What to look for in buying a new laptop

There’s a lot of features to consider when you’re in the market for a new laptop.

I recommend you read through this. Then go to Best Buy and bring this list up on your phone. Look around at laptops and prices in the store, then go thru this list with an actual device in your hands. That’s the best way. Best Buy last I looked (late-2020) had good prices. Almost as good as Amazon.

So, then, here are my 16 features for you to ponder.

The first one is a word of caution / recommendation.

The next 12 are up to your personal preference.

The last 3 are price-performance.

Table of Contents:

DETAILS


1. No Intel OPTANE Memory

I do not recommend Intel Optane memory. It adds complexity and bugs and provides little benefit.

If you want extra speed, upgrade to an SDD storage drive instead of a HDD disk drive and you’ll get even more benefit.


2. Screen size

Maybe the most important factor is the screen size. It varies greatly.

The most common size is 15.6″.

Next most common is 14″.

A small, “chromebook” like laptop might be 13″, 12″, or even 11″. These are small enough to put in your purse. Highly portable. Easy to carry around. Very light.

The largest common laptop is 17″. Not that common. Hard to fit in a backpack or bag. Heavy. But lots of screen area. Usually high performance too.


3. Touch Screen

Most laptops today have a touch screen. (Macbooks do not.)

It is a feature many use, but I think it’s mostly marketing. Occasionally it’s convenient in every day life. But you’re almost always using your keyboard and your mouse.


4. Display Flip

Many laptops today, especially touchscreens, open all the way up and flip all the way around to flat again. In this configuration, the keyboard is facing down the laptop looks like a tablet.

These are often called “360” or something.

This feature is mostly marketing and not that useful in actual practice. People want to use their keyboards.

Often these laptops have “tent mode”. Again, only occasionally useful.


5. Weight.

An 11″ or 13″ chromebook or similar scaled-down laptop might be as light as 2.5 lb in 2021. Feels as light as a cracker. You’ll feel like you can play frisbee with it (but don’t 😉

A typical laptop will be more like 3-4 lbs.

A higher performce / larger laptop could be 5-6 lbs. You’ll notice carrying this around.

Of course if you want to pay more, you can get a light and yet high performance laptop.


6. Keyboard.

Type some things. How does it feel.

Pay attention to the location of these important keys:

  • ALT
  • SHIFT
  • CTRL
  • ARROW (UP DOWN LEFT RIGHT)

And these keys vary laptop by laptop. Sometimes you need to hit the FN key.

  • HOME
  • END
  • DELETE
  • PG UP
  • PG DOWN

Is the space bar long enough and comfortable to type.

Do you want a number keybad on the right? Only bigger laptops (some 15.6″ and 17″) have them.

A slightly premimum feature is a “lighted keyboard”. It can be helpful when typing in dim environments.


7. Battery

How many hours of battery time does it claim? You’ll get close to that when new, and it will decrease every year you have it.

After about 3 years, it will be 1/2 as long.

Is the battery removable

Most in 2021 are not removable. But I believe it is better if it is. Not a big issue.


8. Touchpad

Is it smooth or sticky as you slide your fingers.

Is it big enough to move around freely.

I do not suggest tapping to click. But if you want that, how does the tap sensitivity feel (it is adjustable a little after you buy it).

How does clicking feel. Not all touchpads click. Most do. If the touchpad doesn’t click, you’ll have to click with the mouse buttons.

If the touchpad itself clicks, what pressure is necessary. How does it feel. Does it click evenly an all areas of the touchpad? Top, bottom, left, right?


9. Touchpad Buttons / Mouse Buttons

Sometimes they’re physical and separate. Sometimes they’re integrated in the touchpad.

Sometimes they’re in the touchpad but not marked in any way.

The bottom right of the touchpad is often Right Click. Often this is selectible in the settings of the laptop after you buy it.


10. Camera

If you can, use the Camera app in windows 10 and see how the image looks.

Too bright / dark?

Good resolution or grainy?


11. WiFi

How many antenna and modes does it have?

1 is low end.

2 is mid-range.

4 antenna is high-end.


12. USB ports / Card REader

Types:

USB-C (smaller and oval. Fast.)

USB 3.0 (large, sandard size. High bandwidth. Good for external drives and flash drives.)

USB 2.0 (large, sandard size. Good for mouse and keyboard.)

How many ports?

Many have just 2. And that is enough for everyday use.

But if you’re pluging in a external drive, and flash drive, or an external mosue or keyboard, then you might run out of ports with just 2. (You can buy a port hub after, but it’s not that convenient.)

4 ports is a nice generous amount.

Card Reader

Most laptops come with a built-in card reader. This reads the memory card from a camera. With a size-adapter, it will read the memory card from a phone. These are very useful for transferring pictures.

If it doesnt have one, you can get a separate card reader device that plugs into a USB port–but it will use up one of your USB ports so keep that in mind.


13. CD/DVD/Optical Drive

These days (2021) an optical drive is uncommon. And there’s not that much reason for one.

If you think you need one, you’ll have to search for it. Larger laptops are more likey to have one.

You can get an external one later if you need it.

The remaining feature tradeoffs are close to pure price/performance not nearly as much personal preference


14. CPU (price performance)

The CPU or processor is the brains of the unit. One of the most expensive pieces (with the display, or hi-perf, gaming graphics), and usually consumes the most power (except for hi-perf, gaming graphics).

AMD processors save you money. They are 98% compatible with everything that’s out there. Most AMD processors are very low performance. If you need service on one 3-8 years down the road, there are fewer options.

I usually buy Intel processors.

I recomend Intel Core i3 or i5 or i7.

Anything else is lower performance. I would characterize their performance this way:

i3 – basic performance. not snappy, but functional.

i5 – pretty fast most of the time.

i7 – snappy, fast and responsive.

However, there are different versions of i3, i5, and i7.

The best bet is find out exactly which variant of the processor is included, and go to cpubenchmark.net and look it up. Hi-end or Hi-mid-range are very good. You can save money by going lower. Lower than mid-range you’ll notice is actually slower.


15. Memory (price performance)

For Windows 10 I recommend a minimum of 8GB.

And you really don’t need more. 16GB is a luxury.


16. Storage size / HDD / SDD (price performance)

In 2021 I recommend almost always an SSD. They cost more but are 2x to 4x faster and are becoming standard.

128GB SDD is small. If you have a lot of pictures it’s not enough.

256GB SDD probably big enough for most people. If you have A TON of pictures, and a bunch of videos, maybe not.

512GB SDD more expensive, but big enough even for a lot of pictures and some videos.

1TB – in 2021, when it says 1TB it almost always means HDD, not SDD because 1TB SDD’s are expensive, still. This will change. The price will go down.

If you have A TON of pictues, and many videos, you will need 1TB, maybe even 2TB. In this case, you might want to splurge and get fast SDD, might add $100-$200 to the price, or you might want to save money and get the lower performance, large HDD.