Windows 7 vs. Windows 8
If you are thinking about buying a new laptop you couldn’t have picked a better time. With a new Windows version shipping soon retailers typically want to unload all the systems preloaded with the previous operating system (OS). This means prices will fall on all of the computers running Windows 7 – which is what you really want. Historically Microsoft Operating Systems are buggy and problematic for the first 6 month or a year. Why spend good money for such headaches? In many cases you will receive an update coupon so you can purchase Windows 8 for less than $20. Although I recommend buying the upgrade so you have it for later, you won’t want to install it for some time.
The things you should really pay attention to in order of importance are CPU, memory, hard drive speed (not size). Then some thoughts about the display that should guide your preference.
Currently in the Intel lineup we are looking at the Core i series or processor. Core i7, Core i5, Core i3 with the larger number being the better performer. Core i7 is for really high performance and I doubt most people reading this really need that much power – or want to spend that much money. The dual Core i5 and i3 should be plenty of power for most users, and the quad-core Core i5 is a better value than the i7. There are also three generations of all the processors. The best value is typically in the previous generation (marked as 2nd generation Core i3 for example) while the better performance (or improved functionality) is in the latest generation.
Then there are the AMD chips. The notable ones are the A6, A8 and A10. As with the Intel the best performer, A10, is more processing power than most users really need and your best value is in the A6 or A8. The AMD CPU lineup isn’t the equal of the Intel, but the graphics performance is enhanced as well and that may even out overall performance. All things equal I buy the Intel, but if I can save a few bucks I would buy the AMD.
System memory or Random Access Memory (RAM) is even more important than CPU speed. The difference between the processors above couldn’t even be realized in a system that didn’t have enough RAM. The minimum for a modern Windows system is 4GB, but you will likely upgrade to 8GB during the life of the computer. If you can buy a computer with an AMD A6 with 8GB RAM for even money as an Intel Core i5 with 6GB take the system with more RAM even of the CPU might be slightly less fast.
The size of today’s hard drives are larger than what most users require. If you do require a lot of storage you probably already know this and know how much space you need. For the average user even the speed of the hard disc drive (HDD) is not all that important, but I wanted to discuss it because it is often overlooked and even seldom in the specifications. A retail store prints the size of the HDD clearly, but almost never the speed of the drive. Today’s drives come in 5400 RPM, 5900 RMP and 7200 RPM with the later being what I recommend. The faster drive does generate more heat and so it is not right for all systems. Many of the thin and light notebooks have the slower drive because the small case doesn’t provide for ample cooling. If you prefer such a system the speed of the drive is a fair trade off, but if you are buying a budget laptop and you see a 750 GB HDD and another with a 500 GB HDD you might want to dig deeper into the speed of the drive. I would take a 500 GB 7200 RPM drive over even a 1TB 5900 RPM drive.
The solid state drives deserve at least a mention. Most mainstream systems won’t include such a drive, but if they do they will be even smaller. Most moderately priced SSD drives are too small for the average user, but this is changing fast. These drives are faster (at least at reading data from the drive – the lion share of the work of an HDD), but smaller and generate nearly no heat. They also preserve more power and so will lead to longer battery life. This technology is newer and there are an ample amount of drives on the market that you might want to stay away from, so do your homework on the specific make and model drive prior to purchase.
The size of a display (which can often dictate how light and portable a laptop is) is mostly an issue of user preference. Many people prefer a 14 inch display because the computer is a bit more compact, while others really don’t want to sacrifice screen size below 15 inch (usually 15.6). Desktop computers today have big beautiful 22 inch LCD panels and there are more and more laptops with 17 inch displays but these make for large and heavy computers.
The more important thing to look out for is the resolution, especially if you have trouble reading the screen as it is. Often more expensive laptops have high resolution screens. These panels are more expensive and they are better displays because you can fit more on the screen, but for someone who typically has to make the screen print larger these expensive panels are wrong for them. Sure you can make the print larger or even lower the resolution, but doing so has negative effects that could be avoided by buying the right panel in the first place.
Many 15 and 14 inch laptop displays have 1366 x 1768 on the low side, 1600 x 900 in the mid range and even 1920 x 1080 (often labeled 1080p) on the high end. Go into a retail store, consider the distance you would typically be from the display, and compare a few models set to the native or recommended resolution. Make sure you are comparing the same size displays.
I don’t mention brands because I am brand agnostic. Many computer users have their favorite brand, and they should stick with it if that is what they like. None of the computers today are made by the company whose name is plastered to the machine and the box. They are nearly all made in Malaysia, China, Korea, Mexico, etc… by companies whose names are not on the package or the item. Let the specs drive your decision and not the name.
Assume every brand has outstanding models and lemons. Don’t be in a rush to buy. Get the model, do a Google search, read reviews of the products you are considering. THE SPECIFIC MODEL, not the brand. Everyone knows that Dell makes good computers, but Dell has made some of the worst computers I have seen in a decade as well. It it pretty easy to avoid the worst a company makes because users at Amazon.com (probably the best place to check for consumer reviews on computers) will have plastered their experience for you to read.
Google search the exact model number and don’t lump in other similar models automatically because every model is usually very different in terms of consumer issues.
Good luck! Call me if you need assistance.