A laptop purchase is a confusing endeavor. Finding it can be challenging, even if you are fully aware of what everything implies and are certain of what you desire. Heck, finding the desired model on the manufacturer’s website can be challenging.
This article is intended to assist you in navigating the maze of contemporary laptops. Each significant component you’ll need to be aware of when looking for your next PC is covered in the section that follows. We attempt to provide straightforward explanations by dissecting the technical language.
Choose Your Operating System First
Choose the operating system (OS) that works best for you before you start looking at laptops. You may decide the hardware you require by considering the applications you need to run and the operating systems on which those operating systems operate.
There are four main operating systems for computers. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Here is a description of each:
Windows: This venerable operating system still functions well but no longer receives much attention. If you require Microsoft applications like MS Office, Access, or Outlook, this is the best option. Additionally, Windows laptops are available in a wider variety than any other OS. To see some of the options available, see our selections for the best laptops, best gaming laptops, and best affordable laptops.
macOS: Compared to Windows, Apple’s operating system is a little more user-friendly, but it is also closely tied to the company’s hardware. If you don’t own an iPhone or iPad and your alternatives are only MacBooks, it probably isn’t your first choice. Please read our article on choosing the best MacBook.
Chrome OS is a good option if you can complete the majority of your laptop-related duties through a web browser. If you’re on a limited budget, Chrome OS is another something to think about because Chrome laptops, often known as Chromebooks, are among the least expensive (and least powerful) you’ll discover.
The drawback is that programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite won’t function. You may be able to install some apps, such as Office, that are designed for Android phones and tablets on your Chromebook, but I’ve found that they frequently perform poorly. Read our guide to the best Chromebooks.
Linux: You can install Linux on virtually every piece of laptop hardware ever made if you don’t need Microsoft Office and don’t mind a learning curve. The problem is that well-known programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite won’t function. Alternatives like LibreOffice, Darktable (a substitute for Adobe Lightroom), and GIMP are free and open source (Adobe Photoshop replacement).
Understanding Processor Names (CPUs)
You can determine the minimal hardware requirements you’ll require once you’ve decided on an operating system and have a general concept of the apps you’ll use. We advise starting by examining the processor, often known as the chip or the CPU.
Consumer laptop processors are essentially made by just two companies: Intel and AMD.
The Core i3, Core i5, Core i7, and Core i9 are Intel’s top processors. Core i3 processors are the weakest, and Core i9 processors are the strongest. The word “Core” is typically omitted from names since it becomes monotonous.
Intel uses cryptic strings of numbers and letters within each of these chip lines to provide additional details on the features and release date of that chip. You’ll be able to make wiser purchases if you can learn to read it. (Intel’s model naming guide is available here.)
A laptop manufacturer’s website can list the processor type as Intel Core i5-12510U. Let’s dissect it. It is a chip from the 12th generation, as indicated by the first numbers (“12”). A chip from the 11th generation, or one that is presumably a year or so older, would be the i5-11510U.
The next two or three digits (“510”) are performance-related. The chip’s power increases as these values rise. But only within that chip line is this true. Compared to the Intel Core i7-12350U, the Intel Core i5-12510U is only marginally more powerful than the Intel Core i5-12210U. The i7 chip always outperforms the i5, and the gap between them is wider than that between any two chips from the same chip series.
The purpose of the chip is identified by Intel using the letter “U” at the end of the chip name (in our case). The letters you’ll see at the end for laptops are Y, U, and H. The Y series chips, which are tuned for battery life, are the only ones you need to be concerned about.
That’s advantageous if you routinely spend a lot of time away from a plug, but the additional battery life degrades some performance. While U chips are “power efficient” but not “very” efficient like the Y series, H chips are performance-optimized.
Just like Intel’s, AMD’s processor nomenclature is challenging to understand.
The “7” denotes the generation (how old it is; older is better) and the “6” denotes the processor’s power in the name AMD Ryzen 5 7600X. This example would be a medium-powered chip with a “6,” whereas a weaker chip would have a “3” or a “4”. (slower).
The effects of the next two numbers are minimal. High performance is indicated by the “X” at the conclusion. The letter U stands for ultra-low power, among other things.
Do Intel and AMD CPUs differ significantly from one another? It depends, according to my experience testing dozens of both every year. Outside of extremely specialized benchmarks, an Intel i5 and a Ryzen 5 are generally identical.
When you’re doing activities like browsing the web or editing documents, they’re similar. The Intel i3 and Ryzen 3 are equivalent to the Intel i7 and Ryzen 7, respectively.
You’ll notice a difference in graphic performance. In my tests, AMD’s integrated graphics typically outperform Intel on graphics-intensive tasks like playing games or video editing in both benchmarks and real-world usage.
Although AMD still has an advantage, Intel’s most recent generation of CPUs has greatly narrowed that gap. If you’re a gamer or video editor, an AMD computer might be advantageous for you, but a specialized graphics card is probably what you really want. (See the GPU section below for more information.)
How Much Processing Power Do You Need?
We advise a laptop with an Intel Core i5 ninth-generation or later processor if you’re a normal user who operates a web browser, Microsoft Office Suite, and perhaps even some photo editing software. The display for that would read “Intel Core i5-9350U.”
If you can afford it, upgrading to an Intel i7 chip will make your laptop feel faster. You will need to weigh your needs against the greater power’s frequently shorter battery life. An i7 (or i9) CPU would be used in a laptop for gaming, for example, but an i3 or i5 is typically sufficient for less demanding tasks.
The AMD Ryzen 5000 series will also be enough for the ordinary user, but the Ryzen 7000 is a welcome upgrade—again at the expense of battery life.
What About a Graphics Card?
Technically, every laptop has a graphics card (also known as a GPU or “discrete” graphics), however, the majority are integrated into the motherboard along with the processor. The majority of consumers will be satisfied with this “integrated graphics” method. You won’t have any problems playing casual games or watching HD movies.
You need a laptop with a discrete graphics card, which is a separate and far more potent graphics card if you play video games or do a lot of video editing. Most laptop graphics cards are produced by AMD and Nvidia.
An Nvidia graphics card from the GeForce series, often one of the Max-Q cards, which is the power-saving, laptop-friendly offshoot of Nvidia’s desktop cards, will be paired with the majority of Intel-based laptops.
Typically, they are labeled with the card name followed by Max-Q, such as the GeForce GTX 1080 Max-Q. Although a 2000-level card will be more powerful, its battery life may be worse. Although the Max-Q cards typically have 15 to 25% less power than their desktop counterparts, they are still more than adequate for gaming and video editing.
The Radeon GPU line from AMD includes high-end Vega and RX cards as well as lower-end R-series cards that follow the Ryzen naming convention. The Radeon R9 is faster and more potent than the Radeon R7 series, which is faster and more potent than the Radeon 5 series.
How Much RAM Do You Need?
More is better, right? Your laptop employs random-access memory, or RAM, to store data while the CPU works with it. Consider RAM to be your desk. Your workstation needs to be large enough to accommodate everything you’re working on right now.
Things tumble off of a desk that is too small, making it impossible to work on it. Similar to this, if your RAM runs out, you won’t be able to complete creating your video or open any more browser tabs. Your laptop will eventually freeze and require a restart.
The typical Windows user shouldn’t need more than eight gigabytes of RAM, but increasing it to 16 GB will significantly increase your laptop’s functionality (and is a necessity for gaming). Before making a purchase, you should check to see if the RAM is soldered to the motherboard. You won’t be able to upgrade the RAM on your own if it is.
Again, if you’re creating software or editing video clips, two tasks that demand a lot of RAM, you’ll need at least 16 GB, though 32 GB is definitely preferable if you can afford it.
Chrome OS calls for fewer processors. A Chromebook can typically function with 4 GB of RAM, but upgrading to 8 GB will allow you to open more tabs without the system slowing down.
When choosing RAM, look for DDR4 next to it. The term “double data rate” is used. Fast DDR4 RAM is what you need. DDR3 RAM is outdated and less used today. The majority of laptops feature DDR4 RAM, but manufacturers will indicate the type along with the quantity on their websites, so it’s important to double-check before you buy.
SSD Storage or Spinning Drive?
Your data will be kept on the hard drive. Consider this to be the file cabinet that is next to your desk. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are now the most popular option, however, some low-cost laptops still use spinning drives.
If you can afford it, get an SSD disc with at least 256 gigabytes of storage. SSDs are quicker, especially if they connect using an NVMe interface, which transfers data into and out of the hard drive significantly more quickly than the previous SATA standard.
There are laptops out there that have an SSD with NVMe for the operating system and an older SATA drive for file storage. This combines speed where you need it with affordability to give you the best of both worlds.
The bare minimum that we advise is 256 gigabytes. You might be able to get away with less if you save everything in the cloud or are considering Chromebooks, but it’s wise to have the capacity in case you ever need it. If you intend to install numerous applications or games or store numerous images or videos, it will quickly consume space.
You might have observed that your hard disc never seems to have the claimed amount of space. Even though a hard disc is advertised as having 512 GB, Windows may only show that it has 490 GB available. You aren’t losing space; this is only a result of the distinction between calculations of binary and decimal byte sizes.
Drive manufacturers report various sizes because they use binary whereas Windows reports decimal bytes. Though the size of Windows reports is the amount of disc space you can really use to store files, both statements are theoretically true.
Check for Ports!
The performance will be most affected by the CPU, RAM, and hard drive, but your laptop’s ports, both the number and variety of them, are also crucial. Your laptop has different ports that you can use to recharge it or plug in USB devices. A microphone/headset jack, at least one USB-C port, and at least one USB-A port are required. Look into an SD reader as well as USB-C charging.
I advise purchasing laptops that support USB-C charging. A laptop’s page or specifications section should state whether it supports USB-C charging. In the event that you ever require more time away from a power outlet, this charging method enables you to use a portable charger.
You might already use USB-C chargers to charge your Android phone because they are typically less expensive to replace (or high-end iPad). Never buy those subpar replacement chargers with no brand name that you find on Amazon. Spend more money and purchase a reputable brand or the manufacturer’s charger. By depending on subpar chargers, I have damaged numerous laptop batteries.
Be advised that Thunderbolt 4, a specification that Intel established and demands license fees to use, is unlikely to ever be available on AMD laptops. Because Thunderbolt 4 is an extension of USB-C versions 3 and 4, which are present in AMD laptops, the situation becomes complicated. I have never observed a speed difference between Thunderbolt and comparable USB-C in the real world.
If you’re a photographer who frequently needs to download pictures from your camera, check to see if your laptop has an SD or MicroSD card reader. You’ll need to have a dongle with you else.
Webcams and Hinges
You should have a webcam on your laptop. For some reason, computers without them are still available in 2021. Even on more affordable computers, the majority of webcams are still 720p.
That’s acceptable if you don’t use it much or, like me, love hiding behind 720p’s blurriness. You might be happier with a 1080p camera because for many people, zoom is still an important component of their workday.
How is the hinge on the laptop? If you’re purchasing online, it’s challenging to test this component. If at all feasible, visit a nearby retailer like Best Buy so you may see the model in person. Attempt to open it with one hand. That might sound absurd, but I promise it is annoying to not be able to unlock your laptop with one hand.