In the past few months at the digital marketing clinic I’ve been relying heavily on my laptop to complete a lot of intensive work. This wouldn’t be a problem, if not for the fact that my laptop is an old HP 8440p Elitebook that’s showing its age as it struggles with most applications from the Adobe Creative Suite. The resolution, crackling speakers, shoddy trackpad and two-hour battery factored into my decision to upgrade my laptop today. One thing that struck me as I glanced around is that all the specialists were using a wide variety of laptops, which raised the question: what makes a good laptop?
Guts and bolts
One of the biggest reasons to upgrade a laptop is for the hardware components inside the machine. Computers have the following parts that mainly contribute to its performance:
- A central processing unit (CPU), or the part of the computer that accomplishes tasks and controls how quickly those tasks can be completed;
- The motherboard, which houses all the components in a computer and makes them work together properly;
- Memory (RAM) that accesses files quickly and runs multiple processes at once without any slowdown;
- A graphics processing unit (GPU), or the part of the computer that allows for effective rendering of animations, video and images displayed on the screen;
- And the storage for applications and data.
While it might seem simple on paper, trying to decipher the specs of a laptop is a challenge that requires a lot of research. Luckily this article will go into detail regarding what specs you should look for when choosing a laptop.
In the world of laptops Intel is the largest manufacturer of CPU chips due to their quality, low power consumption and work efficiency. While AMD is bringing competition with the Ryzen and Threadripper in the world of desktops, Intel CPU’s are unrivaled in the portable marketplace.
For most consumers, Intel chipsets generally come in three types: i3’s, i5’s and i7’s. Processors are comprised of cores that carry out tasks to be performed. Generally, the rule of thumb is the more cores there are, the better the performance. Here’s an explanation of the different chipsets:
- An i3 has two physical cores and two virtual cores, which aren’t as efficient as physical cores, so it may struggle under a heavy workload.
- The i5 often has four physical cores and two virtual cores, so it works more efficiently than an i3.
- An i7 usually has four physical cores and four virtual cores, which allows the computer to work more efficiently than an i3 or an i5.
Virtual cores, or what is known as hyperthreading, is when one core in the computer acts as two cores. An i3 has simulated four cores, an i5 has simulated six cores and an i7 has simulated eight cores, allowing them to perform tasks faster and more efficiently.
A good analogy to explain hyperthreading is to imagine yourself doing work. One of your hands serves as a core doing something, while hyperthreading lets you use both of your hands to do two different things. However, if one task is more intensive, the other task slows down as attention is directed to completing the more intensive task.
It’s like multi-tasking; once something draws your attention, it becomes more difficult to focus on the other things you were previously doing. Physical cores perform better than the virtual cores, but hyperthreading allows work to be completed more effectively because there’s more cores doing more work.
A dual core (i3) laptop is more than enough for a lot of consumers who only use Microsoft Office or surf the web. A quad core (i5) is capable of doing those things while performing some level of graphic work because it has more cores, whether they’re four physical cores or a simulated hyperthreaded six core. For heavy design, rendering, video editing and intensive work, an i7 is the best option for most consumers without spending thousands of dollars on enthusiast processors.
Once you’ve decided which CPU meets your needs, you also need to look at the speed of each core, which is labeled in GHz, as well as the generation of the CPU. As a reference, a .5MHz difference between CPUs is notable and future generations often improve workload efficiency, so while the clock speed might be the same on paper, there might be performance differences stemming from small improvements.
There hasn’t been a lot of change between generations, but there are sizeable performance leaps if you compare processors a few generations apart. The way to tell which generation your CPU is from is by identifying the first digit of the processor. As an example an i7 3630QM is three generations older than an i7 6700HQ.
Here’s the hierarchy from best performance to worst performance for laptop processors:
- HQ series
- U series
- M and Y Series
- Celeron and Pentium series
- The Atom series
While my explanation of CPU’s was a little dense, there are only two things that you need to know about memory: you should aim for between 8-16gb and it should be relatively fast. The latest generation of memory is DDR4 that’s normally clocked between 2000 and 3000 mhz.
Despite there being faster memory, the previous generation of DDR3 memory clocked at 1600mhz or 1833mhz will get the job done. What matters more than clock speed is having enough memory in your laptop. If you don’t have enough, your system will bog down and perform tasks at a crawl.
GPU’s are like CPU’s in that there are several different generations and clock speeds. Laptop graphics cards come in two forms:
- Integrated graphics
- Dedicated graphics
Dedicated graphics refers to having a separate graphics card to take on rendering, editing, or any graphic work. Integrated, or shared graphics uses your CPU and memory for graphics processing, which results in significantly worse performance compared to dedicated graphics.
While dedicated graphics is more expensive, it’s a great asset to have in intensive graphic work. If you’re going to be surfing the web, watching videos or doing light work in various applications, it isn’t necessary to have dedicated graphics or an i7 processor.
There are also two major manufacturers of graphics cards in the laptop industry: Radeon and Nvidia. While there isn’t much of a difference between these manufacturers in terms of quality, it’s important to do your research when doing comparisons for performance.
Generations of GPU’s for Nvidia typically jump by 100’s, so the GTX 750 is generation older than the GTX 850. Editions for graphics cards are also segmented performance-wise by 10’s in each generation, so a 750 will be slower than a 760. This formula can also be used when looking at Radeon GPU’s and Intel HD Integrated Graphics.
As of 2017 a good rule of thumb is to have at least 500gb of storage, while a terabyte is becoming standard. It doesn’t really matter how much storage you have unless you’re doing a lot of graphic work, but there are different storage speeds for booting up your laptop and applications. For hard drive disks (HDD), a read speed of 5400rpm or 7200rpm is good for loading your operating system and programs, with 7200rpm serving as the fastest read speed for most laptops.
There are also solid state drives (SSD), which are significantly faster and more expensive than HDD. They aren’t necessary, but they are useful for booting up your computer and any applications in less time than an HDD. Whichever option you look at, just make sure you have enough space on your computer. In two years I’ve only used 120gb of space, while my girlfriend filled her entire terabyte hard drive from heavy graphic work.
Other hardware factors to consider
When determining if a computer is the right fit for you, it’s important to make sure that you like using it every day. Some computers have more responsive keyboards, while others have amazing trackpads or screens (looking at you, Macbook Pro). There are multiple screen sizes that cater to portability or visibility and wide fluctuations in battery life that range from a measly two hours of operation to more than 12 hours.
My first laptop, an HP Dv7, had great specs and good hardware with a 17.3 inch 1920×1080 screen, a responsive trackpad, good built-in speakers and a five hour battery life. It also weighed ten pounds, which was a burden to carry for five years.
My HP Elitebook, in comparison, has a 14 inch screen, weighs four pounds and is very convenient for travel. While my work needs have changed since I got the laptop and the specs have become a little dated, one of my biggest reasons for upgrading is because I didn’t like the Elitebook’s screen resolution, speakers, small trackpad and short battery life. Make sure that you not only enjoy using your laptop, but that it meets your needs in performance and functionality.
A few recommendations
In the laptop industry there are dozens of choices from several manufacturers like HP, Dell, Lenovo, Asus and Acer. Everyone’s needs are different, so it’s difficult to make specific recommendations, but a few quality models that I recommend are:
- Lenovo Thinkpad or Ideapad
- HP Elitebook or Probook
- Dell Latitude, Inspiron or XPS
- Acer Aspire or Swift
- Asus Zenbook
I would try and stay away from consumer-grade laptops, or lean toward professional/business laptops like the Elitebook, Thinkpad and Latitude because their build quality is better. For a more complete list I would check out this subreddit for the best laptops of 2017.
Reservations about Macbooks
It’s hard to beat a Macbook Pro in build quality with its long battery life, comfortable keyboard, responsive trackpad and unparalleled screen display. Apple was once the industry leader in both performance and quality, but unfortunately Apple’s performance has lagged behind compared to the premium that they charge for their products.
It currently costs $2,000 for a 15 inch MacBook Pro with the following specs:
- 2.2GHz, quad-core i7
- Intel Iris Pro graphics
- 16gb of 1600MHz memory
- 256GB SSD
For comparison, a Razer Blade gaming laptop with vastly better specs sells for roughly the same price with a:
- 2.8GHz, quad-core i7
- Nvidia GTX 1060 GPU
- 16GB of 2400MHz memory
- 512GBof SSD storage.
A Lenovo Ideapad Y700 is also competitive at $900 with a:
- 2.6GHz, quad-core i7
- Nvidia GeForce GTX 960M
- 16gb of 2133MHz memory
- 1TB of HDD + 256GB of SSD storage.
However, Apple products do hold their value better than any other product, which incentivizes consumers to trade-in their used Macbooks with the Mac trade up program to minimize the high price that they initially paid.
Many professional organizations and schools also only use Macs, making it essential to have one so you can complete work and collaborative projects on a Mac operating system. I can’t justify Apple’s price point when there are less costly options out there; I would advise buying one only if it’s on sale or if it’s a necessity.
If you do feel the need to purchase one, I would buy a 2016 model because there are compatibility issues in the 2017 line up due to new technology.
Having said that, MacBook’s are great, high quality laptops that won’t disappoint if you can get a great deal on one.
Where to buy laptops
There really isn’t a specific place that you should go to when comparing prices for laptop. Microcenter, Newegg and Amazon are good places to price shop, while the official website for a manufacturer might be the best place when they offer sales and promotions.
Lenovo is currently selling laptops for up to 40 percent off, while their refurbished models are an additional 35 percent. Dell is also offering $150 off of any PC starting at $550. Almost all manufacturers offer good discounts for students that can be taken advantage of if you’re still in college.
If you want to purchase a refurbished laptop a much lower price than a new model, a local computer store near you might sell them, or manufacturers offer deals attempting to get rid of their inventory.
Some people might be hesitant at buying a refurbished laptop, but they’re often secondhand laptops that have been cleaned up or a nearly new laptop that’s only being sold as refurbished because a customer returned it within a 30-day return window. My two laptops have both been refurbished; the Dv7 worked well without any issues for six years and my Elitebook is still running strong despite being manufactured in 2012.
What kind of laptop do you have and what kind of work do you perform on it? Let us know in the comments below!