Simply put, more RAM means a faster machine. Most laptops come with a minimum of one gigabyte of RAM. It’s worth paying for two or even four gigabytes of RAM if you can afford it. If higher RAM isn’t in your current budget, at least make sure that you’ll have the ability to upgrade. Not all machines can take an upgrade, and you don’t want to get that surprise later on.

installing laptop ram memory

Processor Speed

In the old days, you would have judged a computer almost exclusively by the speed of its processor. Today, most new computers feature processors that are more than sufficient for most everyday tasks including the use of office applications and Internet browsing.

If you’re going to use your laptop for major gaming, data processing, or video or graphic design, you’ll need to take a harder look at processor speed. Laptops marketed as netbooks come with low-voltage processors that will extend your battery life, while traditional laptops will have standard processors. If you are looking for speed, look for the higher speeds in Gigahertz (Ghz) or multi-core options.

Laptop Weight

The entire point of a laptop is portability, so you need to consider the weight. The heaviest component of a laptop is the battery, so you’ll of course have to balance your preference for a lightweight computer and a long-lasting battery. Think about whether you are always on the move or just an occasional traveler with a computer. If you simply want a laptop for those rare instances when you go to the coffee shop, or to carry around the house with you, you can probably deal with a slightly heavier option for the sake of longer battery life. If you’ll be very mobile, you may want to carry a lighter machine even if you have to plug it in more often.

Other than the battery, other factors that affect weight are screen size and whether or not you’ll get an optical drive (e.g. DVD drive). Most commonly, the lightest laptops will be more expensive than heavier ones that have similar specs. The smallest and lightest laptops can weigh less than two and a half pounds, while the largest can weigh seven pounds or more. I find the middle ground, between three and five pounds, to be the sweet spot for people who want to be able to travel comfortably with their laptop.

laptop woman flying

Display

Screen Size

Think seriously about how much screen size you really need, because a large screen will feel much less portable. The smallest netbooks have screen sizes of eight or nine inches, while laptops built for presentations and large-scale viewing can have screens up to 17 inches. Eight or nine inches will be plenty for surfing and reading emails, but if you’re working with larger documents, photos, or movies, you’ll need at least 11 inches.

One option is to supplement your laptop’s small screen with one or more larger monitors on your desk. This way, you’ll get the advantage of portability and maximize your workspace at home. The most important aspect to consider along with screen size is weight, which will increase significantly with screen size.

Screen Resolution

Resolution is the other critical factor determining how much information you will be able to see on your laptop’s screen. Selecting a higher resolution will allow you to see more text on your screen but it will be smaller. The limiting factor is the maximum resolution that your laptop’s screen can display.

The smallest available resolution is 640×480, which is barely adequate for most tasks. The majority of websites are optimized for a screen at 1024×768. A popular resolution for wide screens is 1280×800, and larger laptops can even feature an incredible 1600×1200.

If you’ll be spending a lot of time in front of the computer, a higher resolution may be worth the extra money. It won’t be as harsh on your eyes and will make for a much more pleasant viewing experience.

laptop sizes

Screen Backlight

An LED screen is a great new feature for your laptop. LED lighting technology offers a better picture, is more durable, and consumes less power. The older, florescent displays usually fail after a few years and cost you a lot to replace, while LED backlights should outlive the rest of your laptop’s components. Moreover, less power consumption translates into a longer battery life.

LED screens provide a larger spectrum of colors, and produce a greater degree of detail in dark areas, making images look sharper than fluorescent-lit screens. There used to be a significant difference in price between florescent LCD and LED lit laptops, but the price of LEDs has dropped to the point where LEDs are taking over the market.

Graphics Cards

The graphics card you can expect from most portable computers will have a fraction of the power that a desktop will have. Unless you purchase a laptop for gamers, the video card will likely only be sufficient for using office productivity applications and viewing media files. However, if you are planning on utilizing one or more external monitors, you should ensure that the video system in your laptop is capable of supporting that configuration.

boy laptop computer games

Key Components

Trackpads

Trackpads, which provide the functionality that mice provide for desktops, are made of various materials and have a wide spectrum of capabilities depending on the manufacturer and model. Even if you plan to order online, visit some stores to test out trackpads to make sure the one you get responds to your movements. You’ll be stuck with it for a great deal of your computer use, and you need to like the “feel” of that specific trackpad.

Apple laptops, for example, have glass trackpads that allow you to use a long list of “gestures” that virtually replace any need for a mouse. PC laptop trackpads offer adequate capability, while providing a wide range of trackpad materials.

laptop trackpad

Keyboard

The size of your laptop’s keyboard will depend on the screen size you choose. If you seek the portability of a small screen, you probably won’t have a full-sized keyboard. Small keyboards are tough to begin with if you have big hands or big fingers, but they’ll also be missing some of the shortcut keys you might be used to.

Before you buy a laptop, make sure that the keyboard fits your hands and is easy to use. Additionally, some laptops have traditional, raised keys while others have a keyboard that sits more flush with the laptop. The slight difference can make a big difference in comfort. Some also offer backlit keys to help you in the dark, though that convenience can drain the battery power.

Lastly, the largest laptops now even come with a number pad on the right side, just like a standard keyboard. Keep in mind that if you’d prefer to carry a smaller laptop but work with a bigger keyboard at home, you can attach a full-sized external keyboard.

laptop keyboard

Battery Life

One of the limiting factors of any laptop is its battery life. You need to consider your lifestyle and decide how important battery life is to you and how much extra you’re willing to pay for a computer with a long-lasting battery. Factors that can increase battery life include LED lit screens, solid state drives, and low-power processors. These newer technologies consume less power, which is a far more convenient way to extend battery life than including a larger and heavier battery.

The best laptops will offer a battery life of close to 10 hours. This can enable students to use their laptop throughout the day without ever having to plug it in. A longer battery life can also be very useful to work at coffee shops, or watch movies on long car rides and plane trips. With most laptops, you can also purchase a second battery to extend your computer’s battery life.

laptop battery

Connecting and Accessorizing

Wireless Capability

These days, wireless cards aren’t really an accessory. Nearly every laptop will come with wireless capability standard. Most come with Bluetooth as well. Wi-Fi will allow you to connect to the Internet, while Bluetooth enables you to use devices like headsets, wireless mice, and telephones, without wires.

You’ll likely find that the card in your machine conforms to the 802.11g standard, which should provide all the speed and bandwith you’ll need. If you want to invest in cutting-edge technology, the next standard on the way will be 802.11n, but it’s not worth spending extra to get this emerging technology at this time.

Camera

As teleconferencing, uploading photos, and recording videos become more popular, more and more laptops come with a small camera above the screen. It’s a cheap upgrade, but it’s easy to end up with a low-quality camera that won’t be of much value to you.

If you plan on frequently using your camera for video, rather than capturing still images, choose a higher resolution. Most laptops with built-in cameras feature 1.3 megapixels of resolution, which is fine for video conferencing. If you want to upgrade, or have more flexibility with the angle of your shot, you can get a high-quality external USB laptop camera.

laptop camera

Ports

Your laptop is meant for portability, and you’ll probably want to carry with you plenty of peripherals, like that camera, when you travel. You’ll need an adequate number of USB ports, or else you’ll need to buy an additional hub. While some laptops come with only two USB ports, if you have a lot of devices to attach, upgrade to four ports.

The current USB standard is 2.0, but 3.0 is quickly becoming more popular. Finding a laptop with USB 3.0 will enable faster communication with external hard drives, cameras, and other devices. Other ports that you may need include Firewire and HDMI, both of which are used to transmit digital video.

Finally, some laptops come with memory card readers that you can use to access the popular formats used by digital cameras.

Docking Stations

One downside to a laptop is that it’s very time consuming to detach and re-attach your peripherals every time you want to move the computer. For your power cord, printer, scanner, and all of your other devices, avoid the mess by getting a docking station. You’ll be able to attach all of your equipment to a single point of contact with your computer, and simply dock and un-dock your machine with the press of a button. Unfortunately, not all laptops are compatible with a docking station, so if you know you have a lot of peripherals, consider this a deal breaker when you’re shopping.

laptop docking station

Two Big Debates

Mac vs. PC

On the software front, many people find the Mac operating system much more user-friendly than Windows. Moreover, Mac hardware has proven to be more reliable over the long run than PCs. Apple products, however, are significantly more expensive than their PC counterparts, mainly because the PC market is saturated with numerous competitors vying for the lowest price.

Additionally, Windows users have access to a larger selection of compatible programs since most software is designed first and foremost for Windows. This is true especially when it comes to computer games.

Laptop vs. Netbook

A few years ago, the computer manufacturers had the “bigger is better” mindset. Major companies presumed that all users wanted the largest available screen and every feature they could dream up. Eventually, they learned that some customers wanted a smaller laptop with fewer features at a lower price point. The product they came up with was called the netbook.

The idea was that they would remove the DVD drive, reduce the screen size, and decrease the power consumption. The resulting machine would thus be optimized for portability and long life. They intended to create a computer that you could use for basic light computing tasks and general web surfing.

As more variations on laptops become available, the lines are getting blurry with netbooks vs. laptops. Many manufacturers have even dropped the optical drives in favor of slim, light designs with incredible battery life. At this point, the word “netbook” isn’t much more than a marketing term to indicate that a computer is a small, light alternative that doesn’t have a DVD drive.

woman headphones laptop

Final Word

Laptops are so much more accessible than they were just a few years ago, and the technology keeps improving while prices fall further. For just a few hundred dollars, you can purchase a small, light, and powerful computer that will give you wireless access to much of the world’s knowledge. That is a pretty amazing fact that would have astounded most computer enthusiasts twenty years ago.

And while it’s great news for tech enthusiasts and casual users, it’s still not a perfect world. You’ll have to consider plenty of options in choosing your computer and its various components. If you want to get the most machine for your money, keep these key features in mind.

What other factors have you considered in choosing your laptop computer? What options are most important for your computing needs?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Jason Steele
Jason has been writing about personal finance, travel, and other topics on blogs across the Internet. When he is not writing, he has a career in information technology and is also a commercially rated pilot. Jason lives in Colorado with his wife and young daughter where he enjoys parenting, cycling, and other extreme sports.

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  • http://frugalzeitgeist.com Forest

    Nice beginner article. It astounds me some of the computer people buy for the simplest of tasks. It’s easy for a casual user to walk into a store and get oversold, especially with all the BUY NOW PAY LATER deals they put on the things!

  • David/moneycrashers

    Forest

    You are right on point–I see it every time I go into one of those places.

    I almost want to interrupt the conversation!!

    Education in this area is essential!

    Thanks for commenting

  • Kira

    Here are some numbers for even the most basic laptop:

    No smaller than 20 gigabyte hard drive
    No less than 512mb RAM (or even 1 gigabyte)
    No less than 1.5 gHz processor speed.

    Anything lower than this and it is not worth your time since just running Windows will cause the computer to run like a tortoise. Since 95% of laptops should have this or better, it might not be new if it’s below these numbers.

    • David/moneycrashers

      Kira

      Great stuff, although those are some pretty low numbers.

      These days, its very easy to find a brand new laptop with at least 2GB of RAM, at least a 160GB hard drive, and processors about what you stated for around $300.

      Thanks for all your your great feedback. You are definitely a friend of Money Crashers!

  • JG

    Minimums are important to be aware of, but as someone who works in the industry, you need to remember that ‘minimum requirements’ on software are simply that: *minimum* requirements. This means that the software…will…run. Not necessarily run well. In fact some software will have greater requirements depending on the environment you’re running. Also, consider longevity: When will you want to buy another computer. Many people are still of the mindset that a computer should last 4 years. If you’re going to wait that long, you’ll want to start off with a bigger (better specs) laptop or at least consider its upgradability. Laptops are not as easy to upgrade as their desktop cousins. Of course, you want to stay within your budget, but as much as you don’t want to have a salesperson oversell you, don’t let yourself get undersold either.

  • Lin

    aw

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