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How to purchase a laptop

Rick JohnsonSystems Administrator
When you purchase a laptop computer, there are lots of options, as I am sure you are well aware, if you have been looking at machines lately.  I realize this is long article, but this is exactly what I go through whenever I spec out a machine for someone. Please remember, this is what process I go through, given that most people I deal with have somewhat limited experience with computers. For those that are more experienced, there may be a number of other features or concerns that would have to be considered as well.

The first question I would ask is this: " What do you want to do with it?", then, in order to be able to make a more accurate solution, I would need to have some parameters, such as dollar amount, screen size, etc.

In order to help you maybe make your own decision, I would suggest the following, assuming you don't want to go to a Macintosh:

Screen size:
If you are going to have this laptop as a "desktop replacement"
and not really carry the machine around all day long, a 17" screen would be great. A 15" screen is a good all around machine, and carrying it isn't too onerous. The 12" screen is awesome for carrying around but you would probably go nuts if it were your only machine and you didn't have an external monitor to hook up to it.

Screen resolution:
This is more of a personal preference. The higher the resolution, the higher the quality of the images and correspondingly the higher the cost. It also means that the higher the resolution is set, the SMALLER the icons will be on the screen, which may be an issue.

If this machine is going to be carried, weight becomes a factor. Generally, the lighter the machine, the more expensive (at least this has been my experience, with all other factors remaining the same). Rather than get into comparison of what is "heavy", maybe pick something up that is approximately the weight you are looking for and carry it around the room for a couple minutes.

The layout of a keyboard can also be a very large factor. Will the pointing device be a touchpad or a little eraser nub in the middle of the keyboard? Will there be a dedicated numeric keypad? Are the keys located in a typical "QWERTY" layout? Is the physical layout "crowded" or "small"? How does the action feel when pressing the keys? These factors can be critical to a touch typist. I know of people that otherwise loved a particular machines features but the keyboard was the deciding factor against it. This is, of course, personal preference. I prefer a separate keypad and dedicated arrow keys, with full action keys...but again, that's my preference.

Minimum, 4GB, but 8 or even more is strongly recommended. Remember, upgrading a laptop is typically more expensive because you usually have to throw out both memory sticks, so get as much as you can afford for the machine.  Even go down a notch on the processor speed and increase the memory, if you have to. I say this because the processor speeds are quite adequate for the majority of the users I deal with...however, if you are doing highly intensive processing, I strongly suggest keeping the processor speed up as well as bumping up the RAM, because you really can't upgrade the processor on a laptop.

Going from a 2.5Ghz processor to a 2.0Ghz isn't a huge difference but going from 4GB to 8GB makes a big difference since software and operating systems are very memory intensive.

Battery Life:
Look to see what options there are for batteries. Sometimes there are different battery packs for the same machine. Just see what is available.

Dual core processors (also known as Core Duo) are better (and Quad Core are better yet), since the computer thinks it has 2 processors rather than one (and 4, for the Quad Core). The speed of the single core processors will be higher but that's okay...I would suggest a dual (quad?) core at least 1.5GHZ but I would go as high as you can afford, of long as it doesn't take away from the memory you purchase.

What about 64-bit processors?  Nearly all the new machines are 64 bit processors with the corresponding 64 bit operating system. This configuration is considerably faster than the 32 bit counterpart. Because of this, the drivers are now standard with support for 64 bit operating systems.

Hard Drive:
If this is going to be your main or only machine, I would suggest a larger hard drive.  Drives are getting larger but not so much in the laptops.

If you can afford it, get a 750GB or larger. I also suggest you purchase an external USB 500+GB drive for backup and extra files.  I would recommend an external drive because hard drives sometimes fail and if there's a backup of the documents, it would save a lot of headaches.  This having been said, however, it's critical that you actually back up the critical documents, such as papers and your MP3 of last week's Karaoke competition.

What about SSD? SSD, or Solid State Drives, are substantially faster than the corresponding 5400RPM drives often used in lower end laptops.  This helps with "paging" to the local hard drive (the act of taking items in active memory and temporarily storing it on the hard drive to cache it and free up additional memory for currently running processes). This does typically increase costs but the performance trade-off can be worth it. What about upgrading my current machine to run an SSD? That would depend on what you have for current hardware. I successfully upgraded my NetBook from a 5400RPM drive to an SSD, but the increase in performance was minimal. This was because the bottleneck wasn't the drive, it was the processor speed. Your results may I know of people that upgraded the hard drive and it made a significant impact, to the point where my brother's laptop took approximately 12 seconds from a cold start to be able to log in...and loading Microsoft Office took another 4-5 seconds. Not too shabby...

Removable drive:
Originally, I would have suggested a DVD-RW, but with the development of "jump drives" and "cloud" systems like DropBox, this is no longer a critical factor. Instead, pick up an external USB optical drive for the instances where it's still required.

I also recommend an external USB hard drive for backing up critical documents

Operating System:
Windows 8.1 (at least for the near future). Windows 7 is still supported, but as Windows 10 comes out, the old Vista machines will fall off the support wagon. Regarding the 64 bit versions of the software, you can get it (if you have a 64 bit processor) and it's faster. The drivers have been updated by this point so that is of course my suggestion.

Alternate Operating System:
Linux, such as Ubuntu.  It's free but Linux is not for the faint of heart, since you will need to do a lot of troubleshooting if things don't go quite well as the fact that the software purchased at the store is mostly written for Windows.  There are often free alternatives for Linux but you may have to do some digging to find them.

Network connector built in:
RJ45 100 megabit connector minimum, 1 gb connector becoming more common.

802.11n minimum, but 802.11ac becoming more common.

Productivity Pack:
Microsoft Office 2013, student edition if it's available, otherwise whatever includes Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. Another option is Microsoft Office 365, which many new purchases will have pre-loaded.

Alternate Productivity Pack:
LiebreOffice from or OpenOffice from They are both free and can be configured to read and write Microsoft Office files.

These items aren't critical and can be purchased afterward but if the user will be doing a lot of papers, they might want to consider this:
External 17" (or larger) monitor - If you go with the 12" screen for portability and there's not a desktop machine, consider having an external monitor. The resolution issue mentioned above also holds true here.
External USB keyboard - Same would help with typing. The notes regarding the keyboard above still hold true here as well.
Upgrade: wireless keyboard.
External USB mouse - Same would help with manipulation.
Upgrade: Wireless mouse.
USB Hub - Usually, laptops only have one or two USB ports and it's common to need three or more with all the devices out there.
USB Headset - For running the sound up but not disturbing the neighbors.
Also includes a microphone for being able to talk such as through Skype or playing games. Possible upgrade: Wireless headset.
What about Tablets, NetBooks and Ultrabooks:
There are a number of very good tablets out there, but it would depend upon what you wanted to do with it and this is a bit outside the scope of this document. For example, if you are essentially a consumer (surf the web, check e-mail, "do Facebook", etc.), a tablet can work just fine for you. If you are writing the next War and Peace, I suggest something with a keyboard and a faster processor.

NetBooks are a smaller and lighter version of full laptops. They are great but typically limiting, using a slower processor, less RAM or unable to change out the batteries, as well as a smaller screen. They have their use as well...again, it depends on how they will be used. I successfully used a NetBook for several years, mainly due to the portability. Mine did not have any built in optical drives, all to cut down on weight and size. It was also slower than the units in use at the time. I found it to be VERY useful going to client sites and having a "fully functioning computer" available to me, even with these limitations. Wikipedia has a wonderful description:

Ultrabooks are a higher end of sub-notebook. Typically lighter and faster. I don't have any real experience with these units...however, Wikipedia has a good article explaining what they are:

Look at for some wonderful deals including for Dell.
Keep in mind my suggestions above when determining which machine to go with.

If you decide to go with a Macintosh computer, I would suggest talking with someone from the Apple Store and remember many of my suggestions will still apply.

To carry around the laptop, most companies offer suitcase looking cases with a shoulder strap. I have found (through LOTS of experimentation) that I prefer a laptop backpack for comfort (and I also use it for all my paperwork and books, too). Make sure you get one designed for a laptop because it usually has a "shock resistant" pocket for the laptop or at least a foam container to hold onto it.
Rick JohnsonSystems Administrator

Comments (2)

Jenn PrenticeContent Manager

This is a great article that I will be passing along to everyone I know who's interested in purchasing a laptop.  You do a great job of breaking down each of the things that a person might need to consider when looking to purchase a laptop.
Thank you so much for writing it! I hope to see more of your work on the site.
Rick JohnsonSystems Administrator


Thank you, jennhp. I hope to be able to write more articles for EE. I have found this to be a tremendous resource and have solved far more problems thanks to the folks trawling these posts than I can shake a stick at.

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