A Laptop Buyer’s Guide

Okay, so you want to get a laptop and avoid all the land mines the industry has set out for you. It’s a big, confusing world, and I’m here to help.

There are things it’s important to have, and there are things that’re just going to woo you into making a bad decision.

Important Things:

CPU:

The CPU’s the heart of the system. This is the most important thing you can be focusing on, no matter what you want out of the system. If you want to compare CPUs to see what’s a good deal, look at http://www.cpubenchmark.net/ for a helpful thing. It’s good to have at least a quadcore now.

Good CPUs/series of CPUs to look for:
The A6 from AMD’s a great budget/midrange CPU that’s a quadcore and comes with a reasonably good GPU.
The i5 from Intel’s their midrange and has fantastic performance.
The A8 and i7 are the higher end variants from the companies. The i7 blows the A8 away, but the A8’s usually much cheaper.

Don’t touch these with a 10 foot pole:
The A4 series from AMD’s a dualcore with a reasonably good GPU. Unfortunately, the CPU performance is pretty awful.
The Intel Atom’s a netbook processor that is sometimes in a notebook. Don’t bother.
The C-50, E-350, and E-450 are the same way with AMD. Don’t bother.
The Pentium Dualcore series is extremely lacking in performance.
An i3 that’s not currently heavily discounted. It’s usually a minor boost in price to get to an i5, which is significantly better.

Intel CPU model numbers can be read pretty simply. In the i-series (i3, i5, i7), the 3 is the budget range, the 5’s the midrange (best price/performance), and the 7’s the performance range. After that, I’m not sure what the 2 indicates in something like the i5-2410m. The second digit’s an indicator of a range it performs in, and the third and fourth usually indicate performance within THAT range. Higher’s usually better.

AMD CPU model numbers are pretty similar. In the a-series of processors (a4, a6, a8) the number indicates where it falls. The A4 series is a weak set of dualcores I can’t really recommend. The A6s are weaker than Intel’s quadcores, but they’re passable and if you see a good deal are worth it. The A8s aren’t comparable with i7s but they’re great for a budget.

You cannot upgrade a CPU in a cost-effective manner, so you’re stuck with what you get.

GPU:

Do you game or watch movies? You’re going to want something better than the glorified cheezit of a Intel HD3000 that comes in most systems now. Even if all you play’s Facebook games, those can benefit from a GPU these days.

Reading GPU Names:
AMD and Nvidia do a fairly similar method of naming their products. Both of them’s first digit refers to the series it’s being marketed under. Unfortunately, in nVidia’s case, they’ve been known to rebrand GPUs between serieses, so be careful. You can compare cards over at http://www.videocardbenchmark.net/high_end_gpus.html which is fairly handy to avoid getting confused over performance. There’s also a handy guide over at http://www.notebookcheck.net/Comparison-of-Laptop-Graphics-Cards.130.0.html

AMD card names:

An example of the AMD naming convention is the 6750m.

The 6 in the name refers to the 6 series, which was mostly released in January 2011. This doesn’t tell us much.
The 7 in the name’s a better indicator of performance within the series. 7 means it’s up in the enthusiast range, and is fairly fast.
The 5 in the name’s an indicator of its performance within the 67xx series. It’s middle-strength for a card starting with 67.
I’ve never seen them use the last digit.
The M refers to it being a mobile version of the chip. Don’t be deluded into using benchmarks for the normal desktop version of the chip, because the performance wildly varies.

This naming method would hint that the 6990m is the fastest card available from AMD, and it’s right!

You don’t want to get any AMD GPU below a 6470m as you’re basically getting performance around the HD3000 at that point. You’ll probably want to aim for something close to a 6770m at minimum if you’re going for gaming performance.

Nvidia Card Names:

An example of an nVidia card name is the 560m.

The 5 refers to it probably being part of the Fermi architecture released in 2011.
The 6 refers to its performance value in that range.
The 0’s rarely used, as with AMD. It’s mostly used for a slightly more powerful version of a card, like the 520 vs the 525.

Be very careful when getting an nVidia 555m. There are several deceiving versions of it floating around, with Dell having access to the best version. The 630m’s a great card, and it’s doing the same thing with multiple versions floating about. You want the 144 core version, not the 96 core.

You don’t want to touch anything below the 525m in performance. I suggest at least the 540m for any lasting power.

Why should I care about GPU? I don’t do the fancy expensive new games.
Do you play any games, including Facebook ones? Do you use a web browser? Do you watch movies on your system at all? Do you use basically any Adobe program? Do you ever video edit? All of these things use GPU and it’s likely that even more things will use it in the future.

Build Quality:

This mainly applies to shopping in person, but you can read reviews of a system to get other people’s opinions on it. Does the system feel like it’s going to break when you pick it up? Does it feel like it was molded from spare McDonalds toys? Don’t buy it. Lenovo’s stuff is something I’ll usually recommend because of how solid their builds are, and despite my utter dislike of Apple products the Macbook’s got the best build quality in the industry. Flex the screen, pick it up, etc. You do not want a system that’s poorly built.

You also want the most USB/HDMI/eSATA/etc ports you can get, but not at the cost of other factors. The nv55s02u I reviewed had nothing but 3 USB ports, HDMI, and VGA and was pretty limiting for external storage. You don’t want to be copying very large files over USB 2.0 if you can help it.

It’s also nice to get a good keyboard.

Screen Quality:

Does the screen look washed out? Do you have to constantly adjust your angle of sitting so everything’s not awkwardly reflective? Don’t bother with the system. You also want a higher resolution than 1366×768, which is the most common budget resolution these days. 1600×900’s reasonable to go for, and 1920×1080’s a good goal if you’re looking for a relatively long-term system. 1920×1200’s the best I’ve seen so far.

Section 2: Traps!

Hard Drive Space:

This is the least important thing you can worry about on a system. Don’t feel encouraged to take a system with a 750gb or 1tb drive that’s lacking in other things. It’s incredibly easy to swap them out nowadays, too. Watch out for large 5400rpm drives if you’re going to be doing anything that requires extended loadtimes, like games or applications! They’re fine for music and movies, but games will suffer and some games will actually become less playable on a 5400rpm drive.

RAM:

This is extremely easy to replace and upgrade. It’s nice to have a high amount, but if it’s at the cost of CPU/GPU/resolution/build quality, don’t bother.

It’s important to know how much is the maximum in a system, however! If your system tops out at 4gb, it’s not going to be very upgradable in the future. Something with 4 RAM slots is going to be good for a while, but that’s not very common!

Optical Media:

I don’t even USE optical media anymore, so I’m having to fight a bias here. Don’t skimp on other things because a system’s got a blu-ray writer or whatever. It’s going to hurt you in the long run and an external BD writer’s like a hundred bucks. A full notebook upgrade’s quite a bit more than that.

Section 3: Things that are really, really nice to have, but shouldn’t out-prioritize category 1

Solid State Drives:

Can the system handle an SSD installed alongside an HDD? If so, drop Windows 7/8 on the SSD and your most used applications and be amazed. Don’t take an SSD alone, though! You’re likely to run out of room extremely quickly.

I’ve never used an SSD combo drive, which is a large hard drive with an SSD handling certain activities. If you have any experience, drop a comment down at the bottom!

Don’t sacrifice anything in the first category for these, but know they’re a really, really neat thing to have. They’re a massive speed increase for loading anything you have stored on them, including your operating system.

Battery Life:

This is the only reason to touch anything Alienware has. Battery life’s very nice if you’re on the go often. I personally only need 2 hours worth at most, but it’s nice to have as much as you can get.

If you’re customizing a laptop with HP, they offer larger batteries. You want these, as they also double as a cooling aid by propping the system up slightly!

Good Speakers:

Don’t buy the system because Dr. Dre endorsed the speakers. However, you do want to give the system’s audio a bit of a test. Get something nice and complex and rich and throw it in. I use Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower. :v

On a bad audio system, you’ll get a weird washed out quality to the music. Hendrix’s voice’ll sound vaguely underground on my older laptop.

Section 4: Who should I shop with?

Retail deals:

Newegg‘s good if you’re not looking for something custom, and often has good deals.
Techbargains is fantastic if you’re looking for a good deal. They often have large discounts on systems.
Dealmein has some of the higher profile deals.

Actual companies:

HP is good if you can find a deal on one of their systems. They have a nice customization menu. You should also probably check their outlet for discounted used systems that very rarely have the faintest bit wrong with them. I don’t suggest the Envy, and make sure the model you’re ordering has good cooling by googling the name. HP dv6s have, in the past, been able to bake themselves. I’m reasonably sure they’ve fixed that by now.

Dell
make good laptops. Go for the XPS series for solid all-around quality I can’t really argue with at a good price. Their outlet can be helpful in finding deals.

Lenovo stuff is often a little lacking in GPU, but very, very solid in everything else. Wait for a deal, because they’re priced pretty high by default but almost always on sale. Their outlet‘s great.

Asus stuff is pretty good if you’re going for a gaming machine. The K53TA isn’t sold anymore, but it’s probably the best deal I’ve ever seen on a system in my life. Solid build quality, solid speakers, etc.

MSI is a fairly solid manufacturer worth a look. They don’t seem to be as well known, for some reason.

Do not buy from these people:

Gateway: Expect the lowest quality stuff you can find. The NV55 I got was okay, but flimsy.

Acer: See: Gateway. They’re the same company.

I don’t have an opinion on these people, maybe check them:

Sony: Their Vaios used to be ridiculously overpriced. They’re not anymore. I don’t really know much about them anymore.

Toshiba: Toshiba’s just… there, I guess. They’ve moved their outlet to eBay, which is good for them, I suppose. I haven’t been wowed by their products, but I haven’t been offended, either.

Samsung: Samsung’s quality stuff, as far as I can tell, but I don’t have any solid opinion on them.

Section 4: I have a huge amount saved up for a system, and want the best!

Alright, so you want a sweet gaming machine and don’t have qualms about spending a good deal of money. I’m jealous. Don’t expect to future-proof through this, but you can get some excessive power for now. Before you throw 3 grand at Alienware, let me break down the larger companies for you.

Alienware is high quality stuff and if I had absolutely no restrictions on money, I’d probably be going to them. Don’t expect a fantastic price/performance ratio, but you’re going to be getting something relatively nice in every way. They stand apart from the rest of this section in battery life, but you pay for it by getting something that looks vaguely like a badly made street racer. If they did a more subtle line, I’d have trouble recommending anything else for someone with too much money.

Sager is the cream of the crop. If you want something extensively customized and upgraded for a good price, go for a Sager reseller like Xotic PC or Malibal.

Macbooks are great if you don’t actually want much in the way of GPU power. Their higher-end systems are fantastically built and equipped. Swap out the hard drive for a 7200rpm and get the 6750m/6770m system and be content.

MSI’s G-Series seem to be pretty solid gaming systems. They’re not as good on value as either Alienware (!) or Sager, as far as I can tell. I may be wrong, so give them a look. They’re a bit more subtle than Alienwares, at least.

If I were rich and was able to buy any system I wanted, I’d either go for the NP8150 (from Xotic) for portability or the Veda from Malibal for raw power.

I’ll do a sample setup for both with price/performance on the first and raw performance on the second, breaking down each decision.

NP8150:

Go up to the 95% Color Gamut screen. It’s worth it. I’d prefer a matte screen, but glossy works too.
Upgrade to the i7-2760qm. It’s worth it, and it’s not a massive price jump for the rather large performance increase.
Get the diamond thermal compound because cooling is always good.
Drop to 4 2gb sticks and upgrade them later. It’s $50 off to do that, and I’d think 4 2gb sticks would be faster than 2 4gb sticks due to more memory bandwidth. I could be wrong, but that $50 can go towards larger ram later.
I’d likely remove the DVDRW and get an HD caddy. I’d rather have more hard drive space than a disc drive, especially with how cheap externals are.

The final price on the setup would be $1560. Getting an Alienware with these specs is somewhere on the order of $2200~, and if you’re going that high you may as well go with the below option.

A similarly specced desktop with desktop and speakers and all’s around $1200~. I don’t consider to be that bad of an idea to pay $360 more to be able to carry it around!

Veda:

If I had literally no money limit, I’d get the XM processor. If I was going for raw performance and had good savings, I’d go for the i7-2860qm, though. You’re getting very little performance increase for $300 on the XM.
Drop the ram to 0. Buy three sticks of 8gb 10660 from Newegg and save $203 or so.
The dual 6990m selection on GPU is the best price/performance you can get. You aren’t going to find a game it can’t playably run. This combo’s about 30% faster than the dual 6970s!
Stick a drive caddy in the optical drive bay.
Get the thermal compound.
Final price on this setup with the QM’s $2270. The system’d be a i7-2860qm, a dual 6990m, and 24gb of RAM for $2477, with 3 slots to add hard drives to later. It’d be a monster of a machine to upgrade. You can even upgrade the GPU eventually, which isn’t very cost effective.

Conclusion:

You can use a few simple rules to make the notebook market much, much easier to navigate. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below! If you need help, you can do the same.

If you’re a wealthy benefactor willing to throw a Veda at me, it’d be the best thing ever. :p

Posted on March 3, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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