I get asked this one a lot, and here is what you need to know. My advice may surprise you. I’m going to explode a few popular myths by explaining what not to look for then give my advice for what’s really important.
What really doesn’t matter:
- MHz doesn’t matter – Don’t pay a lot extra for a few hundred extra MHz it won’t make a difference you can notice. Put your money into every other component first. In reality, 90% of the time your computer feels slow and gets all hourglassy is because the CPU is actually spinning idle and twiddling it’s digital thumbs while waiting on the network, the disk, or churning away at the disk because you don’t have enough RAM.
- Don’t worry about screen size – a 15″ screen is not better than a 14″ screen with the same number of pixels. In fact, it’s worse it just adds weight and bulk. Don’t do it unless you have bad eyes and weak prescription.
- Vista – It’s not that great. Until or unless MS revamps Vista substantially with the next service pack, I’d rather go back to Windows XP for now, or go for a Mac.
- Graphics – don’t matter! Discrete ATI/Nvidia graphics add substantial weight and cost to your laptop, while the best of them still suck compared to their sibling cards in desktop computers. Technically, integrated graphics (read: intel graphics) are even worse, but they do work perfectly fine for productivity applications. And productivity is what this computer is, um, for right? My advice, if you really want to play games on a computer, get a desktop.
In fact there’s a lot to be said in general for getting running a cheap and chearful portable and a desktop rather than a bloated boat anchor of a “multimedia” notebook that tries to do everything. It’s also always easier to attach better sound/graphics/big-screens to a desktop. It’s quite easy for a fully-loaded laptop(>$2000) to actually cost more than a cheap-and-chearful laptop (~$800) and a mid-range desktop (including screen) combined (~$1000).
- Integrated CDROM/DVDROM. Who cares? Optical media are a dying breed. If you can, save the weight and bulk and make do without. Download your media. If you really need to install some software by disc (maybe once or twice a year?) just connect your machine to a LAN and use a discdrive/burner across the network (see point 5, get a desktop too)
- Big Box stores – under no circumstances buy a computer from a big box store. Buy online or direct instead. If you’re following this advice, there’s almost no way you’re going to find a decent machine based on these criteria at a big box store.
What actually matters (your laptop’s underloved and underappreciated components)
- Weight – You will thank yourself later. Remember 7lb is not a portable computer. 3lb is ideal but hard to find. Do the best you can, every pound will make you happier in the long run (and vice versa)
- Number of Pixels – As in the actual screen resolution. If your eyesight is any good, more is always better. Also watch the conversion in the next year to LED-backlit screens, these should offer longer battery life and (maybe) better contrast/color consistency
- Memory – get *at least* 1GB but think about upgrading aftermarket at your local computer shop. Unless they’re having a special, dell etc. will often under-spec on RAM then gouge you on the upgrade. Go to a little computer shop, plunk your machine on the counter and they’ll upgrade you in less time than it takes to whip out your credit card. Remember, memory is not the same thing as hard drive (you knew that right?)
- Hard drive: go for speed, capacity – Hard drives are the slowest component in your machine, first look for a 5400 or 7200rpm drive and second look at capacity. Bigger drives are faster because the bits are closer together resulting in faster transfer rates and because more of your data fitting in the faster, outer edge of the disk. Someday soon, maybe later this year, we’ll have (affordable) solid state flash HDs. Those will be even better.
This is advice more/less applies for buying a PC but in the general case also applies to Mac’s (there’s just not as much selection in Macs). It’s true, however, that most true alpha geeks these days would offer a rather simpler advice:
1. Go to apple store online*
2. Buy computer
*why online? cause the online store isn’t to fussy about who qualifies for an “educational” discount. Ever been to a school, or drove past one on the highway? can you think of any string of numbers we might call a “student number”? then yes, you too can qualify for ~$200 off that MacBook Pro. But shhh, you didn’t hear that here.
Final note: surprisingly, eBay can also be a great place to get great deals on laptops if you know what you are looking for. And now you do.
If ever in doubt, drop me an email. I’m glad to offer any amount of free advice for you on the latest computer hardware. I’m such a nerd.