Shopping for a Windows Laptop

Laptops are more popular than ever these days. A laptop is no longer a compromise on performance. They are as powerful as most desktop systems and cost just a little more than a desktop for a mainstream model.

But there's a huge and confusing selection out there. What features are important? What features can you safely ignore? What are some after-purchase upgrades that can give better performance and more usefulness?

We'll discuss all that below.

The Important Bits

It's important to choose a laptop with decent specifications or else performance and usability will suffer.

 

The specs shown below are things to look for.

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  • CPU: Intel Core i5 or i7, 8th generation or higher

  • RAM: 8 GB minimum, 16 GB is preferable

  • Display: FHD (Full Hi-Def) 1920x1080 resolution with IPS (In-Plane Switching)

  • Backlit Keyboard

  • SSD storage of at least 240 GB, not a hard drive!

  • Possible Tablet / Laptop Convertible (for smaller laptops)

The Important Bits, Explained

CPU: The CPU is the brain. The Intel Core i5 is in the sweet spot price/performance wise. The i7 a is technically a faster CPU, but in a laptop where energy consumption is closely monitored, you'll not really notice the difference.

RAM: 8 GB of RAM is the minimum. It's enough if you don't typically have dozens of browser tabs open. But I recommend 12 to 16 GB these days. More RAM never hurts. With more RAM, you can open more browser tabs with complex web pages without suffering from performance-robbing swapouts.

Display: The selection of display is important and there's lots of features. Size? Resolution? Glossy or matte? Touch-enabled? IPS?

The display size drives all other design aspects of the laptop. Laptops with larger displays have necessarily larger bodies, in which manufacturers can use larger and heavier (and cheaper!) parts. They weigh more and are simply not as lithe or portable. Today's higher-end laptops are the so-called "Ultrabooks". These laptops have 12 to 14 inch screens, are very light, and very portable.

 

Resolution of at least 1920x1080 pixels (Full HD) is ideal. Lesser resolutions (e.g. 1366 x 768) require too much scrolling around and the larger pixels are annoyingly visible, creating coarse-looking fonts and graphics with rough edges. Low-end laptops usually have screen resolutions of 1366x768 pixels. Avoid those. Similarly, I don't specifically recommend ultra high res screens (like 4K) on a laptop. That extra resolution doesn't yield markedly better images and can cause font scaling issues with some software. Stick to 1920x1080 (FHD).

Glossy or Matte? Just as with photographs, glossy screens are a little sharper but glare can be worse if there's a window or bright light behind you. A matte finish is a compromise that (somewhat) reduces glare but isn't quite as sharp. Mind you, matte finishes are still plenty sharp. Just not as razor-sharp as a glossy finish. I prefer glossy screens. Glossy is the better choice for ultra high resolution screens. This is likely one of those features that you'll have no control over. 

Touch-enabled? Touch is fine for phones and tablets, but I don't care for touch on keyboarded laptops, except for models that are specifically designed to used with or without a keyboard as as the Microsoft Surface models. For regular laptops with a permanently attached keyboard, I recommend against a touch-enabled screen or to at least disable the touch feature. Stabbing at the display with your finger and leaving fingerprints and smudges all over the screen will get tiring. If you love touch, that's fine. But I don't generally recommend it for laptops.

IPS stands for "In Plane Switching". It's a type of display that maintains its excellent viewability regardless of how the screen is angled. On a non-IPS display, if the screen is tilted / leaning too far forward or backward (if your line of vision is not perpendicular to the screen) then the colors will appear washed-out or even reversed. IPS displays look perfect, no matter the angle of tilt. IPS screens are also brighter and reproduce color more accurately. If you are fussy about image display quality then IPS is a must. Higher end laptops tend to have IPS displays, but not all do.

Backlit Keyboards are common on higher-end laptops these days. It makes using your laptop in a darkened room much easier. Personally, I would not buy laptop without it. Fortunately, backlit keyboards are becoming more common.

SSD: SSD-based storage is far and away better than HDD storage for laptops and desktops. The performance boost from SSD is huge -- I really cannot overstate that. They are more reliable and draw less power -- all critical pluses for a laptop. Read more here. Many Ultrabooks already come with SSD storage so an upgrade is unnecessary. But many otherwise decent laptops are still sold with performance-robbing HDDs in order to shave a few dollars from the price. That hard drive can be replaced with a super fast SSD. I absolutely recommend SSD for all new computers and even your existing computers.

The SSD capacity sweet spot today is 500 GB to 1 TB. If you tend to store lots of videos, photos, or music, you will want 500 GB or larger. Videos are the worst for eating up space. Photos and music aren't as rapacious with space unless they number in the many thousands.

Tablet / Laptop Convertible: Some laptops today are "convertible" or dual mode. Some have a detachable keyboard while others have keyboards that flip around to the back of the unit. Weight and thickness are top design considerations for convertibles. If you need a well-spec'd laptop that is exceptionally light and thin, a convertible like the Microsoft Surface Pro may be the answer, even if you don't need the tablet mode so such.

Most new laptops these days lack a CD/DVD drive. Optical drives add bulk, weight, and thickness and simply aren't as important these days. If you want a CD/DVD for those rare times when you need one, you can buy an external USB plug-in drive for less than $30.

Questions? Send me an email, I'm happy to answer!