Sales figures from the last five years consistently show average laptop buyers spending about $600 dollars their new machines. This means that some people spend more, but it also means that a sizable number spend less.
Six Benjamin Franklins are not a ton of money for a laptop, although $600 may seem so when you’re at the store. For that money you’re limited to categories such as netbooks, multimedia laptops and a handful of ultraportables. Many of the laptops available at this price at adequate, but they’re just that. Adequate. OK. Usable. They are computers, and they will do computing stuff.
Cheaping out forces you to give up many tangible benefits, which means inexpensive laptops are often a poor value. You can’t get what you don’t pay for. Here’s why you should pay for more.
One of the first concepts you’ll learn in any basic economics or business class is that of durable goods. A durable good is an item that provides utility over a long period of time. Paying more for these items is justified if it can increase your productivity. A laptop is an example of such an item. A better, faster, more usable laptop can decrease the time you spend waiting for a video encode, increase your typing accuracy and eliminate wasting time waiting for programs to open.
This argument comes first because it’s the most important. Spending less money on a laptop can be tempting, but think about how often you use it. The American time use survey found that average computer owners use their computers for leisure about 25 minutes every day. If average users kept their laptops for just three years, they would use them for a total of 450 hours. And that includes no time working.
This is more time than an average American spends reading, relaxing or exercising. Suddenly, sacrificing a laptop’s quality to save a few hundred bucks seems like a poor value.
Eye on the warranty
One added benefit hiding in some expensive laptops is a better warranty. Asus throws in a two-year warranty against defects on its most expensive laptops. Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba and HP sometimes throw in an extended two- or three-year warranty to sweeten more expensive products. This is particularly common with business-oriented laptops such as the Lenovo ThinkPad, Dell Precision and Toshiba Portege.
Manufacturers don’t do this as a kindness. Squaretrade, a third-party warranty company, found that more expensive laptops have a small but measurable reliability advantage over their cheaper brethren. Netbooks, the cheapest of all laptops, have the highest failure rate by far. “Premium laptops,” defined as those selling for more than $1,000, are the least likely to fail.
We’ve already established that average users will enjoy about 450 hours of laptop leisure time over three years. They will spend much of this time engaging in just-for-fun activities such as gaming or watching video.
Your laptop’s display serves as a window for all of this content, yet cheap laptops offer the worst displays among all modern consumer electronic devices. The resolution usually will be 1366 x 768, which is less than some modern tablets with much smaller displays. Contrast and viewing angles suffer as well.
You can do better only by spending more. Some cheap laptops offer a better display as an upgrade, but only premium laptops commonly come with high-quality displays as standard equipment.
The graphics processor is also a concern. Intel integrated graphics are fine for older games but work poorly with new 3D titles. You’ll want to upgrade to a discrete GPU from AMD or Nvidia to play new games, an option inexpensive laptops rarely offer.
Good on the go
Companies often slash battery life to make sure they can sell a laptop at a low price. Batteries are expensive, and no standards exist for validating battery life claims. This means a manufacturer can sell a laptop with a small battery while still advertising endurance that seems reasonable.
We’ve recorded this story time and time again. Almost every laptop we’ve received that seemed to be a great hardware value has achieved this goal by axing the battery. We rarely find a laptop under $600 that offers more than five hours of real-world battery life, and some will struggle to last a minute beyond four.
Spending for solid state
Dedicated readers of our laptop reviews may have noticed that one benchmark, PCMark 7, varies wildly between laptops that seem to have similar specifications.
The hard drive is the culprit. PCMark 7 tests all of a system’s components, and in the storage section of the test, laptops that have a solid-state drive dominate those which don’t. Equipping an SSD can bump the combined score by 1,000 to 2,000 points.
This is not merely an artifact of our benchmark. Systems with SSDs feel much more responsive because the drive responds more quickly to user input. These computers also enjoy much lower load times for both the operating system and the software.
You’ll only find an SSD in an expensive laptop, but it’s well worth the extra cash. Alternatively, you can buy a solid-state drive and upgrade it yourself. This will be cheaper but requires that you partially disassemble your laptop and re-install the operating system.
Our laptop reviews tell a consistent story. Expensive laptops often receive high scores. Only a few cheap laptops have ever managed a 9/10 or higher, and most laptops in such esteemed company sell for $800 or more.
We remember value when reviewing premium laptops. Our scores reflect that expensive laptops provide more for your money. For example, buying the 11.6-inch MacBook Air ($999) instead of the 11.6-inch Acer Aspire V5 ($549) will net you a better display, a much better user interface and slightly better battery life.
Some will argue that you could almost buy two Acers for the price of the Apple. That’s true, but we’re unaware of anyone capable of using two laptops at the same time.
We think that the $800 to $1,000 range is where you’ll find the best laptop value. This amount of money can’t buy you everything, but it can buy you a laptop that’s excellent in important areas. You only have to spend more if you want a gaming laptop. In that case, we recommend budgeting at least $1,500.
We don’t recommend buying something you can’t afford, but for most people, the difference between a great laptop and an OK one is just a few hundred dollars. That’s a couple nice dinners, a single weekend vacation or a couple months of going to Starbucks every day. If you need perspective, open your calculator and multiply the daily time you spend on your computer by 1,095 (the number of days in three years). The result should remind you why spending more on a laptop is worthwhile.